Rocky Marciano awoke slowly, the champ always slept before a fight. His eyelids kept falling shut again and again before they finally stayed open. He knew this was his last fight; the first thought crawled across his sleep-thickened mind. He wanted to stop this business, he’d probably tell his wife Barbara tomorrow. He slept on the gym bench, tumbled out of sleep, shivering in the fall air from the open windows. His last fight with Archie Moore loomed outside the steel doors. He needed to ready himself for the fight. His mouth tightened looking out into the bleak frosty night, making his blood run slow and deadening his reflexes. Lack of sunshine hurt his vision. Tonight, when his eyes must work perfectly, or lose, maybe die. Die. He pushed the thought away quickly. A groan rumbled in his chest. A full rest and still tired. He dropped his hands, sat staring at his veined hands, their backs almost bronze from the training camp. He flexed the blunt fingers, tried to work limberness into them, heard popping from hands to shoulders. The flesh felt stiff, something from his leather hide and bones.
Thirty-two, he thought, not expecting the same responses when he started years ago. His chest rose and sank heavily. It's not fear. This win establishes a record of forty-nine with forty-three knockouts and no losses. He wanted to retire without a loss; too proud to lose. He must meet Archie Moore tonight. Alli Columbo, his friend and trainer, let him over sleep to make ready for the match-off. Rocky sat there with heavy-muscled shoulders, limp, hands hanging slackly over his thighs. He needed another ten hours of sleep. All energy leaves a boxer: full grown at twenty and burned-out over thirty. His gaze moved to leather gloves and an Everlast silk robe. He stood up; lost in the dressing room warm-ups, hand wraps, the smell of iron blood and rage to sharpen eyes.
Is that me? He couldn't help the question as he stared into the mirror at his dark curly hair, thinning at the temples, his tanned face creased from squinting and worrying under the ring lights. Sure, he recognized the vision of his face, reflected in a mirror half-foggy with steam that brought back those old memories. Rocky's face, she told him that night more than twelve years ago, looked made for a boxer. A square face with a chin chiseled out of it, as if some hack sculptor carved without curves. Puffy eyes, too. He ran a finger over the scar on the base of his nose, from the last fight. He noticed the clock ticking the minutes to the hour, summoning him to the fight outside. His mouth tensed. Well, it's not, he told himself angrily. The worst thing being his age, thirty-two years old, he looked old at thirty-two. When the failing reflexes kept coming on, his muscles never got enough rest. He started to fear. His endless thinking that made things hard. Since 1943, fighting and winning every match up, from the Army until now, he wished this his last fight. What about a man's life in twelve years? For the life of him, he wished he knew. Only two things kept you going, living and dying. All the years of marriage to Barbara counted for nothing in the ring.
He stomped and bounced up and down, trying to get the feeling in his legs. Old legs without spring, maybe he over trained this time? He kept his lips pressed together to hold back the sound he felt pushing up in his throat, his body felt like a block of stone. Hardly conscious of his body, he felt so numb with dread. Many a fighter died in the ring, many died with mashed up faces of ground round meat. He slipped towards the door, a mask of resolution. He never told Barbara about his plans to retire after this last fight. He ambled swinging the stainless steel door into the crowds, a warrior for the last time of glory. Every footfall shuttered a blow against his heart. He dared not look back.
Alli, Rocco's money manager, held back the pushing crowds. “The Rock’ spun backward to Alli, "Hide my millions, if I don't make it." Alli invested the millions in bars and real estate, far from the clutches of the blood-sucking manager. Alli gave him a knowing wink, making his money safe, moving it around, giving Rocco a comfortable retirement. Good to know, no matter what, his money remained safe working for him with Alli. Mrs. Moore yelled, as Rocky passed, "Don't hurt my Archie." He wondered how either fighter might survive under the London prize rules of bare-knuckled combat versus today's Marquis of Queensberry gloved fists. In the old days, this city of sin sponsored disease and debauchery in the bloody brutal contests. Rocky heard her above the gallery of Gods. The ring lit by floodlights, set squarely in the middle of the hall, four feet off the parquet floor and defined by three ropes, old “Everlast’ bumper cushions at the corners. Stretched tight with ancient, dirty canvas, the ring mat illuminated to define the center of attention.
