John Summers


Interview with Rocky Marciano

by John Summers, published in the Mandrake column of the Sunday Telegraph, 7 November 1965 under the headline ‘Gentle as a Rock’

Is boxing a noble art? Fit to be taught in the nation’s school gymnasiums? To find out I advanced upon the greatest authority, ‘the most dangerous unarmed man in the world,’ the most successful gladiator in history – 49 fights, 49 wins…

I knocked on Mr Rocky Marciano’s bedroom door and a voice you associate with misty New York dockside rasped: ‘Friend or foe?’

‘Friend, I think.’

Inside there were blue whorls of cigar and cigarette smoke, a small crown of American lounge suits and a plump man in ragged trousers and short padding barefoot and swinging an arm as thick as your thigh.

‘… So I keep coming forward like this, left foot first, and I hit him a shot with the right, and I see his eyes roll up in his head and I give him the left to finish him…’

‘Rocky, you remind me of a skunk…!’ Somebody interrupting. I backed quickly for the door.

The Rock’s eyes widened below the stitch mark – one eye took thirteen stitches, seeing him through just one million dollar world title defence: ‘A skunk?’

‘The way you fought, Rocky, like a skunk with a farm dog and the dog keeps backing away because he knows what a punch that skunk packs in his tail!’

‘Right! Joe Louis couldn’t take my shot to the head – not even high on the head. I got to him with one high on the head and I see his eyes go “Great to meet ya!”’ The Rock comes for me. ‘Have a cup of coffee! You’re welcome!’ The Rock opens his fist and there’s a cup and saucer hidden in it.

The honesty in the round, hearty face is humiliating. I told the Rock we’re talking of banning boxing in Britain.

‘Right! Well, it’s got to come! It’s got to – in fifty, twenty-five years’ time – no, less than that – it’s got to come; as people get more civilized, they’re going to ban boxing.’

‘Rocco, my baby!’ A man lying full-length on a divan barks: ‘Whaddya sayin’…!’

‘I tell you it’s got to. They will outlaw boxing. A hundred years from now we’ll be like the gladiators, something out of history.’ The sad, gentle eyes. ‘There won’t be any boxers any more – aw, boxing’s just got to go. Less than twenty-five years, ten years or less than that maybe. In America they let fighters go on till one of them’s half-dead – Joe Louis couldn’t take a shot to the head any more.’

‘He couldn’t take one on the button, Rocky!’

‘He couldn’t take a punch anywhere on the head any more. Even high on the head. People say to me, “Rocky, you made me scream watching you fight, you looked like you’re going to get killed the way you keep coming forward taking all those punches on the chin…”’ The Rock shakes his head amusedly. ‘But I never did.’

He tucks the bristling chin into the protective shoulders. ‘I always had my chin down here. I never used to take any punches on the chin. Nobody can take punches on the chin.

‘Rocky, baby…’

‘Only time I left myself wide open was when they put wintergreen in my water bucket to try and stop me winning the world championship and my eyes stung so I had to lift my chin just to see and Walcott nailed me on the chin and nearly knocked me out.’

‘Crooks! Wintergreen they put in his water bucket!’

‘Talk about divine justice. The officials handling me in that fight, awhile after they all dropped dead.’ The Rock massaged his chin quickly.

Are there punch-drunk boxers in America? ‘Not many. Ezzard Charles. Oh, he’s banged up, oh God yes he is. After he met me.

‘Rocco, baby! He is not! Charles is not.’

‘Aw, yes. Aw, terrible, yes. He is.’ The Rock demonstrates with a press picture showing his victim’s face like a chocolate marshmallow crushed between the Rock’s fists.

Think! What kind of money Cassius Clay versus Rocky would take now! Rocky could take Clay right now!’

There is a famous story of the Rock’s pugilistic encounter in a wartime brawl in a British pub. ‘Right! That’s true. But if I get in trouble like that now I have to back away. Talk my way out of it. I have to … I never like to see people hurt. I was an old man when I won the world title – I was twenty-eight. That’s why Patterson can’t beat Clay! He’s an old man. He’s twenty-seven.’

