The Tragic 1969 Death Of World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano

Rocco Francis Marchegiano, better known as Rocky Marciano, the name he boxed under, had retired from the ring in April 1956 as the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, according to the Associated Press. He'd dodged death more than once in his time, and not just in his professional fights, where a well-placed punch could kill a man. As a child he contracted pneumonia and nearly died, according to the Boxing News. At 20, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 during the height of World War II and served with the 150th Combat Engineers, ferrying supplies from the United Kingdom to the beaches of France as the Allies prepared to retake Europe from the Nazis and German U-boats prowled the English Channel like so many hungry sharks, per "Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times."

By August 31, 1969, he'd been retired from boxing for more than 13 years and could look back at a perfect professional boxing career, having won every single one of his 49 fights, 43 by knockout, per the AP. But on the eve of his 46th birthday, he would die in a shocking and tragic accident that stunned the world.

Who was Rocky Marciano? 

Rocky Marciano was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, on September 1, 1923, to Italian immigrant parents, grew up poor, and held several dead-end jobs, including work as a ditch digger, after he dropped out of high school at 16, per the Boxing News. After taking up boxing at 24, he quickly rose through the ranks. But the possibility of death always haunted the boxing ring.

During his rise to fame, Marciano, who was known as a brutal fighter with a powerful punch, a lack of grace, but a willingness to take hits to make hits, fought one of his toughest battles in 1949, per the Associated Press and Boxing News 24/7. The fight held at Madison Square Garden in December of that year pitted Marciano against Carmine Vingo, and ended in the sixth round with Vingo being sent to the hospital and receiving Last Rites after being given a 50-50 chance of survival. Vingo underwent brain surgery and eventually recovered, but remained partially paralyzed for two years. Marciano had been so shaken up by what happened that he wanted to quit boxing, but Vingo talked him out of it, per Boxing News 24/7.

Rocky Marciano becomes world champ and then Retires

In October 1951, Rocky Marciano defeated his idol, the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, in a non-title bout at Madison Square Garden, knocking him out in the 11th round, per The Ring and the Associated Press. It was Louis' last fight and signaled to the world that Marciano was the boxer to watch. The next year, on September 23, 1952, Marciano defeated the then-current heavyweight champ, Jersey Joe Walcott (above), in the 13th round, per AP.

From 1952 to 1956, Marciano reigned as the champ until April of that year, when he decided it was time to quit. "You look around and you say 'what do I want — the money or my family?'" he told the AP a year before his death. He chose his family. Marciano retired at 32 to spend more time with his wife and daughter (he later adopted a son). After he retired, he invested in a variety of companies, from a bowling alley to boat-building, and considered a new career in show business, per the Associated Press.

A birthday trip to Des Moines, Iowa

On August 31, 1969, a day before Marciano's 46th birthday, he and his friend, Frank Farrell, prepared to fly from Chicago's Midway Airport to Des Moines, Iowa. Marciano had agreed to celebrate the opening of a new steak house there as a favor to Farrell and as an early birthday celebration, according to the book "Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World." It was a last-minute trip before Marciano returned to spend his actual birthday in Florida with his family. Farrell, AKA Frank Fratto, was the son of a Des Moines, Iowa mobster, Louis Fratto, who was a former boxer and long-time friend of Marciano, per the World History Project and the Iowa History Journal. They never made it.

At 9 p.m., only two miles from an airport in Newton, Iowa, the inexperienced pilot, Glen Belz, flew the 1967 Cessna 172 straight into an oak tree in adverse weather, per the Mirror. Belz had known there would be bad weather in Iowa but took off anyway. Just before the crash, Belz radioed in to say he'd be landing at Newton Airport — about 35 miles east of Des Moines — and didn't give any sign anything was wrong (per the Associated Press).

A stunned world reacts to Rocky Marciano's untimely death

When authorities arrived, they found wreckage strewn 500 feet across a farm field and in a dry creek bed. The engine had torn loose and one wing had ended up 200 feet from the impact site, per UPI. They discovered Marciano's body pinned under the wreckage. A large piece of debris had pierced his head, per UPI. The other two men had been thrown clear of the plane but were also dead. All three victims died instantly, the local medical examiner told UPI.

The news of Marciano's death stunned the world. The retired champ had been a beast in the ring, but mild-mannered, friendly, and empathic in everyday life, and had maintained warm friendships with many of the fighters he'd beaten, including Joe Louis (above) and Jersey Joe Walcott, per The Boston Globe. "Everything I remember about him is good," Louis told The Boston Globe at the time of Marciano's death. "This is the saddest news I've ever heard." Walcott echoed Louis' remarks and said, "He was a man of courage in the ring. Outside he was gentle and kind." Vingo, the fighter Marciano had nearly killed in the 1949 bout, attended his friend's funeral. "Rocky, he was one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to talk to," he would later recall, per the book "Counterpunch: Ali, Tyson, the Brown Bomber, and Other Stories of the Boxing Ring."