He shuffled numbly through the crowds, staring down at her as though from a great height. Then heard a voice speaking and realized his voice, but not the words. "Sorry, Mrs. Moore, I can't stop the fight. I would if I could, but I'm helpless. It's gone too far. Unless Archie backs out, I'm the champion and have to go through with it," he passed her quickly stepping up to the ring. He heard the crackling tension into cheers, raising arms, moving from side to side in rhythm to an internal clock, ticking away the precious minutes of life before the fight. Every boney joint popped, while he limbered up for the match, he wondered if Barbara watched in slow speed with a chance to worry. His stomach muscles jerked, face glistening and flushed from Vaseline, he cocked his head down, touched gloves with Archie, waiting for the bell.
He hunched his shoulders forward, noticing from the corners of his eyes how people watched him, he felt proud and unafraid. Twenty seconds to go, then the sudden explosion tore open the stillness, shocked surprise in the eyes of Archie's dark face landing a left hook to the jaw, counter punching, alternately feinting, and infighting and otherwise avoiding Rocky for three long rounds. The hook shook all the way to the mat. It sparked with lightning, and followed up with a fast second punch, a quick jab with his right that followed the hook-the violent punch that landed square on the nose, splattering blood three rows back in the audience. Archie, shaken, dazed, got to his feet again, wishing for a good combination to back Rocky off. Front row seats raise their newspapers to protect against the splatter.
And suddenly, a broad smile appeared on Rocky's face. He tried to turn off the smile, not helping it. He saw the strangled curse flung across the ring from Moore's trainer. He remembered the childhood pneumonia, hand surgery, and weakness to throw a baseball, his lousy legs at football, and all the people telling him to quit over the years. Each punch, every jab, the clinches that ended with sharp upper cuts, these acts all led to the brink of an odd kind of ecstasy, and the KO of Archie Moore in the ninth round on September 21, 1955. At each bout, overtaken by the events in the ring, the sweat of the boxers, their feral violence that transfixed the main event of the evening. Out there, when excitement eventually overtook Rocky, fights always worked up the people, transfixed on the fighters in front of them and unfixed on the shuddering, eye-rolling screaming people behind them in love with the sight of blood.
A long way from his father's job at the Stacey Adams Shoe Company in Brockton, the nauseating leather dust, his entire factory-worker paisanos sat front row to watch him now. Hazy memories wavered in his mind of Ft. Lewis, the thirty-dollar purses, the war and the amateur fights, and then when “The Rock’ decisioned Ezzard Charles in the fifteen round brawl. The “Brockton Blockbuster’ KO'd Archie Moore with his favorite stone crutching right cross; he called his “Susie Q.’ Archie cried out, stumbled back, tripping and slipping to knee, falling and laying flat on his face. And suddenly, all anger left him completely. All days of horror stamped across the contorted face of Archie frozen stiff.
Twenty-five minutes to decision, he jumped down into the crowds to the locker-room. He felt a wonderful warming relaxation, as if, finally, he'd gotten the rest he needed. He shook his head thinking of the training months for the minutes of agony and victory. He smiled to himself. Well, it seemed odd, but worth it. A healthy hunger in himself hit him, and he knew he wanted a walloping breakfast with Barbara. By the time he got home, he planned on a hot breakfast. The whiteness of the snow began to fall like a clean robe across the town; it seemed bright in the darkness of the night. In a little while at home, the sky awakens to shine with sun showers, like the luster that follows her kiss. Sunflowers raise their happy eyes up to the flaming skies, and the rainbows in our hearts.