Fighting Marciano: Six Degrees of Separation

By Robert Mladinich on March 18, 2018
Fighting Marciano: Six Degrees of Separation
“Rocky was a lot better fighter than he looked,” said LaStarza, “but not as good as I was.”

His bone-jarring power, herculean work ethic, and fierce body-punching enabled him to overcome a lack of speed and grace…

Since retiring from the ring in 1956 as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history, the legend of Rocky Marciano, 49-0 (43 KOs), continues to grow. When the Brockton, Massachusetts, native was killed at the age of 45 in a 1969 plane crash in Iowa, his reputation and persona took on even greater mythical proportions.

Standing 5’10” tall and weighing approximately 185 pounds, Marciano was, by today’s standards, small for a heavyweight. Despite looking so beatable, his bone-jarring power, herculean work ethic, and fierce body-punching enabled him to overcome a lack of speed and grace, as well as a late start in the boxing game. He did not begin his pro career until he was 24 years old.

“Rocky had unbelievable determination, which is the most important tool for any fighter,” said the late heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson.

“He was clumsy, got hit a lot, and didn’t look much like a conventional fighter. Sometimes he looked like he had two left feet. But he had so much determination and belief in himself, and that made him heavyweight champion of the world.”

“You can’t appreciate Marciano by looking at him in the early part of his career,” said noted boxing historian Mike Silver. “To understand the real Marciano, you have to look at his title fights with Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore. The man could just not be stopped, and he didn’t know the definition of the word quit.”

It is believed that the only living Marciano opponent is Carmine Vingo, who he faced in December 1949 and would now be 88 years old. Efforts to contact Vingo have been unsuccessful.

In the late 1990s, and as late as 2007, this writer interviewed six of Marciano’s opponents, all of whom are now deceased. This is what they had to say about the Brockton Blockbuster:

Coley Wallace

Although they never fought as professionals, Wallace achieved a degree of fame by outpointing the brawling Marciano at the 1948 Tournament of Champions competition in Boston.

The tall, lanky, slick-boxing Wallace bore an uncanny resemblance to Joe Louis and even played the Brown Bomber in the 1953 movie “The Joe Louis Story.” He recalled his fight with Marciano being easier than he expected.

“Marciano was like a streetfighter, a good beginner,” he said. “He was swinging wild, never hit me solid, and didn’t hit that hard. He threw just arm punches then, but got a lot better when he turned professional. I wanted to fight him as a pro, but never got the chance.”

Fighting professionally from 1950 to 1957, Wallace amassed a record of 22-7 (16 KOs) and was stopped by, among others, Jimmy Bivins and Ezzard Charles. He blamed his relative lack of success as a pro on his refusal to allow the underworld to take the reins of his career.

In retirement he was employed as a barber and a car a liquor salesman. He died in 2005 at the age of 77. 

Harry Haft

In Marciano’s eighteenth bout, in July 1949, he tangled with Harry Haft, a Holocaust survivor who was 13-7 (7 KOs) at the Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence. Because Marciano was blitzing opponents with such ferocity, the unconventional Haft allowed himself to be hypnotized before the fight.

While warming up, Haft said three men entered his dressing room and threatened to kill him if he did not go down in round one.

Having already survived Nazi death camps, the undeterred Haft would not go along and, according to the Providence Journal, “landed the first good punch of the fight, a hard right to Marciano’s midsection.”

Marciano responded aggressively and stopped Haft in the third round, but Haft gave a good enough account of himself for the Providence Journal to report he “received a fine reception as he left the ring.”

Haft retired from the ring and made a living as a Brooklyn grocer.

After what Haft had endured during World War II, dealing with Marciano, as well as the mob, must have seemed like child’s play. Captured by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland, he was forced to square off in bareknuckle brawls against other detainees for the perverse pleasure of the SS guards.

The fights were to the death because the “losers” would be hauled off and summarily executed. Haft never lost a fight and his German tormentors referred to him as the “Jew Animal.”

His son, Alan Scott Haft, wrote a compelling 2006 book about his father’s life called “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano.”

Haft was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, Long Island, in April 2007 and passed away later that year at the age of 82.

“Tiger” Ted Lowry

The Rock squared off against the slick Tiger Ted Lowry twice; in Marciano’s twenty-first bout in October 1949, and his thirtieth fight in November 1950. Lowry had fought a veritable who’s who of contenders and was stopped only three times in compiling a record of 70-68-10 (46 KOs) between 1939 and 1955.

What is most memorable about Lowry’s fights with the Marciano is the fact that both went the distance. Although Marciano won both by unanimous decision, the Providence Journal gave Lowry the nod in their first encounter.

“Marciano was good and well-conditioned, but not that smart in the ring,” said Lowry. “I always thought I had the right style to beat him if I had prepared more. But I can’t take anything away from him because he did retire undefeated.”

After retiring from the ring, Lowry, a consummate journeyman, worked as a construction contractor, prison guard, glass installer, and school bus monitor before passing away at the age of 90 in 2010.

“As long as people remember Rocky Marciano, they will always remember Tiger Ted Lowry,” he said without the slightest hint of bombast. “That’s a feather in my cap because it makes me a part of history.”

Roland LaStarza

Marciano fought Roland LaStarza twice, in his twenty-sixth bout in March 1950, and in his forty-fifth fight in September 1953.

The clean-cut, slick-boxing LaStarza lost a split decision to Marciano in their first bout, and was stopped in the eleventh round of their rematch with Marciano’s world title on the line. 

Going into the earlier bout, at Madison Square Garden, Marciano was 25-0, while LaStarza was 37-0. If Marciano had not knocked LaStarza down in the fourth round, his undefeated record might have ended then and there. The final ring tallies of the judges were 5-4-1, 5-5 (9-6 on points), and 4-5-1.

