History

Understanding the legacy of Rocky Marciano

Rocky Marciano
Jack Hirsch on Rocky Marciano and his place in the heavyweight division

BECAUSE of the iconic status of the individual and the emotions he stirs, I thought that this story would be one of the easiest ones I ever wrote. But here I am sitting by the keyboard deleting all of my opening paragraphs, trying to find the appropriate words to describe Rocky Marciano whose career many of us were inspired to revisit on the recent 50th anniversary of his untimely death. The former world heavyweight champion was a better fighter than I a writer, but like me he was not usually at his best in the opening rounds either. Rocky Marciano always persevered though and came out on top. Yet his place in boxing history is arguably more complex than any other fighter who came before or after him.

When it comes to Rocky Marciano no other heavyweight champion has caused the division in public opinion that he has. For a time, Mike Tyson came very close, threatened even to eclipse The Rock as the most compelling title holder we could debate about, but a late career collapse dropped him out of the running when we talk about the best ever.

Rocky Marciano’s legacy can be traced to one word, the name of the latest book on him “UNBEATEN” written by Mike Stanton (Henry Holt and Company).  It is an excellent book, tremendously researched, which explores Marciano objectively. If you are intrigued by Marciano, then this book is must reading. It is very thought provoking which leads one to reevaluate Marciano in a way we might never have before.

Two things stood out for me reading Stanton’s book: For one, had Marciano came along three decades later I am convinced he would have been promoted by Don King. As mismatched as they would have appeared on the surface, the long haired promoter was Rocky’s kind of guy. Marciano hated banks, liking to deal strictly in cash whenever possible. That was the way King preferred to operate as a means for paying less than the contract called for.

Secondly, you have to wonder what would have happened to Rocky Marciano had he not tragically died in the small plane crash in the Iowa cornfield in 1969. Because his financial dealings were often not recorded, the IRS would have eventually investigated Marciano and probably taken serious legal action against him for not reporting all of his income.

In 2012, I went to Brockton, Massachusetts, for the unveiling of the statue of Rocky being exhibited in his hometown. King, Jose Sulaiman, and Larry Holmes were among the dignitaries in attendance. Holmes was well received by not only the Marciano family, but by the people of Brockton. This was a case where time truly did heal old wounds.  27 years before, Holmes’ uttered his famous remark that Rocky could not carry his jock strap. The statement was said in the heat of the moment after Holmes lost to Michael Spinks, leaving him one victory shy of tying Marciano’s 49 straight unbeaten record. Holmes soon apologized and all should have been immediately forgiven, but the remark dogged him for years and has become a part of his legacy as well.

Those who rate Rocky Marciano as the greatest heavyweight in pugilistic history offer the simplest and most effective argument. He was never beaten as a professional (49-0 with 43 inside), the only heavyweight champion who can make that claim. Statistically speaking, taking no other variables into account, Marciano was the greatest, but it is not that simple in evaluating him. Marciano won a desperately close decision over Roland LaStarza in their first match, and if we are to trust Sloan’s research, Tiger Ted Lowry was given a raw deal by the judges’ when he boxed Rocky in their first fight. Had Rocky Marciano lost either one of those fights he would not even be in the discussion of the best ever.

rocky marciano

While Marciano’s unbeaten streak is real, his record is a myth that had grown over time and was first perpetuated by Holmes as a means of building himself up when he thought that he was about to equal it. From that point on it took on a life of its own. A couple of years ago it was resurrected on the highest stage when Floyd Mayweather fought his 50th contest against Conor McGregor. A large part of the promotional buildup was Mayweather attempting to break Rocky’s revered record. Marciano supporters were incensed because Mayweather would be doing so against an opponent who was a boxing novice, therefore refusing to give Floyd credit. However, the truth of the matter is that there have been other fighters who have sailed comfortably past number 49, but then would suffer a defeat afterward. Does that mean they broke Rocky’s record and then handed it back to him?

For all the Mayweather hype of going 50-0 and eclipsing Marciano, long time WBC Minimumweight champion Chayaphon Moonsri of Thailand, also bettered the mark and it was scarcely noticed.  Which leads us to speculate what if Marciano, who had boxed his last fight at age 32, continued his career for a year or two more?

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear, Marciano never ducked anyone. When he retired his reason was two- fold: Rocky had an unpleasant relationship with his controlling manager Al Weill that was money driven, and his drive as a competitor was dwindling. Marciano simply did not want to make the same sacrifices as before.  Perhaps had there been a contender out there that presented a serious challenge and provided a massive payday, Marciano would have relented and hung around for at least one additional fight, but there wasn’t. Floyd Patterson who followed Marciano as champion, winning the vacant title by knocking out Archie Moore in five rounds was only 20, when Rocky retired. Patterson had not yet established himself as a threat to Marciano for anyone to clamor to see such a match made. But had Marciano remained, made an easy defense and then faced Patterson who would have been the number one contender, what would have happened?

