Rocky, Archie and the Lost Magic
The heavyweight championship—once lauded as the richest prize in sport—might now be irreparably fractured and devalued…
When Rocky Marciano knocked out Archie Moore on September 21, 1955, it was a truly great fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, waged with heart and soul in the sacred and cavernous shrine of Yankee Stadium. A crowd of more than 60,000 came to pay homage.
Several years later and a good number of years before the “Fight of the Century” between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, some mournful writers were describing the battle between Rocky and Archie as the last great heavyweight championship fight. This, of course, was as much of a nonsense as the tired old saying, “They don’t make ‘em like so-and-so anymore.”
There would be other great heavyweight championship fights, and there will be more to come. Such things have a way of working themselves out, even though the wait for something special can be unbearably long.
As to whether the old magic and magnetism will return in equal measure, this writer doubts it. The heavyweight championship—once lauded as the richest prize in sport—might now be irreparably fractured and devalued. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to glue it back together again unless the will to start a revolution is there.
Whether we agree or disagree about old champions versus new champions, big heavyweights, small heavyweights or whether the planets have shifted for better or for worse, the hard fact remains that we haven’t seen a great fight for the undisputed heavyweight title for a depressingly long time. Not officially. Not beyond all doubt and dispute.
Lost is the enormous crackle and anticipation. Lost is the heavyweight championship of the world as a single and undisputed entity. Gone, for the most part, are the big stadiums and the big crowds. The electricity has been substituted by a pleasantly numbing gas that has lowered people’s expectations in tandem with the lowering of quality, depth and competitiveness.
Maybe last night’s fight wasn’t quite as bad as we thought it was, so we keep replaying it in the way that we keep replaying a disappointing album by our favorite artist, desperately searching for the magic that we might have missed the first time around.
Finally, we are forced to admit that we’ve been had. All that pushing and shoving and name-calling before the fight really was better than the fight itself.
Your ordinary Joe doesn’t require a degree in psychology to know when something is special and when it isn’t. Marciano versus Moore (Marciano versus anyone); Frazier versus Ali; Frazier versus Foreman; Foreman versus Ali. These were not just massive fights but massive events which transcended the sport of boxing and captivated the interest of the dilettantes, the neutrals, the detached and even those lofty members of the anti-boxing brigade who blithely justified their presence by explaining that one simply had to be seen at such bashes, darling.
Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore always liked each other. Archie talked up the fight with some unflattering appraisals of Rocky’s ability, but Marciano took it in good humor and neither man insulted the other’s mother. An avid businessman and arch disciple of the dollar, Rocky didn’t mind playing the role of amiable stooge. Moore even pulled Marciano’s leg at the weigh-in, bringing a smile to the champ’s face by whispering, “My, Rocky, you have such beautiful brown eyes!”
The big payday had been a long time coming for Archie, who had been campaigning since 1936, when Joe Louis had yet to begin his great reign. Moore had to make the most of it. He had to give every last drop of himself as both a canny publicist and a fighter. He did fantastically well on both counts.
Everything had to be right for Moore, especially the ambiance of the training camp. Archie set up his headquarters in the peaceful environs of North Adams in Massachusetts, a small town he had fallen in love with nine years before when he had traveled there to knock out Esco Greenwood. An erudite man with a constant thirst for knowledge, Moore knew all about the workings of the mind and body and the importance of achieving a sensible and pleasurable balance. He needed peace and quiet for the biggest challenge of his career and North Adams was a green and pleasant land with clear mountain air.
The local folks embraced Archie enthusiastically and a crowd of some two thousand greeted him on his arrival. Between training, Moore busied himself by attending various local meetings and making a lot of new friends with his easygoing nature. He drove himself around in a big red Thunderbird and also took flying lessons. Ah yes, the flying lessons. They very nearly sent promoter Jim Norris, of the International Boxing Club, into a mental nosedive.
