Sept. 17, 1954: Marciano vs Charles

On this day back in 1954, Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles clashed at Yankee Stadium to contest, for the second time in just three months, the heavyweight championship of the world. In their terrific first battle, Charles became the only man to last fifteen rounds with the “Brockton Blockbuster,” but Rocky prevailed by unanimous decision. “The Cincinnati Cobra” would fight valiantly in the rematch, but this time last only half as long. The 1954 Ring Magazine ‘Fight of the Year’ was a grueling, physical, eight round slugfest that ended after a typically savage assault from the indomitable Marciano.

Ezzard Charles: Ink drawing by Damien Burton.
Ezzard Charles: Ink drawing by Damien Burton.

Considered by many to be one of the all-time greatest boxers pound-for-pound, and quite possibly the greatest light heavyweight ever, Ezzard Charles had a professional record of 83-11-1 when he clashed with Marciano for the second time. Not a tall or heavily built man, he had nonetheless become the lineal heavyweight champion with a decision win over Joe Louis in 1950, before losing the crown to Jersey Joe Walcott in 1951. Tough, defensively skilled, and wonderfully fluid inside the ring, the 33-year-old had already proven himself once against The Rock, and now looked to build upon his strong first showing.

Marciano
The Rock: Ink drawing by Damien Burton.

Two years younger than his opponent, the 46-0 Marciano was the Cobra’s stylistic opposite. Shorter, wilder, with an approach that privileged action over caution, Marciano was the living archetype of a blood-and-guts slugger. He won the heavyweight championship in 1952 with a devastating knockout over Walcott, and had defended it against Walcott and Roland LaStarza before that first, magnificent war with Charles. The rematch was an opportunity for the fighting pride of Brockton, Massachusetts to prove that the Cobra’s first performance, which had pushed Rocky to his limits, was an anomaly.

Marciano vs Charles

If the action in the first bout was distinctive for its cleanliness (incredibly, there was only one clinch in the entire 15 rounds), the Marciano vs Charles rematch involved far more raw physicality. Charles began aggressively and once the first clinch had occurred just seconds after the opening bell, he scored with a heavy left hook to Marciano’s midsection. No doubt thrilled with the tone the challenger was setting, the Italian responded by attacking Charles in the second and dropping him after connecting with two huge right hands. Charles quickly rose and the round ended with a ferocious exchange.

Rocky Marciano. Painting by Damien Burton.

With the fight’s brutal tone and pace firmly established, Marciano continued his assault, pitching hard with both hands. While the taller, more graceful challenger would sometimes respond with a snappy uppercut, Marciano’s lunging tactics made it difficult for Charles to establish his jab. Rocky’s pressure didn’t abate and he continued to brawl, forcing both men to fight for stretches with their heads only inches apart. This effectively neutralized both Charles’ reach advantage and his sharp defensive skills.

Marciano vs Charles

But the former champion had no intention of succumbing easily, demonstrating this at the end of round five. Marciano struck after the bell and the Cobra, his features knotted in anger, bit back, hammering Rocky to the face. It was perhaps this shot that helped open up a gruesome gash on the end of Marciano’s nose that bled heavily in the sixth.

Undaunted, Marciano pressed on. His face looked “like a Halloween character with yellow stuff smeared over his nose,” the announcer remarked in reference to the ointment applied by his corner. By contemporary standards, the cut, with Marciano’s left nostril split, was severe enough to force a stoppage, but the referee allowed the contest to continue, and the relentless champion, who fought as though wholly indifferent to his injury, carried on his attack.

Marciano vs Charles
In the spotlight: the first knockdown in round eight.

In the eighth, his face twisted and bloodied, Rocky ensured Charles would not survive to see the final bell. He battered the challenger with alternating lefts and rights, punctuating the attack with a huge overhand right to the head to score another knockdown. Again the challenger rose, but it was a mere formality as Rocky, sensing victory, lunged back at the damaged fighter, swinging wildly. The final flurry was vintage Marciano, so furious his imprecision was overcome by the volume and violence of his punches. Kneeling on the mat, clearly beaten, Charles took the count.

Marciano vs Charles
The end of the battle.

Marciano vs Charles II was won by the boxer whose style was better suited to the nature of the contest. The talented Charles was anything but weak of heart. Marciano later said, “Ezzard Charles was the toughest man I ever fought. I learned what pain was all about when I fought him.” An intelligent and urbane person, Charles would not be defeated by his will, but ultimately his body, as he succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1975 at the age of 53. Equally tragic was Marciano’s passing: only 45 years old, he died in a plane crash in 1969. Their dual existences, however brief, never lacked in vitality, for through their two-fight, 23 round engagement, each experienced human competition at its highest level.           — Eliott McCormick

6 thoughts on “Sept. 17, 1954: Marciano vs Charles

  • September 18, 2015 at 2:22 am
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    Nicely done. That nose was horrific, man.

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  • October 30, 2015 at 12:31 pm
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    What a great piece of writing and so detailed I felt reading it as if I was actually at ringside. Rocky is my boxing hero and I never get tired of reading about him. He wasn’t the greatest boxer ever, but his lack of pugilistic skills was made up for in toughness and durability. It irks me when I read so called boxing experts saying he was overrated etc and was just a brawler and his opponents were hand picked,so they made the Rock look good. Look at his record though and some of his battles in the ring if Rocky was overrated,his opponents couldn’t have been up to much then could they ? They can write what they like about Marciano to me he’s up their with the greats !

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    • May 26, 2016 at 6:26 am
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      Kevin I agree 100% with your opinion on “The Rock”. To go from an ambling RAW novice to a tireless fighting machine of a heavyweight champ that was all down the mans utmost belief in himself is indeed a measure of greatness. Rocky Marciano has inspired me as much as any (if not more) champion in history. A remarkable fighter who gets forgot about, sadly.

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    • November 9, 2019 at 8:49 pm
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      If we are honest, Marciano must be rated among the very best. He is a shining example of the enduring human spirit. In him is some of the best in all of us.

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  • November 3, 2017 at 8:23 pm
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    Ezzard Charles is my all-time favorite boxer. His boxing technique was flawless. If you had a book on boxing fundamentals that came to life it would be Ezzard Charles. He was a master craftsman in the ring. Any young beginning boxer should study Ezzard Charles’s videos.

    But against Marciano, Ezzard didn’t fight his fight; he fought Rocky’s fight. But even given that, in their first battle Ezzard gave Marciano a lesson in boxing and I believe that Ezzard should have gotten the decision (yes, I am biased). Ezzard certainly punished Rocky but the judges clearly did not think Ezzard “definitively took the title away from the champion.” Rocky won the second fight on pure guts given the beating he took from Ezzard.

    Ezzard Charles was an intelligent gentleman who represented boxing and the world heavyweight championship with class, dignity, courage, grace, and style. He died too young, but his wonderful legacy will live on forever.

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  • June 23, 2019 at 9:04 pm
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    One beating from Marciano was bad enough, but two? Poor Ezzard, he like all the others shared the same fate but unfortunately for him he stood up two times to a fighter who never tired in the ring.

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