Foul Play in Philly?

By Mike Silver on April 30, 2014
Foul Play in Philly?
“He’d been sucked into it, but he knew if he ever came clean he would never work again.”

There is strong reason to believe that someone in Liston’s corner tried the same illegal methods used in the Marciano-Walcott fight…

On September 21, 1952, in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, Jersey Joe Walcott defended his heavyweight crown against challenger Rocky Marciano. During the seventh round of a thrilling fight a caustic substance got into Marciano’s eyes. He returned to his corner blinking and squinting. “There’s something in my eyes, they’re burning.” Freddie Brown, one of the best corner men in the business, sponged Rocky’s eyes with copious amounts of water, giving the challenger some relief. But the burning began again in the eighth round. At the bell Rocky returned to his corner in obvious distress, telling his trainer Charley Goldman, “My eyes are getting worse. Do something, I can’t see.” Goldman and Freddie Brown continued to douse his eyes. Al Weill, Marciano’s volatile manager, was beside himself. Leaving the corner he approached referee Charley Daggert and pleaded with him to investigate Walcott’s gloves and shoulders. The referee waived him back to the corner.

If there was something illegal going on in Walcott’s corner Weill’s complaining must have gotten someone’s attention because by the end of the 10th round Rocky’s eyes have cleared and his vision returned to normal. 

After 12 brutal rounds Walcott was ahead in the scoring. Unless Rocky can win by a knockout he will lose the decision. Less than a minute into the 13th round Marciano connects with a devastating right cross to Walcott’s chin and one of the greatest heavyweight title fights of all time comes to a sudden and dramatic ending.

Was there foul play in Philly? The kinescope of the closed circuit telecast lends credence to the belief that Walcott’s gloves were doctored. At the end of the sixth round the camera shifts to Walcott’s corner and if you watch closely you can see Felix Bocchiccio, Walcott’s manager, rubbing Walcott’s left and right gloves as if he is applying something. Was this just a nervous reaction? I think not. The action looks too deliberate. After the eighth round the camera again follows Walcott to his corner. As soon as he sits down we see Bocchiccio leaning through the ropes and he again rubs Walcott’s right glove for at least six seconds in a circular motion before the camera moves over to Rocky’s corner. (My personal kinescope copy clearly shows this but for some reason it has been cut from the version available on YouTube). Just before the bell rings to begin the ninth round the camera moves back to Walcott’s corner and we again see his manager quickly rub Walcott’s gloves and then wipe his hands on the fighter’s stomach and trunks, as if trying to remove something. This part is included on the current YouTube version. Could the substance just be Vaseline? It’s doubtful. There is no reason to apply Vaseline to a fighter’s gloves in the midst of a fight. 

Rocky Marciano always believed that Jersey Joe’s manager had rubbed a hot, irritant salve—perhaps a capsicum ointment—on Walcott’s gloves and upper body. Rocky had good reason to suspect foul play. Felix Bocchicchio had resurrected Jersey Joe’s career and put him on the road to the championship, but he was also a well-known gambler and an organized crime figure in Philadelphia and New Jersey with a rap sheet dating back to 1925.  Rocky never believed Walcott was aware of anything illegal going on in his corner. “He was too wrapped up in the fight (to notice),” Marciano said. “He was too great a champ to go along with something like that. They wouldn’t tell him. But somebody did it, because I know what was happening to my eyes.” Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother: “Rocky believed he was blinded intentionally until the day he died. He spoke of it often.” After he retired as undefeated champion Rocky accused Bocchicchio of rubbing the substance on Walcott’s gloves and upper body in a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in October 1956. Walcott’s manager sued for libel. A Pennsylvania jury believed the allegations and found in favor of the Post.

Now let’s jump ahead to February 25, 1964.  The scene is the Miami Beach Auditorium. Cassius Clay, a 7 to 1 underdog, is about to challenge heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. It’s not Philadelphia, but it might as well be. In Liston’s corner his principal seconds are two men whose home base just happens to be the City of Brotherly Love: Joe Polino, a well-known trainer and corner man, and former heavyweight contender Willie Reddish, Sonny’s chief trainer.

As the fourth round came to a close it was apparent that the odds did not reflect what was taking place in the ring. The challenger appeared quite capable of pulling off a huge upset. But near the end of the round Clay looked pained and began to blink furiously. He returned to his corner in an agitated state. “Cut the gloves off!” screamed young Cassius whose eyes felt like they were burning up. A caustic substance of unknown origin had somehow gotten into Clay’s eyes just as he seemed to be taking charge of the fight. The very capable and experienced Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer and chief second, kept a cool head. He sponged the stricken fighter’s eyes in an attempt to wash away whatever was causing the problem. At the bell to begin the fifth round Clay was still complaining. “I can’t see. We’re going home.” “No way” answered Dundee. “Get in there and fight. If you can’t see, keep away from him until your eyes clear. This is the big one. Nobody walks away from the heavyweight championship.” Dundee shoved him out of the corner. 

Even though he was fighting half blind Clay incredibly was able to survive the round despite Liston’s best efforts to render him unconscious. Swaying and shifting like an Indian rubber man Clay instinctively avoided most of Liston’s punches. It was an amazing display by an extraordinarily talented 22-year-old athlete.

In the following round, with his vision improved, Clay dominated Liston, landing dozens of unanswered punches. The exhausted and demoralized champion returned to his corner at the end of the sixth round a tired and beaten fighter. Claiming an injured shoulder he told his seconds he could not go on. Cassius Clay—soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali—became the 22nd heavyweight champion of the world.

Conclusion: There is strong reason to believe that someone in Liston’s corner tried the same illegal methods used in the Marciano-Walcott fight to influence the outcome by temporarily blinding Clay. When asked his opinion Angelo Dundee, ever the diplomat, said that a substance used to treat Liston’s cut under his eye must have accidentally gotten into Clay’s eyes. But couldn’t it have gotten into Liston’s eyes as well, and why would anyone choose to treat an eye cut with a caustic substance in the first place?

Two days after the fight heavyweight contender Eddie Machen told reporters, “The same thing happened to me when I fought Liston in 1960. I thought my eyes would burn out of my head, and Liston seemed to know it would happen.” He theorized that Liston’s handlers would rub medication on his shoulders, which would then be transferred to his opponent’s forehead during clinches and drip into the eyes. “Clay did the worst thing when he started screaming and let Liston know it had worked,” said Machen. “Clay panicked. I didn’t do that. I’m more of a seasoned pro, and I hid it from Liston.”

Years later Joe Polino, Liston’s assistant trainer, told Philadelphia Daily News reporter Jack McKinney what actually happened.

According to Polino, in between the third and fourth rounds, Sonny had told him to “juice the gloves.” Polino said they were always ready to do that if Sonny was in real danger of losing. He admitted they had done it in Liston’s fights with Eddie Machen and Cleveland Williams. He said it was a stinging solution but did not specify what was in it.

According to McKinney, “Polino told me that he put the stuff on the gloves at Sonny’s express instructions and then threw the stuff under the ring apron as far as he could.” McKinney also added, “Joe himself felt so conflicted over this. He’d been sucked into it, but he knew if he ever came clean he would never work again.”

In each of the above scenarios the heavyweight champion of the world was facing defeat. It appears that desperate and illegal measures were taken by someone in the champion’s corner to influence the outcome. The other common denominator is that both Walcott and Liston were handled by Philadelphia boxing people. Philadelphia was home base for Blinky Palermo, the notorious fight fixer and longtime godfather of the city’s boxing scene. Blinky operated freely in Philly but was banned in New York State. This is not to say that he was involved in either incident (in fact he was in jail in 1964) just that Philadelphia was no stranger to boxing scandal considering who had been in charge for many years. Fight fans with long memories remember the notorious incident involving Harold Johnson, who claimed he was drugged after someone had given him a “poisoned orange” just before he stepped into a Philadelphia ring to face Cuban heavyweight Julio Mederos in 1955. Johnson, the betting favorite, was stopped in the second round. Professional boxing was suspended in Philadelphia for six months following the incident.

Perhaps because Marciano defeated Walcott to win the title the matter was not pursued by Weill or anyone else. There was no investigation by Pennsylvania boxing officials into the possibility that Walcott’s gloves were doctored. Florida officials were even more lax in the aftermath of the Clay-Liston bout. Florida didn’t even have a state boxing commission. Instead, local municipalities (in this case Miami Beach) ran the show. The only investigation that took place concerned the veracity of Liston’s claim that he injured his shoulder, which may have been bogus or exaggerated, but could not be proven. 

Both Rocky Marciano and the fighter then known as Cassius Clay were destined for greatness. The nefarious attempts to alter the course of boxing history failed because Clay’s amazing speed, reflexes and uncanny athletic instincts enabled him to survive the fifth round. The attempt to foil Marciano was also unsuccessful because of the Rock’s almost super human toughness and determination. For three full rounds Marciano could barely see the target in front of him yet he kept attacking in his relentless way, bringing the fight to Walcott despite taking punches that would have stopped most heavyweights in their tracks. On that night it would have taken more than the two fists of a mortal being, let alone a “caustic” solution, to defeat the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster.”

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of the critically acclaimed book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing Co.). 