Norris wired Moore and said: “I do not want to interfere in any way with your training, but surely this is not a necessary procedure for getting into shape.” Ever the crafty fox, Archie agreed but still occasionally took a turn at the controls with his co-pilot. Bearing in mind Moore’s lust for adventure, Norris was perhaps fortunate that manned space flights were still a thing of the future.
Norris wasn’t the only concerned party. Moore’s apparently casual training routine, most especially his erratic sparring sessions, was a worry to others, but the great old pro knew exactly what he was doing: “I’ve been fighting for almost twenty years as a pro. I know what to do in a ring. Knocking the stuffing out of my sparring partners doesn’t improve my condition.”
In his fine book, The Ageless Warrior, author Mike Fitzgerald tells us of a visit to Moore’s camp by Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. Jack seemed to be in two minds about how the fight would go, but leaned towards Moore. Wrote Murphy: “Marciano should win because he is younger, stronger, possesses a fearful punch and has an extraordinary capacity for punishment. Marciano offends the purists because he is a fighter without style. He is graceless, frequently clownishly awkward, and it is embarrassing to see the champion of the world sprawl across the ring after missing a punch. Yet he can punch and take a punch. In this day, and often in times past, nothing more is required. Logic – cold logic – points to a Marciano victory.
“But what is logic when Archie Moore is involved? The point I seek to make is that Moore, in a figurative sense, is about as easy caged as a tiger. Sometimes I get the uneasy notion – call it hunch or superstition – that this is a man who can do anything he sets his mind to. Absolutely anything.”
This was very true of Moore, who believed that the study of life and the science of boxing were interlinked. He would go to any lengths and any part of the world to improve his education. Even as a young rising prospect, Archie was accustomed to globe-trotting, plying his trade wherever he could make money and gain experienced. He greatly enjoyed other lands and cultures, using the knowledge he gained to improve his mental and physical attributes as a boxer.
On a 1940 trip to Australia, Moore was fascinated by the phenomenal strength and stamina of the Aboriginal people, who could traverse miles of rough terrain in impossible heat by simply chewing on dried meat and swallowing only the juice. He would later employ that trick when losing weight for fights.
Moore’s fight against the bigger, hard punching Australian Ron Richards was an early milestone in Archie’s career. After being decked for an early count of nine, he cleverly changed his tactics and gave big Ron a systematic pasting. By the time the fight was halted in the tenth round, the face of Richards was a sorry mess from cuts to his eyes and lips.
Moore became an unlikely hero of the sporting Australians and news of his success soon reached America, where he would begin his slow climb to world championship status. Archie learned the value of patience in dealing with Ron Richards and in subsequently navigating the choppy waters of boxing politics. It would be another twelve years before he knocked down the door and won the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim.
Jack Richardson, who managed Archie during the Australian tour, predicted that Moore would “win big” against Marciano. A good few other people felt likewise. The fight was never a dead cert for Rocky in the minds of the boxing cognoscenti.
At the Marciano camp at Grossinger’s in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Rocky trained with his usual single-mindedness and unswerving dedication, cutting himself off from the distractions of the big city and normal life. It was incredible how this hyperactive man could consistently discipline himself in this way. Proper training was a sacred ritual to him, even though the wheels in his head never stopped turning. He was always bubbling with ideas, looking after his precious money, haggling for more than he had and tracking the movements and dealings of manager Al Weill.
Rocky’s relationship with Weill was nearing breaking point as the champion became convinced that he was constantly being short-changed and kept in the dark. Like a nervous mob boss who can no longer identify his true friends, Marciano twitched with uncertainty and boiling anger.
Smart and media aware, Rocky would always present a rosy picture to reporters. Everything was going well and Weill was the best manager any man could have and an honest guy. Privately Marciano was cussing Weill as the son of a bitch who had screwed him again.
In his previous title defense, Rocky had battered Don Cockell to defeat in nine rounds in San Francisco. Only afterwards did Marciano discover that his payday had been raided beforehand. Ten thousand dollars had been skimmed from the promotional profits and apparently paid into Al Weill’s account.
