So Brockton finally put up a Rocky Marciano statue, a 22 1/2-foot titan throwing a stylized version of the straight right with which Marciano, rallying in the 13th round of a fight in which he had been punishingly outboxed, crushed Jersey Joe Walcott to claim the heavyweight title. The big unveiling ceremony last Sunday, on the 60th anniversary of the night Marciano took the title from Walcott, drew festive crowds, illustrious retired fighters, and press coverage that for once did not conform to the local media’s model of a typical Brockton story — one that features gunfire, or a pitbull mauling a toddler.
Now that the speeches have been made and the crowds have dispersed, the statue can gradually settle into its place in the landscape and the city’s meaning-making routines. Standing next to the stadium where Brockton High’s Boxers play football, it seems to be gesturing with its gloved fist at the school beyond, as if to say, “Boxing and education. Discuss.”
Matt Malone, Brockton’s superintendent of schools, loves boxing and played a significant role in the push to erect the statue, but he appreciates the contradictions implied by Marciano’s disinterest in formal schooling. “The statue’s on our property, and the irony is that Rocky didn’t finish high school. He joined the military, but now of course you need a high school diploma even to do that.” Marciano dropped out at 16 and made his way into boxing to stay out of the shoemaking trade that once dominated life in Brockton. For a son of immigrants in the industrial city, the path of least resistance led to the shop floor.
The shoe factories closed long ago, boxing has been eclipsed by football and basketball and other school-based games, and the Italian immigrants who dominated Brockton’s Ward 2 have been succeeded by Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Central Americans, and others. Workers must have at least a high school diploma, if not a college degree, to compete in the postindustrial labor market.
All this obliges Brocktonians to think about, as Malone phrased it, “how the statue applies to today even though it represents a bygone era.”
The most common line of argument heard at the dedication on Sunday is that Marciano represents the signature Brockton virtues of grit, diligence, and determination — exactly the qualities of character that Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed” has reintroduced into the national conversation about education. “One of our stated core values in the schools is hard work,” said Malone. “You’d think that’s pretty basic, and yet you never actually see the words ‘hard work’ in the kind of flowery statements that school systems make about their values.” In Brockton, though, there’s a long tradition of treating hard work as an essential component of civic identity.
Another common way to bridge past and present is to cast Marciano, a small heavyweight with crude-looking skills who famously outworked bigger or slicker men, as an avatar of the city’s underdog complex. Malone said, “People said Rocky would never be champion, and there’s a lot of inner-city kids here who people thought couldn’t do well in school, and yet we’ve had 10 years of improvement.” Brockton High has emerged as a nationally prominent example of a big urban school that found a way to raise standards and give its students a fighting chance.
This talk of hard work, toughness, and underdogs can easily slip into sentimental cliché, and often does, but it also speaks to qualities so ingrained in local culture that their status as virtues has remained constant despite sweeping economic and demographic changes. As Malone, a former marine who came to Brockton from far-distant Swampscott and made his way against the grain of the city’s natural distrust of outsiders, put it, “That thing about the Brockton chip on the shoulder — it’s real.”
So there’s Rocky, bigger than life. On the one hand, a dropout skilled only in violence, a totem of the TV-news Brockton of pitbulls and gangbangers. On the other hand, a heroic figure embodying tradition and local virtues, pointing the way to public education, which, whatever its flaws, offers the best shot at a good life most kids in town are ever going to get.
Carlo Rotella’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.”