THE ART OF THE BIG PUNCH ; NO DOUBTING MARCIANO

by Mike Casey Sep 7, 06
by Jim for everyone


The art of the big punch: no doubting Marciano

By Mike Casey
 


Rocky Marciano, warts and all, was one of the most thrilling and courageous fighters in boxing history. That much I would hope we can all agree on. When writing about Marciano these days, I always feel like a man tip-toeing through a minefield. Rocky has become very much the favourite punching bag of the revisionists, particularly those who are desperate to make a name for themselves on a slow news day.
The consolation for Marciano, the never-say-die Brockton Blockbuster, is that he is slowly acquiring some illustrious companions. Throw Jack Dempsey and Mike Tyson into the melting pot and it positively boils over. The forums buzz, the replies click up into the hundreds and the juicy language is on a par with Tony Soprano throwing a bad one at the Ba-Da-Bing.
Slowly but surely, to the amazement of this writer, the majestic Muhammad Ali is joining the circle of the whipping boys, and I suppose it will only be a matter of time before Joe Louis and Jack Johnson eventually have their halos unceremoniously knocked off their heads. I would guess the average age of the hatchet men to be around 25 or 30, but I won’t get grumpy about that since boxing needs all the enthusiasts it can get.
What does irk me is the inability of so many supposedly intelligent people to see the crashingly obvious. Pick any great champion and it is quite easy to systematically pick him to pieces if you possess a clever and agile mind and a love of the pedantic. We are, after all, dissecting mortal men who just happen to be more blessed than the rest of us at their chosen discipline.
As a journalist and boxing fanatic who has been at it since 1973, I have consistently championed Jack Dempsey as the heavyweight who had the most of everything. However, with the aid of smoke and mirrors and a healthy slice of nitpicking, I could quite easily present a case to the contrary. Writers do that all the time. Like actors, they are trained to make their audiences believe what they see and hear. I just don’t care for playing the Devil’s Advocate, because there are already enough writers and would-be writers working that tired old beat. ‘Let’s open our minds’, or some such other shaky introduction to an article, is usually the textbook tip-off that the author doesn’t truly believe what he is saying when he finally plucks up the courage to go public with a half-baked theory.

Knocking The Rock

So what do we hear about Rocky Marciano? Much of the same, nothing really new. Rocky was too small. He would never survive in the heavyweight division of today. His so-called tremendous punching power would have little effect on the giants of the present era, presumably not even on the porcelain chin of Wladimir Klitschko. Let us take a time out on that one, for we will discuss the topics of punching technique and relative weight in due course.
It is probably fair to say that the principal criticism of Marciano is the quality of the opposition he faced in compiling that painfully irritating 49-0 record.
“He fought a bunch of bums on the way up!” the critics cry. Well, I would question the word ‘bums’, but Rocky certainly wasn’t flattening top quality fighters in his apprenticeship as a young prospect. But just how many prospects ever did?
George Foreman, one of my favourite fighters of the seventies, fed off inferior opposition throughout his entire career. The best men he beat before his decimation of Joe Frazier were Gregorio Peralta and George Chuvalo, who were hardly terrors of the division.
Larry Holmes was similarly protected, as were Tyson, Joe Louis and many others. Since the year dot, it has been an essential policy of a good management team to keep a rough diamond in cotton wool until it is polished.
Jack Dempsey protested wildly and quite justifiably in 1916 when his overly keen manager wanted to throw him in with Sam Langford. The Dempsey of that period was far too green for a man of Langford’s vast experience and would likely have taken a bad beating.
But no part of Marciano’s career, it seems, is exempt from constructive or random abuse. He beat a fat boy in Don Cockell, while Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore plummeted at once from their lofty pedestals of old maestros to plain old men after crude Rocky had given them a bashing.
Now let us consider some fair or unfair criticisms levelled at other heavyweight champions.
Mike Tyson was found out as soon as guys like Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield started hitting him back. Ditto Sonny Liston, who surrendered timidly against Muhammad Ali.
Lennox Lewis got knocked spark out as a champion by two pedestrian fighters in Oliver McCall and Hassim Rahman, wasn’t always in the best shape, defeated a greatly faded Tyson and swung like a rank amateur in his lumbering swansong with Vitali Klitschko.
Larry Holmes defended his title against a largely nondescript group of challengers, beat the shadow of Muhammad Ali and got himself into all kinds of trouble against Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver and Renaldo Snipes.
Ali cheapened the sport with his tacky showmanship, got away with murder with referees who became blind to his indiscretions and was the recipient of questionable decisions over Doug Jones, Jimmy Young and Ken Norton. Muhammad also came close to being knocked out by ‘little’ Henry Cooper.
Joe Louis took a terrific beating from Max Schmeling, was a notoriously slow starter, had a suspect chin and was studiously steered clear of the dangerous black contenders of the day by shrewd old Chappie Blackburn.
Jack Dempsey slaughtered a big lug in Jess Willard, worked overtime against a couple of little fellows in Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons and never did entertain poor old Harry Wills.
Jack Johnson got belted out by ageing Joe Choynski and then cynically embraced the colour line with open arms as soon as it worked in his favour.
Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons? Best we don’t even mention those guys. They were from the ice age and couldn’t have possibly been any good. Fitz was the template for Joe Gans by Joe’s own admission, but let us not spoil things with trivial details.
You begin to see the mischievous pictures we can paint and the damage we can do if we choose to be smart guys and conveniently leave half the canvas unfilled.
There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that the aforementioned fighters, for all their little chinks and failures, were the genuine masters of their eras and among the greatest men who have ever graced the boxing stage. So was Rocky Marciano.