Enough was enough. Marciano would bide his time, beat Moore and then have his revenge. The time was right anyway. He was thirty-two, his back was genuinely troubling him and the fight game was consuming him. Even before the Cockell fight, Rocky had recorded his scrambled thoughts on a scratchpad: “I don’t know – I’m not thinking tough anymore – geared just to fight – not fun to watch – consigned to oblivion – cheese champs – nocturnal night training.”
Somehow, Marciano could shut out all the static in his brain and bash on to further glory. Such tunnel vision is a rare gift and only the true greats have it. Most others unravel at some point and seem almost relieved at being released, especially in today’s far more intrusive and cynical society.
The erstwhile obsession with painting a perfect picture of bliss seems laughable and hypocritical to us now. Worldly observers always knew that Marciano’s world was much more than a simple and perfect concoction of mom, apple pie and family life, just as they knew that Rock Hudson was out of his element in a conventional marriage. But it was easier and less complicated to believe that life was a Gene Kelly musical rather than a gritty drama where even the good guys are hard to like. The odd irony of this fluffy pretense was that it made people tougher, more optimistic and less prone to self-pity. When Archie Moore was asked how he got over his juvenile delinquency, he replied, “I grew up.”
As a boxer and thinker, Marciano had grown up spectacularly under the expert tutelage of trainer Charley Goldman. It was Charley and other great trainers who passed on their knowledge to Angelo Dundee. Boxing columnist Lou Eisen recently dropped me a message with some interesting observations along these lines. Said Lou: “My surrogate father Angelo Dundee, I think, belong in the same group with Eddie Futch and the other great trainers. Angelo told me he learned his craft from Charley Goldman, Chickie Ferrara and Ray Arcel. His brother Chris told him in the 1940s to go to Stillman’s gym, keep his mouth shut and listen!
“Angelo really loved all of those guys. Goldman helped George Chuvalo for a while too. George told me he learned more in one afternoon with Goldman than he did from anyone else. It was Goldman who told George he was ‘throwin’ punches out the window.’ Charley showed him how to increase his power by shortening up on his punches considerably. If you watch the Quarry fight, you will see it was one short shot that dropped Quarry for ten.
“A friend of mine from high school was an outstanding amateur boxer and world ranked as an amateur. His name was Martin Mezzera. He won two New York Gold Glove tournaments at welterweight. He went to see Angelo in Florida. Angelo told him he was a great amateur but advised him to not turn pro because his defense was bad because his balance was off. He said, ‘You hit like a mule but in the pro ranks, even a half-decent fighter will wipe the floor with you.’
“Martin was upset and turned pro. He only had two pro fights and, like Angelo said, they wiped the floor with him. Years later he saw Angelo again and thanked him for saving his life.”
Men like Angelo Dundee and Charley Goldman could often sound blunt and terse. They were doers, not talkers, but they cared about the welfare of their fighters. Old Charley wasn’t one to blab, but he could pull out a nice quote when people denigrated his star pupil. Moore didn’t miss a beat in his tireless campaign to up the gate and promote his showdown with Rocky as the greatest spectacle ever. The sarcasm came in dollops as he tried to get into Marciano’s head and rile him. According to the gospel of Archie, the fight was a simple question of a skilled surgeon taking on a lumbering ox. “I understand that Rocky has started to take dancing lessons at his training camp,” Moore quipped.
Charley Goldman replied: “The Rock is like Yogi Berra. He doesn’t look too classy, but he hits the ball out of the park and he does OK on offense too.”
Marciano, it seemed, had chased away his inner demons and was now full of confidence. He told his faithful friend, Allie Columbo: “I’m going all out for this one, Allie. I really feel good about it.”
People couldn’t wait for the fight but they had to wait a little longer than originally planned. The contest, scheduled for September 20, 1955, was moved back a day due to the threat of a hurricane. It didn’t matter to Rocky and Archie. They were in the mood to whip up their own special storm.
