by Fox Doucette
In the December 1998 “Holiday Issue” of Ring Magazine, that publication’s editors ranked the greatest heavyweights of all time. To no great surprise, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis locked down the top two spots. At third? Evander Holyfield, illustrating the danger of trying to evaluate an active fighter who still had fights in front of him (and conveniently forgetting that the third-greatest fighter of all time would not lose two fights to the likes of Riddick Bowe.)
Rocky Marciano ranked sixth.
Still, you can’t just stick Marciano in a time machine and expect him to match up with a guy who would outweigh him by a good 30 pounds, as would happen if, in keeping with Historical Fight Night rules, we put Holyfield in the time machine after the first fight with Mike Tyson as best representing his greatness as a heavyweight. After all, we’re fishing Marciano out of 1951 after his victory over Joe Louis, and Rocky weighed 184 pounds that night.
So instead, we’re holding tonight’s co-feature at cruiserweight. Holyfield shows up at 187 pounds, negating any weight advantage but gaining the advantage of youth and confidence from not yet having lost a fight at that point in his career.
That’s right, co-feature. Our main event? A 130-pound showdown between two fighters who never quite managed to weigh the same at the same time. Marco Antonio Barrera arrived at junior lightweight just as Diego Corrales had vacated his 130-pound title to go up to lightweight and first fight Acelino Freitas before his two more well-known wars with Jose Luis Castillo. Had their paths crossed a year later or a year earlier, there might have been a superfight available, but even then, Corrales would have been better-suited with a time machine; his best days at 130 were when Barrera was all the way down at junior featherweight.
It is with that in mind that we begin tonight’s action:
Rocky Marciano (10/26/1951) vs. Evander Holyfield (12/5/1987)
For Holyfield, the first fight with Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a split decision win in Atlanta in what was a fine candidate for 1986 Fight of the Year, was the better contest from the point of view of the fan of competitive fights, but it is the second fight from which Holyfield has been pulled to fight on Historical Fight Night. We’re not necessarily interested in a guy’s most competitive fight; we’re interested in getting a version of the guy who’s going to match up in a battle of historical greatness. The smackdown Holyfield laid down in the fourth round of the rematch gives him the best shot at beating a guy with a granite chin and an iron will who, just for fun, we’ve shown that 1998 issue of The Ring to in order to motivate him.
Not that Rocky Marciano ever needed added motivation. We’ve grabbed him and put him in a time machine on the night he ended the career of Joe Louis, after all, an eight-round slaughter that ran Rocky’s record to 38-0 with 33 KOs against Holyfield’s 17-0 and 13 stoppage wins.
When Marciano fought Harry Haft in 1949, the newspapers said of the fight that “as usual, Marciano was all fury and no finesse.” One does not end a Hall of Fame career with a nearly 90 percent KO percentage by being a slick boxer—Marciano was one of those guys who would be awfully familiar to one of Holyfield’s temporal sidekicks in 1987, a guy who also stood right around 5’10 or 5’11 and came right at you looking to either knock your head off or your body out from under you. Holyfield didn’t fight that guy until nine years later, though, and then at heavyweight.
Rocky Marciano’s Punch-Out began with a fight plan that would involve taking the speed and the steam out of a young, fast, slick cruiserweight. At his smaller size, and especially in the second fight with Qawi, Holyfield boxed on the outside, sticking the jab constantly and making use of his height to control range. Sure, Qawi was five inches shorter than Marciano, but Rocky still gave up four inches in height and an insane ten inches in reach to Holyfield.
Under most circumstances, a smaller fighter would be instructed to come in behind his jab, close range, and get to his opponent that way. Marciano, however, was another matter—in all the fight footage and all the descriptions of all his contests, you never read stories or see with your own eyes the man from Brockton working a jab the way any modern fighter would. Instead, it’s always his lead left hook and then often thrown after walking through hell itself to get it to the target.
Evander Holyfield came into this fight looking to box. Marciano was going to make him pull something with more pop than a jab out of his arsenal if he was going to win the fight, and Rocky was going to sacrifice rounds if he had to in order to get there.
