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Rocky Marciano Book Excerpt, From “Redemption: The Life and Death of Rocky Marciano”

The following is an excerpt from Redemption: The Life & Death of Rocky Marciano, a new biography by John Cameron of the former world heavyweight boxing champion which is still a work in progress. The piece is taken from chapter nine and recounts Marciano’s (then still Rocco Marchegiano) first official professional bout in 1947. For more information and the status of this ongoing project, you can visit the Redemption: Life and Death of Rocky Marciano website. The author welcomes reviews and feedback from all boxing fans.

Marciano had recently been honorably discharged from three-years in the American Army and was desperate to earn a few dollars, although he had experienced modest success as an amateur back in his service days he was still not sold on the idea of making his living as a fighter, that is until one of his closest friends came calling one auspicious day in early March:

“I had spent all those years in the Army, now I was home and faced with nothing…I knew I had to do something, but I still didn’t know what.”

Rocky Marciano

Allie Colombo was once more on leave from Westover Air Force base when he looked up his old friend, still fresh in his mind had been the conversation from the previous year concerning them teaming up to conquer the world. Allie had never allowed this image to stray far from his thoughts, now, with this in mind he approached his comrade with a serious proposition.

The idea had fermented in Colombo’s mind since he had been introduced to a certain Richard J. O’Connell (since misspelled as O’Connor) at Westover a few months previously, the then fifty-six year old O’Connell was working under a civilian contract at the base as a custom’s officer, a job he had held for over two-decades. Allie’s interest in this individual was piqued by the fact that in his youth O’Connell had boxed professionally at bantamweight and never severed his ties with the sport. By early spring of 1947 he had become an unofficial scout for his friend, the Holyoke, Massachusetts, fight promoter Auriel Renault, Allie Colombo saw an opportunity and pounced upon it.

Initially he approached O’Connell about getting Rocco some fights, but the experienced O’Connell baulked at the suggestion, at least until he had seen the boy in the flesh, thus Allie’s proposition to ‘The Rock’ was a simple one, join him on his trip back to Westover and spar a couple of rounds in their gym, let this O’Connell see for himself that Colombo wasn’t over exuberant in praise of Marchegiano. Thus when Allie found his friend he warmed up the proposal by first inquiring about his hand, Rocco’s reply was encouraging when he informed him that it had almost healed, but was still a little stiff, then came the offer, much to Colombo’s relief Rocco agreed.

Accompanying Colombo to Westover Rocky was eager to impress, it was not for any ambitions of following a career in the prize ring though for at this stage in his life he still held out hopes of baseball stardom, it was more that he did not want to let down Allie who had spent so much time and effort trying to put the whole deal together. He needn’t of worried, O’Connell liked what he saw that day, so much so that he promptly contacted promoter Renault in Holyoke. Within a matter of days Rocco found himself booked to appear in the Valley Arena, Holyoke, where he would act as the first course in a bill headlined by Middleweights Saint Paul and Tee Hubert, this would be Rocco’s first contest since the previous August, some six months before.

There was however one minor problem to overcome; after the disastrous Lester bout the previous year, Rocco had decided to keep his boxing secret from his mother, if he was going to fight he knew that his name would in all probability appear in the local paper, Holyoke was so close, he couldn’t take a chance of his beloved mother finding out, in order to prevent this the boys decided that a change of name was in order. After debating a wealth of possibilities finally a name was agreed upon, Rocky Mack. It seemed an unlikely choice, but it was premeditated by the day upon which the bout would take place, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th. The last name, so the pair argued, sounded vaguely Irish, with it they felt they may get some partisan support (for a time however it seems his pseudonym and birth name became confused, as attested by Holyoke Transcript Telegram who on the morning of the show, announcing the line up for that evenings card, morphed Rocco Mack/Marchegiano into Rocky Mackjianno).

Rocco, who had been allowed a day off from his job at the gas company, arrived at the Valley Arena (the rambunctious, hand-clapping, foot-stomping venue for the bout), alone at two-thirty in that Monday afternoon where he was to meet both Allie and O’Connell, there he went through the pre-fight preliminaries, physical check-up, weigh-in, etc. Rocco tipped the scales at a trim 192lbs and for the first time came face to face with his opponent.

His  adversary was a younger, yet more experienced professional by the name of Les Epperson who was taking part in his seventh paid bout, winning five from his previous six outings, and he was in no mood to lose this night. Apart from age and seasoning he also on his side the town he called home, none other than Holyoke itself. Here he had built up a firm fan base in the small communal city, beginning as an amateur of some standing before stretching over into the pros. Many there that night were convinced that they were about to witness a remarkable potential fulfilled, and so they were, only not from whom they envisioned.

