Every now and then, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the middleweight champ, asks his manager about Rocky Marciano. Driving down the back streets of town with no place in particular to go, Hagler says, "Tell me about Rocky, Pat."
And Pat Petronelli, who knows Marciano's story from start to finish, says you would have liked the Rock, Marvin. You two were alike, a lot alike.
He says: it is Brockton you love, and it was Brockton he loved.
But Hagler wants to know, "What else, Pat?" And Petronelli says what Hagler's heard before and always will hear, that Rocky was a tough and honest man, though not very fancy, not even as a fighter. He had the shortest reach of any heavyweight champ ever, only 68 inches on the stretch. And he never lost a professional fight. What he lacked in skill, Petronelli says, he made up for with heart. You could say Rocky was all heart and not embarrass yourself. You could say that and just about hit it right on the money.
"You'd a liked the Rock," Petronelli says he tells Hagler all the time. "And he'd a liked you."
Another thing about Marciano: He never for a minute forgot where he came from. And where he came from never forgot him either. Even though he'd moved his wife and kids down to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., several years before he died in a plane crash near Newton, Iowa, in 1969, Brockton was Rocky's town. It was his heart's home, the place where he could walk around in a raggedy old sweat top and khaki pants and feel as though he were rich and blessed with all the good things a man could want.
Running with the boys at the old Ward Two Club off Dover Street, down in that part of town everybody called "Little Italy," or hitching a ride to West Bridgewater and the dances at The Canoe Club, Rocky Marciano enjoyed a relationship with Brockton that his brother Peter once described as being "just like a love affair. It was like the town and the man belonged to each other."
Fighters other than Marciano and Hagler, who moved here as a teen-ager, have made Brockton their home, though most everybody you talk to would be hard-pressed to come up with names. But none was like the Rock. And none ever will be.
The only heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated, Marciano won 49 fights -- 43 by knockout -- before retiring April 27, 1956, about seven months after knocking out Archie Moore in his sixth title defense. Reporters liked to ask Rocky how he got by without ever losing, and he liked to mention the two times he'd almost lost, the times he'd been knocked to the canvas. First there was Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952, when Rocky won the title he would hold for about four years, and then there was Moore, the former light heavyweight champ who popped him with a big left hook and sent him reeling in the first round.
Rocky liked to say he felt more embarrassment than hurt those times he came so close to defeat. There were all those people from Brockton to think about. "They couldn't afford to see me lose," he said. "They couldn't afford those $25 seats. I always knew I would get up."
Although he died more than 16 years ago, Rocky Marciano is not forgotten in Brockton, a city of about 100,000 once known as the shoe capital of the world. Now that Larry Holmes, the current heavyweight champion, threatens to tie Marciano's record by beating Michael Spinks Saturday in Las Vegas, the good memory of Marciano once again has gripped the hearts of more than a few townspeople who take great pleasure in talking about their lost friend and hero in the present tense. Still loyal to their native son, and proud, some locals all but growl and kick the earth when asked what they think about Holmes, his career and his campaign to break Marciano's record.
"Larry Holmes is a greedy man, just a greedy man," Pat Petronelli said at his home in Brockton a few weeks ago. "He's not breaking Rocky's record with dignity or class, which surprises me because Larry used to be a good champion. Now he's just picking (his opponents) at random. As a fight man, I can never accept that, not him breaking the record.
"Larry knows he can't fight much anymore. He's 36, his legs are gone, his reflexes are shot. He doesn't care about his people or fans. He picked guys like Scott Frank to fight, not even an eight-round fighter. And Marvis Frazier, he used to spar with the kid and slap him all over the ring. It was a disgrace, a phony record. But it was another easy win for Larry . . . It makes me sick knowing he'll take the Rock's record because he doesn't deserve it. I just can't accept the way he's doing it."
Peter Marciano said that if Rocky were around, he'd probably make very little of it and "applaud what Larry had done. But deep down inside, Rocky thought he was the greatest fighter who ever lived."
Marciano was 23 when he fought his first professional bout against Lee Epperson in Holyoke, Mass. He took that one on a third-round knockout, and he took his first 16 bouts by knockout, nine of them in the first round. Everybody said you'd never seen hard work until you saw the Rock do a job in the gym. More than once, his trainer, Charlie Goldman, had to insist he slow it down some, lest Rocky "leave it all in the gym," as fight people are known to say.
