Marciano began 1949 with four consecutive knockouts. Then circumstances changed. The International Boxing Club was the dominant promotional power in boxing. It controlled the sport at Madison Square Garden and other major arenas. It had contracts for regularly-scheduled fights on the emerging medium of television. And it had links to organized crime; most notably through Frankie Carbo.
“Carbo,” Russell Sullivan explains, “established a well-organized centralized system of control over boxing. The system featured scores of managers who operated as front men for Carbo. Once a promising fighter arrived on the scene, one of Carbo’s managers would muscle in on his ownership. If a fighter or manager refused to play ball, he would be frozen out of quality fights; if he were lucky. Fear and violence were the linchpins of Carbo’s system and the bedrock of his power. Directly or indirectly, he controlled scores of judges, officials, managers, promoters, and fighters. His power became such that no big match was made or title awarded without his acquiescence.”
Teddy Brenner, who worked for Al Weill in the late-1940s and subsequently became president of Madison Square Garden Boxing, later acknowledged, “Carbo had his fingers on the throat of boxing. If he did not own a certain fighter, he owned the manager. Weill was a boxing politician who held hands with the mob. When Weill was Marciano’s manager, he was controlled by Carbo.”
In May 1949, Weill became the matchmaker for the International Boxing Club. That meant Marciano could fight against carefully chosen opponents when and where Weill wanted. It also meant that, technically, Weill could no longer manage Marciano, since many state athletic commissions had a conflict-of-interest rule that precluded a matchmaker from managing a fighter. Hence, Weill’s stepson, Marty Weill (who had a job-lot commission business in Ohio and knew next-to-nothing about boxing) became Marciano’s manager of record.
Marciano wasn’t the first fighter to be moved by people of influence. Nor will he be the last. But as 1949 progressed, there was the smell of something more.
On October 10th, the Brockton Blockbuster stepped into the ring in Providence to fight a journeyman named Ted Lowry. Marciano was 20-and-0 with 19 knockouts. Lowry was tough as nails. In 115 fights, he’d been stopped only once. But his record was 58 wins against 48 losses with 9 draws, and he’d lost seven fights in a row.
Lowry hurt Marciano badly in the first, second, and fourth rounds. Each time, he let Marciano off the hook. Many observers including the referee (who warned Lowry for non-aggression late in the fight) thought that he could have done more to win. Even then, the overwhelming majority of people who saw the fight thought that Lowry was the better man over the course of ten rounds. The judges ruled otherwise.
On December 2, 1949, Marciano fought in New York for the first time on the undercard of a heavyweight match-up between Roland LaStarza and Cesar Brion. He won, knocking out an overmatched Pat Richards in the second round.
Four week later, he was back at the Garden to take on Carmine Vingo, a 20-year-old New Yorker with 16 wins in 17 fights. It was a knockdown drag-out brawl with Marciano badly staggered on several occasions and Vingo knocked down three times. The final knockdown, in round six, left Vingo unconscious and in a coma that lasted for several days. He survived but never fought again.
Marciano fought thirteen times in 1949 and ended the year with a 25-and-0 record. On March 24, 1950, he returned to Madison Square Garden to face another New Yorker, Roland LaStarza.
LaStarza was undefeated in 37 bouts. It was Marciano’s first “big fight” and his inaugural appearance on television. After ten rounds, the visitor from Brockton was awarded a ten-round split decision. Afterward, Jesse Abramson of the New York Herald Tribune
wrote, “It was a gift, almost universally condemned around ringside as a miscarriage of justice.”
After the LaStarza fight, Marciano returned to New England to further build his record and improve his skills. During the next fifteen months, he had nine bouts against mediocre opponents and ran his record to 35-and-0. On July 12, 1951, he returned to the spotlight against Rex Layne at Madison Square Garden.
Layne was 23 years old and had lost only once in 37 fights. More significantly, he’d beaten Bob Satterfield and Jersey Joe Walcott. For the first time in his career, Marciano entered the ring as an underdog. He annihilated Layne, knocking him out in the sixth round. Afterward, Layne recalled, “I was on my face. I heard the count from one to ten. I kept telling myself that I had to get up, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t make myself move. It was the strangest feeling."
The fistic community was becoming more interested in Marciano. But there were a lot of critics. Sullivan notes, “This was an era in which boxing men were concerned with style. The great champions of the day - Joe Louis, Willie Pep, and especially the great Sugar Ray Robinson - were supreme stylists; boxers who not only won but also won pretty. Rocky Marciano won ugly. To purists, he degraded the art and science of boxing. Nearly everyone in fight circles felt that Marciano’s clumsiness would hinder his climb up the heavyweight ladder. They theorized that he would lose, and perhaps lose badly, if he met an accomplished craftsman such as Ezzard Charles or Jersey Joe Walcott.”
Charley Goldman didn’t argue with the critics. Instead, he explained, “The great thing about this kid is he’s got leverage. He had leverage from the start. And when you teach a fellow like that, you have to go slow because you might change the way he stands or the way he moves and spoil his hitting. Everything new you show him, you have to ask, ‘Does it feel natural? Can you hit from there?’ We’ll teach him the tricks he doesn’t know. We’ve got to polish him up, but then it’s up to him. Either he has it or he hasn’t.”
