by Fox Doucette
Welcome to What If, a new series in which we answer what-if questions from boxing history:
Floyd Mayweather often tries to compare himself to Rocky Marciano, the legendary heavyweight champ who retired undefeated after 49 straight wins, 43 by knockout, including a ninth-round stoppage of Archie Moore in his final professional fight on September 21, 1955. Mayweather is currently 46-0 with 26 KOs and seems hell bent on getting to 50-0 before he retires. At least he’s fighting quality opponents; he could take the easy way out and fight the kind of opposition Joe Calzaghe fought in becoming an oft-mocked 46-0 retired champ.
But what if Marciano had fought on rather than saying “I just don’t feel like doin’ it anymore” at his final press conference after the Moore fight? A lot of title lineages stop dead in their tracks in 1955, creating the same sort of rebirth in the sport and arguments over the best guy that don’t completely pick up again until most current title lineages start with the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971. Marciano was 32 years old at the time he retired. Wladimir Klitschko was 33 before Ring Magazine conveyed upon him their version of the “undisputed” heavyweight crown after he beat Ruslan Chagaev in June of 2009—he’s 38 now.
So let’s take a stroll through the news headlines from boxing’s alternate universe, a world in which Marciano doesn’t hang ’em up; maybe the mob has something on him, maybe he’s still got the eye of the tiger, but whatever his reasons, let’s give Rocky Marciano a full career in the fight game.
June 16, 1956: Marciano (50-0, 44 KOs) KO7 Floyd Patterson (29-2, 20 KOs)
Floyd Patterson had been the big up-and-comer in the heavyweight scene, turning pro at the tender age of 17 in 1952. Many of the newspapermen of the time made quite a show of Patterson’s youth; if he beat Marciano, he would become the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport, surpassing Joe Louis’ record that Louis set when he was 23 and beat Gentleman Jim Braddock for recognition by the New York commission and the National Boxing Association in 1937, a record that would go on to hold until Mike Tyson showed up in 1986.
Don Dunphy, calling the fight for the television broadcast, contrasted the youth of Patterson with the cagey veteran ring generalship of the Brockton Blockbuster, casting question on Floyd’s abilities and whether he was indeed ready for the role into which he’d been thrust; the recognized number-one contender for the title, Tommy Jackson, was thought to be far more deserving of the championship shot.
Whatever the criticisms, they were valid this day; Patterson had Marciano on the ropes in the second round and looked fresher and more lively, but Rocky, no stranger to early trouble in fights and indeed having been dropped in the second round by Archie Moore before knocking Moore down five times en route to that win in 1955, steadied himself and knocked Patterson down once each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds before closing the show with a devastating straight right hand flush to the chin of the younger man that ended the fight.
We now skip ahead a few fights: Marciano handled Tommy Jackson in his next fight before stopping Moore in a rematch and notching wins over Ingemar Johansson and a frighteningly overmatched Ezzard Charles, a shadow of his former self, on March 15, 1958, the infamous “Ides of March” fight, in which a very young Howard Cosell, on WABC in New York, would echo the very sentiments that 25 years later would drive him from professional boxing commentary in the wake of the Duk Koo Kim massacre at the hands of Ray Mancini. This brings us to the inevitable point of history:
July 4, 1958: Sonny Liston (22-1, 15 KOs) KO2 Rocky Marciano (54-1, 48 KOs)
It was supposed to be a tune-up fight for the champion, fighting a guy who’d been making a bit of a name for himself on the Midwestern circuit but probably a couple of years away from being a legitimate contender. There were whispers that Liston, facing a lot of the problems black fighters got when trying to get title shots against white champions in that era, was only being given this fight so that Marciano could knock him out before returning to more lucrative prey. There had been talk of a Marciano-Patterson rematch; Floyd Patterson, learning lessons from his loss to Rocky in their first fight, was considered much more ready for a true world title fight.
As a geographical compromise of sorts, the fight was held in Pittsburgh; Liston, being from St. Louis, and Marciano, from Brockton, Massachusetts, chose the venue so that, as it was rumored, both men could get something of the appearance of propriety; a neutral site was as far as Marciano’s people would go when convinced that something was up in Chicago, where Liston had fought before.
Except the Fourth of July in Pittsburgh turned out to be the hottest day of the year, at 90 degrees, and Marciano wilted in the blazing summer heat; whatever he had done that day, it had gotten to him by the time the evening came and the fight began. Liston pounced, knowing his opponent was weak in the early rounds in the best of times, and what was supposed to be a tune-up turned into a rout. Marciano was down three times in the opening minute and the coup de grace, a devastating left hook, ended it only 74 seconds into the fight.
Liston would win a rematch in New York in November, proving the win in Pittsburgh had been no fluke; Marciano now had two losses and the label of “former champion” on his hands. He would go on to fight a few times for pay, never against championship-caliber opponents, over the next five years, before finally…
January 24, 1963: Cassius Clay (17-0, 13 KOs) KO4 Rocky Marciano (58-5, 52 KOs)
There wasn’t much in it. The man who would become Muhammad Ali, who had just beaten Archie Moore a few months prior, completed the official passing of the eras between the old guard of the post-Joe Louis era and what would become the greatest generation in heavyweight history, making Rocky Marciano look every one of his about-to-turn-40 years. Marciano, after the fight, finally retired; Clay, for his part, gave due deference to his opponent, saying “Rocky was the greatest of the old, but I’m the greatest of the new.” The timeline, such as it was, was restored; Clay would go on to knock out Sonny Liston in Miami a year later and reign as heavyweight champion himself until Vietnam happened…
…but what if Ali’s name never came up in the 1967 list for conscription? Perhaps we’ll answer that question in another edition…of “What if.”
Fox Doucette is a Seattle-based accounting clerk by day and freelance writer by night. For two years he covered Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. Fan mail, hate mail, and what-if ideas can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.