The Summer Of The Rock And The Cobra

nigel benn03.09.08 - By Mike Dunn - Hard to believe it’s been more than 50 years since the Rock and the Cobra took center stage and kept boxing fans and sports fan in general gripped with the gritty drama of two classic battles for the heavyweight championship. Hard to believe also that Rocky Marciano would have turned 85 this week if he was still with us. No doubt he would have been pleased to recall the notable ring wars he had with the man known as the Cincinnati Cobra and all the publicity those fights generated.

It was the summer of 1954. Reigning heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano defended the title against former champion Ezzard Charles, each time thrilling a large crowd at Yankee Stadium. In June, Marciano pounded out a tough 15-round decision and in September, Marciano knocked out Charles in the eighth round. The latter fight was not without its drama, however; Marcianoıs nose was grotesquely split early in the fight and he was in danger of being stopped himself if he did not successfuly terminate Charlesı challenge..

The battles between the Rock and the Cobra spurred the fascination of the public. Marciano, the 31-year-old slugger from Brockton, Mass., was unbeaten and the possessor of a right hand that hit with the approximate power of a small bulldozer. Charles, a.k.a. The Cincinnati Cobra, was seeking to regain the crown. He was a slick boxer with some pop in his punches. Although Charles was definitely the underdog, he was a lively underdog. He was given a chance to beat Rocky because of his style. Rocky was quite powerful and determined, but he was also crude and not hard to hit. If Charles could connect with clean, crisp blows, perhaps Rocky would bleed and the ref would be forced to stop the fight and award the championship to Charles. Or maybe Charles could stay out of harmıs way with his speed and footwork and land often enough to win by decision.

Charles, who turned 33 in July of 1954, held the title for two years (1949-51) after the long reign of Joe Louis. He was best known for spoiling Louisı first comeback bid with a unanimous 15-round decison over the aging erstwhile champion at Yankee Stadium in September of 1950. Many people never forgave Charles for that.

Charles was an active, if not popular, champion. He went on to lose the title to Jersey Joe Walcott in July of ı51, succumbing and surrendering the crown after absorbing a severe left hook from Walcott in the seventh round at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Charles was given a rematch with Walcott, but was tentative and lost again, this time by decision. Rocky went on to wrest the crown from Walcott in Philadelphia in September of 1952 with one of the most celebrated knockouts in boxing history. Rockyıs compact right cross sent Walcott to the canvas in the 13th round of a stubborn, seesaw battle that is considered a ring classic.

Now Rocky had the title and Charles was attempting to take it away.

Nearly 50,000 onlookers made their way to Yankee Stadium to see how the affair would turn out. The champ entered the ring that crisp June night with a record of 45-0 with 40 knockouts. Charles had a record of 86-10-1 and 56 knockouts to his credit.

Those who expected Charles, a temperamental type, to become discouraged and ultimately yield to Rockyıs power were in for a surprise. Charles fought with a commendable tenacity. Throughout the 15 rounds, he showed a willingness to trade with Rocky. Charlesı refusal to shrink from the fray even when hurt, combined with Rockyıs inexorable, plodding, two-fisted attack, made for a memorable night.

Charles built an early lead, as anticipated. Rocky was always a slow starter and Charles, with superior hand and foot speed, was able to neutralize Rockyıs attack with sharp jabs and hooks and an occasionally well-placed right cross. One of those rights opened a cut above Rockyıs left eye, causing the blood to flow down the championıs face. The cut was big enough and close enough to Rockyıs eye to cause some anxiety among Marcianoıs backers, especially since it occurred early in the fight.

After five rounds, Charles had a lead on everyoneıs scorecard. Some had Charles winning four of the first five frames. In the sixth, though, Marciano began to find his rhythm and his blows began to land hard and consistently to Charlesı body and the side of his head. Marciano, known more for his lethal right, landed the best single punch of the fight late in the round and it happened to be a short, jarring left hook that shook Charles from his heels to his ears.

