On a nondescript row of businesses on a sleepy street in downtown Brockton, the word "BOXING" painted in big block letters on windows lets people know where to look for Cappiello Boxing Gym.

Inside, fighters move together in a symphony of punches, grunts and drops of sweat that collect in little pools on the wood floor. There’s no AC — just a couple of lonely fans and a single water cooler to give some relief amid the oppressive summer weather.

It’s boxing like they did back in the old days. And it’s all being done in honor of one man: Brockton native Rocky Marciano, who died in a plane crash in the fields of Iowa 50 years ago this Saturday.

“Rocky’s name is like the city of Brockton," said Mike Cappiello, who, along with his brother, Rich, opened Cappiello Boxing Gym back in 1995. "Brockton is the 'City of Champions' due to Rocky, and Rocky put Brockton on the map.”

But the Cappiellos aren't just some boxing junkies obsessed with the Marciano legacy — they're cousins of Rocky.

Although they were little when he was alive, they know all the stories about the fighter’s career: how Rocky — known as the Brockton Blockbuster —went 49-0 as a heavyweight, held the heavyweight title for four years and retired as the only heavyweight champ with an undefeated record.

“Look, here’s what I can remember," Mike Cappiello recalled. "I can remember when I was a kid going to Sunday school and you’re supposed to do a poster of your hero. And I did, of course, a poster of Rocky Marciano.”

As Rich Cappiello explains, the gym was opened in Rocky’s memory.

“He played such a factor in our life growing up that it was important for us to send that message and continue that message on,” he said.

Mike Cappiello, who co-owns Cappiello Boxing Gym in Brockton, Mass., works with boxing student Hope Littlefield during a training session at the gym.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

And while the Brockton of Rocky’s day was filled with Italian, Irish and other European immigrants, the fighters in the Cappiellos' gym are a patchwork of different cultures and stories.

There are young guns like Samuel Ramirez, born and raised in Brockton in a Puerto Rican family, who has this impossibly electric energy that only 18-year-olds can possess.

Despite his youth, he still looks up to a man who died decades before he was born.

"I want to be the best. I want to go down as a legend, just like Rocky Marciano," Ramirez said.

Or take Hope Littlefield, who just turned 16. Littlefield started boxing in 2017 after she went to the Rocky Marciano Tournament of Champions, which the gym hosts every year, and saw women fight for the first time.

“It was just so awesome to see girls in there, doing something that you really wouldn’t expect them to be doing. I got really inspired by that to start boxing," she said.

She’s training for this year’s tournament in October, and has dreams of going pro one day — a recurring thread through many of the gym members, including those who aren’t so young.

Kirk Wilmot’s mother boxed back in Jamaica, and he picked up the gloves in college. The 34-year-old is still looking for his chance to do something great in the ring.

"Everybody has their dreams of being on TV and making a living off this. They say all it takes is one good fight, man, and before you know it, the doors open,” he said.

Wilmot has two daytime jobs as a social worker and says the gym, which demands so much discipline and work from its fighters, keeps a lot of kids out of trouble. But it’s also a haven for adults who have lost their way.

Kirk Wilmot first picked up boxing gloves in college. He now works out regularly at Cappiello Boxing Gym.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

Corey Sullivan started boxing with Mike Cappiello eight years ago, to help him stay clean from drugs. It worked for about two years before he fell back into old habits, he said.

But now Sullivan’s back in the gym and currently winning his fight to stay sober. And although the sport, which has left so many of its greats broken, broke or some combination of both, carries inherent risks, Sullivan is brutally honest when asked if it's all worth it.

“Yeah, ‘cause I’d be dead anyway if I didn’t do it, so for me it is," he said.

Those risks the sport brings are well known to Mike Cappiello, whose body is weathered from 90-plus pro and amateur fights throughout his career.

His nickname was Little Rock, an homage to his famous cousin.

His injuries from fighting read like a grocery list of pain.

“I just had another shoulder surgery," he said. "I had a torn rotor cuff, I had elbow surgery, shoulder surgery, broke my hand couple of times. Yeah, it took its toll on my body.”

But if his body is worn down, you wouldn’t know it by watching him in the gym. Mike Cappiello, who’s been a schoolteacher since the 80s, is in his natural element working with the young fighters who come his way. The gym becomes his classroom.

Corey Sullivan (left) works out with another boxer at Cappiello Boxing Gym in Brockton, Mass.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

But the City of Champions, which earned its nickname from the exploits of Brockton natives like Rocky and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who was a middleweight champion in the 80s, now only has one gym left in the city dedicated solely to boxing: Cappiello’s.

“Brockton, City of Champions, used to be a fight city. It’s not as much anymore," Mike Cappiello said. "I have to admit that.”

He said that part of the reason the gym is open is because, deep down, he figures he feels a responsibility to keep the tradition alive in the city.

The gym moved from its original location in the city about 10 years ago, but stayed true to its roots, offering affordable membership so anyone can participate.

The gym’s longevity comes as no shock to Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother and the youngest of six children.

The reason is simple, he said: the Cappiello brothers are good people.

“And I’m not one bit surprised at them surviving in the game of boxing," Marciano said.

While it's now been 50 years since Rocky died, his name is still kept alive — whether it’s through a giant statue outside the city’s high school or a series of Sylvester Stallone movies.

But if you’re looking for the spirit of the fighter, a place where Rocky's legacy never died? The best place to go may be a tiny, hidden gym in downtown Brockton.

Marciano & La Starza
Rocky Marciano winds up an upper cut on his way to beating Roland La Starza in the Heavyweight Title fight at the Polo Grounds in New York on Sept. 26, 1953.
Allsport Hulton Hulton Archive/Getty Images