Rocky Marciano: A Crown of Gold

By Clarence George on November 3, 2017
Rocky Marciano: A Crown of Gold
While every kingdom indeed needs a king, post-Marciano champs are "no longer royalty."

Rocky Marciano last fought on September 21, 1955, his sixth title defense, knocking out Archie Moore, “The most unappreciated fighter in the world…”

“Boxing, of course, still has its fans, but it’s not the same.”—Russell Sullivan

Rocky Marciano last fought on September 21, 1955, his sixth title defense, knocking out Archie Moore (“The most unappreciated fighter in the world,” as the “Old Mongoose” once signed off on a letter to A.J. Liebling) in the ninth at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He officially retired on April 27, 1956, as the sole undefeated champion in the history of the heavyweight division. He won all 49 of his bouts, 43 by knockout. Only Don Mogard, Ted Lowry (twice), Roland LaStarza, Red Applegate, and Ezzard Charles managed to go the distance. Each win came by way of unanimous decision, save for that over LaStarza, which was by split decision, and each was a 10-rounder, except for the one against Charles, which went 15. Marciano only went the distance once as champ, against Charles, whom he kayoed in the eighth in their second bout, at Yankee Stadium on September 17, 1954 (The Ring‘s Fight of the Year). He stopped LaStarza by 11th-round TKO, also in their second bout, at New York’s Polo Grounds on September 24, 1953 (another Fight of the Year).

The heavyweight division hasn’t seen anything remotely like “The Rock” since. And never will again.

“Since the mid-1950s there have been dozens of heavyweight championship fights,” writes Marciano biographer Russell Sullivan. “Few, however, have possessed the crackling excitement and old-style glamour that was present in the days of Rocky Marciano. The heavyweight crown has also lost much prestige and standing.”

Only four heavyweights have attained an almost godlike status because of their championship: John L. Sullivan (America’s first sports legend), Jack Dempsey (who was even more beloved than Babe Ruth), Joe Louis (the gracious antidote to snarky Jack Johnson), and Rocky Marciano (who filled the black hole of Louis’ retirement). Muhammad Ali? “No boxer—arguably, no athlete in the history of sports—enjoyed the worldwide fame of Ali,” Sullivan readily concedes. But Ali wasn’t so much famous for being Heavyweight Champion of the World as for being Ali. His “fame was due less to his connection to the history of heavyweight championship boxing and more to his own magnetic personality,” continues Sullivan, who also points out that “he—not the institution of heavyweight championship boxing—supplied the electricity,” adding that “his individual brilliance and charisma did not restore the kingdom of heavyweight championship boxing but merely obscured the fact that it had crumbled years before.”

Indeed, interest in the division diminished post-Marciano, never to recover.

All sorts of reasons for all the ho-humming, not least of which was the lack of charisma evinced by the men who bore the title, as well as bored the fans. Regardless of unquestionable skill and toughness, they just didn’t come across as championship material.

This had happened before, of course. Following the retirement of Gene Tunney, for instance, came the “champions of little worth,” in the harsh words of A.J. Liebling: Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera, Max Baer, and James J. Braddock. Ah, but then along came Joe Louis to set the stars once again right in their courses. Ezzard Charles succeeded “The Brown Bomber,” followed by Jersey Joe Walcott. Wonderful fighters? No question, as well as gents, but the passionless Charles (“a true Ferdinand the Bull,” wrote W.C. Heinz) was looked upon with disdain for, through no fault of his own, not being Louis. As for Walcott, despite actress Joan Blondell thinking him the bee’s knees (the racy Republican liked that he was “the Bible-thumping father of six”), he, too, was a “prince of prudence,” as Red Smith once described him. Underwhelmed by their paper-cup personalities, fans unceremoniously relegated them to boxing’s dusty and cobwebbed attic with the coming of Rocky Marciano. And post-Rocky? When does a lull become a state of permanence?

