BROCKTON, Mass. — 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, was threatening 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."