Author Mike Stanton discusses his new book about Rocky Marciano

Mike Stanton (Photo by Mary Murphy)
Mike Stanton (Photo by Mary Murphy)

When Mike Stanton was researching what would become "The Prince of Providence," his riveting book about mayor-turned-felon Buddy Cianci, he learned that Cianci's father used to take him to the fights at the old Rhode Island Auditorium. One of the headliners in those days, the 1940s, was Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight from Brockton, Mass.

"I was drawn to that colorful world of vice and virtue that embodied Buddy’s life — in Rocky’s case, the inspirational triumphs in the ring fused with the corruption that engulfed boxing and typified Providence, the Mafia capital of New England," Stanton said in an email interview last week. "Buddy and Rocky were both larger than life, and operated in corrupt environments."

Stanton, a former Providence Journal reporter who now teaches journalism at UConn, will sign his newest book, "Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World," Wednesday at Bank Square Books in Mystic. He answered a few questions for The Day.

Q. What was Marciano's place in a sport that, at the time, captured the attention and the imagination of the world?

A. Rocky was the heavyweight champion at a time in America when that crown carried real weight. Everybody knew who you were, and you were on a first-name basis with presidents, celebrities and movie stars. Boxing rivaled baseball as America’s pastime, with smoke-filled arenas like Madison Square Garden teeming with a Damon Runyon cast of characters. Rocky was 49-0, history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ, and one of its fiercest punchers. His explosive right was nicknamed the Suzie Q. I even found outtakes from a Beatles recording session in which Paul McCartney and John Lennon joked about Rocky’s conditioning.

Q. All good "sports" books have universal themes that transcend the world of sports. What's in the Marciano book that will interest non-boxing fans?

A. This is not just a book about boxing, but a story about a changing America in the middle of the 20th century, a Golden Age of optimism and prosperity when everybody dreamed of being a contender and immigrants and minorities sought acceptance and assimilation in the ring. Rocky grew up in the anti-immigrant 1920s, came of age during the Great Depression, boxed in the Army during World War II and fought his way to the top of a brutal, Mafia-controlled sport in the 1950s, a decade that David Halberstam wrote was “captured in black and white.” In retirement, Rocky wandered through the kaleidoscopic 1960s, fighting his own demons and searching for his place in a changing world. That quest ended tragically when he died in a plane crash in the summer of 1969, on the eve of his 46th birthday. He had delayed a trip home to fly to Iowa in a small private plane as a favor to a mobster pal.

Q. Marciano's story is well-known. Did you find anything that surprised you and will be new to readers?

A. I uncovered a lot of great new stories about Rocky, including his friendship with Frank Sinatra, his ties to mobsters, a barroom brawl in Providence with a Brown football player who grew up to own the Chicago Blackhawks, attempted fixed fights and his trip to the Playboy mansion with a Catholic priest. But two stories stand out. One was my discovery that Rocky was court-martialed while serving in the Army in England just before D-Day for the robbery and assault of two British civilians. I obtained never-before-seen records documenting his case, including time in a military prison, and traced how that led him to stay in the Army after the war and launch his boxing career on an Army team at Fort Lewis, Washington. The other surprise I found involved his unexpected friendship with Muhammad Ali. The two bonded in Miami in 1969 while filming a “computer fight,” when Ali was suspended from boxing and facing prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Ali’s wife and Rocky’s brother described to me how Rocky and Muhammad spoke of visiting America’s riot-torn ghettos to preach racial harmony. Tragically, Rocky died a few weeks later — Ali’s wife said it was the only time she saw Muhammad cry.

Q. The title mentions "a crooked world." Boxing has long had a reputation of cigar-smoking thugs making back-room deals. Was the corruption worse than we think?

A. Shady characters have always gravitated towards boxing. But as television exploded after World War II and boxing became lucrative TV entertainment, I found that the Mafia took institutional control of the sport through a notorious mobster and former Murder Inc. hitman named Frankie Carbo – known as the “underworld commissioner of boxing.” Carbo controlled Rocky’s manager and orchestrated fixed fights involving Jake LaMotta, among others. Rocky chafed under the mob rule, but also understood it was a necessary evil to his reaching the top. Hence my subtitle: “Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection In A Crooked World.”

Q. There's a tribute to Marciano of some kind in Wilcox Park in Westerly, which confuses people because, other than a fight in the Armory, he has no connection to the town. Was he, like DiMaggio, seen by Italian-Americans, no matter where they lived, as "one of ours?"

A. Italian-Americans loved Rocky. Rocky visited Westerly for a testimonial dinner after he retired, and was feted by the city’s large Italian-American population. Even the wise guys took pride in Rocky. When he visited dying mob boss Vito Genovese in prison, Genovese told him, “You, Rocky, have made us all proud.”

Q. Marciano fought all over New England. Did you find any Connecticut connections?

A. Rocky fought the forgettable Harold “Kid” Mitchell at the Hartford Auditorium on March 20, 1951. What made his lone Connecticut fight memorable was that he had planned to go easy on Mitchell and let the fight go eight or nine rounds so he could work on some ring techniques. But when Mitchell hit some scar tissue over Rocky’s left eye in the second round, Rocky went crazy and knocked Mitchell down three times in the next few minutes until the referee stopped the fight. But my favorite Connecticut story involves the night in 1952 that Rocky beat Jersey Joe Walcott for the title in Philadelphia. Two of Rocky’s sisters, entrusted with the bloody glove that KO’d Walcott, were driving home through Connecticut late that night when the police, searching for two women prison escapees, stopped their car. The officers were skeptical when the women said they were Rocky’s sisters, until they showed them the glove. Impressed, the officers let them continue on home to Brockton. This was a story I heard from Rocky’s relatives, and which hadn’t been published before.

If You Go

What: Talk and book signing with Mike Stanton, author of "Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World."

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W Main St., Mystic

When: 6:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday

More information: www.banksquarebooks.com

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