Physical

Given his physical disadvantages, given the fact that he had little amateur experience and knew virtually nothing about boxing technique when he began his career, Marciano was an absolute wonder of the sport. He was 5’ 11’’, had a reach of just 67’’ and seldom got his weight above 190lbs. When ace trainer Charley Goldman got hold of him, Rocky could scarcely get out of the way of his own two feet.
It was in April 1948 that the shrewd and feisty fight manager Al Weill received a letter from Allie Colombo, in which Colombo sang the praises of his boyhood pal, a big hitting heavyweight called Rocco Marchegiano. Weill passed the letter on to Charley Goldman, who had received many such requests for an audition during his long career in the game.
In a sixties interview, Goldman told writer Bob Cutter: “I wrote Colombo the usual thing. I invited him to bring the boy down for a try out and Colombo wrote back setting a date. They didn’t show up that day but they were there the next one. When I asked them what had happened, they told me they were held up a day while waiting for a ride down to New York in a fruit and vegetable truck.
“In my 60 years in the business, I never remember another fighter with so much against him at the start. That day I saw Rocky, he was 23 or 24, usually too old to start a boy in four-rounders. A fighter should be on his way in this business by the time he’s 20 or so if he’s going to get anywhere.
“But Rocky had three things in his favour too. First, he looked like a fighter – a strong chin but not too big. A solid neck, a good chest and a real broad back. Nicely developed arms and wrists, although his reach was kinda small even for a middleweight, let alone a heavy.
“Second, he had a good, all round athletic background and he was a real iron man in things like football, baseball and the rest. And he had been beaten only a couple of times in his amateur bouts. And last, here was a boy that really wanted to be a fighter and wasn’t afraid of the hard work to try and make up for his lost time.
“Adding this all up, I told him to come back the next day and we might work something out.”
Thus, the legend began. Marciano was indeed a rock of a man, not a physical giant even in his own era, but a stocky and immensely strong athlete blessed with tremendous punching power and durability. He often looked woefully crude, but he was a slugger of such power and tenacity that his opponents were too occupied with self-defence to fully exploit his weaknesses.
Marciano was always aware that his strength, toughness and power of punch were his ace cards, and attached prime importance to the rigours of training. For weeks before a major fight, he would imprison himself in his training camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York State and hone that rugged body into its best fighting shape. Famously tight with his money, the stories still persist that many of his dollars are still scattered about the landscape, stuffed into old cans and cunningly hidden.
Rocky’s dedication to this less romantic side of the sport was a key factor in his rise to the throne. Supreme fitness, an unbreakable spirit and a relentless, bulldozing style would fashion for Marciano a legacy that would be as much resented as admired: that of an awkward, beatable little guy who couldn’t be beaten.
He was the All American boy who blazed his way to the top in almost Hollywood style, overcoming all manner of handicaps to win the day. Life was like a box of chocolates and Rocky was Forrest Gump with boxing gloves. And, oh, how that continues to grate with certain people!
The ramrod jab of the fading Joe Louis put more than a few welts and bruises on Marciano’s face, while Jersey Joe Walcott floored and outpointed The Rock for 12 rounds of their championship fight in Philadelphia. Ezzard Charles ripped Rocky’s nose horribly in their second title fight, but Marciano survived each of these crises and clouted his way to memorable victories.
The power of the man was perhaps best demonstrated the night he took the title from Walcott with a single blast from that famous right fist. He had the strength to deliver that blow in the thirteenth round after being steadily punished himself for nearly 40 minutes and taken to the brink by Jersey Joe in a perilous eleventh round
By the time he faced the great Archie Moore at Yankee Stadium on September 21, 1955, Rocky was 48-0 with 42 knockouts and making the sixth defence of his championship. We didn’t know it then, but Marciano was about to engage in the final fight of his career, score one of his most spectacular knockout victories and walk off into a golden sunset. That famous 49-0 went up on the board and we are still waiting for someone to pass it.

