Today is the birthday of legendary heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and, despite the fact “The Rock’s” famous 49-0 career mark was “eclipsed” by Floyd Mayweather, we’re always going to pay tribute to the one and only “Brockton Blockbuster” anyway. Happy Birthday, Rocco Francis Marchegiano; you were one of a kind. But okay, Floyd with his 50-0 record is the real “TBE” and Marciano is officially dog-crap. Sure. But call me a dreamy, nostalgic old man because I’m still going to count the ways Rocky proved himself an extraordinary pugilist, a phenomenon, a legend. And explain too why the whole undefeated record thing is a bunch of bull anyway.
What makes Rocky Marciano special? Well, for starters there’s the fact he began boxing seriously at the ripe old age of 23, turning pro at 25. For someone to take up the sport that late and go on to stunning success is unheard of. Rocky did learn some of the rudiments of fisticuffs as a youngster, and while stationed with the army in Europe he sparred regularly, but he really only began boxing with serious intent after his attempts to make it as a baseball player went nowhere. Not often (as in, never) does someone in their 20’s turn to prizefighting as “Plan B” and then go on to become a world champion. Crazy.
Then there’s the fact that, even back in the day, Rocky was a tad small for a heavyweight, but despite this he still established himself as a certified wrecking machine. Standing 5’10” and rarely weighing more than 188 pounds, and in a time long before anyone started taking steroids, Marciano had to focus on being in nothing less than phenomenal condition to overcome disadvantages in size and weight. For example, when Marciano knocked out Joe Louis in 1951, the aging former champion was almost 30 pounds heavier. But as they say, power is the great equalizer, and despite his small stature, Marciano could lower the boom like few fighters in boxing history. He blasted Louis out of the ring and then went on to achieve an amazing 88% knockout percentage before all was said and done.
Admittedly, Rocky competed in a rather depleted heavyweight division, but he ducked no one and, thanks to his power, ferocity and amazing stamina, he holds wins over legends like Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore. His ring style necessitated taking shots, but he had a chin of granite and was down only twice, to Walcott and KO king Moore. He faced the best fighters of his time and stopped them all inside the distance; his one-punch pasting of Walcott for the title is one of the greatest, not to mention one of the most brutal, knockouts in boxing history. He featured in three contests hailed by Ring magazine as Fight Of The Year, and his reputation as a relentless, all-action punching machine made him a hot ticket; huge crowds came to all of his title fights. But then, suddenly, it was over.
Few expected Marciano to end his career when he did. He was a dominant champion, hugely successful, only 32-years-old, but his family was pressuring him to walk away from the fight game. Even so, following his final match, a knockout over Moore in September of 1955, he told the press, “Personally, at this point, I don’t feel I should retire.”
At the time no one was particularly vexed about Rocky’s undefeated record one way or the other. Sure it was an impressive run, but back then defeats were not viewed as the terrible disgrace they are today. Losses were part of the game. Marciano’s spotless win streak was regarded as something weird and freakish as much as it was seen as a testament to his pugilistic greatness. More to the point, at the time few, if any, historians and boxing scribes saw Rocky as the “TBE” of the heavyweight division. Almost all rated Louis, Jack Dempsey, James J. Jeffries, Gene Tunney and Jack Johnson as superior and all of those fighters had tasted defeat. Marciano’s image as an all-time great was something that developed and gained credence more in hindsight, his stature rising on a tide of nostalgia in the 1960s and 70s.
Today it’s difficult to determine his standing when the heavyweight division has become the domain of guys who belong at the top of a beanstalk. A fight between a 188 pound Marciano and a 250 pound Lennox Lewis for example, is a non-starter for obvious reasons. And yet, a list of history’s greatest heavyweight champions that doesn’t include the name ‘Rocky Marciano’ is generally viewed as misguided. His power, strength, toughness and will-to-win, plus his victories over some truly great names, guarantee him pugilistic immortality.
But as for 49-0 …
The whole truth did not come out for years, but when Marciano surprised many by announcing his retirement from boxing in April of 1956 it was less about the wishes of his family and more about the fact that Rocky was fed up with his manager, Al Weill. A former professional ballroom dancer, Weill was a total control freak and not much fun to work with. Not only did he get a 50% take of Marciano’s ring earnings, but he insisted on restricting Rocky’s public appearances and demanded a percentage of any payments the champion received for work outside the ring. If Marciano did a commercial or a television appearance, or even just a talk at the local boat show, Weill got a nice, juicy bite of the proceeds.
The result was Rocky became paranoid about any and all financial transactions and did everything he could to hide his money from Weill. This led to some bizarre behaviour. His daughter has recounted inadvertently discovering thousands of dollars in a paper bag Rocky had put under his chair in a movie theater, and it’s well known that he hid cash in all kinds of weird places, including light fixtures and curtain rods. He happily turned away cheques worth thousands in favour of only hundreds in cash; cheques could be tracked down by Weill, cash could not. This obsession with money led directly to Rocky’s death when he was only 45. Offered a free flight from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa on a small private plane, he couldn’t resist. The pilot was inexperienced and the plane crashed, killing all on board.
