By Thomas Hauser
Hello, Rocky. Big day coming up. On September 1, you'll be eighty years old. A lot has happened since that small plane you were on crashed in 1969. You were forty-six years old then; too young to die. But we've kept you alive in our hearts, and the birthday celebrations will be starting soon.
So let's note for the record that you were born in Brockton, Massachusetts, the son of a shoe-factory worker, in 1923. Twenty-nine years later, you knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott to become heavyweight champion of the world. The punch you ended it with that night is one of the most devastating blows in boxing lore. You defended your title six times. "What could be better," you once asked, "than walking down any street in any city and knowing you're the heavyweight champion of the world?"
Then, after forty-nine victories in forty-nine fights, you did something that no one has done before or since. You retired, and stayed retired, as undefeated heavyweight champion of the world.
People say that, to be great, a fighter has to be an honest workmen. And you were. You trained hard. Charlie Goldman, your trainer, described you with the declaration, "I gotta guy who's short, stoop-shouldered, and balding with two left feet. They all look better than he does as far as the moves are concerned, but they don't look so good on the canvas. God, how he can punch."
That was the ticket. Even though you were small for a heavyweight, you beat men down. In the ring, you moved forward with a will of iron, arms pounding, throwing punches from every angle, anxious to make contact with any part of your opponent's body to see which of you could give and take more pain.
Ed Fitzgerald, one of the leading sportswriters of your day, wrote, "Rocky is not in there to outpoint anybody with an exhibition of boxing skill. He is in there to kill or be killed. He is a primitive fighter who stalks his prey until he can belt him with that frightening right-hand crusher. He is one of the easiest fighters in the ring to hit. You can, as with an enraged grizzly bear, slow him down and make him shake his head if you hit him hard enough to wound him, but you can't make him back up. Slowly, relentlessly, ruthlessly, he moves in on you. Sooner or later, he clubs you down."
Budd Schulberg put it nicely when he wrote, "Marciano is the master of no defense, who moves in swinging punches like all the club fighters of all time."
But you were great when you had to be great. After a man fought you, it was said, he was never the same.
A man has to be a bit crazy to be a fighter; and you qualified. Jim Murray once opined that you lived life as if it were the fifteenth round and you were behind on points. There was an endless stream of women. Early in your career, your manager Al Weill said, "Rocky is a poor Italian boy from a poor Italian family, and he appreciates the buck more than almost anybody. He's only got two halfway decent purses so far, and it was like a tiger tasting blood." After boxing, most of your business ventures involved cash. Word is, you even did a bit of loansharking and were on friendly social terms with the mob.
Then there's the matter of black and white. Looking at all the WBA, WBC, and IBF titleholders since you retired, there have been thirty-four claimants to the heavyweight crown. Only two, Ingemar Johansson and Gerrie Coetzee, were white. John Ruiz is Hispanic. These three will never be mistaken for you or Jack Dempsey. Johannson lost in his first title defense. Coetzee and Ruiz were shortlived paper champions during the reigns of Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis.
In other words, you were the last white heavyweight who would have been favored over any other fighter in the world. I'm not saying that's the way people should think; and in an ideal world, they wouldn't think that way. But let's be honest; in boxing, as in the rest of society, color is an issue.
Despite all the praise that was showered upon you, there were critics. Some opponents complained that, too often, your rough brawling style degenerated to dirty. And the great fighters you beat were getting on in years when you fought them. Joe Louis was thirty-seven. Jersey Joe Walcott was thirty-eight. Ezzard Charles was thirty-three with the wear and tear of a hundred fights on him. Archie Moore was forty-one and had answered the bell for round one almost two hundred times.
Still, a half-century after your retirement from boxing, your unblemished record stands. In other sports, magic numbers come and go. Look at baseball . . . 60 . . . 714 . . . 2,130 . . . 4,191 . . . They're all gone. It's the way of the world. Standards for immortality change. But in the sweet science, the magic number remains "49".
I don't know how you'll celebrate your birthday. Rumor has it that you're planning to fight Jack Dempsey in a fifteen-round "Birthday Bash." What a fight that will be! I'd love to see it; although, all things considered, I'm happy to be alive and down here on Earth. Send me a videotape if you can.