Big puncher

Now to the big question: How good a heavyweight puncher was Rocky Marciano? The simple answer is that he was one of the true elite. Rocky didn’t possess the clever and versatile punching technique of Jack Dempsey and wasn’t Jack’s equal as a short range puncher. Jack still leads the heavyweight field in that department when one measures the actual distance of the punches. Nor did Marciano have the skill, economy and stunning accuracy of Joe Louis.
What made Rocky special was that he was a genuine, two-fisted knockout puncher who could damage an opponent with equal effect to both head and body. Marciano’s outstanding endurance enabled him to keep firing and he would fire at any available target. As Dempsey and Louis correctly noted, Rocky could knock a man out with a single shot or break his body and his heart over the long haul with a battery of powerful blows.
The punch of a knockout fighter carries a huge amount of energy. Scientists will tell you that an uppercut which lifts a man off his feet requires the energy of ‘mgh’, where ‘m’ is the mass of the opponent, ‘g’ the acceleration due to gravity and ‘h’ the height to which the opponent is lifted. On average, it is reckoned that 700 foot-pounds of energy is required to manage this feat.
Around 1955, Rocky Marciano had his punch measured at a USA military installation, where it is believed that the test was conducted on a ballistic pendulum. Rocky achieved a score of 925 foot-pounds whilst wearing a 12oz. boxing glove. Those who witnessed the test could hardly believe what they had seen.
Power punching, for all its surface brutality and apparently meaningless violence to the eye of the layman, is a wonderful science. The precious few who genuinely possess it must marry a formidable range of components and make them flow in harmony.
Historian Mike Hunnicut says, “Some guys are just born with it and no amount of technical jargon will ever fully explain why they are so exceptional. But they all possessed the essential qualities of the true power puncher, which comprise of reflexes, natural power, balance, body-to-hand co-ordination, leverage, follow-through, positioning, snap, timing, speed of body turn, accuracy, commitment to the punch and physicality.
“I have talked to a great many fighters, trainers and sparring partners over the years, and they all make the point that it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that most of the great heavyweight hitters weren’t really big guys, because a certain degree of athleticism is needed to produce leverage, position, timing and snap. Fighters of between 190-210lbs generate more measurable power than heavier men.
“Fighters of Marciano’s calibre were taught thoroughly how to hit you and hurt you. People say that Rocky laboured to get the job done and often had to throw an awful lot of punches to beat the other man down. They say he missed a lot. Well, of course he did. He didn’t have anything in the way of reach and guys like Walcott, Charles and LaStarza were tough men who were very good defensively.
“But Marciano could hurt you from any range when he connected and he liked to work all the time. Of all the heavyweights I have studied, Rocky resented clinching the most – he was proud of that. The fact that he was a close range hitter increased his velocity and enabled him to generate enormous energy at impact.
“I’m inclined to think that Marciano was the hardest hitter behind Dempsey, because Rocky could hurt you anywhere with both hands. Louis, by contrast, wasn’t a great body puncher. Charley Goldman taught Marciano to punch short with plenty of snap. Rocky had good snap and shoulder turn.
“Some of these vital elements, along with general toughness, are missing from the game in the present era, because the trainers in general aren’t so good and the competition isn’t as fierce. Unless you were damn good in Marciano’s day – a real warrior – you weren’t going anywhere. Any weakness in your game was going to be exploited because the schooling was so tough.
“When you are watching a fight on TV these days, how many times do the sound of the punches make you jump out of your chair? Not too often. Now go watch the fights of Marciano with the original, real sound. Watch Louis-Conn or Louis-Schmeling and listen to some of those shots landing. They sound like explosions going off and those guys weren’t fighting at the MGM Grand. They were fighting at huge stadiums in front of huge crowds and you could hear the sound of their punches above all the noise.”