The point is, money and Marciano’s hatred of Weill were the chief reasons for his choosing to retire when he did. His undefeated record was barely an afterthought. At the time, no one, including Rocky, really cared all that much about 49-0. Yes, becoming world champion and then retiring undefeated is an impressive accomplishment, but that by itself does not signify ring greatness and everyone understood that. Besides, it was well known many of Rocky’s wins were over sub-par opponents and that at least two of his victories were suspect. The decision in the first of two matches with Ted Lowry was booed by the crowd and widely viewed as a gift, and many regarded his first points win over Roland LaStarza as a blatant robbery. But as time went on these facts faded away while the 49-0 mark gained greater significance.
Marciano had become a full-fledged legend by the 1980’s with the Rocky Balboa movies augmenting his fame (“Ya kinda remind me of ‘The Rock'”) and in 1985 Larry Holmes was in position to tie the 49-0 mark with a win over light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. But it was Spinks who scored a massive upset with a close 15 round decision and Larry then went on to utter his infamous “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap” line during a truly extraordinary post-fight press conference. Since then no heavyweight champion has managed to match or break the record. But even so, Marciano is hardly alone in terms of retiring undefeated and in fact there are a number of win streaks that are longer and more significant.
Let’s start with Jimmy Wilde, without question one of the greatest fighters of all-time, who owns what may be the longest winning streak in pugilistic history. In fact, it’s so long it would appear to be beyond precise account as some sources say he went 93-0 before losing to Tancy Lee in 1915, others say he was 104-0, and still others put it somewhere inbetween. Either way, it’s a mark that dwarfs 50-0, let alone 49-0. Wilde is regarded by many as both the greatest flyweight of all-time and the best fighter to ever emerge from the U.K., and in addition to retiring with an incredible final tally of 132-3-1, he had 99 knockouts in his 132 wins, making him, pound-for-pound, one of the greatest punchers in boxing history. Bottom line: if Jimmy Wilde doesn’t put 49-0 into perspective for you, then you’re being a bit thick-headed, aren’t you?
But check this out: Young Griffo won 124 in a row. Sugar Ray Robinson went 91 straight without a loss. Willie Pep owns not one, but two amazing win streaks. He reeled off 62 victories before dropping a decision to Sammy Angott, and then picked up where he left off and won 72 straight. Julio Cesar Chavez vanquished 87 opponents in a row, while Carlos Monzon once went 80 straight without a loss. And though the records are a bit sketchy, some maintain that British lightweight Hal Bagwell won 180 in a row, but you don’t hear anyone declaring Bagwell is “TBE,” do you?
But we’re far from done. Ruben Olivares boasts 61 consecutive victories; Freddie Steele put together 54, and Carlos Zarate, 52. Nino Benvenuti had a run of 65 straight wins while the amazing Harry Greb once racked up over 70 wins without a loss in less than three years. Ricardo Lopez retired with a record of 51-0-1, Jimmy Barry walked away with a record of 58-0, and Duilio Loi put together 59 fights without a defeat. Just the other week Chayaphon Moonsri defended his minimumweight title to go to 51-0. And don’t forget lesser known middleweight contender Teddy Yarosz who went 58-0, in the process beating guys like Billy Conn, Lou Brouillard, Vince Dundee, Babe Risko and Archie Moore. Now are we getting the picture?
Perhaps Larry Merchant put it best when he stated that Marciano’s “streak doesn’t make him a greater fighter, but a larger figure.” In other words, it’s a notable and famous achievement, but it does not by itself constitute iron-clad evidence of Marciano’s greatness. And the same is true for Floyd Mayweather, whose 50-0 mark really means nothing in the context of boxing history. Especially when win number 50 came against a guy with a sterling ring record of 0-0-0.
The cold truth is that Mayweather vs McGregor never should have been sanctioned and it certainly shouldn’t count as an official match on Floyd’s record. Fact is, his 50-0 ledger will always be more about marketing than anything else. Just as last year’s “Money Fight” had almost nothing to do with sports and everything to do with exploiting boxing so Floyd and Conor McGregor could collect huge paydays.
And that’s why Rocky’s mark of 49-0 will always mean more than Floyd’s 50-0. In his final fight, Rocky Marciano took on a Hall of Fame champion in Archie Moore and got up off the canvas to go toe-to-toe with the man with the most knockouts in boxing history, before stopping him in nine thrilling rounds. Meanwhile, Floyd took on an MMA fighter with almost no boxing experience, carried him for six or seven rounds, and then beat him up when Conor got tired.
The truth is Floyd Mayweather added nothing to his legacy with that win, quite the opposite. And in fact, his credentials as an all-time great were shaky to begin with. When boxing historian Monte Cox compiled his lists of the all-time greatest boxers, Floyd’s name didn’t make an appearance. Here’s Mr. Cox explaining why:
“Floyd Mayweather’s career does not give him a spot [in the top 10 welterweights of all-time]. Luis Rodriguez, for example, had a better career than Floyd [with wins over] Emile Griffith, Benny Paret, Hurricane Carter, Curtis Cokes, Georgie Benton and Bennie Briscoe. I cannot in all honesty put Mayweather in the top 10 welterweights based on a career of hand-picked opponents and having never unified a major title. Floyd avoided fights with Mosley, Margarito and Pacquiao when they meant something. Mayweather just does not have the competition to be considered an all-time great.”
So Happy Birthday, Rocky, and rest easy. I doubt 49-0 ever meant half as much to you as it now does to many boxing fans, but, surprisingly, it still means more than 50-0. And that’s the truth. — Michael Carbert