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A big piece of the Rock

Rocky Marciano was a Brockton giant - should his statue be, too?

By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / November 9, 2008
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In life, Rocky Marciano was big in Brockton. In death, locals want him to be pretty much humongous.

But 24 feet tall?

At that height, the Marciano statue set to be erected in Brockton would dwarf nearly every statue in Boston, not to mention the statues of many legendary sports figures such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson outside stadiums across the United States.

But in the most recent feud over the effort to honor the late, great heavyweight champion of the world, Brockton residents are fighting to see that their long-awaited Marciano statue looms large.

Very large.

"As big as possible," said City Councilor-at-Large Todd Petti. "Do not reduce it in size whatsoever. Do not reduce it."

Marciano, a tough, blue-collar fighter, has long epitomized the never-say-die spirit of this tough, blue-collar community. Born and raised in Brockton, the stocky, 5-foot-11 fighter was champion from 1952 to 1956. He retired with a 49-0 record, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. And by dying young at 45, in a plane crash in 1969, Marciano became a tragic figure, remembered fondly in Brockton even today as the guy who made it big yet never forgot his roots.

But the proposed statue has been ensnared in controversy since the World Boxing Council first announced a year ago that it was going to build the structure in Boston, not Brockton.

Residents of Brockton, channeling their pugnacious hero, fought to have the statue relocated 25 miles south. According to Brockton Mayor James Harrington, plans were soon laid to have the statue erected at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Park near City Hall.

Initially, Harrington said, he believed the statue was going to be 12 feet tall - a fine size. But about a month ago, the WBC told him that the statue would be twice that size, raising aesthetic questions, according to the architect planning the park, and sparking a debate about how big is too big when honoring an icon.

"I'm not going to get into that," said Thomas O'Connor, a professor and university historian at Boston College. "Not only would I be in trouble with Brockton, I'd be in trouble with the Marciano family."

But O'Connor and others point out that most statues are smaller than the one being proposed in Brockton. John F. Kennedy near the State House in Boston? He's life-size. Red Auerbach at Faneuil Hall? He's life-size, too. Christopher Columbus in the North End? He's pint-size in comparison with the proposed Marciano statue, standing 6 feet tall on a 5-foot pedestal. A 24-foot Marciano, plus the proposed 2-foot base, would easily look down Boston's 21-foot statue of Paul Revere near the Old North Church. And while Boston's George Washington statue in the Public Garden stands at 38 feet in all, Washington himself, riding on a horse, which itself is on a pedestal, would not compare with Marciano, either.

"Rocky Marciano should be 150 feet," said Harrington, citing his importance to the city. "But it's not practical. I mean, really."

Because of the architect's concerns, Harrington asked whether the World Boxing Council, which is donating the statue, could make it smaller. The organization responded last week that it could, saying 18 feet would do. But the mayor never received that answer directly. Instead, it leaked to the public. And when word got out that the statue might shrink, there was, once again, public outcry in Brockton.

"The mayor has desecrated the statue," said Brockton businessman Charlie Tartaglia amid the protest last week. "That's my feeling."

Tartaglia and others believe the height of the statue would not be an issue if the city agreed to move it to Brockton High School, a location that many prefer. There, proponents argue, there would be more parking for visitors looking to see the statue and greater visibility in general.

"People would drive by there," Tartaglia said. "Visibility would be 100 percent. They'd look at this great 26-foot statue - and what would you say driving by it? You'd be in awe, wouldn't you? Even if you'd never been in Brockton, you'd say, 'Who's that?' "

The problem, according to the mayor's office, is that Brockton has state grant money to refurbish the park near City Hall, allowing it to pay for the foundation necessary for the soon-to-be-built statue. But that money can't be used near the high school, meaning that if people want to build it there, they would need to come up with some funding.

These are issues that neither the mayor, nor Marciano fight fans, nor the boxing council anticipated from a feel-good moment. And last week, boxing council official Michael George lamented what the process had become.

"We wanted to do it nice," he said. "But it's getting all crazy now on this height issue. It's just getting crazy."

By week's end, however, all parties seemed to be inching toward a compromise. The city announced the statue would remain as planned - 24 feet tall - and the mayor would consider other locations for the statue, if a viable plan could be presented for it.

Peter Marciano, Rocky's youngest brother, said he hoped to meet with the mayor this week to discuss possibilities. Meanwhile, he conceded, even his family is split about what to do with the statue - a rare occurrence.

Rocky's sister, Betty Colombo, for example, said she's all about moving the statue to the high school. But perhaps it would be all right, she said, if it was just a little bit smaller.

"Twenty-four feet," she said, "seems awfully large."

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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