Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World
by Mike Stanton
Henry Holt, 2018
Mike Stanton, author of 2003's unlikely bestseller The Prince of Providence, about the legendarily corrupt Mayor Buddy Cianci, turns his attention in his new book to another charismatic Italian American with deep Mafia connections, only this time the subject is famous well outside the tri-state area: Rocco Marchegiano, Rocky Marciano, the unbeaten boxing heavyweight champion of the world.
“The Rock” was simultaneously an everyday guy, a son of Brockton, Massachusetts, one of a large and boisterous Italian family dominated by his mother Pasqualena – and also an outsized figure even in his own youth, a tough-as-rawhide fighter who finished his career at 49-0, with forty-three of those victories won by knockout. Most Marciano biographies tend to emphasize the outsized figure at the expense of the everyday guy, a natural temptation that Stanton almost entirely resists in the course of his passionate but well-balanced book. In these pages we certainly get a sterling, heroic, thoroughly decent Rocky Marciano, believably etched out of a huge amount of research, but we also get a full accounting of the unsavory side of Marciano's rise to fame – an unsavory side largely wearing the face of Frankie Carbo, a murderous Mafia capo who exerted a great deal of control over Marciano's career.
Stanton's narration of that career is uniformly superb, particularly the way he captures the speed and tension of Marciano's battles in the ring, in many ways climaxing in his 1969 bout with Jersey Joe Walcott, a savage fight that brought Marciano the heavyweight championship:
The bell for the thirteenth round rang. Rocky rose from his stool and walked out to meet Walcott. Both men were clearly tired, probing, circling, not landing any punches. Rocky backed Walcott into the ropes, hooked a left. Walcott moved backward to evade it. Like a pair of gunslingers, Walcott cocked his right elbow to fire a punch at Rocky's unguarded jaw as Rocky pulled back his left and prepared to fire a straight right at Walcott's head. Rocky was a split second faster. His fist connected with Walcott's jaw with a frightful, bone-rattling crack audible at ringside. Walcott's head swiveled grotesquely, his face distorted like a gruesome rubber mask folded in on itself. The punch was economical, traveling no more than twelve inches. It was so quick that many in the crowd missed it. Frank Sinatra had turned to say something to Barbara Marciano. Liebling called it “a model of pugilistic concision” and “according to old-timers, about as hard as anybody ever hit anybody.” For good measure, Rocky brushed the top of Walcott's head with a left hook, but it wasn't necessary. Walcott “flowed down like flour out of a chute. He didn't seem to have a bone in his body.”
Like so many famous people, Marciano met his unexpected death in an airplane crash in Iowa. Here Mike Stanton has told the champ's life story in greater detail and with more pleasing complexity than any previous book has done. If there's any justice, Stanton will have another bestseller on his hands.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com