This business gives no points for style. For every scientific, piston-like jab that connects there is one that misses, and for every wide, telegraphed, primitive swing that is defended easily, there is one that connects and makes a fool of the man who eats it. The only thing that matters, or has ever mattered, is connecting and that can come about on a straight line, a curve, or a messy zig-zagging trajectory. The hardest thing for the combat sports purist to get over is that sometimes ugly wins and it cannot always be explained away by a failure in the more scientific fighter. But chalk that down as another victory in the case for fighting as an art. Not liking the look of a painting or sculpture, or the sound of a certain composition does not diminish its ability to fulfill its intended purpose.
No one has ever done ugly as well as Rocky Marciano. The Brockton Blockbuster had very little going for him as a heavyweight—the shortest reach of any heavyweight champion, slow reactions, and only around 190 pounds for many of his fights. His redeeming features were that he had a head like a cinder block, strength like an ox, and a genuine passion for the fight. Through forty-nine professional bouts Marciano was made to look clumsy, unscientific, too small, too slow, too easy to cut. And yet through forty-nine appearances he was never beaten.
An unremarkable amateur who managed an 8-4 record, Marciano was built for the grueling battles of the professional game. There is no denying that Marciano’s physical attributes carried him through much of his career. He would keep slugging until the other guy stood long enough for one of his labored swings to score the knockout. It was Charley Goldman who was charged with turning Marciano into a world class heavyweight, and rather than attempt to rebuild Marciano in the mold of a textbook fighter, Goldman opted to ‘make lemonade’. Goldman had trained the great lightweight Lou Ambers, who had as much class on the inside as on the outside and who had given the great Henry Armstrong fits in two bouts. Goldman knew the science of the game (not to mention the craft of fouling) and he rebuilt Rocky to make the most of his cumbersome, thudding power. For the early portion of Marciano’s career he was forced to hitchhike from Brockton to New York for Goldman’s tuition, but soon Goldman would travel to him.
Marciano’s game was built around squatting low and getting to the inside. The crouch which Goldman had Marciano fight from exaggerated all of Rocky’s virtues and went some way to hiding his many weaknesses. Sitting heavy on his rear leg, his right hand high and ready to lean out the window on his right side, Marciano could parry or slip deep underneath jabs, right hands and even left hooks. Once the first punch had been thrown he would be pushing off his back foot and stepping in low to put his head on his opponent’s chest. Even against opponents who refused to open up with more than a jab, Marciano would parry and follow their hand back.
One trick which came as a part of the Marciano package before Goldman had his influence on the young heavyweight was the Blockbuster’s right hand: the fabled ‘Suzie-Q’. Goldman recounted his training of Marciano: “Anything I did, I always told Rocky to disregard it completely if he thought it was bothering the way he threw his Suzie-Q.” Most of the time this was Marciano’s looping, leaning, almost straight elbowed overhand. Sometimes on the counter, sometimes on the lead as a ‘blind right’. In the blind right Marciano would duck in, looking down as if to enter inside position, and wing the right hand across the top. Reaching down to push or punch at Marciano in his crouch only exposed the taller fighter to winging overhands.
The Cincinnati Cobra
The classiest fighter Marciano ever met was Ezzard Charles. Charles was one of the slickest fighters in the history of the game, when James Toney was being brought up on fight film, Charles was his chief case study. Charles was for most of his career a light heavyweight and was rated by Ring Magazine as the best fighter to ever compete in that class, but he never won a world title until he stepped up to heavyweight and met the wily Jersey Joe Walcott in a fight for the vacant heavyweight crown. Despite defending the title eight times in just two years and being consistently recognized as one of the finest scientists to ever dance across the ring mat, Charles was not a popular champion. Part of this stemmed from his low finishing rate and perceived lack of killer instinct, the strange moods he seemed to show in his bouts, and part of it was just that Charles was a peculiar person. Charles chose to celebrate winning the world title by ducking into a bar with a friend and trying to conceal his identity until he was outed as the new world champion, when he promptly left. Charles lived with his grandmother for years while his wife lived with her parents because Charles didn’t want the public to know they were married, until they had a child and Charles saw it as time to move in together. At all times Charles seemed like a man uncomfortable with celebrity and could never be mistaken for one who was in love with the fight game.
No heavyweight champion had ever reclaimed the title after losing it. Not the greats like Jim Corbett and Jack Dempsey nor the men who retired on the top of their game and returned shortly afterwards like Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney and even Joe Louis. Charles had lost the title to the man he had picked it up against. The savvy Walcott had drawn and countered a Charles jab with the uppercut heard around the world and scored a knockout. The two had a fourth meeting a year later and many felt that Charles lost by sitting back in the later rounds and allowing Walcott to steal it, a strange thing to do on the brink of winning back the world title and making history but par for the course with Ezzard Charles. His shot at Rocky Marciano’s belt was a gift. The post war era and particularly the post Louis era was one of few quality heavyweights, so the ancient Jersey Joe Walcott and the light heavyweight Ezzard Charles could keep working their way back to the top of the heap.
But Charles’ body was still in condition to administer the sweet science. From the opening bell, Marciano tried to get underneath Charles’ blows and move to inside position with his head on Charles’ chest. Charles flicked out jabs and surprised many at ringside by being the first of the two men to bang the body. In answer to Rocky’s deep lean away from his right hand, Charles began to sink the right hook into the champion’s kidney and ribs on his lead side. The world thought Charles would flick the jab and try to cut Rocky’s face to ribbons, but Charles’ saw another way. Marciano punched with every fibre of his being, from his toes to his fist, carrying the power from floor to jaw. If Charles could wind the champion and tire his legs, the power wouldn’t be such a problem.
