Mike Stanton’s biography of Rocky Marciano reveals a fighter as great as remembered but a man more complicated than most knew.
In 1976, in front of a fireplace at his rustic training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., Muhammad Ali sat with Howard Cosell for a Wide World of Sports special on great heavyweight champions. As black-and-white footage ran of his illustrious predecessors, Ali was mostly dismissive: Jack Dempsey had no science; Joe Louis was too slow afoot; fighters from the turn of the century were too primitive. Then Cosell got to Rocky Marciano.
“Marciano!” Ali exclaimed. “Ooh, he hit hard! . . . I did a computer fight with him, when he was an old man just pretending, and my arms were sore just from joking with him.” Released in movie theaters in early 1970, the Ali–Marciano “fight” had been filmed in summer 1969, not long before Marciano died in a plane crash. The idea was that Ali, then 27 and exiled from boxing due to his refusal to be inducted into the Army, and the retired Marciano, 45, would act out scenarios for a match as devised by an NCR-315 computer. The choreography was staged, but inevitably some real punches landed, and each man emerged from the experience with deepened respect for the other.
In his new biography, Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World (Henry Holt, 400 pp., $32), Mike Stanton helps readers understand why even so proud a man as Muhammad Ali came to view Rocky Marciano, the pride of Brockton, Mass., as something like a force of nature. Stanton, author of the best-selling The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci, is well positioned, geographically and professionally, to write the definitive Marciano biography, and that’s what Unbeaten appears to be. Stanton’s treatment of his subject is what you might expect from a longtime newspaperman who shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting at the Providence Journal: He runs down every source, providing rich detail — and fresh discoveries — about Marciano’s career.
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal.