(Written March 2011 by MJ Law)
In the January 1989 issue of The Ring magazine, the "Come Out Writing" section, which featured letters from readers, included a letter from an admirer of Mike Tyson. The content of this particular letter basically matched Tyson with some of the more notable heavyweight champions from the past, one of which was Rocky Marciano. In this fantasy match-up, the predicted result was a victory for Tyson by 1st round KO. Reading this letter now, over twenty-two years later, brings home the message that its point of view was very much of its time and now seems somewhat out of touch and overly biased towards Iron Mike. When the letter was printed, Tyson was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and was coming off a stunning blowout over the wonderfully talented Michael Spinks. He had steamrolled through the division and beaten all the top contenders around, including Trevor Berbick, Bonecrusher Smith, Pinklon Thomas and Tony Tucker. On top of that, he had looked absolutely awesome (most of the time), displaying frightening power, dazzling handspeed and terrifying ferocity. Although only twenty-two years old, he had a bulging bank account and he was famous enough that even non-boxing fans knew his name. He was thought to be invincible and was already being compared to legends from the past. There was talk of him surpassing Marciano's unbeaten career log of 49-0 and even of leapfrogging Joe Louis's record of twenty-five successful defences. That's how highly he was being regarded back then, so it is perhaps not surprising that an excitable, wide-eyed fan would presume that he could flatten Rocky Marciano in less than three minutes.
However, even at the beginning of 1989, this golden egg was starting to crack. The previous year, one of his co-managers (the respected Jim Jacobs) had sadly passed away and Tyson was splitting from his other co-manager (Bill Cayton). These co-managers had done a fabulous job of guiding him to the upper echelon of the heavyweight division and had never shown anything but having his best interests at heart. Along with this, his marriage to dreamboat actress Robin Givens had fallen apart and he had also dropped his longtime trainer, Kevin Rooney, who had been there for him since he turned pro (Rooney had apparently made a not-so-nice remark about Robin in an interview). Rooney really knew how to push all the right buttons with Tyson and he would be sorely missed in Tyson's corner for the rest of his career. Even worse, promoter Don King was swooping in to lay claim to the biggest name in the sport. The rest of the Tyson story has been heavily recycled; the loss to Buster Douglas, the rape conviction, the headline-grabbing return to action, the loss to Evander Holyfield and the gradual decline thereafter. He is now ensconsed in retirement, being able to lay around in bed all morning, watch dumbed-down daytime TV and moan about how things ain't what they used to be. We can also create a more accurate assessment of his career in its entirety now that it is over and obviously he never came close to breaking the records held by Marciano and Louis. We also know his weaknesses and that he could be knocked out and hurt. Given what we know now, was he really good enough to flatten Rocky so swiftly and easily?
Iron Mike with his stunning first wife
Since his retirement in 1956, Rocky Marciano has encountered mixed reviews from boxing experts. Some, such as renowned trainer/manager Lou Duva, rate him as the best in history, and historian/writer Bert Sugar had him at number six on his top ten list of the greatest of all time. But what flaws do his critics take delight in highlighting? To begin with, he was one of the smallest of all heavyweight champions. Standing 5ft 10" and generally weighing around 188 lbs, Rocky was no giant, though during his career he was not considered to be small. Former champions, for example, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Max Schmeling, had all weighed approximately the same and there were others, including Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and Tommy Burns, who were even lighter. Rocky's size has only essentially become a factor since the 1980's, when heavyweight champs began to grow bigger. Larry Holmes, who reigned as the lineal champion from 1980 to 1985, weighed in the region of 215 lbs, but would he be considered a dwarf when compared to Wladimir Klitschko, who became the lineal champ in 2008? Klitschko is 6ft 6" tall and usually weighs around 245 lbs, so would Tyson be viewed as a small heavyweight when compared to him? Or more appropriately, too small to be able to beat him? Remember, both Tyson and Marciano defeated opponents who were much bigger, and I would put big bucks down on Tyson to destroy Klitschko.
Where there any other flaws? The one that is most often brought up is Rocky's lack of finesse and this is difficult to argue against. He was certainly no Willie Pep when it came to the artistry of the sweet science. But Rocky didn't need finesse; he wasn't that type of fighter. He was a strong, relentless slugger who could send an opponent into orbit with one shot from either hand, just like Tyson. Furthermore, Marciano may have been the best conditioned heavyweight there has ever been. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that he was obsessed with conditioning. During his reign as world champion, his training camps lasted at least twelve weeks, which is twice as long as most training camps. His punishing regime pushed him to the limits of endurance and his level of fitness was startling. This gave him incredible stamina; he could press forward and keep throwing punches at a pretty fast pace for fifteen rounds. But perhaps his most valuable asset was his durability. This guy could simply not be hurt. He fought some big hitters and never came close to being stopped. He was floored only twice in his career (by Jersey Joe Walcott in their first bout in 1952 and by Archie Moore in 1955) but on both occasions it was a flash knockdown and The Rock got up straight away. His ability to absorb punishment was the stuff of myths. But for me, what truly stands out with Rocky is his will to win, surely the most spellbinding of any heavyweight champ. He absolutely would not be deterred no matter what. In his first fight with Walcott, despite trailing on points, he never stopped going for the KO and he finally got it in the 13th round with what is probably the most famous knockout blow in boxing history. In his second clash with Ezzard Charles in 1954, with half of his nose hanging off and blood flowing like a waterfall, Rocky didn't even bother to protect this hideous wound! With defeat staring him in the face, he doubled up his attack and pounded poor Ezzard into submission. That is the sign of a champion with the heart of a lion.
