Rocky's Equalizer Made Him Champ

05.07.05 - by MIKE DUNN: Watching a fighter who possesses the equalizer -- that is, one-punch knockout power -- is a lot like watching a pure home run hitter in baseball. You can't take your eyes off the action because you never know when the big one is going to come.

Rocky Marciano stood 5-foot-10 and weighed less than 190 pounds in his prime. His reach was a mere 68 inches. But Rocky had something that made up for his relative lack of size among heavyweights. He had the equalizer. That was never more in evidence that on the night of Sept. 23, 1952 in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium. Rocky was challenging the cagey champion Jersey Joe Walcott for the crown. Before 40,379 onlookers that fateful night, a bleeding, banged up Marciano turned almost certain defeat into sudden victory in the 13th round with a perfectly thrown, compact right cross that separated old Jersey Joe from his senses and his title..

Marciano took a 43-0 record into the ring with him that night. Rocky's record was spotless but his style was crude. He won not with technical efficiency; he won by imposing his will upon the other combatant. He won not with grace; he won with a bruising, straightforward manner that allowed him to get inside of his opponent and wear him down with clubbing blows. If it wasn't pretty, it was certainly effective. In 43 ring encounters, he had recorded 38 knockouts. Included among the kayos was a devastating one-punch triumph over rugged Rex Layne, who had been favored to beat Rocky. Also included was an impressive second-round KO of Harry "Kid" Matthews at Yankee Stadium just two months before in a bout billed as a title eliminator. Matthews had an outstanding 81-3-5 record and smartly outboxed Rocky in the first round. In the second round, however, two sharp left hooks sent Matthews down and out and opened the door for Rocky's challenge of Walcott.

Jersey Joe was 38 years old and had a ring record of 51-16-2 as he awaited the bell that fall night inPhiladelphia. The heavily muscled Walcott also had knockout power, particularly in his left hook. One of Walcott's well-placed hooks had made him champion the year before, in fact. On July 18, 1951, Walcott nailed Ezzard Charles in the seventh round in Pittsburgh to ascend to the title.

Even though Walcott could deliver a knockout punch, he was not known for his knockouts. He was known rather for his craftiness. He backed away from opponents, weaving from side to side while using his jab to keep the other guy off balance and give him fits. Jersey Joe's strategic retreat was known as the Walcott Waltz.

Walcott was nine years older than the 29-year-old Marciano. He was at a disadvantage in age, but not in other key areas. The champ was 12 pounds heavier, weighing 196 pounds to Rocky's 184 . And he was much more experienced in big matches. Walcott had fought with the heavyweight title on the line six times previously. He had unsuccessfully challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown twice near the end of Joe's 11-year reign as champ and many believed that Walcott had been robbed of the decision in their first encounter. Walcott had been beaten twice by Charles in title bouts before turning the tables in their Pittsburgh engagement, and then he had beaten Charles again for good measure earlier in the summer of '52, also in Philadelphia.

Walcott had a distinct advantage in experience and was brimming with a champion's confidence as he listened to the instructions of referee Charlie Daggert prior to the start of his defense against Marciano. To everyone's surprise, Walcott did not employ his usual strategy. He came right at his stocky foe from Brockton, waging a two-fisted assault. Not 30 seconds into the fight, Walcott stunned Rocky with a short, jolting left hook on the chin. A short time later, Walcott connected again . and Rocky went down for the first time in his career.

Rocky got up after a short count and Walcott continued to carry the action. Again and again, the champ found a home for his left hook. It looked like Rocky, who was always a slow starter, might be in for a long night. The second round was similar, though not as much of a dominating performance by Walcott. Rocky, eager to join the fray, began to land some hard punches to the body inside and Walcott, feeling the effect, began to back away for the first time. Still, it was clearly Walcott's round.

Then in the third round, the tide started changing. Rocky warmed up to the task and began forcing the action. Walcott was now employing his normal style of backing up, weaving, and jabbing. Rocky was often beating him to the punch.

The same pattern occurred in the fourth and fifth rounds. In the fifth, Walcott sustained a cut over his left eye. Rocky, who also had a cut above his forehead, was now in control. In the sixth, Rocky continued to pour it on and had his best round so far. Would Walcott survive the onslaught? In the seventh, things changed again. Rocky had difficulty seeing when ointment used on Walcott's cut between rounds got into Rocky's eyes. The challenger blinked repeatedly and lost his momentum.

Walcott came on in the seventh and eighth, using stiff jabs to neutralize Marciano's aggressiveness. Both fighters were tired and neither was landing the crisp punches that had marked the earlier rounds. There was still a lot of leather being traded, however.

Rocky, his eyes finally clear, came back and had a pretty good ninth round. In the 10th round, though, Walcott again seemed to have the edge. And in the 11th, Walcott ripped into Rocky and forced him back for the first time since the early rounds. When the bell rang ending the 11th round, Walcott was flailing away with both hands and had Rocky backed against the rope. Marciano had been stunned by a Walcott right. He was cut under the left eye and a large mouse was developing.

In the 12th, Walcott continued to back away, using the jab to keep Marciano at bay. Rocky was pressing the action, but appeared tired. If Rocky could catch up with the old champion, was there enough left in the tank for him to deliver a knockout?

Rocky was behind on all cards entering the fateful 13th. Judge Pete Tomasco had Walcott ahead 7-5 in rounds, but judge Zack Clayton and referee Daggert had Walcott leading 8-4. If Walcott was standing when the bell sounded ending the 15th round, the worst he could do was get a split decision and retain the title.

The 13th round started like all the others. Announcer Bill Corum, calling the fight for Theatre Network Television, reminded viewers that it was the "unlucky round."

And that's how it turned out for Walcott. The champion wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary. He was backing away, as he had through much of the fight. Rocky approached and threw a short right to the jaw just as Walcott was attempting a counter right. Rocky's punch landed with all the force he could muster and Walcott was out cold before he ever went down. The champion sagged against the middle rope and Marciano threw a left hook for insurance before jogging to a neutral corner. It grazed Walcott's head but was unnecessary. The impact of Rocky's right cross had put Walcott in dreamland and there was no way he was going to beat Daggert's count. Walcott dropped slowly to the canvas, his left arm still draped around the middle strand of the ropes.

Just like that, the heavyweight championship of the world changed hands. Rocky had somehow summoned the resolve and the resources to deliver the coup-de-gras and earn sport's richest crown.

Rocky's equalizer had been equal to the task at hand, turning defeat into sudden, dramatic victory.

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

Article posted on 05.07.2005

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