“As far as I’m concerned, I won the first fight, but there’s really no point talking about it now,” said LaStarza. “Rocky was a lot better fighter than he looked, but not as good as I was. That might sound egotistical, but that’s the way I feel.”

LaStarza concedes that he lost the second bout fair and square. It was held at the Polo Grounds before nearly 46,000 fans, but LaStarza said he was over-prepared for the biggest fight of his life.

“My trainer (Dan Florio) ruined me, he killed me in training camp,” said LaStarza. “I would have liked to weigh 192 to 193 pounds, but weighed 178 a few days before the fight. But it was an easy fight for six rounds. Then I blocked a punch with my forearm, and the pain was so terrible I couldn’t move it anymore.”

LaStarza said the losses to Marciano were the biggest disappointments of his career because, in his opinion, both fights were so winnable.

“I would throw a punch, then he would throw a punch,” said LaStarza. “The difference was that Rocky would throw 10 more. He just never stopped throwing punches.”

LaStarza was the studious son of a Bronx vegetable grocer who had enrolled in the City College of New York to study physical education while boxing as an amateur.

When he opted to turn pro, his manager suggested he align himself with neighborhood wiseguys who would extract a five percent “tax” for “protection.” LaStarza adamantly refused.

“I said no, I wanted to go on my own merit,” said LaStarza. “I was so naive, I didn’t know what they meant by protection, but with what I know now, maybe I should have said the heck with pride. And maybe I wouldn’t have lost the (first) Marciano fight.”

LaStarza retired in 1961 with a record of 57-9 (27 KOs). He embarked on a fairly successful acting career that included a featured role in the 1960s World War II television series “The Gallant Men.” He also became a licensed commercial pilot.

Although LaStarza was extremely articulate, intelligent and engaging, he joked that his son Mark, a physician, and daughter Amy were the “intellectuals” of the family. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 82. 

Keene Simmons
In Marciano’s thirty-second fight he faced the rugged Keene Simmons, who came close to pulling off an upset in their January 1951 bout at the Rhode Island Auditorium.

While Simmons, of Bayonne, New Jersey, had a seemingly nominal record of 8-8-1, he had an abundance of natural talent. 

In a bloody and furious battle, Simmons came very close to stopping Marciano in the fifth round. Marciano roared onward, eventually halting Simmons with only six seconds remaining in the eighth round. Simmons was still on his feet, and newspaper accounts said it looked as if he could have lasted the 10-round distance if given the chance. 

“Rocky could take a punch and give one, too,” said Simmons. “He was not a fancy boxer, but he hit hard and just kept putting combinations together. I managed to cut his eye, and thought I was winning. But Rocky had so much determination, I can’t take anything away from him. Every time I hit him, which was a lot, he came right back.”

Two years after the Marciano loss, Simmons faced another thunderous puncher in Cleveland Williams and lost a unanimous decision. Asked who hit harder of the two, Simmons responded without equivocation that Marciano did.

Simmons went on to be a regular sparring partner for Marciano, for which he was paid $15 to $25 a round, and retired from the ring in 1955 with a deceptive record of 9-21-1 (4 KOS). He was later employed for several decades as a New York City bus driver, and passed away in the early 2000s. 

Harry “Kid” Matthews

Marciano mixed it up with the hard-punching Harry “Kid” Matthews in his forty-second bout in front of 31,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in July 1952. Matthews, who turned pro at the age of 15, came into the fight with an imposing record of 78-3-6 (57 KOS).

Matthews had been stopped only once, and had beaten Rex Layne by decision in his previous bout. There was a lot on the line because the winner would face heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott two months later.

After Marciano landed several debilitating left hooks in the second round, Matthews saw his championship aspirations ground into the rosin dust.

“I just couldn’t get out of the way, and ran into the wrong punch,” said Matthews, an Idaho native who retired to a Seattle suburb.

“I tried to take the loss in stride. Like all fighters, I didn’t expect what happened to happen. It was a great disappointment to me, but Rocky deserved the title shot. He was a great puncher, one of the best of all time.

“He just threw one punch after another, and all of them were hard. When he stopped me, he threw about five or six left hooks. He missed me with two, but hit me the rest. I remember landing one left hook in the first round. He told me afterwards that I hurt him with that punch.”

Matthews retired in 1956 with a record of 90-7-6 (61 KOs) and worked for many years as a certified welder. He later opened a business called “Harry Matthews Rental Supply,” which he ran for many years. He passed away at the age of 80 in 2003.

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  1. Lucas McCain 02:08pm, 03/19/2018

    I can still hear him on his TV show “Main Event.”  “Let me tell you about it, as I saw it” (pronounced “sar it.”) Or for his own fights.. .“as I fought it.” Loved that show and the Boston accent as a kid, my chance to up on the early 50’s stars I had been too young to appreciate.  There are couple of “Main Events” on You tube.

  2. Donald Grant 11:36am, 03/18/2018

    Nice piece. One thing, though: Carmine Vingo died about three years ago. He was living in the Bronx, forgotten.

  3. Ollie Downtown Brown 10:59am, 03/18/2018

    Interesting that Keene Simmons rates Marciano’s power above Cleveland Williams. Williams certainly was a legit heavyweight, even considered somewhat large during the time he competed. Some even claim his punching power was just a shade below Liston’s during the time. I often wonder how Marciano’s power would compare to the huge punchers who outweighed him by 20-30-to even 40lbs or more. I guess the power that Marciano possessed in that overstuffed middleweight body was freakish to say the least. Like the guy who effortlessly is able to throw a 100mph fastball,  Marciano was just blessed with the ability to throw destructive punches that shouldn’t be possible for a man his size to throw.

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