Everyone I have spoken to over the years scoffs at the notion that Patterson would have dethroned Marciano. But they are basing that on what a peak Marciano was, not the one who would have been starting his decline as a great champion. 

The two one round annihilations that Patterson suffered at the hands of Sonny Liston, make the thought of even a deteriorated Marciano losing to him inconceivable to most, but fights are often determined by styles. Marciano at his best probably would have stopped Patterson at his, but it always would have been a hard fight for him. Unlike Liston and Tyson who were quick and explosive destroyers who tended to slow down a bit as a fight progressed, Marciano like Joe Frazier later was basically the opposite, specializing in grinding an opponent into defeat. Patterson simply could not get out of the gate against Liston. He would have with Marciano and Frazier as well, avoiding the quick exits he suffered against Liston. For all the issues with Patterson’s chin, his hand speed was among the best in boxing history.

Rocky Marciano

The comparison game is often deceiving, but Patterson had little difficulty in disposing of Moore who Rocky stopped in nine in his last contest, coming off the floor in the second round to do so. Moore fought valiantly, before succumbing to Marciano’s relentless attack which has made some question the validity of his effort against Patterson. Years later Patterson’s manager Cus D’Amato admitted that beating Marciano would have been a monumental chore, but felt Rocky had a small weakness of dropping his hands after he punched that they might have been able to capitalize on.

The vast majority of historian’s rate Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis as the two greatest heavyweights ever. Their status is based on the long title reigns they had, something Marciano lacks having made only six title defenses. Yet, the big fights in Rocky’s career and how he won them are as memorable as anyone else’s. No other heavyweight ever won the title in more dramatic fashion than Marciano did in coming from behind to knockout Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th round of their fight in Philadelphia in 1952. And in title defenses against Ezzard Charles he rallied magnificently both times, relentlessly coming on in the later rounds to win a unanimous 15 round decision in their first fight and then scoring a knockout in the rematch when a horrific cut he had suffered threatened to terminate it. And there is that sad site of Marciano knocking Louis out of the ring, ending the career of the Brown Bomber. No title was at stake, but on reflection it is memorable as a passing of the torch from one great champion to another.

As silly as it is, there are still some Rocky Marciano fanatics who cling to the computer fight against Ali in which he was knocked down early then rallied to win by a knockout in the 13th round. Even Stanton in his book gets carried away, stretching reality when he says Marciano dropped Ali with a body punch during the filming. Ali who would become fond of Marciano during the time together choreographing the scenes said he was physically sore from those sessions, but considering he was out of shape due to an enforced layoff any form of exercise would have left him feeling that way. Ali who badly needed the money at the time later deeply regretted partaking in the computerized contest because some were treating the result as if it were real.

There are those who are adamant that Marciano would have been just as successful in the eras that followed. However, others are totally dismissive of that claim saying that the modern heavyweights would simply be too big for Rocky to cope with.

Rocky Marciano was approximately 5’10 1/2” usually weighing in the mid to high 180’s. That would have made him a small cruiserweight by today’s standards, but surely he would have bulked up by using nutritional supplements and adding weight training had he been around today. This would have resulted in Marciano weighing closer to the 205-210 lb range. Still too small you say to compete with the behemoths like Lennox Lewis, and Wladimir Klitschko who weighed in the 240s and would tower over him. Perhaps, but consider the following: Deontay Wilder regarded as the hardest puncher in the heavyweight division, weighed in at 212 lbs for his fight against Tyson Fury. Mike Tyson was clearly the most devastating puncher of his time, yet weighed under 220 in his prime. Additionally, Tyson was barely taller than Marciano. And if Frazier who weighed 205 ½ lbs for his Fight of the Century against Ali, would be given a good chance of topping the behemoths who came after him, then why not a bulked up Rocky?

Another intangible favoring Marciano is that he arguably trained harder than any fighter before or after him. Today’s champions spend approximately two months in training camp before a big match, Marciano lived a Spartan existence for close to four. His conditioning was second to none. Had steroids been around in the Marciano era some would have suspected he was a user such was his rock solid body.

rocky marciano

Want more. According to Angelo Dundee, Charley Goldman who trained Marciano was the greatest trainer of all time. Goldman was Dundee’s mentor. Goldman would have had Rocky Marciano as prepared if not more, to fight any opponent as they him.

Some are dismissive of Marciano’s opponents claiming his record was built on beating old men, referring to Louis, Walcott, Charles, and Moore. While technically true in boxing terms, they were the best opponents available at the time Marciano signed to box them.

None of the heavyweight greats had the clean slate of Rocky Marciano, but to be fair a good number did defeat more rated fighters than he had.

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