The Case For Rocky Marciano

You wouldn’t think, not even for a second, that you would have to defend a world champion boxer who retired with an unblemished record of 49-0 (43 KO’s), but if it’s Rocky Marciano we’re talking about then yep, he needs to be defended. It’s ridiculous, but true. Marciano seems to have as many naysayers as he does fans. “He was too small”, “He never fought anybody in their prime”, “He’d get killed today”; etc. These, and many other like comments, are a part of this great boxer’s legacy – and it’s as unfair, as it is incorrect.

What is especially galling, is that for all the criticism leveled at Rocky Marciano (mostly from people who have never even been in a ring, mind you), every fighter holds himself and his record up against Marciano’s. There’s a certain intellectual dishonesty about this.

After all, if he was so overrated, why would you care what your record is next to his? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that even his most fervent critics, aren’t entirely comfortable with their negative observations about “The Rock”. I think at some level, deep within themselves, they know that what they are saying is disingenuous at best. 49-0 doesn’t happen by accident.

Rocky Marciano
Rocky Marciano

His parents weren’t destitute but there wasn’t a lot of money to go around either. Rocky was heavily into sports and was, in fact, a fairly accomplished baseball player; good enough that he had a couple of tryouts at the professional level. These didn’t pan out as Rocky had hoped though, so eventually, he turned to another sport he had shown some promise at: boxing.

Rocky Marciano had a very brief and quite unremarkable amateur career, turning in an unimpressive record of only 8-4. However, it could be said that Rocky’s relentless style of fighting was tailor-made for the pro game but not so much for the amateur ranks. To all who watched him, it seemed that he was destined to have more success in the professional ranks than in the amateurs – and they were right!

One of the more unusual aspects about Marciano was his physique. He certainly wasn’t the prototypical heavyweight. He was only about 5′ 10″ tall and weighed usually between 185 and 190 for his fights. But, what made him different was the way in which his 185 lbs was packed onto his body. Marciano was built a bit like a fire plug; he was dense, thick, and preternaturally strong.

He had grown up using homemade weights and homemade techniques for training. The thing about homemade weights and exercise equipment is that they are not properly balanced nor are they professionally weighed and assembled. This mean that for the user, other smaller muscles that wouldn’t normally be involved in say, a bench press exercise, become part of the lifting process to compensate for the poorly centred and balanced equipment.

This helped to make Rocky far, far stronger than he first appeared to be. Adding to this, Rocky also worked as a labourer. He dug ditches, laid railway ties and lines, and delivered ice and coal. He may not have realized it at the time, but all of these lifestyle choices were helping to hone the man that would become the most devastating puncher of his day; and perhaps of all time.

Rocky Marciano would have a storied professional career. He fought, and beat, everyone they put in front of him – usually by knockout. His knockout percentage of over 87% is still among the highest ever recorded. Rocky beat “Jersey” Joe Walcott twice. He beat the great Ezzard Charles twice. He beat Joe Louis. He stopped Archie Moore. He knocked out the likes of Rex Layne and Harry Matthews.

And it wasn’t just that he beat them; it was how. One commentator noted that you could hear Rocky’s knockout punches land from anywhere in the arena – maybe even from the parking lot. In fact, Marciano hit the unfortunate Rex Layne so hard that he broke his jaw and knocked out some of his teeth with one punch. His devastating knockout of Walcott in their first fight gave rise to one of the best-known sports photos of all time.

Noted American sports photographer Herb Scharfman, captured the impact of what is to this day, probably the hardest right hook ever landed in a prize fight. Walcott’s face became an almost grotesque caricature of itself as the punch landed. To this day, I don’t know why the referee bothered to count at all. He could have counted, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…”, Walcott (nor anyone else for that matter) wasn’t getting up.

The only “near-blemish” on Marciano’s record nearly came at the hands of the Bronx’s Roland La Starza. La Starza was one of those boxers who history has overlooked. He put together an impressive 57-9 record but with only 27 knockouts. La Starza couldn’t hit, but he sure could fight. He was quick, clever, and had a good chin. He also had a huge heart and, in many ways, Marciano must have thought he was fighting a bit of a version of himself on that March 24, 1950 evening.

The scoring for the fight was 5-4, 4-5, and 5-5, but Marciano was given the nod when the supplemental point system was used to break the tie. It would mark the only time in his career when a Rocky Marciano win met with some resistance from the public. Still, if we’re being fair, virtually every fighter has one opponent who just gives him fits; Turpin for Ray Robinson, Norton for Ali, Marquez for Pacquiao. Boxing, at times, is a question of styles. La Starza was just plain awkward and difficult to fight – for anyone. I would add this though.

In his defence, Rocky Marciano did score a knockdown during the bout. That, for me, was enough to tilt the scales in his favour and I, for one, have never doubted that Marciano won the fight. I think it’s also well worth noting that Rocky would stop La Starza in the 11th round of their re-match three years later in 1953.

Rocky Marciano
26 Sep 1953: 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, USA. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

The other criticism of Rocky Marciano was that he fought a number of big names when they were past their prime. Rocky’s detractors, in particular point to his wins over Charles and Louis as evidence of their points. To this I say, “Bollocks!” Yes, Louis was 37, while Marciano was only 28. But 37-years-old in the heavyweight division means much less than it does in the lighter divisions. In the heavyweight division, the premium is put on power and strength.

These are the last things a boxer loses. To suggest that a heavyweight boxer is no longer dangerous because he is 37-years-old betrays a lack of understanding about boxing. (Ask George Foreman) This is even more apparent when we consider that we are talking about Joe Louis here – a man often called the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Don’t believe anything other than this; Joe Louis at 37 was still an extremely dangerous fighter.