Rocky in his second fight with Roland LaStarza
There is another aspect of Marciano's career that is a favoruite target for his critics and that is his quality of opposition. These critics claim that he never really defeated any top class heavyweights and that the biggest names on his record (Louis, Walcott, Charles and Moore) were all old and faded. Is there definitely a case here in which to diminish Rocky's status based on the opposition he faced? Let's take a look. As he climbed through the ranks, The Rock basically beat many of the leading contenders in the division at the time. His record shows that he knocked out Carmine Vingo (a tough fringe contender) and won a narrow decision over Roland LaStarza (a previously undefeated, highly-touted up-and-comer). To go with this, he crushed legitimate top contenders Rex Layne and Harry Matthews, as well as experienced veterans Freddie Beshore and Lee Savold. However, the name that leaps out from the page is that of Joe Louis. Yes, Louis was past his prime but he was ranked number one by The Ring magazine and had won eight bouts in a row when he faced Rocky, six of which had ended inside the distance. And among those eight victims were contenders Savold and Cesar Brion. Therefore, Louis was still a pretty capable fighter and had the potential to score an upset victory (though he didn't because Rocky blasted him out in the eighth round). When grouping these names together, they form quite an impressive bunch and there is no doubt that The Rock had sure earned his shot at the world title. As an interesting side note, consider the pre-championship record of Muhammad Ali. Who did he beat on his way to the top? The best names on his record are Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, thus it is safe to say that Rocky beat a better quality of opposition than Muhammad on their respective routes to the world championship.
The Rock made a total of six successful defences during his reign, all of which were against leading contenders. His world title fight wins were, in order, over Walcott (twice), LaStarza, Charles (twice), Don Cockell and Moore. Let's view each of them in turn. Back then, Walcott had been the oldest heavyweight to win the championship (he was thirty-seven when he achieved the feat) but he was no faded fossil when The Rock faced him. Walcott is one of the smartest, shrewdest champions to step between the ropes and possessed a crafty bag of tricks. He was coming off two straight wins over Charles, the first of which was a shocking 7th round KO. Walcott would have been a struggle for anyone in any era. Next for Marciano came a rematch with LaStarza, who was from New York City. LaStarza was a stylish, talented fighter with bundles of enthusiam and was a classy opponent for The Rock. Once again, let's examine the record of Muhammad Ali as a comparison. During Ali's reigns as world champion, his challengers included Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell, Zora Folley, Ron Lyle and Joe Bugner. LaStarza was certainly as good as any of them. It should be remembered too that Ali took on a series of mediocre challengers, such as Karl Mildenberger, Brian London, Chuck Wepner, Jean-Pierre Coopman, Richard Dunn and Alfredo Evangelista. All of Rocky's challengers were superior to that bunch. Anyway, in their second meeting, Rocky had LaStarza's cornermen reaching for the smelling salts in the 11th round.
In 1954, Marciano squared off with Ezzard Charles in a pair of epic wars. Charles is cruelly underrated. He was a skilled, finely-tuned technician who had a spectacular record. He had scored wins over Teddy Yarosz, Anton Christoforidis, the brilliant Charley Burley (twice), Lloyd Marshall, Jose Basora, Jimmy Bivins, Walcott (twice), Louis, Beshore, Joey Maxim, Lee Oma and Archie Moore (three times). A grumpy old misery guts could mumble about how Charles had twenty-five losses on his record, but like too many boxers, Charles fought on for far too long and half of those losses occurred after his second bout with Rocky. But was Charles washed up when he went up against him? No. Just look at his courageous performances.
Don Cockell followed Charles and this guy is often ridiculed. Yes, he was fat and had limited ability. But he was the British heavyweight champion and he was game, durable and possessed a reasonable record. There have been worse challengers for the heavyweight crown (see the list from Ali's record above) and besides, The Rock deserved an easy defence by this stage. Actually, Cockell's podgy physique was not the result of an addiction to cheeseburgers, it was caused by a glandular condition. The result here was that the brave Brit was sent into slumber land in the 9th round. Rocky's final fight came in September 1955 and was the much-hyped showdown with Moore. Again, critics try to dismiss Moore because of his age but this is irrelevant here. Moore defied logic and although he was forty-two years old when he was matched with Marciano, he was unbelievably still in his prime! Bear in mind that Moore was the reigning world light heavyweight champion and an all-time great. Plus he had earned his shot at The Rock by beating top heavyweight contender Nino Valdez. Also bear in mind that after his fight with Marciano, Moore remained as the light heavyweight champion for over six more years and his classic first bout with Yvon Durelle was yet to come! Taking all this into account, it is unfair to question Rocky's quality of opposition. It is in fact impressive - more impressive than Tyson's list of conquests.
