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20 AUGUST 2014

 

Rocky Marciano Revisited – Part One


Rocky Marciano
Rocky Marciano

By Thomas Hauser

Six decades ago, Rocky Marciano was on the verge of a celebrated reign at a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the most exalted title in sports.

Marciano’s image has grown hazy with the passage of time. In part, that’s because there’s very little good writing to explain what he stood for and how exciting he was in the ring.

Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times by Russell Sullivan (University of Illinois Press, 2002) is widely regarded as the definitive Marciano biography, and deservedly so. It’s well-written, meticulously researched, and unquestionably the best work on its subject.

A. J. Liebling fashioned six essays about Marciano for The New Yorker that captured Marciano in his prime. And long after Marciano’s death, William Nack wrote a penetrating article for Sports Illustrated that shed light on some of the less desirable facets of the man.

Beyond that, the scholarship is thin. Still, reading the public record and talking with people who knew Marciano, one comes to understand what he accomplished and represented at a time when boxing was second only to baseball as America’s most popular professional spectator sport.

Rocco Marchegiano was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, on September 1, 1923. Both of his parents emigrated from Italy to the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century. Pierino Marchegiano was a slightly-built man; five-feet-eight-inches tall, 130 pounds. Pasqualena Marchegiano was a large woman who outweighed her husband by seventy pounds.

Brockton was a working-class town twenty miles south of Boston. Pierino worked in a shoe factory. The Marchegiano’s first child died in infancy. Rocco was the second, followed by three daughters and two more sons. The Marchegianos lived in a two bedroom apartment with no running hot water or central heat. They were poor and the Great Depression made them poorer.

Rocco dropped out of high school at age seventeen; well short of earning his degree. “I was never good in school,” he acknowledged later. “I just didn’t care for the books.” Over the next three years, he drifted from menial job to menial job; delivering coal, digging ditches, and working in the same shoe factory as his father. He washed dishes, did landscape work, delivered beer, and put in a stint as a short-order cook. On March 4, 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army.

Marchegiano was stationed in Europe for two years during World War II; then in Tacoma, Washington. His first exposure to organized boxing came in 1945, when he entered several Army tournaments. He was discharged from the service in December 1946 and took a job with the Brockton Gas Company, shoveling coal and stoking furnaces for a dollar an hour.

On March 17, 1947, in need of money, Marchegiano fought in the opening bout of a professional fight card in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It wasn’t until late in his career that the fight became part of his public record. He fought it under the name of “Rocky Mack” in order to maintain his amateur standing.

The opponent, also making his pro debut, was a local fighter named Lee Epperson, who had a good amateur pedigree. For the first two rounds, Epperson outboxed his opponent, who took punch after punch and kept throwing wild haymakers that missed the more experienced fighter by an embarrassingly wide margin. In round three, a right uppercut landed and knocked Epperson out.

Marchegiano had been promised fifty dollars for the fight. The promoter gave him thirty-five.

One month later, a dream that Marchegiano had nursed since childhood came to an end. Growing up, he had started at center and linebacker in football for Brockton High School. But his true love was baseball. For four years, he’d played catcher for a local American Legion team. He was good.

But not good enough. In April 1947, the Chicago Cubs invited Marchegiano to a tryout. However, he failed to impress and the team decided against offering him a minor league contract. It was then that he turned to boxing.

“If I go into the ring, I might amount to something,” he told his fiancée Barbara Cousins. “If I don’t, what will I do the rest of my life? Dig Ditches?”

Years later, he elaborated on that theme, saying, “My father never made any money and he never had any fun. He was only existing. I saw what the factory did to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me.”

During the next year, Marchegiano kept his job with the Brockton Gas Company and had about thirty amateur fights. He was an unskilled boxer and blocked too many punches with his face. But he absorbed everything that opponents threw and moved inexorably forward, swinging wildly until his own sledge-hammer blows landed. He lost four times, but won several regional Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union titles.

In June 1948, Marchegiano traveled to New York for a meeting that would change his life. He wanted to resume his professional ring career and had been told that a New-York-based manager could do more for him than one in New England. Armed with that advice, he sought out Al Weill.

“Weill was very much disliked by decent people,” Jerry Izenberg (the dean of American sportswriters) recalls. “He was manipulative, rude, and arrogant, but also well-connected.”

“Crude” and “abrasive” were also often affixed to Weill’s name. But he was a brilliant judge of talent who, before putting two fighters in the ring, knew how entertaining their encounter was likely to be and, regardless of their records, who would win. He understood the business of boxing and had alliances with facilitators at every level. He was, in Liebling’s words, “one of the most realistic fellows in a milieu where illusions are few.”

Weill was also a dictator at heart and insisted on complete control over his fighters. “He gave them the proposition when he met them,” syndicated columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote. “They would fight with their bodies, and he would think for them with his mind. They could not argue. He would not tolerate any opinions from them.”