The Lipton view

No stranger to fight fans is the still outrageously fit Ron Lipton, whose knowledge of the game has been hewn from his great experience as a fighter, sparring partner and referee.
Says Ron, “The power punching categories mentioned by Mike Hunnicut are right on the money. Essential is the use of perfect technique combined with great speed and snap practiced over and over again, with the entire body being used as one with each integral muscle group and its deep fibre being called upon instantaneously to contribute to the punch.
“Other helpful factors include being in shape to utilise vicious torque, combined body dip, shoulder snap, deep forearm muscle rotation, and all the muscles of the hand being crunched into the punch with each finger and muscle being used to contribute to the final hard fisted squeeze and snap upon landing.
“My own hands are like animal paws after years of hitting the bags bare- knuckled. The great punchers have hands like that too. I met Marciano and spent time with him in Florida when he was filming the computer fight with Ali. I feel The Rock was a punishing puncher in fantastic aerobic shape. Rocky had strong hands and trained like a long distance marathon runner, never got tired and kept beating on a man. His heavy- handed short punches were damaging and his Susie Q could be thrown long or short, like when he took out Rex Layne.
“Being able to set a guy up, pull the string on him with one shot that he can’t see coming and having the juice to make it work at any given time is the true test of a puncher. To be able to take a guy out with one shot in the first round or when the one opportunity presents itself is some talent to have.”
Writer and historian, Mike Silver, as knowledgeable man as you will find on the old game, rightly observes that important aspects of Marciano’s talent went unnoticed by those that look but don’t see. “What made Rocky special, aside from his knockout power, ability to absorb tremendous punishment, incredible stamina, conditioning and heart - as if that was not impressive enough - was the enormous volume of punches he threw.
“People also do not realize how hard he was to hit. He was not the catcher everyone thought he was. Of course, veterans like Moore, Walcott and Charles could tag anyone, but Marciano stood up to their best shots and destroyed them.
“Rocky also had an additional weapon in his corner in the person of Charley Goldman. Goldman's experience as a boxer and trainer was second to none. He was the strategist who could adjust Marciano's style in mid-fight and Charley always said that Marciano followed his instructions to the letter. When The Rock could not get past Roland LaStarza’s guard in their second fight, Goldman told Marciano to start banging on his arms. Within a few rounds LaStarza had trouble holding up his hands.
“Marciano’s body and Goldman’s brain - what a combination!”
Roland LaStarza later spoke of the harrowing experience of being under the Marciano hammer: “The guy never stopped coming in. And covering up or taking the punches on your arms didn’t help. Everywhere he hit you, he hurt you. I took most of the punches on my arms. After a while, my arms were numb. I winced every time he hit me. The veins in my forearms were broken from taking so many hard punches. And then he tagged me….”

Marty Weill

As the son of Marciano’s manager, Al Weill, Marty Weill spent a great chunk of his life within the steaming confines of Lou Stillman’s famous New York gym, where the permanently closed windows served to enhance the pungent combination of sweat and cigar smoke.
Watching Marciano in his prime lingered in Marty’s memory. “Rocky weighed only 187 or 188lbs, but he was a tremendously strong puncher. He could paralyse an opponent with those punches. Watch the film and see how he wears down Ezzard Charles.
“But Rocky was also a one punch fighter. If he tagged you, it was all over. There aren’t too many of those guys around today. He was one of the greatest champions and one of the greatest punchers ever.
“Rocky came up in the time when a kid showed up at the gym hungry, in rags and wearing a pair of sneakers. He would fight anybody for five dollars, and if he didn’t put up a good fight, he didn’t get paid.”
Joe Louis, with typical grace, was unstinting in his praise of Marciano. After bravely losing his 1951 fight to the upcoming Rocky, old Joe said, “Marciano hurt me every time he landed. He’s such a powerful puncher, he can hurt you by just hitting your arm. When he hits you in the ribs and body, you feel like sitting down for a rest. When you move forward against Marciano, you’re risking getting your block knocked off. That boy took me out with three punches. It took Max Schmeling a hundred. Of course, I was 22 back then but this Marciano is tough enough to beat anybody.”
Jack Dempsey also rated Marciano one of the elite hitters and noticed a marked improvement after watching Rocky work out in 1949 and 1952. Said Jack, “In ’49, he fought from long range and used a looping right all the time. Now he fights in close and seems to have developed a good left hand. The Marciano right against Walcott in Philadelphia was a thing of artistic and scientific beauty and downright damage.”

Today

Would Rocky Marciano prosper in today’s heavyweight division of super heavyweight dreadnoughts? Yes, he would. A rare animal indeed is the heavyweight giant who punches his full weight, can take a full shot and genuinely loves to fight. The great George Foreman possessed all of those qualities and was a once-in-a-lifetime wrecking machine at his very best. Lennox Lewis, in his more adventurous moods, was another natural.
By contrast, Nikolay Valuev, the heaviest man we have seen in the ring, is ponderously slow in all departments, more agricultural in his delivery than Marciano ever was and plainly doesn’t enjoy fighting. The Klitschko brothers have made boxing a nice business for themselves but don’t actually enjoy the business of boxing. Wladimir still affects the look of a spoilt and shocked child when an opponent has the audacity to give him some of his own.
Let us bear in mind too that Marciano would not be pitting his sub-190lbs body against these giants in the brave new world. Rocky’s weight would likely be nearer 200 or 210lbs with the modern benefits of better nutrition, health and energy supplements and scientific wizardry.
Indeed, the ultimate All-American boy might be able to beef up even more if – God forbid – he opted for the short term value and long term ruin of steroids and other magic potions.
Whatever, until time travel becomes a reality, we’ll just have to make do with that 49-0 record. Hurts, doesn’t it?


* Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).

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