Rocky ended the career of the great Joe Louis
With regard to a fantasy match-up between Tyson and Marciano, how would this unfold? Would it depend on when it would take place? If it took place in Rocky's era then it would likely be held at Yankee Stadium in New York City and would be scheduled for fifteen rounds. If it took place in Tyson's era then it would likely be held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and would be scheduled for twelve rounds. A possible factor in this scenario could be cuts. During his career, Rocky suffered several cuts and it should be remembered that by Tyson's era, fights were being stopped sooner when a nasty cut occurred. The facial damage that Rocky had to endure in his rematch with Charles could have led to a stoppage much earlier if the fight was held in the 1980's, and he could have experienced his first loss. Though on the flipside, The Rock's mesmerizing will to win would probably come into play. The mere chance of defeat turned him into a rampaging monster and he was more dangerous than ever. However, let's decide that the bout is held in Tyson's era. If so, then Marciano would not enter the ring weighing around 188 lbs. If he fought in the 1980's, he would surely have bulked himself up, just like Michael Spinks and Evander Holyfield did. He would use modern training methods, weight-gaining techniques and probably hire a nutritional expert in order to increase his size. Therefore he would register in the region of 215 lbs at the weigh-in. Would being this big effect him? It could reduce his speed, but that wouldn't really matter because he never relied on speed anyway. And by bulking himself up he would be approximately the same size as Iron Mike. Forget the small difference in height - there have been claims that Tyson is not actually as tall as the 5ft 11" he was made out to be. Ultimately, we would have Tyson and Marciano as roughly the same in terms of physical stature.
Would it end in a KO? Darn right it would! Tyson had faster hands and he would begin quickly, as he always did, moving in like a bolt of lightening. During his peak years, Iron Mike was able to use intimidation as an advantage. Some of his opposition, most memorably Tyrell Biggs and Alex Stewart, were a nervous wreck when they went eyeball-to-eyeball with Tyson. But Rocky feared no one. There is no way that he would be intimidated in this fantasy match-up.
Tyson playing with his exotic pet (and showing no fear!)
Rocky would box in a crouch, trying to make himself a difficult target and a few of Tyson's bombs would bounce off the top of his head. Rocky would shrug them off and bury his head in Iron Mike's chest, pummelling him on the inside. Tyson would push him away, attempting to get some room for leverage on his murderous punches. The Rock may be staggered, may suffer a small cut above his right eye courtesy of a booming left hook and would have to battle through some stormy moments, but he would be strong enough to stay on his feet and land a few telling shots of his own. Tyson would win the 1st round but he would know he was up against a powerful, stubborn foe.
We know from Tyson's career that if he didn't have his opponent snoozing within a few minutes, he would slow down. And we also know that if his opponent refused to be bullied and fought back hard then he could become rather tentative. And when this happened, his head and upper body movement would become non-existant, he would neglect his jab and he would simply try to end the fight with a single shot. In other words, he had a habit of throwing one punch at a time and then falling into a clinch. This is what would happen against Marciano. By the 3rd round, Iron Mike would have tasted some solid uppercuts and crosses, and realized that it was not going to be easy to discourage the guy in front of him. Rocky would be unfazed and would not stop pressing forward and throwing punches. Going into the 4th round, Tyson would be hesitant and frustrated. Marciano would maintain the pressure and hit anything he could, including arms and shoulders. Tyson would swing back and his blows would be faster but Rocky would stay in his crouch and block most of them. It should be added here that Rocky was a smarter fighter than he was given credit for. Anyone who doubts this should (if possible) listen to the commentary he did for the first bout between welterweight champion Tony DeMarco and Carmen Basilio. During this fight, Rocky displayed considerable perception in explaining why each fighter was doing what they were doing and what they should do to win. Make no mistake about it, Rocky Marciano knew how to fight.
Tyson would be buzzed a few times by lethal uppercuts and in the 5th round he would be wobbled by yet another one. He would be nailed by a screaming follow-up left hook and stumble into the ropes. The Rock would be all over him and the referee would be forced to jump in and wave it over with Tyson still upright but completely seperated from his senses. The verdict here is that Rocky would be too much of everything; too strong, too relentless, too durable, too defiant and too powerful. Iron Mike, whilst being a great fighter himself, never beat anyone like that. If Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield could stop him, The Rock would too. Rocky Marciano truly is one of the all-time greats.