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

The Rocky Marciano Interviews - Part One (16mm Transfer)

1952-9-23 Jersey Joe Walcott vs Rocky Marciano I (FOTY)

Sonny Liston vs Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) Boxing Match

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  1. Mike Silver 11:33pm, 05/05/2014

    Paul, a film of Liston’s 1953 Inter-City Golden Gloves win over Julius Griffin does exist and I believe may be in one of the documentaries of Liston. As an amateur he just overwhelmed his opponents with his tremendous strength and that incredible jab that was like a battering ram. Even experienced amateurs couldn’t handle him. He could have won the title in ‘58 if given the chance and held it until Clay came along. I will not be attending the IBHOF this year. Enjoy!

  2. Paul Gallender 10:47am, 05/05/2014

    Thanks for your response, Mike. It’s unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any definitive film of what was going on in Liston’s corner between the third and fourth rounds and after the sixth round. Maybe Jimmy Jacobs collection of fight films has something more definitive. He bought up everything he could. He told me he even had films of some of Sonny’s amateur fights. As I write this, I’m recalling something I read about the first Liston-Patterson bout: that either Look or Life Magazine had installed microphones in the two corners to pick up what would be said between rounds. If only someone had thought to do the same thing for the first Liston-Ali bout, we might have some verifiable proof, one way or the other. I’ll be attending the IBHOF convention next month for the first time and if you’re planning on being there, hopefully we can meet. All the best.

  3. Mike Silver 12:56pm, 05/04/2014

    I appreciate the feedback Paul. You wrote a wonderful and sympathetic biography of Liston that belongs on every fight fan’s bookshelf and I respect your meticulous research.  Sonny was one of my favorite fighters and a great heavyweight champion who I am well aware was more victim than perpetrator. You will notice that I put a question mark after the title of my article to indicate the jury is still out whether foul play was indeed used to affect the outcome of the fight. We may never know the complete truth, but what I documented in the article is very strong circumstantial evidence that an illegal substance was used to temporarily blind Clay. The shoulder injury, whatever its severity, is beside the point. The question I asked was foul play involved during the fight? Perhaps I jumped to a conclusion when I wrote that Clay came back to the corner in an agitated state after the fourth round. I assumed that if something had gotten into his eyes—which I believe happened during the round—he would be agitated. Notice when the bell rings at the end of the fourth round he grabs the rope with his right hand and uses it like a rail to guide him to his corner—not unlike a blind man would do. It was an uncharacteristic move. I ran the fight again and it is difficult to determine his level of agitation when he sat down because when the bell rang ending the round the camera immediately went to a long shot for about 13 seconds. During the long shot Clay is on the stool for eight seconds. From our balcony view we can see that Clay appears to say something to Dundee as soon as he sits down. Dundee appears to reply and then—and only then—does he apply the towel to Clay’s eyes. The camera then zooms into Clay’s corner but he is already complaining vociferously and agitatedly about his eyes. Was Polino lying? Was Machen lying? No one can answer for sure. But Polino was an experienced second. Why would he use a caustic solution on his own fighter? Couldn’t that solution have gotten into Liston’s eyes just as well as Clay’s?  Polino during his long career treated many cuts in the corner. Wouldn’t other opponents have complained about a caustic substance getting in their eyes too? Was Polino experimenting with a new substance for the first time to treat a minor cut on Liston’s face? This is my own opinion, but I do not think Machen was lying when he said his eyes burned during his fight with Liston. Yes, Liston won a unanimous decision but that fight was an important heavyweight bout with the winner likely to challenge for the title. No doubt Liston’s people would have been more satisfied with a KO than a decision. Machen was impossible to nail, temporarily blinding him would make him vulnerable to a knockout. I recall a quote, and I will try and find it, that Cleveland Williams complained that his eyes were burning during one of his fights with Liston. Again, I could be wrong, but I simply presented the facts and opinions as I saw them. It certainly makes for a lively debate.

  4. Tex Hassler 11:03am, 05/04/2014

    Joe Walcott was about as honest and clean a fighter as there ever was. If any foul play was involved and I believe there was, Walcott himself was innocent. As for Liston he had enough bad people around him for any thing to take place and it did during his first fight with Ali. Liston himself may or may not have known about it. Who knows for sure now. Great, thought provoking article Mr. Silver.

  5. Paul Gallender 11:23pm, 05/03/2014

    With all due respect, Mike, your conclusions regarding Liston in the first Ali fight are suspect, if not flat-out wrong. I did a lot of research on both Ali-Liston fights. First, you maintain Sonny’s injury was either bogus or exaggerated and can’t be proven. Sonny had been receiving treatments on his left shoulder for a couple of weeks before the fight. The physiotherapist was Barney Felix who, of course, ended up being selected to referee the bout on the day of the fight. “Liston was swinging and missing,” Felix said after the fight. “I said to myself, he’s going to tear his shoulder to pieces. And he did.”  The muscle damage had swollen the circumference of his arm by almost four inches and his fist was swollen as well. The following day the commission’s eight-person medical team, according to the lead physician, Dr. Alexander Robbins, unanimously concluded that Liston has suffered considerable damage to the biceps tendon in his left shoulder. “There is no doubt in my mind this fight should have been stopped,” said Robbins.

