Seventy-two years ago this St. Patrick's Day, Rocky Marciano — one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time — came to fight in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was a turning point in his life.
A friend set Marciano up with the Holyoke fight. It was 1947. He had just gotten out of the Army and was digging ditches for the gas company in Brockton, Massachusetts, where he grew up.
Marciano didn't think he had many options in life, said Mike Stanton, who wrote about the Holyoke fight in his book, "Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection In a Crooked World."
"This was his first professional fight," Stanton said.
Not knowing what was ahead, Marciano wanted to preserve his amateur status.
"So he decided that the greatest future Italian heavyweight fighter in history would fight under an Irish name on St. Patrick's Day in a heavily Irish Holyoke," Stanton said.
Marciano chose the name Rocky Mack. The alias wasn't just about keeping his amateur status, Stanton said. Marciano also didn't want his mother to know he was boxing. On the day of the fight, he took off from work, losing a day’s pay, and took the train to western Massachusetts.
In the late 1940s, Holyoke was in a circuit of gritty New England cities where ethnic rivalries played out in the boxing rings. Stanton said fans lived vicariously through the matches.
"You know, the working class Irish and French Canadians and Poles, coming out of the paper mills and the corner bars and the tenement houses in their work shirts and work boots, hooting and hollering and stamping their feet in the balcony of the old Valley Arena," Stanton said.
They went to gamble, Stanton said, and have fun — violent fun.
"It was a real kind of blood-and-guts arena," Stanton said. "It was an old gasworks down by the canals where the paper mills stood."
Every Monday night was fight night, and in 1947, St. Patrick's Day was a Monday.
Marciano was matched against another Army veteran, Les Epperson from Springfield. He was the hometown favorite — a big, strapping fighter, Stanton said. Marciano was unschooled, unknown and fighting with a broken hand.
When the bout began, the two men came out slugging.
"Epperson was a more polished fighter," Stanton said. "He was slipping Rocky's powerful but clumsy swings. And he was outboxing him."
In the second round, the fight took a turn. Stanton said Marciano started to use his crude, raw power.
"Then, 42 seconds into the third round, Epperson was trying to force Rocky up against the ropes," Stanton said. "And Rocky, who was shorter and squatter, unleashed this ferocious right uppercut that seemed to explode from his shoe-tops, and hit Epperson square in the jaw."
Epperson went crashing to the canvas. Later, the defeated boxer said he remembered the first two rounds, but not the third.
"He said, 'I'd never, ever been hit so hard.' And, like a lot of guys who fought Rocky, that was the last time that Epperson ever fought," Stanton said.
Marciano didn't immediately become that champion boxer after the Holyoke fight. Stanton said he was disillusioned and noncommittal about the sport. The promoter had tried to swindle Marciano out of his purse, and it was a physically brutal fight.
A few weeks later, Marciano and some friends traveled down to North Carolina to try out for a Chicago Cubs farm team, the Fayetteville Cubs.
"Rocky was a catcher, and ironically, the greatest heavyweight slugger in history didn't have a strong enough arm to make a good throw to second base," Stanton said. "He washed out of baseball."
Marciano came back home to New England, and by default, returned to boxing, wanting to avoid a life in the shoe factories of Brockton, where his father had worked.
He won his next 48 professional fights.
And in 1956, a 32-year-old Rocky Marciano retired with a perfect record — a great Italian heavyweight whose professional career began on St. Patrick's Day in Holyoke, using an Irish name.