Later, Weill would say of his relationship with Marchegiano, “I declared myself right away. I said, ‘You got your job and I got mine. You got all you can do to stay in condition and train for fights. I handle everything else.’”

Indeed, when Rocco Marchegiano wanted to marry Barbara Cousins, Weill told him, “Wives hurt fighters. When it’s right for you to marry, I’ll tell you.” That put the impending marriage on hold for two years.

Weill had previously guided Lew Ambers, Joey Archibald, and Marty Servo to world titles. In each instance, the trainer who prepared them for battle was Charley Goldman.

A former fighter who’d retired in 1914, Goldman was often described as “gnomelike” and stood just over five feet tall. A fount of Runyanesque wisdom (“never buy anything on the street; especially diamonds”), he was a strict proponent of clean living, proper diet, and hard work in the gym.

Goldman was widely regarded as an honorable man and as popular in boxing circles as Weill was disliked. The only complaint with regard to his character concerned his frugal (some said “miserly”) ways. Once, when asked what he did on dates, Charley answered, “I usually take them to the fights. I get free passes.”

The history of boxing turned a page in June 1948 when Marchegiano appeared in Al Weill’s office. Weill telephoned Goldman and told him to set up a sparring session so they could gauge Rocco’s potential. Later that day, Marchegiano stepped into the ring at a CYO gym on 17th Street in Manhattan with a heavyweight from Florida named Wade Chancey.

Marchegiano didn’t look like a professional fighter. He was short for a heavyweight; five feet ten inches tall. His hands were huge, but he had stubby arms that would make it difficult for him to develop an effective jab.

A. J. Liebling later likened what Weill and Goldman saw to “the understander in the nine-man pyramid of a troupe of Arab acrobats. He has big calves,” Liebling wrote. “Forearms, wrists, and a neck so thick that it minimizes the span of his shoulders. He is neither tall nor heavy for a heavyweight, but gives the impression of bigness when you are close to him. His face, like his body, is craggy. Big jaw, big nose askew from punching, high cheekbones; and almost always when he is outside the ring, a pleasant asymetrical grin.”

Marchegiano was also two months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday; old for a novice fighter.

“Al and I often looked over green kids who thought they could become fighters,” Goldman reminisced years later. “I’ll eat my derby hat if I ever saw anyone cruder than Rocky. He was so awkward that we stood there and laughed. He didn’t stand right. He didn’t throw a punch right. He didn’t block right. He didn’t do anything right. Then he hit Chancey with a roundhouse right which nearly put a hole in the guy’s head, and I told Weill that maybe I could do something with him.”

“Charley Goldman,” Michael Silver later wrote, “found a block of marble and sculpted it into The Pieta.”

Marchegiano entered the ring as a professional for the second time on July 12, 1948. The site was Providence, Rhode Island; twenty-five miles from Brockton. The opponent was Harry Belzarian. Marciano won on a first-round knockout. His purse was forty dollars.

Years later, Belzarian recalled, “The first time he knocked me down, he broke my tooth. Then he knocked me down again. Then I don’t remember anything.”

Soon after, at Weill’s suggestion, Marchegiano changed his name to Rocky Marciano. But Weill wasn’t sold yet on his new fighter. He was using him to test other prospects.

On August 23, 1948, in his fifth professional fight, Marciano fought a 15-0-1 heavyweight named Eddie Ross. Rocky was the “opponent” that night. Prior to fighting Ross, Marciano had traveled from Brockton to New York to train occasionally with Goldman, but the trainer hadn’t attended his fights.

Marciano knocked Ross out at 1:03 of the first round. Seven days later, when Marciano fought Jimmy Weeks in Providence, Goldman was in his corner.

Marciano fought eleven times during the last six months of 1948, scoring eight first-round knockouts and two in the second stanza. One opponent made it into the third round.

Rather than work with the fighter at Stillman’s Gym (which was a hub of boxing commerce in New York), Goldman continued to sculpt his creation at the CYO gym on 17th Street.

Marciano had poor balance, minimal defense, and little understanding of how to throw a jab or hook. Goldman taught him how to stand properly for balance and maximum leverage on his punches. Turning Marciano’s lack of height into an advantage, he taught him to fight from a crouch, which made him harder to hit and forced opponents to lower their hands to hit him. He taught him the rudiments of defense and schooled him to go to the body.

“You got to realize,” Goldman said later, “when I took him over, he didn’t know what a body punch was. In the first ten fights I handled him, he didn’t throw a single one. Some of those early fights when he didn’t know how to fight; he won them all, but I was afraid he’d get killed.”

But Marciano had a great equalizer; his right hand. Goldman gave him just enough moves and enough of a jab to get inside and use it.

“I got a guy who’s short, stoop-shouldered, and balding with two left feet,” the trainer said. “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.”

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 MONTH

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. 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!






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