As was his way Rocco made no show of deference to his opponent, they simply shook hands and parted their own ways until that evening, Epperson back to his private place of repose, whilst Marchegiano accompanied Allie back to O’Connell’s home where he surprised his host by consuming a vast portion of steak before settling down for a few hours comfortable sleep (this was to become an almost ritualistic act before all of Marciano’s later bouts).

Finally the moment arrived to leave for the Arena. As the three of them made their way across town for what was to be the professional debut of the fighter who would become known as Rocky Marciano, neither ‘The Rock’, nor Colombo, could then have known where this inauspicious beginning would eventually end or the roads it would lead them down.

“We had a big crowd on hand,” recalled Allie, “(be)cause the local papers had played up this fight even bigger than the main event. You know, Holyoke against Brockton, that sort of a thing.” – Sadly here Colombo, it seems, is guilty of exaggeration, or at best, simply fanciful recollection, for, previous to the battle there was no mention of Brockton, nor any overt publicity, merely a brief almost apologetic mention in the Holyoke Transcript that, “A special heavyweight opening match will bring together Les Epperson of Holyoke and Rocky Mackjianno of Westover Field, a four rounder.”

Yet for a while it seemed that Mack/Mackjianno/Marchegiano, from Westover Field, would not even be climbing between the ropes, for before the bout had even begun there was a hurdle to overcome, as it would be in the future, the problem was caused by money. O’Connell had promised Colombo $50 for the fight but Renault, who had taken over the Arena from his uncle in 1944, two years after the building, formerly known as the ‘Gas House’ had ironically burnt to the ground (it would burn down twice more in suspicious circumstances before closing for good in 1960), threatened to baulk at the deal. “I went in to see Renault,” continued Allie, “‘you’re nuts,’ says Renault. ‘We never paid more than $35 for a four-rounder before and we ain’t starting now.’ ‘Okay,’ says I, turning to Rocky. ‘Take off your trunks, we’re going home.’ Renault nearly choked when he saw Rocky getting dressed, and finally he gives in.”

With the fight underway Rocco was mad at the confusion over his fee, he went in slugging wildly, even more so usual, luckily for him it appeared that Epperson too was not the most accomplished of artisans in the ring either.

“Both were wild swingers but Mack was able to concentrate on Epperson’s body in the first two rounds,” reported the Holyoke Transcript Telegram once again on the morning of March 18th. The beginning of the end for the outgunned Epperson came towards the end of that second round Marchegiano/Mack caught the local boy with three wicked rights in quick succession, to his credit Epperson stayed on his feet, but he was dazed and groggy at the bell. Then in the third, to paraphrase Allie again, “…Rocky hits him with a right to the body that breaks a rib and the fight’s over.”

The actual ending came just forty-two seconds into the third with Rocco throwing a right uppercut that seemed to start from his boots, the force of the impact was so great that it knocked the hapless Epperson straight out of the ring, the referee began his count, but realizing it was a fruitless endeavor, he waved it over.

“I didn’t like it. It was a tough fight and seemed a tough way to make a buck,” recalled Rocco. “But,” added Colombo, “Then the real fight starts. The fight to get the $50 that’s agreed to.”

“Renault’s accountant at the box-office window hands me $20 and says, ‘You get $35, but $15 is for the license.’ ‘No soap,’ says I, starting to look for Renault, but along he comes with two cops saying, ‘Throw these two bums out of here.’

“I try to explain what’s happening to the two cops but they say I ought to take what I got and go. ‘I aint got anything,’ I scream and everybody starts talking at once. While they’re gabbing I go back to the box-office to take the $20 and get out of there before somebody gets mad and somebody gets hurt.

“Renault follows me and when he sees the hullabaloo I’m raising in the box-office with the crowd streaming out after the final bout of the evening, he tells the accountant to give me $35 and we call it even. When I went back to get Rocky, he wanted to wait around to ‘bust’ the guy but I showed him the money and got him out of there.”

Marciano himself would recall his feelings looking back in later years. “I walked away from that whole affair disgusted with the sport, if this was what it was like in the pros, I thought, then forget it.”

“I had a heck of a time getting him ever to fight again,” conceded Colombo. “And to make matters worse, his left hand blew up, giving him a lot of trouble.”

If Rocky felt appalled at the sport, then Les Epperson felt appalled at himself, he would later mention to those who inquired that the experience of losing in such a brutal manner to a “nobody” shattered all faith he had in himself as a fighter (He would not be the last to harbor such thoughts). This match against “Rocky Mack” was to be categorically his last bout, the absolute end of what had seemed such a promising career. He would, in his advancing years, muse on a lost career when that “nobody” went on to become a “somebody”, reflecting on his superiority in the first two stanzas, however, by then it was too late for he had firmly carved out a career for himself in the printing business, settled by such time as a lithographer in a stationary firm in Springfield.

© copyrighted to John Cameron 2010.

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