22.10.03 – By Robert Bennett – I gave great respect for the achievements of Rocky Marciano. A champion can do no more then defeat the fighters placed in front of him, and make sure those fighters are the best available. Rocky Marciano did that, and regardless of the relative strength or weakness of a division in any era, a man that can do that is worthy of praise. How much praise is due however, is the question I pose.
Marciano is often ranked inside the top ten heavyweights of all time by various fans and writers, but one must wonder on what basis he is ranked. A record of 49-0 is impressive indeed but his record was only allowed to run to such extents because he was shut out of the title picture for so long. I rather imagine many a fighter in history would have also taken his record into the forties and fifties without loss if he wasn’t fighting the cream of the division.
His first victory over a legitimate contender did not come until his 25th fight against Carmine Vingo. By the time he reached 40-0, Marciano had only four legitimate contenders on his resume, and one of those was the sad swansong of the great Joe Louis. Another was Roland LaStarza, who is famous for losing the barest of decisions to Marciano in a fight many observers felt he should have won. The other two fighters were Vingo of course, and Rex Layne, neither of which rate barely a mention in historical circles.
In stark comparison, Evander Holyfield was thrust into the top of the sport by his twelth fight, and remained undefeated until his 29th fight. The staggering difference is that by the time of his first defeat, Holyfield had faced and defeated at least fifteen contenders who were as good or better then the four Marciano had defeated by forty fights, and yet Holyfield himself struggles for recognition inside the top ten because unlike Marciano, he does not have the benefit of an undefeated record aiding his abilities in the eyes of many observers. As for Marciano’s magical ‘0’, that only remained because of the relatively short period of time that Marciano spent fighting at the top of the division. Count them eight fights, a heavyweight title eliminator and seven title fights. There are literally dozens of heavyweights who have remained active at the top for longer than that.
Whether intentional or not, Marciano was protected in much the same way that a Joe Mesi now is. Whether Mesi is a genuine talent is yet to be proven, but it is amazing that Marciano’s record does not draw as much criticism as todays protected prospects. It is taboo, almost blasphemous to criticise the quality and depth of the names on Rocky’s winlist, because of the mythical status that has been heaped upon his ‘world record’ 49-0.
Seven successful title fights is commendable, but when broken down not as impressive as many of his contemporaries. His two biggest name victims during his title reign were two victories each over Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott. Charles was done as a top level fighter, as evidenced by the two decisions he dropped in the year before his first Marciano fight, and a little after a year after the second fight, had dropped a further four fights. As for Walcott, 23 years and 70 fights after his pro debut, many would have you believe that he remained a force to be reckoned with. No one is denying that Walcott was cagey and skillful, even in his advanced age, but putting him on a pedestal to lift the significance of Rocky’s wins over him is a joke. No champion in history enjoyed the sort of longetivity attributed to Walcott, and Marciano was in danger of being defeated by both Walcott and Charles at some stage.
The trouble Marciano had with fighters like Walcott, Charles and LaStarza leads me to believe that a fighter like Roy Jones Jr would have taken him to school, as would the defensive marvel James Toney. Larry Holmes would have cut him up with his piston jab and stopped him. And due to both size and skill, Foreman, Lewis, Bowe and Vitali Klitschko would have decimated him. And to those that have fantasised about it, Marciano would have been no match for Muhammad Ali. Rocky struggled against far lesser fighters than Ali, and would not have been able to deal with the combination of speed, skill, power and smarts that felled more great heavyweights than any fighter before or after him.
Rocky Marciano, skilled and powerful, but vastly overrated in a historical sense.