Neither time nor technology has diminished the quality of the glorious battle that ensued between the master scientist and the deceptively smart street slugger. Moore’s cleverness and cunning continue to shine like a beacon, while Marciano’s sheer relentlessness—picking up speed and momentum like an unstoppable rolling stone—still catches the breath.
The contest started quietly. Foxy Archie was understandably cautious, eager to survey the lie of the land, while Rocky was rarely a fast “sudden death” starter like Jack Dempsey. Delightfully languid and comfortable in his own skin from years of invaluable experience, Archie tried out some jabs as he took stock of the chunky, advancing bull of a man who had seen off 48 opponents and never swallowed the bitter pill of defeat. Compact, solid and shifting forward steadily, Marciano often resembled a little tank in the preliminary stages of a fight, navigating the bumps and testing the incoming fire as he rumbled up to full speed and capability.
Rocky hit a big bump in the second round as he took a beautifully timed smash to the jaw from Archie that brought the Yankee Stadium crowd to its feet. The right hand punch was a fast, flashing jolt, whose sudden arrival caught everyone on the hop including the shocked Marciano. There is a unique roar to a crowd when a people’s champion hits the deck, a roar infused with gasps of horror and morbid intrigue. Nobody wants him to lose but everybody wants to know what it’s like to see.
Rocky went down. He landed on his right knee with both gloves resting on the canvas, much like a little tank in fact that had been flipped halfway over. Moore stood over him, looking quite imperious, still a picture of perfect poise despite the adrenaline that must have been rushing through his veins. It was a happening that seemed to last forever, but which in fact lasted for only four seconds before The Rock was back on his feet. Only Jersey Joe Walcott had dropped him before this and Rocky’s reaction was the same in both cases. He got up as if it hadn’t happened, as if it wasn’t meant to happen.
Marciano’s powers of recuperation were on a par with those of Dempsey. Far from being knocked into a foggy wilderness, Rocky and Jack seemed to come alive after taking a big one. It was their equivalent of an electric shock or a slug of neat whiskey. Moore came to appreciate this when he followed up with another stiff right to Rocky’s jaw. The punch had little or no effect and only Archie knew how that made him feel. With most other opponents, the follow-up wouldn’t have even been necessary.
Twenty-two years later, in Monte Carlo, the will of Rodrigo Valdez would be similarly tested when he would see Carlos Monzon rise from an absolute blockbuster to the button. It takes a lot for the stricken boxer to come back from a knockdown. It sometimes takes more for the boxer who has delivered it.
From that pivotal moment onward, despite all his skill and guile, Moore was trying to stop a boulder from rolling down a mountain. The marks of his artistry were already etched into Marciano’s rugged face. Rocky had a bruise under his left eye and was suffering from his seemingly obligatory nose bleed. But he kept pressing and punching and defying Archie’s return fire. Moore was firing seriously too, landing with skillfully placed wallops of power and precision.
It was often said that a boxer had to sample Marciano’s defiance and punch resistance in order to fully appreciate the daunting task of trying to beat him. Articles and essays are fine for conveying an impression of a great fighter. A would-be challenger can read those accounts without being hit and feel confident about his chances. But the best writers can’t sufficiently describe the pain and gradual heartbreak of a Marciano, a Dempsey or a Frazier hitting you in the body, smashing a few south of the border or banging you on the arms until you can no longer hold them up. Marciano banged Roland LaStarza so hard in the arms that he broke Roland’s blood vessels.
Picking up pace and momentum all the time, Rocky began to grind down Archie from the third round, firing at every opportunity. The champion was rolling now, the tank was back on track. Moore, with all those years of learning behind him, must have felt mildly insulted. He could understand why Charley Burley had bounced him off the canvas years before. Burley was a fellow scientist who could do things that no trainer can ever teach. He feinted men into fits and knocked them down with punches that came from near impossible angles and distances. Charley astounded Archie and Archie admitted it.
