Stepping out of the ring undefeated might just be the hardest decision a fighter makes in his life. There’s the old saying that every fighter dies twice: once, when he takes his last breath and the other when he hangs up his gloves. Fighters don’t know when to call it quits when they’re losing let alone when they’re winning. This makes it almost impossible to achieve a meaningful undefeated streak all the way into retirement. Retiring undefeated has been done before, however and the most notable streak is that of the 49-0 Rocky Marciano. However, there is a reason he’s not talked about in the same light as an Ali or even Mike Tyson.
“It’s so hard to retire undefeated,” says HBO analyst Larry Merchant.”You used to work so hard for peanuts and now you’re getting your due. When you’re at the top, a marquee name, you think one or two more fights couldn’t hurt.”
With an unblemished 49-0 record, Rocky Marciano hung up his gloves for good — retiring as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history. It’s an undefeated record that has stood across all weight classes for over 60 years.
That is, until now.
You’d think that the backdrop of the entire Mayweather/McGregor fight would be revolving around Mayweather beating Marciano’s record and retiring. It hasn’t. And if it was, it’s been greatly overshadowed by the “Boxing versus MMA” angle of the Money Fight montage. Even the Boxing community isn’t giving much credence to Mayweather for breaking the record or to the record itself. Rocky Marciano Jr. has spoken out against the money fights significance. The reasons why Mayweather isn’t getting many accolades for beating the record is the fact that he needed to do it by defeating essentially a 0-0 boxer. Nobody cares that he’s only a -350 betting favourite days out from the fight against his opponent McGregor. While a very worthy foe, it’s argued that more challenging contenders are readily available. This one matchup aside, Mayweather’s record is also very controversial. However what remains to be questioned in this article is the importance of the streak accomplished by the former record holder: Rocky Marciano.
The main criticism has always been the age of Marciano’s marquee opponents. Although age does not always bespeak talent. It played a major role in maintaining Marciano’s unblemished record. Beating fighters past their prime is a mainstay in boxing. Making way for the next generation means older fighters have to lose for there to be an undisputed designation given. Since Marciano’s claim to greatness is based largely on his unbeaten record, one must put his quality of opponents under the microscope.
It is true that most of Rocky’s best opponents were past their prime when he faced them. Jersey Joe Walcott was 38-39 years old and Ezzard Charles was 32-33 and was at his peak as a light-heavyweight. Also, 175 pound champion Archie Moore was 42, hardly inspiring. To no fault of his own, Rocky came up in one of the weakest periods in heavyweight history. Great fighters need great rivals. Joe Louis was the biggest name on Marciano’s resume, but he was 37 years old and had lost a couple steps in the fight against Father Time. By the time of their fight, the once legendary Louis had “long since lost his once devastating punch” as Ring Magazine’s Nat Fleischer wrote. Louis still was an admirable fighter when Marciano beat him because he was technically sound, but he lacked the speed and power that he once possessed.
Some detractors claim Marciano benefited from favoritism, that he never fought the real power punchers of the division like past heavyweight champions before and after him. Therefore Rocky’s chin was never really tested against an elite heavyweight puncher like a George Foreman. The two best punchers that he did fight were over-the-hill Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore – and both briefly put Rocky on the canvas. Other opponents such as Harold (Kid) Mitchell, Art Henri, and Willis Red Applegate all had losing records as proverbial journeymen.
All that set aside, it could be argued that a once-undefeated heavyweight Roland LaStarza was robbed in his first bout with Marciano, making it a certainty that his career would always be overshadowed in controversy if there was never a rematch. Many believe that Marciano actually did lose to LaStarza in their first fight but got a gift decision. Those who watched at the time like Jesse Abramson, boxing writer for the New York Daily Herald called it a “paper thin and exceedingly odd decision.” And it was “universally condemned around ringside as a miscarriage of justice”, according to many other newspaper reports. Even 50 years later LaStarza was quoted maintaining that he “won that fight,” In the New York Herald Tribune, LaStarza said, “The fact is his manager Al Weill was matchmaker for the Garden. I would say that had a lot to do with the decision.” The scoring for the bout was 5–4, 4–5, and 5–5, but La Starza lost on a supplemental point system used by New York and Massachusetts at that time. Both boxers were undefeated at the time of the fight, with La Starza’s record at 37–0.
It’s what happened after the first LaStarza fight that really blemished Marciano’s career by taking a major step back in competition. Rocky’s handlers were afraid to put him in with anyone who could pose much of a threat after coming so close to tasting defeat. His next opponent was Eldridge Eatman who had lost 8 of his last 9 fights. Many viewed it at the time as essentially a bounceback or a gimme fight for an undefeated fighter. Then there was Tiger Ted Lowry who had a career record of 60-54-9, who was one of few who went the distance with Marciano. Arguably, Marciano was picking and choosing his fights his entire career. However Rocky won a later rematch against LaStarza in the 11th Round by TKO, handing LaStarza his first loss by stoppage in 57 fights.
The rematch can be seen here:
Then there are the complete naysayers that say the streak is bogus and not unique. Most of these critics always play the numbers game or twist significance of the distinction that he retired winning every boxing contest he entered. However a fellow heavyweight, Gene Tunney had a longer unbeaten streak [52 fights] but finished with a 66-1-1 professional record. Tunney also lost amateur bout when he was in the Marines.
There are also those who claim that Marciano wasn’t the only champion to retire undefeated. There was Jimmy Barry, a bantamweight who made his debut in the early 1890s and retired before the beginning of the 20th century. Even though Barry finished his undefeated career with 59 victories, he also produced 10 draws including his last eight fights. Barry’s final bout was also rumoured to be fixed to preserve his undefeated record. In response to those who say they were different times, they will tell you to look no further then flyweight Ricardo Lopez who retired undefeated in 2001 but he as well held a draw on his professional record.
When you’re playing the numbers game you can not take away the importance of the accomplishment set by Rocky Marciano. Of his 49 wins 43 came by way of knockout. His knockout percentage of 87.75 is the highest among all heavyweight champions. Marciano’s career perfection remains one of the monumental individual streaks in sports history. However, it wasn’t the streak itself that elevated his status to boxing lore. Unlike so many other fighters in history, with greatness in the palm of his hand, he resisted temptation to step back in the ring. Will this be Floyd Mayweather’s biggest mistake? Coming out of retirement to fight McGregor, I highly doubt it. It’s a very calculated risk , but one with minimal inherent risk.
In conclusion, my personal opinion about Rocky’s record reflects that of John Durant, author of The Heavyweight Champions when he wrote in 1971 “Critics do not rate Rocky with the great ones, like Jeffries, Johnson, Dempsey, Tunney, and Louis. He never faced topnotch fighters like they did. It was not Rocky’s fault, of course, that there was not much talent when he was fighting. He fought them all and that is what a champion is supposed to do.” The same remains today, giving reason as to why Rocky Marciano is the second most popular Rocky inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, giving credence to as why Sylvester Stallone himself dubbed McGregor to be the “real life Rocky.”