However worthy of boxing fans’ respect, Floyd Patterson, Ingemar Johansson, and Sonny Liston never captured the public’s imagination. The same is true of Joe Frazier (who, however unfairly, tended to be seen as little more than a cardboard cutout, courtesy of the Muhammad Ali Prop Department), George Foreman (except, at least to some extent, during his second reign), and Ken Norton (whose title was more awarded than earned). Leon Spinks? Please. Mike Tyson came awfully close, but Buster Douglas winning the title by kayoing him in the 10th at the Tokyo Dome on February 11, 1990, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport, put paid to that (not helped any by his brutish persona and considerable naughtiness). Larry Holmes today looms large in the hearts and minds of many boxing fans (though that certainly wasn’t the case when he was champ, as he was disliked for having stopped Ali—the only man to do so—retiring him in the 10th at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on October 2, 1980, as well as for his occasional boorishness, including, of course, “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap”), but ask your grandmother if she ever heard of him. A 1950s grandmother, however, who would have neither known nor cared to know anything about the Sweet Science, was well aware that Rocky Marciano was Heavyweight Champion of the World. Evander Holyfield has always been highly regarded by most boxing fans, however unknown to the general public. While some current aficionados rank Lennox Lewis among the All-Time Top 10, he “never completely won over the fans with his personality and turned them off on his bad nights,” as boxing writer Frank Lotierzo quite rightly points out. In any event, he’s another one who isn’t exactly a household name (except perhaps in his native Britain). As for Riddick Bowe, he never generated much in the way of affection. The Klitschkos? Nope. Tyson Fury? Nope. Joseph Parker? Second-tier. Anthony Joshua? When pigs fly. “Reckless and wild” Deontay Wilder? When polka-dot pigs fly (Lotierzo’s observation that “in 38 pro bouts against suspect and limited opposition, Wilder has shown terrible defense and poor balance” is putting it mildly). The seemingly endless number of sorta champs—such as Gerrie Coetzee, Trevor Berbick, Francesco Damiani, Siarhei Liakhovich, and Charles Martin—need not apply.

“Marciano, then, was the last man to derive his fame from the institution of heavyweight championship boxing,” Sullivan writes. “As it turned out, although no one knew it at the time, he was the last of a dying breed.”

While every kingdom does indeed need a king, to paraphrase Sullivan, post-Marciano champs are “no longer royalty.” Upon their heads, a paper crown.

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  1. Clarence George 03:10am, 11/08/2017

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Nicolas.

    I don’t want to wind up writing a follow-up article here, but I’d like to address a couple of the issues you raised:

    What ifs are always interesting.  What if the Confederacy had developed a more extensive railway system?  What if Hitler hadn’t fought a two-front war?  What if Max Baer had had a more extensive run as champ?  Who can say for sure?  But I’ll point out, if I may, that Marciano became champ in September 1952 and last defended in September 1955.  A relatively short run, yes, but it hasn’t stopped him from being recognized as one of the few heavyweight icons.

    Is my perspective American?  I think that’s fair.  But it’s less because I’m American and more because I don’t know what other perspective one can reasonably take.  While I don’t at all dismiss the fierce fighters from foreign shores, historically (if not recently or currently), heavyweight boxing at the championship level has been absolutely dominated by Americans.

    Thanks again, Nicolas.