The criticism about his fights with Charles is even less founded. This idea that Charles was some sort of “old man” is absurd. Charles was only two plus years older than Rocky. There was no “great age difference” as is so often suggested. Some also point to the fact that Charles was the Light Heavyweight champion fighting a heavyweight.

But if we consider the “Tale of the Tape” before their fight, we see that Charles was bigger or the same in virtually every category. Most telling for me, Charles was heavier and taller. Marciano was actually at a physical disadvantage going into their bouts.

Rocky Marciano would go on to defeat each and every person he fought. In 1955, after stopping the great Archie Moore in the 9th round, Rocky walked away from the sport that had made him a legend. Unlike so many great boxers, Rocky didn’t stick around too long. He left when he was on top and never did anything to damage his legacy.

In fact, after he had left boxing, he was offered many huge purses to return to the ring, but his response, as given to the New York Times, was “I am comfortably fixed, and I am not afraid of the future. Barring a complete and dire emergency, you will never see Rocky Marciano make a comeback.” Marciano stayed true to his word. As J.J. Rousseau said, “Always leave them wanting more.” “The Rock” did just that; we all wanted more!

As fate would have it, Rocky Marciano wasn’t with us for very long. He passed in a plane crash on August 31, 1969, the day before his 46th birthday. The August 31st date is particularly significant to me as it is also my father’s birthday, the birthday of one of my best friends, and the Independence Day of my homeland. So for me, it is a very bittersweet day; never to be forgotten or missed.

You see, the thing about Rocky Marciano was that the world didn’t just lose a great champion that day; more importantly, we lost a great man. There had never been someone of Marciano’s humility and decency as the Heavyweight Champion before and I would argue that here hasn’t been since.

But what about those detractors I mentioned earlier? What about the “fans” who argue that Rocky Marciano wouldn’t have held his own today. Again I say, “Bollocks!” Boxing is about much more than just size. It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight; it’s about the size of the fight in the dog. No boxer; I repeat, no boxer, has ever had more fight in him than Marciano. No boxer was ever so committed to simply winning.

No boxer was ever so willing to go through a wall, fight through pain, to literally die, if necessary, to win his fights than Marciano (okay, maybe Muhammad Ali – but he had gifts that Rocky never had). I cannot imagine any way that any of the boxers in today’s heavyweight picture could have handled a wound-up Rocco Marchegiano. He asked no quarter – and gave none either. Marciano approached every fight with the gladiator’s mentality; fight not to win, instead fight so that you might live.

That’s not to overlook his skill set, either. Too often, Marciano’s skills are made light of, or ignored. But if you’re willing to do your homework, go back and watch films of Marciano’s fights. Look at his footwork. Notice how he employs some of the same techniques used by border collies to herd sheep. Rocky had a knack for “surrounding” you with his footwork.

He wasn’t the fastest or lightest on his feet, by any means; but he was definitely the most efficient. Each and every step he took had a purpose. Each and every step moved him inexorably towards cutting off the ring; removing your chance of escape. Look at his head movement. So many call it crude. But was it really? I don’t think so for a moment. I think it was a very calculated tactic to stay out of range by an only 5′ 10″ man fighting boxers usually much taller and with much longer arms than he had himself.

Look at how he threw a punch. 43 knockouts in 49 wins by this “small” heavyweight! How did he do it? Leverage and incredibly powerful legs. He was the antithesis of the arm puncher. Rocky Marciano hit you with every molecule in his body from his toes on up. The torsion and torque in the way in which he turned his torso and twisted his back into his power shots spelled “doomsday” for the unfortunate person at the receiving end. There remains this idea that today’s heavyweights would have been too big for Rocky.

Really, though? Consider this, there were some very big heavyweights from yesteryear. Primo Carnera was 6′ 6″ and 260 lbs. Buddy Baer, 6′ 5″ and 237 lbs, Abe Simon, 6′ 4″ and 260 lbs, and Jess Willard, 6′ 7″ and 240 lbs. Joe Louis fought and beat Carnera, Baer, and Simon – and we all know what happened to Louis when he fought Marciano. More specifically, Marciano was smaller than virtually every name fighter he faced – all to no good effect for them.

It just seems to me illogical to simply dismiss the chances of this undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World against any fighter from any era. Now hear me well, I am not saying that I think Rocky Marciano would definitely have beaten an Ali or a Tyson or Foreman. But I am saying that I would have given a whole lot of thought about how much I was willing to wager on him losing to any fighter; he was that good!

Rocky Marciano retired at 49-0 (43KO’s). He fought and beat every fighter that stepped into the professional ring with him. He defended his title successfully six times. He knocked out nearly 88% of his opponents. “The Rock” beat a handful of Hall of Fame fighters. He did so with grace, and class. Disparaging this great man’s accomplishments borders on the sacrilegious for many – myself included.

While we can never know “for sure” whether Rocky Marciano would have been the champ if he fought today, logic tells me that a man who negotiated an undefeated career then, would have found a way to do so now. It sure would have been fun to find out. But since we can’t, I’ll go on remembering Rocky for what he was; the only man to retire as the undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World. Rest in peace, Champ. As my youngest daughter used to say when she was a kid, “You did good!”

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David Auger-Villanueva
I was born in the Caribbean but grew up internationally. I've lived in Canada since 1974. I played just about every sport but was best at boxing. Fought in bareknuckles bouts, fight clubs, amateur, and pro. Married, father of four.
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