    Now, as to the rumor that Liston’s gloves were “juiced” and that Liston ordered it, you wrote: “Conclusion: There is strong reason to believe that someone in Liston’s corner tried the same illegal methods.” You say that “near the end of the round Clay looked pained and began to blink furiously. He returned to his corner in an agitated state.” That didn’t happen and I suggest you watch the end of the round. Clay was calm when he got back to the corner. The problem began when Dundee, as he always did to his fighters, took his sponge and wiped Clay’s face downward from his forehead. He inadvertently put the solution that was applied to Sonny’s cut cheek into his fighter’s eyes. There is a point during the fourth round - about two minutes in, I think, when Clay’s forehead makes contact with Sonny’s face. That appears to be the genesis of Clay’s approaching crisis. As far as I can tell, the substance applied to Liston’s cut was the same substance used by almost every other cut man in the business. The Polino story cannot be verified, and he wouldn’t be the only one of Sonny’s former corner men that would turn on Liston, especially when Sonny was no longer around to confront them for doing so. “Polino said they were always ready to do that if Sonny was in real danger of losing.” When was Sonny ever in danger of losing after he moved to Philadelphia in 1958? The answer is never. Cleveland Williams never complained about “juiced gloves.” He greatly respected Sonny. Machen hated Sonny and probably thought he could have beaten him if he hadn’t injured his right shoulder before their 1960 fight. But Liston was never in any danger of losing that bout; the only rounds he lost, I believe, were because of two deductions for low blows. By the way, that was the only time Liston was ever penalized for throwing low blows. He was not a dirty fighter. Nobody saw Polino throw anything under the ring. And why would he “throw the bottle under the ring apron as far as he could,”  when 1) it was the only bottle of coagulant that he had to apply to Liston’s cut, and any other cuts he might have suffered later, and 2) wouldn’t the bottle have come out the other side and have been noticed or picked up by somebody? Perhaps I’m wrong, but is there anything under the ring that would stop the bottle’s momentum?

    Two other things, Liston didn’t tell his corner to stop the fight. He told them his left arm was useless and hurt like hell. Willie Reddish and Jack Nilon stopped the fight, not Sonny. When Dundee walked over to the corner to say a few words to Liston, he wasn’t listening. “He was wailing: ‘My arm feels like it’s full of water,’” said Angelo. And last, you say in the sixth round that Clay was “landing dozens of unanswered punches.” Re-watch that round, too. Sonny was still trying and throwing punches with both hands. There was nothing behind the lefts and it hurt badly every time he threw one. Clay won the round but it didn’t happen the way you described it.

    For some reason, people still like to hate and demean Sonny Liston. I’m not referring to you as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you had a very healthy respect for the man’s talent. But for most people, the narrative has been written and most don’t seem to care if what’s been said or written about him is true or not. They’re willing to accept it, primarily, I think, because the misinformation has been repeated so often that it simply must be true.

  6. Dan Cuoco 03:05pm, 05/02/2014

    Mike, your attention to detail is amazing. I never thought Liston threw the fight and this article backs my belief. Great job!

  7. Mike Silver 06:29am, 05/02/2014

    I agree Bobby. It does prove the Miami fight was not fixed.

  8. Bobby Franklin 04:43am, 05/02/2014

    Mike, This is an extremely important article, and should be made into a documentary. The fact that Liston had his gloves “juiced” would be proof he didn’t throw the Miami bout. It appears he was not able to handle the young Cassius and quit out of fear of being embarrassed when the glove trick didn’t work. In Marciano’s case, it can now be argued the challenger would not have been behind in the fight if he had been able to see. That was an amazing performance considering what he was going through. Thanks for this incredible addition to boxing history. Your are the Sugging Sleuth.

  9. Mike Silver 04:19pm, 05/01/2014

    Thanks guys.

  10. Jim Crue 06:10am, 05/01/2014

    Hey Mike,
    thanks for another great story. Wonderful stuff as usual.

  11. Mike Casey 02:47am, 05/01/2014

    Really fascinating and enjoyable article, Mike. Funnily enough, I was only reading about Mr Bocchiccio and his various ‘friends’ in an early fifties issue of The Ring the other day. I have a good quality film of the fight that also shows the same business with the gloves

  12. peter 05:36pm, 04/30/2014

    This is another interesting Mike Silver article. I did not know about the alleged foul-play during the Marciano-Walcott fight. Mike Silver is a font of boxing information. Keep them coming.

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