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Today is the birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, born 198 years ago on this date in Point Pleasant, Ohio. His life and career are an inspiration, both for college-age people and young adults worrying how they'll find their niche in society in the midst of a pandemic, and for more established adults who fear they might have to find a second professional act in life.

Reflecting on his earliest days as a West Point cadet, the man who would lead the Union Army to victory in the Civil War and become the 18th U.S. president, put it this way in his memoirs: "A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect."

On this day in 1956, another man whose U.S. Army stint shaped his future in unanticipated ways announced his retirement. Rocky Marciano was only 32 when he stepped down as the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world. "No man can say what he will do in the future," Marciano told the New York Times, "but barring poverty, the ring has seen the last of me."

* * *

Growing up in the 1920s and '30s, young Rocky Marciano of Brockton, Mass., dreamed of becoming a baseball and football player. He was a gifted athlete, good enough to earn a post-war tryout with the Chicago Cubs. A slugging catcher with the right physique for the position, he stuck for three weeks in the spring of 1947 before being cut.

But Rocky had boxed in the Army during World War II, mainly to get out of KP duty and other unglamorous chores, and had been successful, winning the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament.

At 5-11 and 188 pounds, he lacked the classic size of a heavyweight. His short arms put him at further disadvantage. He was also considered old for a fledgling fighter: Rocky was in his mid-20s when trainer Charley Goldman began to teach him the fine points of the Sweet Science.

"I never thought he'd make it," Brockton fight trainer Goody Petronelli, a family friend of Marciano's, later told Sports Illustrated. "He was too old, almost 25. He was too short, he was too light. He had no reach. Rough and tough, but no finesse."

But Rocky had deceptively quick reflexes and thunder in each of those fists, and in 1949 and 1950 he began amassing victories, almost all of them by knockouts. Along the way, he acquired a loyal base of hometown fans, who piled into buses and cars to see him fight, and who began yelling "Timber!" when Rocky's opponents went rubber-legged and he moved in for the coup de grace.

Marciano's big break came on Oct. 26, 1951. He climbed into the ring that night against his boxing idol, Joe Louis. Marciano sported an impressive record as a professional: 37 wins in 37 bouts, 32 of them by knockout. But in Joe Louis, Rocky was facing perhaps the greatest prize fighter of all time.

Louis was 37 by then, however, well past his prime. Rocky knocked him out in the eighth round. Louis had been knocked out only once before, in 1936, by German fighter Max Schmeling, a defeat Louis avenged two years later.

There would be no comeback against Marciano, or anyone else. Except for exhibitions, Louis never fought again. "The reactions were not there," the old champ said. "My age counted against me."

That night, Marciano went over to Joe Louis' dressing room, where he wept. The Rock went on to get his title shot, which he won. He defended it successfully five times before retiring, a decision he based partly on Joe Louis' example. Rocky didn't want to go out like that -- and he didn't.

He died on Aug. 31, 1969, the day before his 46th birthday, in a small plane crash outside Des Moines, Iowa. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali attended the funeral. Louis kissed the coffin as he passed it, and told reporters, "God is getting Himself a beautiful man." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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