By Ian Badham
Back in the 80s, just before Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history and I could still call myself a teenager, I would spend time engaging in boxing conversation with my Grandfather. He was a D-Day veteran and loved boxing.
There was one fighter that whenever he mentioned him, his eyes lit up with excitement and admiration. His gruff voice made him sound like Mickey, Rocky’s trainer from the film franchise, so a certain resonance has stuck with me ever since when I hear the name ‘Rocky Marciano’.
Many years later after my Grandfather had passed away I found out that there was something more than a love of boxing that connected the two men and set Rocky on the road to a career in boxing.
Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born to Italian parents in Brockton, Massachusetts, USA. He also played a part in the D-Day landings during the Second World War whilst based in Mumbles, Swansea Bay, Wales as an American GI billeted on the Pier. He helped ferry supplies to Normandy where my Grandfather was headed, but it was other events whilst in Swansea that proved pivotal for the belief he had something in his fists that could be his future.
Thousands of American servicemen were in Britain in the run up to the end of the war and they found themselves in a foreign land, perceived as ‘loud mouth Yanks’. Despite being a quiet, low-key, character Marciano found himself involved in a brawl in a pub in Swansea. He was in the Adelphi Hotel on Wind Street (now an American theme bar called ‘The Bucket List’) keeping himself to himself, when an Australian serviceman began goading and insulting him for not drinking alcohol. The story goes he asked for a glass of milk instead, as he didn’t drink alcohol. The Australian didn’t let up and started pushing Rocky around before he snapped. One punch to the jaw was enough to end the confrontation.
Marciano recalled: “The Aussie finished up sleeping on his back in a pool of his warm beer. The pub was called Adelphi. I wrote the name down just in case the Aussie had anything to say about the matter in the future.”
Rocky Marciano went on to become the only heavyweight champion in history to have retired with a perfect record having won all of his 49 fights (43 by KO) He has the highest KO% of any heavyweight champion. It is said that when he was in Britain he would go back to the Swansea bay area to revisit his wartime haunts and was especially fond of the Mumbles train that used to run from Swansea to the Mumbles pier where he was based.
He turned professional after the war in 1947 and defeated Jersey Joe Walcott to become undisputed world heavyweight champion in 1952, keeping his crown until retiring in 1955. He was known for his relentless fighting style, punching power and stamina. His trainer Charley Goldman used to say:
“He ain’t pretty; he’s just devastatin!”
Boxing historians rate him as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and to think it may have all started in a bar in Swansea! The US military police rather than court martialling him for the brawl simply put him in the boxing team.
Marciano was also the inspiration behind the Rocky movie series. Rocky Balboa dreams of becoming like his idol Rocky Marciano.
Tragically despite surviving the war he died in a plane crash in 1969 aged just 46, but his legacy is assured as a true great of the ring and by all accounts a true gentleman outside of it as well.