So it was that the first three rounds of this fight went to Holyfield, but not without Marciano landing relentlessly with the left hook to the long, lean body of a 6’3” but only 187-pound Evander Holyfield. Indeed, there was speculation as to how the judges at ringside would score this fight; would the better boxing and ring generalship of the “Real Deal” carry the day, or would the Brockton Blockbuster be rewarded for landing fewer punches but inflicting more damage?
Holyfield was the first to see the value in deviating from the game plan a bit. Rather than making Marciano pay for real estate with the jab, which was doing nothing to keep the compact and durable fighter off him, Holyfield tried to catch Rocky coming in and get him with a counter shot.
Trouble was, the angle Marciano gave to work in wasn’t conducive to Holyfield landing the straight right hand with enough force to justify the risk of leaving himself out of position. Holyfield decided instead to try and hook with the hooker…and not for nothing is that a cliché in boxing—you simply don’t do that.
Marciano punished the rib cage of the man from Atlanta for the entire three minutes. Evander grimaced as the shots crashed home, and he nearly hit the floor before the bell saved him and gave his trainer a chance to give him a perhaps unneeded stern lecture not to try that again.
Holyfield continued to look for ways to blunt the body attack of Marciano. The jab would win him round after round, but all the conditioning in the world would be of questionable value if only one man was still fresh for the championship rounds. The hook might end the fight with one shot, but it would come at the cost of sustaining a vicious assault without reply until the punch could crash home. Resorting to fouls might work in the short term, but Marciano was an infamously dirty fighter, frequently getting points taken away throughout his career for a litany of offenses from low blows to hitting after the bell to hitting on the break, and he wasn’t above throwing a rabbit punch if the opportunity presented itself. None of these things figured to do well for Holyfield’s biggest problem, namely his opponent executing the fight plan of wearing him down.
So instead Holyfield tried something of a matador style, trying to force Marciano to lunge in and close range too quickly to get to his ideal punching distance. Rather than counter, he would dodge, and much like that video game reference earlier, use an out-of-position opponent as his starting point for a secondary attack.
Rocky almost fell for it. Indeed, he got smacked right on the bean with an uppercut not once but twice. Still, Marciano was no Glass Joe, and Holyfield could try those “star punches” all he liked, he’d still have to put them together, and a matador style isn’t conducive to a quick setup for a multiple punch combination. The uppercuts were strong, but the chin of the man taking them was stronger.
Still, Holyfield wouldn’t let this devolve into a brawl. If he did, he was done. For another three rounds, he just tried to bank points, and sure enough, by the time Round 8 drew to its conclusion, a good argument could be made that the unrelenting jab and work rate of Holyfield was winning the day on the cards even as the continued barrage of hooks to the body made Marciano’s argument a solid one as well.
Still, the body punches had their effect. Finally, Holyfield’s guard started to drop as he started to protect the tenderized areas between his ribs and his waistline from being beaten into the consistency of what the chefs of the world call paillard.
It was the opportunity Marciano had been waiting for, had been sacrificing all those jabs to his face, had been setting up the entire night. A left hook to the body, followed by a right up top, followed by another left swinging over the guard of the Real Deal sent Holyfield down for a count of eight. Forget your scorecards, if Holyfield was going to win the fight counting by nines, Marciano would win it counting by eights.
A dazed Holyfield, still reeling from the assault of the previous round, came out with a more aggressive mindset, and the fight we’d all been waiting for was on. Holyfield started shoving Marciano back, coming in with straight right hands after he’d forced Rocky out of position.
Unfortunately for him, referee Mills Lane was having none of it. Lane knew Marciano’s reputation and had been brought in as the official for this fight precisely because he’d be able to prevent Rocky Marciano from trying to ugly up the fight. He didn’t expect to have to do it for Holyfield. The third time Holyfield used the tactic, Lane gave his final warning. When Evander did it again, Lane deducted a point.
