Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of boxing knows that the late, great Rocky Marciano remains the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated.
Marciano, smallish by heavyweight standards, stood 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 188 pounds in his prime. But he was a relentless attacker, who packed staggering power in his punches and also possessed an iron chin. He won 49 pro fights, never lost and won 43 by knockout.
“The Rock,” they called him. It fit. Indeed, Marciano was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies — all VII of them. You should know that Marciano’s last fight — and last victory — came on Sept. 21, 1955, when he knocked out Mississippi native Archie Moore in the ninth round of a fight at Madison Square Garden. Moore, who will enter the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, became only the second man to knock down Marciano, which he did in the second round. Marciano recovered and knocked down Moore four times before the referee stopped it in the ninth.
What even longtime boxing experts might not know is that Marciano’s knockout of Moore was not his only brush with Mississippi legend. There was this one night, in the early 1960s, when Marciano stopped in Grenada, the bustling seat of Grenada County, to get a bite to eat.
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This was back before I-55, which connects the Great Lakes to New Orleans and carries traffic just west of Grenada, was completed. Anyone wanting to drive from Chicago to New Orleans, usually traveled on U.S. 51, which cut right through the center of Grenada. That’s exactly what Marciano and his small party were doing when they stopped for a bite.
Highway 51 was then known as “The Main Drag” in Grenada. It was a hopping strip with plenty of restaurants and places where, if you knew the proprietors, you could get something potent to drink before, during and after your supper. In Grenada, you had options right there on 51.
You had Nick and Vince’s White Kitchen, Gus’s Little Widget, the Chicken Inn and the more elegant Monte Carlo. Because of the location, you never knew who might drop in. One night — about this same time — Elvis Presley made a visit to the Chicken Inn, where he was planning to court a local beauty. Problem was, the local beauty’s boyfriend was on the premises and did not take kindly to The King’s intrusion. Naturally, a fight broke out. Elvis, a former high school boxer himself, did not get hurt. But legend has it a couple of his bodyguards escaped bloodied and bruised.
Marciano’s party stopped in at Nick and Vince’s White Kitchen where the food was simple and good, and the drinks were stiff, if one so desired. Many locals and visitors so desired. There was a backroom at the White Kitchen where celebrities, such as Marciano, could dine and drink and not be bothered.
Vince Portera did most of the cooking. Nick Portera was usually the greeter. On the legendary night, Marciano and his party were dining in the backroom, unbeknownst to a strapping local named Rusty, a regular who often debated sports and other subjects with Nick.
That’s what Rusty was doing that evening. The subject was boxing. Understand, Marciano was a hero to Italian-Americans everywhere, including Grenada. The Porteras were Italian-Americans. Rusty was not. Nick was extolling Marciano as the greatest of all-time. Rusty was disagreeing.
“I could take him,” Rusty said. “He’s a little guy. I could whup him.”
“You could whup The Rock?” Nick said. “You really think you could whup Rocky Marciano?”
Nick kept egging Rusty on, not that Rusty needed much egging. So Nick signaled Vince, who had come out of the kitchen to join the fun. Vince ducked into the private dining room.
“Come on, you really think you could take Marciano?” Nick said.
“I wish he was here right now,” Rusty said. “I’d show you and him.”
Said Nick, “Well turn around, hoss, you’ve got your chance.”
Rusty turned around and there stood Marciano, square jaw, broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms folded at his chest. The Rock stared at Rusty and didn’t say a thing.
Witnesses say Rusty’s jaw dropped. His face flushed and he began to stammer. And Marciano? The Rock finally broke into a smile while all present, except Rusty, had one of the great laughs of their lives.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.