31.12.04 – By Don Caputo: Rocky Marciano’s indomitable will to win was unmatched. He imposed that will on all of his 49 opponents and finished his career without ever tasting the bitter taste of defeat as a professional fighter. The only champion in history to retire with an unblemished record, he is without a doubt one of the greatest heavyweight champions who ever lived.
Never a technician, he was crude and undoubtedly lacked in the boxing skill department but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need the help of a jab, fancy feints or clever footwork, he was a natural born fighter who went into the ring and simply punched whatever he could, as often as he could, as hard as he could. Marciano famously clubbed and battered his opponent’s arms and shoulders until they could no longer keep them up to protect themselves, then went in for the kill. This was how he operated, the man was prepared to walk through fire and absolutely refused to lose.
Marciano possessed a rock solid chin and concussive power in both hands but what really separated him from the rest was his unbelievable conditioning. Because he was a smallish heavyweight, 5’11, he always felt at a disadvantage and took the line of thought that he needed to train twice as hard as everyone else if he was to be successful against naturally larger foes. It worked, the pressure he applied on his opponents was relentless and ultimately broke most of them down, he was a tank with no reverse gear. Here’s a look back at his career:
Nicknamed the “Brockton Blockbuster,” Marciano powered his way through the heavyweight ranks after making his professional debut in 1947 against Lee Epperson. Fighting as often as he could, he knocked out most of his early opponents and kept on winning impressively but like so many great fighters before and after him he endured his fair share of critics and doubters. Experts at the time considered Marciano too old, too small and too raw to be successful against the elite of the division; he just wasn’t cut out to be a heavyweight champion and was never going to be a serious threat to the crown. He was deeply affected in 1949 when he seriously injured his first ranked opponent, Carmine Vingo, after knocking him out in six brutal rounds in what he later described as the toughest fight of his career.
Despite feeling enormous guilt, Marciano, after briefly thinking about giving up the sport was able to overcome his emotions and continue his career the following year. He took a major step up in 1950 when he won a close decision over unbeaten contender Roland LaStarza in a very tough fight and a year later earned a long awaited title shot when he knocked out come backing Joe Louis, who was 37. It has been well documented that the fight was a very painful experience for Rocky, he had a job to do but he took no pleasure whatsoever in sending the ageing former champion who had always been his idol through the ropes for the full count.
Marciano was now in line to face heavyweight king Jersey Joe Walcott, a great fighter in his own right who was coming off back-to-back wins over the brilliant Ezzard Charles. Although at the age of thirty-eight he was undoubtedly at the tail-end of his career, Walcott was still a formidable opponent who Marciano went into the ring against as an underdog. In one of the most memorable heavyweight title fights of all time, Rocky suffered the first knockdown of his career in the very first round and was trailing on points going into the penultimate thirteenth round when he dramatically knocked Jersey Joe unconscious with a single right hand, seemingly out of nowhere. Many still regard it as the single hardest shot in boxing history. After defending his title six times, he announced his retirement in 1956.
Rocky Marciano’s perfect 49-0 record defines his greatness; I don’t think anyone can argue with that, but in a way it also leaves a small question mark lingering. He showed conclusively that he could overcome adversity in the ring, I’m in no way questioning the size of his heart but I’ve often wondered how he would have reacted to a defeat. For years it looked as though Roy Jones Jr would never lose a fight, although he had one official loss on his record he had never been bettered in the ring until he met Antonio Tarver last May. He was then dominated and knocked out in his very next fight by a man he would have made easy work of in my opinion a couple of years earlier. His first true loss undoubtedly had a disastrous physiological affect on him and in a sense broke his spirit. Jones will still go down in history as a great fighter, no question, but the level of his greatness has been substantially diminished. Not because he lost, everyone is expected to lose eventually, but because he wasn’t able to come back. I’m not trying to criticize “The Rock” for not losing, that would be crazy, it’s just something I’ve pondered. The fact that he never had to come back from a defeat is phenomenal, regardless of who, what and where he fought.
It is easy to look at his undefeated record and overrate him, just as it is equally easy to say he fought weak competition and underrate him. It is true that he struggled to beat certain fighters who where clearly past their primes but at the end of the day all a champion can do is defend against and beat the best available opponents, and that is exactly what Rocky Marciano did.