Stripped of his only effective weapon for increasing the physicality of the contest, Holyfield then resorted to trying to clinch, but Marciano was too elusive for that, making Holyfield pay for trying with more of those body shots while he kept his center of gravity low and his punches short and crisp. There simply wasn’t anything for Holyfield to hook his arms on, and he only managed to get battered that much worse on the inside for trying.
Two 10-8 rounds in the ninth and tenth had turned what was an unofficial 78-74 scorecard after eight into a 94-94 even contest after ten. Finally, stripped of any way to keep from being attacked inside, Holyfield just stuck to his fight plan, and he won the eleventh round by virtue of the same ring generalship that had won him the other six rounds he’d grabbed on the press row card.
Unfortunately for Evander, that eleventh round wasn’t won by superior fighting. He didn’t have the zip on his jab, he didn’t have the torque on his uppercut…Marciano would say after the fight that he was simply gearing himself up to have everything left for the last three minutes.
And boy, did he ever. Marciano came out like he was behind 11 rounds to nothing. He opened up, unleashing hell itself to the body of Holyfield, swinging for the fences, trying to end the fight by any means available to him. Holyfield was in full survival mode, and it was going to come down to whether he’d done enough in the rounds he’d won to win the overall fight. Another 10-8 round would doom him for sure; just getting through the three minutes would be all the man could ask for.
Sure enough, the final bell rang, and while the fight was close in the view of all who saw it, the question of “which guy would you rather be?” was decisively “Rocky Marciano.” It would come down to the judges’ scorecards, and ring announcer Michael Buffer delivered the scores:
Judge Harold Lederman scored the bout 113 to 113, a draw. Judges Jerry Roth and Harold Barnes both saw the bout the same, 114 to 112, for your winner, by majority decision…
ROCKY. THE BROCKTON BLOCKBUSTER…MARCIANO!
RESULT: MARCIANO W-MD12 HOLYFIELD.
Diego Corrales (9/2/2000) vs. Marco Antonio Barrera (11/27/2004)
Diego Corrales gets the benefit of confidence in this pick for which fight we’re going to grab him from—it was his win over Angel Manfredy, which ran his record to 33-0 with 27 knockouts. The temptation is there to grab him from his more famous contest with Jose Luis Castillo, but that fight was at lightweight; Corrales has enough of a size advantage without leaning on the “2015 training camp” excuse to try to get him back down to 130 for this fight.
Barrera, on the other hand, comes into this fight late in his career, after his third fight with Erik Morales, which was at junior lightweight and held the interesting distinction of being one of the few trilogies between two rivals in which all three fights were contested at different (and furthermore, incremental) weight classes. The first fight was at junior feather, the second at featherweight, and the last at junior lightweight. After that third fight with Morales, Barrera’s record stood at 59-4 with 41 KO wins, and it was the first of what would be five successful world title fights for Barrera at 130 pounds.
There is, incidentally, a size disparity between these two men even as they both weigh in at 130 pounds for this fight. Barrera, all 5’6” of him, turned pro at flyweight, while Diego Corrales is nearly five inches taller, and with the sole exception of his last career fight, contested at 149 pounds against Joshua Clottey, Corrales fought his entire career between junior lightweight and lightweight.
Will the size disparity prove decisive? Or will Corrales, with his very suspect chin and tendency to leave himself wide open, fall before the relentless assault of an accurate power puncher? After all, Erik Morales was bigger than Barrera too, and despite the height difference, both guys have a 70-inch reach…
One thing’s for damn sure, there wasn’t going to be a feeling-out process here. Diego Corrales had as his fight plan that he was going to drag this into a war of attrition, counting on his superior size and strength to wear his opponent down and put him away in the late rounds. In the pre-fight interview, Corrales pointed out that all the big knockouts of Barrera’s career came when he was at 122 pounds, and that Chico didn’t fear a guy who was going to be fighting eight pounds above his ideal weight.