Bottom line: Whatever way gets results is the right way. Goldman and Marciano were getting results.
Marciano was small for a heavyweight, but he beat men down. He moved forward with a will of iron, arms pounding, throwing punches from every angle, anxious to make contact with any part of his opponent’s body to see which of them could give and take more pain. He had to get close to be effective and he was willing to take the punches to do it. He applied non-stop pressure, banging and banging from the opening bell until the end of a fight.
A fighter who comes forward all the time no matter what his opponent throws at him is hard to beat. And every punch that Marciano threw was a knockout punch. “Whenever he hit you, wherever he hit you, he hurt you,” Keene Simmons (an eighth-round knockout victim) said.
Boxing is entertainment. Regardless of what the purists thought, more and more fans were coming to appreciate Marciano’s wild brawling hit-and-get-hit style. He went for broke with virtually every punch. He could be losing. Round after round, his opponent might outbox him. Then – BOOM!
When an opponent was hurt, Marciano finished him off.
And there was another factor that contributed to Marciano’s appeal. He wasn’t marketed as a great white hope, but he didn’t have to be. The issue was in the back of the public’s collective mind.
Writing about the period after Marciano’s knockout victory over Rex Layne, Sullivan notes, “The fact that Marciano was white facilitated construction of his positive image in the mainstream press. A slew of articles appeared in such general-interest magazines as Life, Look
, and the Saturday Evening Post
, helping kick-start an all-American boy image that would make him the symbol of his age. The general tone of the coverage Marciano received was far more ‘up close and personal’ than that of his black challengers. Part of this was due to Marciano’s friendly engaging manner, which encouraged such an approach. It was also due to the fact that white sportswriters wanted to get up close and personal with the white fighter.”
Then came the inevitable confrontation: Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden on October 26, 1951.
Louis had reigned as heavyweight champion longer than any man ever; from 1937 through his retirement in 1949. He came back a year later and lost a fifteen-round decision to Ezzard Charles, but scored eight consecutive triumphs thereafter.
Louis-Marciano made sense for both men. Louis, because he needed the money; Marciano, because the Brown Bomber represented both a paycheck and a stepping stone.
The former champion was three inches taller (6’1”) and twenty-five pounds heavier (212) than Marciano. Louis been the betting favorite every time he stepped into the ring as a professional, and this time was no different. The odds were 7-to-5; largely because of Joe’s advantage in height, weight, reach, and technical skills and because he was Joe Louis. But those were the shortest odds ever in his favor.
More significantly; Louis was thirty-seven years old. Putting matters in perspective; his last fight prior to retiring had been an eleventh-round knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott on June 25, 1948. Marciano had engaged in one professional fight (under the name “Rocky Mack”) up until that time.
Marciano was on edge in the days leading up to the fight. In response to a reporter’s inquiry as to whether he thought he’d win, he snapped, "That was a fucking dumb question. If I didn’t think I was gonna win, why the hell would I be fighting?"
Asked if he might choke, he answered, “When I was discharged from the army, I started fighting because I hated the jobs I had before I went into the service. I’m afraid of having to go back and doing some of those same things if I lose to Louis. I’m not going to choke.”
The fight was scheduled for ten rounds.
“I remember standing in the ring and thinking how big Louis was,” Marciano reminisced years later. “I had never remembered Louis being such a big guy. The top of my head seemed to just about reach the bottom of his chin.”
Seconds before the bell for round one rang, Charley Goldman told his fighter, “Make it a short fight. At my age, I can’t be running up and down them steps all night.”
In round one, Marciano staggered Louis with an overhand right. Then Louis took over with his jab. But by round five, Joe was tiring. Marciano’s constant aggression was wearing him down. A punch under the heart in round five made the former champion gasp. His legs deserted him. His power was gone.
Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round.
“I saw the right hand coming, but I couldn’t do anything about it,” Louis said in his dressing room after the fight. “I was awfully tired. I’m too old, I guess. What’s the use of crying. The better man won.”
Beating Joe Louis gave Marciano widespread recognition. It was Joe Louis. And the fight had been on national television (not just on the east coast as was the case with Marciano-LaStarza).
There were still critics. Harry LeDuc of the Detroit News
opined, “Marciano’s ring ability is without relation to the science of boxing. The execution was a success, but the executioner lacked finesse.” Arthur Daley of the New York Times
wrote, “Louis losing is more important than Marciano winning.”
In response, Goldman countered, “They call him crude because he misses a lot of punches. But it’s his style. Most fighters Rocky’s age are as good as they’ll ever be. Rocky only has about three year’s real experience, so he’s still learning.”
And Joe Louis paid tribute to his conqueror, saying, “He was tough, real tough. He’s a good fighter; better than most people realize.”
After beating Louis, Marciano took a step backward. In a February 13, 1952, bout against Lee Savold in Philadelphia; he looked wild and amateurish. Meanwhile, Savold fought like he didn’t want to. After six rounds, the pacifist’s corner stopped the contest.