Even on vacation, Marciano liked to stay at hotels with swimming pools so he could take a dip whenever he felt like it and shadowbox against the weight of the water. There was a place 12 miles outside of Brockton, a nail factory in Bridgewater where Alan Stone and Alan's father, H. James, and his uncle, Leo, worked. Early in his career, Rocky had asked the Stones if they would help keep him out of trouble and advise him on a thing or two, such as how to go about handling all the silverware at that fancy dinner party Cardinal Spellman was planning to throw in New York. Rocky could have picked up the telephone and called the factory. But he chose to run instead, figuring that extra bit of roadwork would help build his stamina and might be the difference in one of the fights to come.
"Sometimes after those visits," Alan Stone said, "I'd drive him home in the car, and Rocky would make me stop at every street corner to let him sign autographs for kids. He was kind that way, and a little innocent. But when he hit a guy, that man was never the same again."
In the old days, it never was a big deal to find two kids going at it on the playground, at least not in Brockton. That was sport, recreation, and every neighborhood had its king. Who can say exactly how the shoe factories helped shape the sons of the men who worked the leather? Rocky's old man put his time in at a factory just up Dover Street. His name was Perrino Marchegiano, he weighed about 155 pounds and he owned a pair of hands that could have belonged on someone twice his size. Everybody knew Rocky's father because he was famous for having survived a number of battles during World War I. He had been a Marine and his happiest moment in life came when his commanding officer said, "Perrino, you can be proud to call yourself an American."
Because he was an immigrant, that meant more to Rocky's old man than producing a son who would be champ. The truth is, Perrino Marchegiano never really understood boxing, although he always made a point of attending Rocky's training camps in the Adirondacks and working as his personal chef. That was his way of helping his son's cause, different as it was from the contribution of Mrs. Marchegiano. On fight nights, Rocky's mother went to church and prayed for the safety of her Rocco and of her Rocco's opponent. They were just people looking to do what was right, and they expected the same of their children.
But the town was tough, as are most mill towns, there always was some trouble. One day Rocky got into a fight with a kid named Julie Durham, who could hit you like the end of the world. Everybody said you just don't mess around with Julie. And then here comes Rocky looking for a little trouble down by the Bay State Bakery on Foster Street.
They were rolling around in the dust and pea gravel when Rocky missed a punch and caught Julie with an elbow that split his face open. After a while, no matter how tough Julie was, Rocky was just too strong. They should have stuck that win in the record books, should have made it 50-0 for Marciano.
Whenever Marciano fought, people from all over town would congregate in front of the Brockton Enterprise on 60 Main St. and look through the giant picture window at the bulletins strung across stringers for a news update. There existed a social climate at the newspaper on these nights that surpassed the best town balls and church picnics. Everybody came and everybody won. Carl D. Pitaro, now the mayor of Brockton, said he remembers staring through the window at the bulletins and hearing the rousing cheers of the crowd.
"Rocky's time was our time, his wins were our wins," Pitaro said. "It is not hard to understand why most of the old-timers in town feel that what he accomplished will never be equaled, not by Larry Holmes or by anyone else, for that matter. For a long time, Rocky Marciano was Brockton, he was everything the place stood for. Shoes put us on the map, but he was our champion. He belonged to us."
At the end of his career, Peter Marciano said, his brother had trouble dealing with the smell of the gym, the fight game had become that difficult. He loved boxing so much that he gave it up when the work became too hard and the fun no longer was there.
"I think Rocky just decided nobody could beat him," Peter said. "He wanted to get away from it and go out and live."
When he died, on the eve of his 46th birthday, Rocky's wife Barbara decided to bury him in Fort Lauderdale, which is a long way from Brockton. One of the Rock's old friends said it was "just criminal," and he wondered what Rocky would have wanted: Florida or home. The gesture may have been well-intended, but there was little consolation in having the wake at the Hickey Funeral Home in Brockton. Hickey's was an Irish place whose property line ran right up to the Peca Funeral Home, an Italian parlor. Peter Marciano said the directors of the two funeral homes were bitter enemies until Rocky's body came back to town. There was a line that ferried across both the Irish and Italian properties, and cars parked on both lots. There was, after all, only one Rocky Marciano.
"The month before he was killed," Peter Marciano said, "I went to see Rocky down in Florida. We jogged the beaches together, and I got to know him better in one week than I had my whole life. He'd say, 'What's going on in Brockton?' And that was strange to me. Rocky wasn't a small-talking kind of guy. But he wanted to know how Eugene and Nicky Sylvester were doing, and how was the Columbo family.
"I said this before: Brockton, Mass., always was and always will be Rocky Marciano's hometown. Any other city or town or country he may have lived in was just a stopping place. He loved this place. And he loved it until the day he died."