  2. nicolas 08:51pm, 11/07/2017

    with all due respects to Mr. George, who Ihave read quite often, I have to disagree within, and perhaps the Maricano biographer, who suggest that Marciano’s fame was derived from he institution of the heavyweight championship. John L Sullivan was in fact fr4om what we know the first sports star when there really had been none before. Jack Dempsey arrived just before the Golden Age of Sports, the roaring 20’s, when baseball;and boxing ruled the roost. Perhaps only due to the Firpo fight and afterwards did he really become popular. I believe that many were in fact at the time before hoping that Carpentier would beat him, this of course due to the draft dodging charge against Dempsey. Joe Louis came out at a time when the Great Depression was about, and the threat of an enemy in Adolph Hitler and Germany. It of course also helped that a black man was heavyweight champion, and showed perhaps to some that America was a democracy and a land of opportunity. Similar to Ali he represented something of a social change. Marciano I would also suggest that his fame is that after so man-years, a white fighter held the world heavyweight championhsiop, and was going against the grain in boxing, when which had with fighters not in the prominent positions that had been in previous decades. Of course the knockouts that Marciano produced certainly helped make him his fame as well. The gentlemen who are mentioned as famous because of the ‘instituiotn of the championship are on this list because they also held the title for a number of years. Had Max Baer held it for a number of years, amor Ingmar Johansan done so, I suggest that they would be on this list. Also is this not really an Amewridcan prospective here on this article. I don’t think that Marciano was well l.iked in Britain. I doubt that many Europeans or other foreign people others around the world would have known who Jack Dempsey was, even during Dempsey’s life. Had Gerry Cooney been able to get the heavyweight championships the way Marciano did it, I am sure Cooney would be considered part of his greatness due to the institution of the heavyweight championship. .

  3. Mike Curtis 08:03pm, 11/04/2017

    I always wondered how Marciano would have done had he fought in Jerry Quarry’s era and vice versa. I can very well see Quarry capturing the title had he fought in the Marciano era.  Perhaps the popular Quarry would have been even more popular in the fifties than he was in the sixties and seventies. Could Marciano have captured a title in Quarry’s era? Me thinks so, but it would have been short lived and it would have to had happened during Ali’s exile, or before Foreman came on the scene. Frazier vs. Marciano is a tough call. Who knows?

  4. Sheldon Leonard 11:07am, 11/04/2017

    Rocky was the absolute king of the working class in the long ago Fifties in America.  Son of Italian immigrants who started his working life in that Brockton shoe factory with his Dad he found the ideal work/job inside the ring where he had an opportunity to make a good life for his family and he applied himself not just with ambition and determination but with a vengeance. Lots of talk from athletes nowadays about not letting people to take food out of their kids mouths….mostly just that…talk. In Rocky’s case he didn’t have to mouth those words….his fans, especially those who grew up in similar circumstances knew instinctively what he was all about.

  5. Kid Blast 04:41pm, 11/03/2017

    Moore was great but he did no hit as hard as The Rock, who could break you down by hitting all parts of your body. Moore was more pinpoint.

    Thing about Rocky was that he was perfect and had no freak show fights. They put 49 opponents in front of them, and he beat every one of them.

    He also was affable and shrew and took care of his family like a good son does,

  6. Clarence George 04:10pm, 11/03/2017

    Thanks, Peter.  Not knocked out, but pretty much held up by the ropes.  Sort of like Jake LaMotta, but with nowhere near the dignity.

    Thanks, Mr. Leonard, and great post.  Wisps of informational straw blow my way on occasion, and I don’t think Beaujack is doing particularly well.


    Patrick Wymark

  7. Sheldon Leonard 02:42pm, 11/03/2017

    Clarence George-Great contribution to! It was a brutal fight….Moore who probably hit as hard as Rocky landed his best shots and right on the button! It was a Wednesday night .....different days…..different world too! Next day was a school day and we listened to the blow by blow on the radio. Rocky was 31 and it was all over but the shouting….“ancient” Archie was 37….present day GGG is 35 and not “ancient” by today’s standard! We haven’t heard from beau jack for a while….for all we know he could have been in attendance at Yankee Stadium that night with his Dad.

  8. peter 01:51pm, 11/03/2017

    Good article, Mr. George. Weep no more for the heavyweight division.  This unhealthy sport is too healthy to get knocked out.

  9. Lucas McCain 12:28pm, 11/03/2017

    A sympathetic tip of the Hatlo hat to a book that came out 10-15 years ago but sounds like it was written 50 years ago, except for references to later fighters.  “To each his own, it’s all unknown” (B. Zimmerman, who knew which way the wind blows).

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