It had been a very good fight to this point, but many figured this to be the beginning of the end for the challenger. Charles, like those before him, would sag under the force and fury of Rockyıs relentlessness. Instead ‹ surprise! ‹ it was Charles who picked up the pace in the seventh and eighth rounds, landing some of his best blows of the night. The challenger
proved that he had come to fight rather than merely survive. He wanted that title back! After eight rounds, he was well ahead in the scoring and it seemed an upset was a possiblity, especially considering Marcianoıs cut eye.

The problem with fighting Marciano, though, as Charles discovered, is that he never got discouraged and he never stopped coming forward. Marciano was an irresistible force, like gravity.

In the ninth, things began to go south for the Cincinnati Cobra. Marciano was coming on strong and Charles was wilting like a desert blossom at midday. Charles still had the tiger in his heart; he just didnıt have the snap to his punches anymore. While Charles threw straight punches at Rocky that landed without much damage, Rocky was delivering wide, devastating, hammer-like rights and lefts that had Charles reeling.

In his excellent book, ³The Sweet Science,² A.J. Liebling recounts the scene. ³[Charles] moved, hung on, twisted his body, rolled his head on his columnar neck, which was now a cable between aching body and addling brain. He broke to his right, away from Marcianoıs swinging rights, but he didnıt run. He even punched ‹ straight but without power.²

After eight rounds, an upset had seemed possible. After 10 rounds, the only real question that remained was if Charles would last the distance. As it turned out, he did. His face was swollen and his body was sore, but he heard the bell sound to end the 15th round, and that was no mean accomplishment. Marciano, blood still flowing from the cut above his left eye, was still pressing when the final bell sounded. The battle had aroused in him a warriorıs passion.

The decision went to Rocky by scores of 8-5-2, 8-6-1 and 9-5-1, which was a good reflection of what had occurred in the ring that night. Charles didnıt win the title, but he certainly earned some respect and some appreciation for his skills and his heart that werenıt there while he was champion.

A rematch was held in September, again at Yankee Stadium. Once more, the turnstiles revolved continuously with the motion of tens of thousands of curious witnesses.

This time, Rocky found the mark early. Charles was not nearly as assertive in the early going as he had been in June and the champion took advantage, landing a hard right that sent Charles sprawling to the canvas in the second round. Charles was up at two, but shaken.

Marciano continued to press the action in the third and fourth rounds, missing frequently but not encountering the same kind of stiff opposition that he had from Charles three months before. Marciano landed another very hard right that hurt Charles in the fourth. It seemed just a matter of time before a knockout.

In the fifth, though, Charles joined the fray. He landed some hard hooks and had by far his best round of the fight. It seemed that another good fight between the two was still a possibility. In the sixth, things looked even more promising for Charles after an accidental elbow opened a huge gash in the middle of Marcianoıs nose. Compared to the cut over the left eye
that Marciano sustained in August, this was a gusher. Blood flowed freely down both sides of Rockyıs face. It didnıt seem likely that he could last the 15-round distance without the referee intervening.

Suddenly, a fight that had little drama had everyone on the edge of their seats. Would Rocky connect before having to forfeit his title because of his damaged nose?

In the seventh, Rocky continued to press the action and Charles continued to respond evasively. The challenger was not as willing to mix it up this time around. Charles avoided the full brunt of Rockyıs blows and was basically unmarked, but he was not hitting away with resolve either.

In the eighth, the drama ended when Charles collapsed in a heap under a heavy onslaught from Rocky. It was an accumulation of blows that did it. Charles was still sufficiently combative to rise at four, but the end was clearly in sight. Rocky, responding like a wolf after a wounded prey, pursued his advantage, landed a hard right, and Charles was down for the full 10 count.

Because of Rockyıs bloodied nose and the threat of him losing the title, the Marciano-Charles rematch was voted the Fight of the Year for 1954 by The Ring magazine. The first fight was the better of the two by far in terms of sustained action, however.

In any case, the Rock and the Cobra put on a memorable show for the TV cameras and the boxing public in their two encounters more than five decades ago. The Rock proved his superiority, but not without a struggle.

Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Gaylord, Mich.

Article posted on 03.09.2008

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