Roland La Starza? Ezzard Charles? Jersey Joe Walcott? No, according to the one and Rocky Marciano himself, Carmine Vingo is the man, the fighter, who gave “The Rock” his toughest fight ever. It was a non-title fight the two heavyweight contenders engaged in December of 1949 at Madison Square Garden.
Marciano was 24-0, Vingo was 16-1 (the loss coming via contentious decision loss to Joe Lindsay), and the fight was designed to find a suitable and adequate contender, a white one, who could follow Joe Louis as world heavyweight champion. Marciano, as hungry as perhaps never before, had to dig deep against the ravenous Vingo. The fight was savage, brutal, and life-changing.
Rocky had a great start, decking “Bingo Vingo” in the opening round, this for a nine-count. But Vingo got up, and he sure fought back. Downed again in the second round, Vingo then went to war with Marciano, the two trading vicious leather, with both men being hurt.
It was, as the saying goes, a “pier six brawl.” Marciano reportedly came close to going down (there is tantalizingly little footage of the fight available), but Rocky took all Carmine had to give, and then, in the sixth round, Marciano heavily decked Vingo.
Vingo hit his head as he crashed violently. Looking back after the fight, the referee said he would have stopped the fight even if Vingo had beaten the count once again, so nastily had he gone down. It was all over. But the story was just beginning.
Vingo fell into unconsciousness and was taken to the hospital (this by a stretcher, with sheer physical manpower, as no ambulance was available). It was big news, and reports declared how Carmine, who fell into a coma, had a 50-50 chance of making it. Rocky, a deeply religious man, was in tears, pacing the floor, unable to do anything but pray for the man he had, just hours previously, slugged it out with in devastating fashion.
Eventually, after brain surgery, Carmine regained consciousness this three weeks later. Still, Rocky wanted to quit fighting. Only Vingo’s pleading with his former foe not to walk away from the ring convinced Marciano to carry on. This he did, and, as we know, Marciano became world champion; arguably one of the top five greatest of all time.
Vingo never regained his full sight, and he was paralyzed down his left side. Yet Carmine outlived “The Rock.” Marciano, as we know, tragically died in an airplane crash in 1969. Vingo, who attended Rocky’s wedding and his funeral, lived into old age, passing away at age 85 in The Bronx, New York. He’d even found employment in the years following the fateful fight.
Who knows what might have happened had Vingo died as a result of the injuries Marciano inflicted on him? Might Rocky have been too full of guilt to carry on? Would heavyweight history have been so, so different? Maybe.
Carmine Vingo pushed Rocky Marciano hard in the ring (perhaps, for a few rounds, harder than anyone else ever did), and then, due to his injuries, he almost convinced Rocky to quit. Vingo, who had no bad feelings towards Rocky at all, when he so easily could have done, then urged Marciano to carry on.
These two amazing fighters had forged a relationship, a bonding of mutual respect and admiration, indeed a genuine friendship which we mortals could never begin to understand.