The only undefeated world heavyweight champion in history ignored demands to throw his title bout against Ezzard Charles, including death threats against his family, according to FBI files released recently under the Freedom of Information Act.
A letter postmarked March 9, 1954 ordered Marciano to lose his June 17, 1954 fight to Charles or "we'll bump off your wife and little child.
"We'll get them sooner or later. You bet on that," assured the message, written in blue ink on lined paper that had been ripped from a notebook and signed, "Desperate Duo."
It was the first of four threats received by Marciano in a three-month period, according to the FBI files, each more aggressive than its predecessor. The letters included ethnic slurs, a news photo of his family, and the phrase, "dump or die."
The final letter read, "Dump the bout, or lose your ugly, fat family. We hate your guts."
Federal files also reveal threats against Marciano's father, Perrino Marchegiano, who received an extortion letter, and his manager, Al Weill, who received at least three phone calls, one of which threatened to kill him and Marciano.
Marciano outpointed Charles to retain his title in the only championship bout of his career that lasted the full 15 rounds, then won three more times before retiring with a 49-0 record in September 1955. There were no news reports about the threats at the time.
Marciano's younger brother, Peter, said the champ was never intimidated by the letters.
"He really just shook it off as absolutely nothing," Peter Marciano told Matt Stout of GateHouse News Service. "I kind of felt like, 'Gee, maybe a lot of famous people get threats, idle threats, and maybe people get off on it.'
"I just remember thinking — and this may sound kind of weird — but I thought my big brother, nobody could hurt him," he said. "Thank God nothing ever did happen."
Among the 200 pages released by the FBI are government memos, reports, and a reprint of at least one letter, all with names and other parts redacted.
John Joseph Hannigan, a 23-year-old resident of Glenolden, Pa., was arrested by federal authorities February 4, 1955, when he was accused of writing at least three of the letters. He verbally admitted writing the letters, according to documents, but refused to sign a written statement, fearing "national publicity." One special agent said Hannigan "may have been mentally retarded," according to a document.
Hannigan told police that he lived with his parents and made the threats "because he was for the underdog," according to police documents.
The complaint and warrant were later dismissed in U.S. district court, but reasons for the dismissal were blacked out on the official documents.
Peter Marciano said he never heard about an arrest.
"I just kind of got the feeling, knowing Rocky and the kind of person he was, if they had gone to him with this stuff, he would have said, 'Let the poor guy go,' " Peter Marciano said. "Obviously he was a troubled guy."
Marciano's father was the first to notify police in Brockton, Mass., of the threats, turning over a letter sent to his home that said Charles "has no chance against Rocky without a little cooperation," and indicated that the authors had bet their life savings on the challenger.
The letter said it didn't matter how Marciano lost the fight.
"Just lose," it said. "It won't be much trouble to take care of Rocky's wife and child if he crosses us."
The second of the three letters stated, "If you think that it is worth the lives of your loved ones to win an old boxing match, go ahead."
Marciano died Aug. 1, 1969, a day before his 46th birthday, in a plane crash in Iowa.
Dennis Taylor is editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com and co-host of The Ringside Boxing Show.