The Rock’s finger’s play constantly with the poke of his English ratting cap on his head. Going bald has hurt the Rock more than anything could do in the ring. He wears the cap even indoors and, for public appearances, a well-made American hair-piece.

‘Over here in Britain boxing is so civilized anyway. They’d never let me become heavyweight champion of England – I bleed too easy. Sure there are fights that not quite right. But not the world heavy championship. There’s too many people like Norman Mailer – like you – watching us all the time.’

The eyes soften. ‘I don’t even go to the fights any more. Don’t like to see people getting hurt. I’m a bad fight referee even.’ The Rock admits it sadly. ‘I spoil the fights. Soon as one of the fellers starts bleeding a little even, I stop the fight. The crowd don’t like it. You hear the crowd yelling. Screaming. Go on! Let ‘em fight! Beat him to death, go on! That’s the really brutal part of the boxing. The crowd.

Outside I met a sports writer. ‘You saw Marciano – what’s he like? More animal than man, I suppose?’

In the mid-1990s John re-worked this article for an unidentified magazine (possibly Country Quest), under the headline ‘How Wales Spurred on a Champ’ with this additional introduction:

In the history of Welsh sports it is nowhere adequately recognized that Wales has actually once produced a world heavyweight boxing champion.

The story begins in wartime Wales and with only a few weeks to go till D-Day, when Britain’s southern ports were being readied to send allied forces to invade the continent of Europe in the final stages of World War Two.

And Swansea. South Wales it was that was one of the major boarding points for men and vehicles to be boarding their ships for the Normandy landings.

One of these soldiers as a chunkily built American GI, whose extraordinarily short legs carried him on a body that could have been that of a Roman gladiator.

The Italian cafe and fish ‘n’ chip shop community of South Wales knew him as a regular guest at their Sunday dinner tables.

To them he was Rocco Marchegnano.

One night Rocco got himself in a brawl in Swansea’s Wind Street in a bodega grill and he was nearly arrested.

His story was that on being provoked by a group of Australian soldiers with the words: ‘Yanks – you’re overpaid, over-sexed – and over here.’ He had knocked out three of them.

Next thing, as Gl Rocco was later to describe it he got in another brawl in a South Wales valleys miners pub, swapping blows with a Welsh miner who he described as ‘Big as Tommy Farr’.

And this time the ‘Snow Drops’, the US military police, were called in – they were known as Snow Drops because their US soldier steel helmets were painted white. Rocco was threatened with court martial.

‘But that’ll make us one lorry driver short for D-Day,’ protested his US commander at the GI camp in Morriston near Swansea.

A solution was hit upon. Rocco was ordered to take up amateur boxing in the clubs around Swansea.

When Rocco went home again to Brockton. Massachusetts when the war was over and back to his job as boot repairer, he changed his name to Rocky Marciano. And decided to turn professional.

I interviewed Rocky Marciano in the ‘60s. just before he was tragically killed in a plane crash.

‘They’ve closed down that lovely Mumbles Train.’ bewailed Rocky Marciano. ‘Why, I used to ride on that into Swansea many a morning. I was stationed down there in Swansea and we were billeted on Mumbles Pier and we had to sleep on straw palliases.’

When I interviewed Marciano he was just being celebrated as the greatest – and most successful – world heavyweight champion of all limes.

And the one who had amassed the largest fortune from the ring ever. Forty-nine ring battles - and 49 wins.

‘And it all started for me down there in Wales,’ he said. ‘Wales has always had that great prize-fighting tradition and from that I took my inspiration. I used to get the Mumbles Train into Swansea and get off at Rutland Street in the centre of the town and make for a gym that a Welsh heavyweight called Jim Wilde used to run just by Swansea railway station. No – not Jimmy Wilde. That was a much lighter guy from an earlier time, I used to call in at Swansea market and eat some of that hot laver bread that Welsh people cook out of seaweed, would anybody believe it. We don’t have anything like that in the States.’

But now having retired undefeated from the ring Rocky, had turned against the very idea of boxing and he said he thought it ought to be banned. An interesting notion from the British public these very days, when a recent series of tragic ring deaths and serious injuries have been grabbing public attention.