The poor showing led to Marciano being sent back to Providence for fights against Gino Buonvino and Bernie Reynolds, who he disposed of in two and three rounds respectively. Then he returned to New York and looked good, knocking out Harry Matthews (who had won fifty fights in a row) in two rounds at Yankee Stadium.
Charley Goldman now considered his charge ready to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. That meant facing Jersey Joe Walcott.
Walcott claimed to be 38 years old. There was a school of thought that he was older. He’d gotten his first shot at the brass ring on December 5, 1947, when he challenged an aging Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown. Most observers felt that Walcott won. So did Louis, who’d been knocked down twice and started to leave the ring before the result was announced, only to learn that he was the beneficiary of a dubious split decision. Six months later, they fought again. Trailing on two of the three judges’ scorecards, Louis knocked Walcott out in the eleventh round. Then the Brown Bomber announced his retirement from boxing.
On June 22, 1949, Walcott got a third crack at the heavyweight title when he fought Ezzard Charles for the vacant throne and lost a fifteen-round decision. With no opposition of note on the horizon, Charles battled Walcott again on March 7, 1951 and beat him again.
Walcott was now 0-and-4 in title fights. But on July 18, 1951, Charles pushed his luck against Walcott one fight too many. Walcott knocked him out in the seventh round to become what Life
magazine called “the oldest and most implausible heavyweight champion of the world.”
Jersey Joe had one title defense; a fifteen-round decision victory in a rematch against Charles. Then he signed to fight Marciano.
Prior to the fight, Walcott belittled his challenger. “Marciano is an amateur,” the champion proclaimed. “He wouldn’t have qualified for Joe Louis’s bum of the month tour. I guess he can punch, but he’s got two left feet. He can’t box a little bit. I’ve never seen anybody easier to hit. If I can’t beat this bum, take my name off the record books.”
One side issue of note attended the fight. Al Weill had become so obvious about still controlling Marciano through his stepson that the New York State Athletic Commission ordered him to relinquish his job as matchmaker for the International Boxing Club or forfeit his financial interest in the fighter. On September 1, 1952 (twenty-two days before Walcott-Marciano) Weill gave up his role with the IBC.
On September 23, 1952, Rocky Marciano stepped into the ring at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia to do battle for the heavyweight championship of the world. He was an 8-to-5 favorite; largely because the public didn’t think much of Walcott. Forty thousand fans were in attendance. Another 140,000 watched the bout on closed-circuit television, which was available in thirty-one cities nationwide.
In round one, Walcott dropped Marciano with a left hook to the jaw. It was the first time in his professional career that Marciano had been on the canvas. He rose at the count of four and came forward as he’d always done, throwing bombs. An accidental head butt in round six opened cuts on both men, but Marciano appeared to be in command. Then, in round seven, he began having trouble seeing. An astringent of some sort had found its way into his eyes and was obscuring his vision.
After the seventh and eighth rounds, cutman Freddie Brown took a sponge and doused Marciano’s eyes with water. In round nine, his vision began to clear.
“The lead had changed hands three times,” A. J. Liebling wrote. “You don’t see many fights like that. In the tenth, which was the hardest-fought round of all, Marciano stayed on top. But somehow, the calculations had gone awry. The old fellow looked further from collapse now than he had six rounds earlier.”
Sullivan picks up the action: “Halfway through the eleventh, his best round of the fight, Walcott hit Marciano with a ferocious right under the heart that bent the challenger over and made him visibly wince. Some felt that only the bell saved the sagging challenger from being knocked out. It was more of the same in the twelfth, with Walcott pounding Marciano and in complete command.”
Walcott was now well ahead on the judges’ scorecards and dominating the fight. Marciano needed a knockout to win.
Thirty seconds into the thirteenth round, Marciano backed Walcott into the ropes.
Both men threw perfectly-leveraged right hands at the same time.
Marciano’s landed. It was a perfect punch; the most devastating in boxing lore.
“Walcott froze, paralyzed,” Sullivan recounts. “His eyes glazed over, his legs turned to jelly, and he began a slow-motion collapse.”
The blow, Liebling observed, “traveled at most twelve inches, straight across his chest to the champion’s jaw. It was about as hard as anybody ever hit anybody. Walcott flowed down like flour out of a chute. He didn’t seem to have a bone in his body.”
“I don’t remember anything,” the dethroned champion said in his dressing room after the fight. “I don’t know if it was a right or a left. I wasn’t tired; I felt good; I was setting my own pace. Then - BANG! It hit me. I still don’t know what hit me. I couldn’t even try to get up.”
Rocky Marciano was the heavyweight champion of the world. PART TWO OF ROCKY MARCIANO REVISITED WILL APPEAR LATER THIS MONTHThomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“Waiting For Carver Boyd
”) was published last month by JR Books. Hauser describes Waiting for Carver Boyd
as “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”* Read "Rocky Marciano Revisited – Part Two" by Thomas Hauser - CLICK HERE!