For the first four rounds Charles was in control, finding the body shots, stifling Marciano on the inside and pushing Marciano away whenever the champ freed his hands to begin pounding on Charles from in tight. Charles would feint Marciano into a duck and hit him with the lead uppercut. And Charles’ timing was getting the better of Marciano’s overhands, as he slid away and returned with an uppercut to jack back the champion’s head.
But ugly began to find its way. As Marciano’s face began to stream blood, Charles’ body shots disappeared and he began to uncork with power against Marciano’s eyes and nose. And the more success in holding and wrestling with Maricano that Charles had, the less he moved. As Charles began to set himself to hit, Marciano’s old tricks began to take their toll.
Under Goldman, Rocky Marciano had actually developed something of a jab. It was only as useful as a jab for a man with a sixty-eight inch reach was ever going to be, but he could throw it stiffly and opponents expected him to level change off it and try to put his head on their sternum to achieve inside position. In recent years Goldman had been working to make Marciano’s left side more dexterous and move away from being a one handed banger. As clumsy and ugly as Marciano’s left handed work was, he landed plenty of telling blows with simple, left sided combinations like the jab, level change, and return to upright with the left hook. When an opponent punched down at him or reached down to grab behind his head, this simple low-high set up was a killer.
Charles found himself eating a couple of these set ups in answer to his counter right hands.
But it was a chopping right hook which came in as Charles slipped under a left on one of these set ups which began the worst portion of the fight for the challenger. The thudding, bludgeoning digs began to rain in and Marciano began to take control.
Ezzard Charles survived through the fifteenth round and lost a decision in a fight heralded by many in the press as the greatest in the history of the heavyweight title. Charles was almost unrecognizable due to the swelling Marciano’s sledgehammer blows raised on his face and Marciano’s nose was torn to pieces. Both men insisted that only errors on their own part had prevented a decisive finish. Marciano had been in camp for over six months leading up to the fight and believed that he had missed his peak and overtrained. Charles believed he had gotten distracted by the cutting on Marciano’s face and the ease with which he could hit Marciano’s head, and that had he stuck to the bodywork he could have won handily.
The rematch was a more decisive contest. Marciano was able to free himself more effectively on the inside and dig with body blows. The finish would infuriate many a boxing trainer. It didn’t come as a result of a more judicious approach, but by chasing after the knockout even from positions from which it seemed Marciano couldn’t hit. A left hook swung over Charles head and Marciano was all the way off to Charles’ left side, but decided to swing his right all the way back across himself to pursue Charles. Charles, the master boxer, could never have expected such a daft attempt, and down he went.
As wild and reckless as Marciano could be, Goldman’s wisdom shone through in the finish as Marciano was immediately tied up. Dropping his head below Charles’ to create space, Marciano withdrew his arms in a motion he had performed thousands of times before, and immediately got back to work overwhelming the challenger and finished the fight in emphatic fashion.
The old saying goes that one should learn the rules only in order to know when to break them. There is plenty to be said about the age of Rocky Marciano’s opposition and the quality of the heavyweight division during his era, but it can certainly be agreed that Charley Goldman made good on Marciano’s potential. Goldman’s respect for what Marciano had learned to do organically allowed him to tinker with and improve the fighter and not obscure his identity in the process. While Rocky was hideous to look at, and his punches were far from economical, he could land them and when he did they mattered.
Sometimes he landed precisely because of their peculiarity. The right hand from the other side of the ring against Charles being a great example. The hideous but effective blind overhand which scored so many telling blows for Marciano being another.
But other times Marciano used the principles of the sweet science to land his unorthodox blows. Charles had looked for the lead uppercut after feinting Marciano into a lean behind his right shoulder, but Marciano had as much success using the same reaction to score his own lead uppercut.
Even allowing Marciano to be himself, Goldman’s science trickled into the Blockbuster by process of osmosis. The short right hand which caught Joe Walcott along the ropes was nothing like the clumsy swings that Walcott had been slipping along the ropes for the last twelve rounds, but at that moment it was just what the doctor ordered.
But ugly was Rocky, and by embracing that he might not have been the most efficient or accurate hitter, but he was a unique one. When Archie Moore was interviewed by Sports Illustrated ahead of his shot at Rocky Marciano’s heavyweight title, The Old Mongoose—the epitome of scientific boxing—declared that Marciano overused the uppercut. The uppercut, said Moore, was a counter punch to exploit an opponent’s hunched posture, but Rocky used it as an attack and that is why he missed so often. It was certainly true that Marciano often came as close to knocking out the ring lights as he did his opponent, but again, it was the ones he managed to sneak in that mattered.
Marciano would often bend so deep at the waist that he could touch his toes. Marciano would often weave underneath the bag in training once he had started it swinging with a combination—Rocky even used a specially made 300lbs heavy bag because he wanted heavyweights to feel it was easier when he hit actual heavyweights. It is worth noting that back injuries were a part of Marciano’s choice to retire as early as he did. Weaving down by his opponent’s waist, Marciano would come up with the uppercut almost blind, and if the opponent’s head was just a little forward of their waist, woe betide them.
Economy of motion and conservation of energy are important parts of the fighting science, but Marciano knew what every boxer knows: the only punches that matter are the ones which land. `Some fighters see that as a reason to save up and limit their misses, Marciano saw it as a reason to throw as many punches as he could and see what stuck.
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