There was nothing apparently astounding about Marciano. Rocky wasn’t teaching Moore anything that Archie didn’t already know. The Old Mongoose knew the punches were coming and where they were coming from. He just couldn’t do anything about it. The chaos theory was mangling logical science. Marciano, in golfing terminology, took all the funky breaks out of a tricky putt by simply hitting it hard and straight. It was route one stuff, but it was oddly beautiful and admirable in its own way. Only he could do it. Legions of imitators in the years ahead would come to grief by trying to do likewise.
It was in the sixth round at Yankee Stadium that Moore was forced to seek his first respite. Powerful rights to the jaw knocked him down for two counts and consigned his magical second round to a far distant place. Gamely, he got up and fought on, denying Rocky the kill. Too eager to finish the fight, the champion missed as much as he scored in his rush for the knockout. Archie had taken some beating by the clang of the bell, but he was still there and still able to continue despite an examination from ringside doctor, Vincent Nardiello.
How did Moore ever get through to the ninth round? His fighting spirit was incredible, as was his fortitude. Like a villain in an old B movie, he kept getting shot full of holes but he wouldn’t die. A year later his willingness would be seriously questioned in his strange encounter with Floyd Patterson for Marciano’s vacant crown. It is unlikely that we will ever know what really happened in that one. Against the rampaging Marciano, Archie’s courage was almost beyond the call of duty. All the time he was being battered, he still searched for the one immaculate blow that would turn everything upside down and land him his biggest fish.
Bulling forward, hooking, swiping and slashing, Marciano was in his own world as he always was. In the glorious heat of battle, he didn’t have to worry about Al Weill, Jim Norris or anyone else who agitated him. There were no devious sub-plots in the ring. All he had to do was keep on hitting the other guy.
Tired, unsteady, yet still maintaining his distinct air of grace, Archie could no longer ward off his tiredness in the seventh. He hit the floor again but referee Harry Kessler ruled it a slip. The gods, it seemed, were giving Moore every possible chance. They gave him another in the eighth when he was cut down by a looping right hander but saved by the bell.
Then the ninth round and the final charge of Rocky Marciano’s career. For one minute and nineteen seconds, Rocky slammed away at Archie until a pair of finishing left hooks sent the challenger sliding down in a corner. Moore’s legs and brain would obey him no more. He made a late attempt to rise but couldn’t extricate himself from the trap.
“I enjoyed the fight,” Archie said afterwards and he meant it. He would enjoy many more before the close of his exceptional career in 1962.
Marciano, with a perfect 49-0 professional record, had one final bomb to deliver. He delivered it with mischievous relish. Seven months after the Moore fight, in the spring of 1956, Rocky announced his retirement, much to the horror of manager Al Weill and Jim Norris. Marciano said he wanted to spend more time with his wife and daughter, but those closest to him knew the real reason. Rocky’s hatred of Weill had finally boiled over.
Norris, gulping at the loss of his biggest box office draw, invited Marciano down to Miami to talk about it. Rocky was very amiable during the somewhat surreal conversation, but also teasing and contradictory. When Norris offered him a million dollars to fight again, Marciano said that money wasn’t the issue. Yet he added that three million might be enough to tempt him back into the ring. Norris told him that kind of money was ridiculous. In that case, Marciano replied, there was no point in any further discussion on the subject.
Everett M. Skehan, in his book, Rocky Marciano, tells of the exchange between Rocky and brother Sonny on their way back from the Norris meeting. “You know something, Rock,” Sonny said, “you never intended to take his offer.”
Rocky laughed. “Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t. I just wanted to see him squirm. That dirty mother.”
It was one last win and perhaps Rocky believed that, theoretically at least, he had rounded off his record at 50-0. But there was nothing wholesome about it. Real life really wasn’t a Gene Kelly musical.
Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).