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Rocky Marciano statue to be unveiled in Brockton

BROCKTON— As a crane lowered the massive top half of the 22½-foot Rocky Marciano statue onto the bottom half Thursday morning at Brockton High School’s football stadium, sophomore Isaias Ortiz stood in awe of the towering figure.

“All I know about him is that he was a boxer originally from here,” said the 16-year-old, whose grandparents grew up in Puerto Rico. “But now that I see this, I’m definitely going to find out everything I can about him because obviously he did something very important. You don’t get a statue like that unless you did.’’

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The unveiling, at 1 p.m. Sunday, coincides with the 60-year anniversary of Marciano’s win over Jersey Joe Walcott to become world heavyweight champ. Days after his stunning win, Marciano rode on a convertible through downtown Brockton as tens of thousands of fans celebrated around him. Marciano, who retired at 49-0 with 43 knockouts, died in a plane crash on the day before his 46th birthday in 1969.

Relatives of the undefeated heavyweight champ say this is the legacy of the late Rocco Francis Marchegiano — that 43 years after his death he continues to have an influence on the city’s youth and large working class.

“A lot of people didn’t believe my uncle would become a successful boxer, but he made it, and for anyone out there who might doubt whether they can make it, he would want them to know that it is possible with hard work,’’ said Peter Marciano Jr., 45, who watched the statue come together at Rocky Marciano Stadium.

Talk about erecting a Rocky statue in the seventh largest city in the Commonwealth has carried on for some time, and several years ago there was a bit of tug-of-war with Boston, but here it is finally, a 2-ton fiberglass and polyester resin figure that is a $250,000 gift to the city by the World Boxing Council.

Candido Lima, a 52-year-old contractor and the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, said Marciano’s life story inspired him.

“He wasn’t the biggest, but he had a lot of heart and he never quit,’’ said Lima, grabbing breakfast Friday morning in downtown Brockton. “I’m sure he deserves a statue that big, and hopefully when people see it they will be just as inspired as I was when I learned about his career.”

Christos Liapopoulos, a 17-year-old Brockton High senior and member of the school’s soccer team, said the statue will certainly be an inspiration to any athlete who sees it.

“It defines the word champion, to all of us here, we carry ourselves with a certain level of confidence that we’re from Brockton, the ‘City of Champions’ and he’s the reason for that,” said Liapopoulos, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from Greece.

“Putting him up in front of the field, in front of the school, kind of drives us to be a true champion, and I know that whenever I put my foot out on a soccer field, I try to put my best foot forward, I try to play my heart out, leave everything on the field.”

The high school held a Rocky Marciano Day on Friday. Principal Susan Szachowicz downloaded several boxing-themed songs to her iPod, such as ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and ‘Gonna Fly Now’ to play over the intercom during class breaks. Szachowicz also received a shipment of 1,000 black and red T-shirts, emblazoned with an image of the statue and Rocky’s record, which were passed out to students.

Mayor Linda Balzotti said that while the demographics of the city have shifted in past decades, the work ethic, reflected in Rocky’s career, is the same.

Rocky Marciano was one of six children born to Italian immigrants in Brockton. His mother and father came to Brockton with a wave of European immigrants seeking jobs in the growing city, which was the largest shoe manufacturer in the world in the early 1900s.

Brockton now has the largest population of Cape Verdean ancestry in the nation, and burgeoning Angolan and Haitian communities, according to US Census statistics. The city’s population stands at 95,000, the 2010 census shows.

“While the sport of choice for a growing number of people in the city may be soccer, his story, his hard work and his dedication are things that lead to reaching goals, and that is a common denominator with any immigrant population,” Balzotti said.

“Some are coming from underprivileged countries and they’re hungry,” said Charles Tartaglia, the owner of George’s Cafe and a childhood friend of the fighter.

“Rocky was hungry. He wanted to get out of digging ditches, working the shoe factory, and he was determined to do it.”

The 75-year-old restaurant is decked out with hundreds of pictures of Marciano and other boxing greats who have eaten there, including Muhammad Ali.

It was the first pizza restaurant in the city, catering to workers from the shipyards and shoe factories, Tartaglia said.

“Rocky was one of us, you know,” he said, pointing to a picture in one of the dining rooms. “That’s Rocky in the third grade right there, second from the left.”

Gladys Slapik had a front-row seat in 1952 when Rocky rode through downtown. She lived on Main Street.

“That was the biggest thing to ever have happened in Brockton, to have him become champ,” said Slapik, 91, waiting for her lunch inside George’s Cafe Thursday on Belmont Street.

“I just hope everyone realizes that he was a great man.”

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.

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