Barrera, for his part, was going to break down the long, lean body of his opponent, taking a page from the bigger guy he’d just watched win a fight that way, and he was going to exploit the fact that his strongest punch—the left hook—was his opponent’s greatest weakness, a fact that Floyd Mayweather would exploit to such masterful perspective in Corrales’s prime-timeline next fight.
But all talk of strategy was off the table right from the word go. Barrera closed range to a phone booth and started throwing wide left hooks and sweeping right hands, targeting the body of Corrales.
Corrales, for his part, showed no respect for the power of his opponent, trading shots, giving back as good as he got, returning every hook to the body from Barrera with a hook to the Mexican fighter’s head. The pinpoint accuracy of Barrera was going to catch Corrales in any event; for Diego, it was a matter of trying to win the war of attrition.
As the last twenty seconds of the round ticked away, the fighters pounding away at each other like it was round 12 and each man thought he needed a knockout, the crowd grew into a crescendo, screaming, baying for blood, as the announcing crew exhorted the viewing audience to “call your friends, we’re in for a classic.”
The bell sounded, the crowd exploded, and the announcers were in agreement that Round 1 of Barrera-Corrales deserved a place in history as the greatest round of boxing of all time.
The Barrera corner decided to deploy a bit more strategy beyond the first round; rather than try to engage with a bigger and stronger opponent on level terms, they would take advantage of another Corrales weakness. Diego tended to fall in and lean forward on shorter opponents, and that left him vulnerable to an uppercut. When the bell sounded, it was time to use the Corrales aggression against him and put it to productive value for Barrera.
It took about thirty seconds into the round. Barrera had a trailing uppercut with the right hand waiting; after he had tied up Corrales coming in, convincing referee Tony Weeks to break them, Barrera then caught his enemy’s momentum as Corrales fell in exactly as the chalkboard would indicate.
It wasn’t enough to simply throw the uppercut, though; Barrera had something else up his sleeve as well. The uppercut was the setup; behind it was a sweeping left hook that caught Corrales right on the temple; we had our first knockdown of the fight.
Corrales rose at four with a furious look, ready to once again close range and force the fight to the range where he could impose his strength. Barrera was waiting for him, however, and countered with another two-punch combination, this time starting with the straight right but once again putting the left hook on the back end.
Corrales, reeling, retreated to the ropes, where a barrage of punches nearly brought an end to the fight. Barrera, in complete control, reined in his rate of fire in order to once again throw with precision, landing a consistent series of hooks to the body of Corrales, taking all the starch out of him, but Corrales was finally saved by the bell and found his way back to the corner.
Between rounds, the commentators remarked that Barrera’s punch output was higher than it had been in the bulk of his fights, and credit was given to Barrera’s trainer Rudy Perez during camp, who knew what his fighter would be up against and knew that his fighter’s best chance was to apply exactly the kind of pressure he was bringing to bear in this contest.
Elsewhere in the broadcast conversation was a remark made that fighters working in close would potentially lead to a cut opening up if there were to be a clash of heads. It is here that we note that the cutmen for this fight are Miguel Diaz in the corner of Barrera and Al Gavin in the corner for Corrales. If either man bleeds, he’s got one of the two men in the discussion for the greatest cut man in the game; the only way these historical fights are ending on cuts is through the imposition of a chainsaw.
Back to the actual fight action, Corrales was still wobbly when he came out of the corner for the third round, and Barrera smelled blood in the water. Corrales fought defensively, for the first time refusing to engage, choosing instead to tie up or shove his opponent off him in an effort to catch his breath.
Barrera took the hint, and rather than let himself be baited into ineffective aggression, he instead took what Corrales gave him, potshotting, engaging when the opening presented itself, and keeping up just enough pressure that Corrales did not get a complete opportunity to restore his confidence. It was a standard 10-9 round, and even the viewing audience felt that a moment to stop and think was just what the doctor ordered.
Not so in the fourth round. Barrera came out of the corner with a chance to think over what to do as far as attacking Corrales if Diego were to go into survival mode again, and the Mexican started in immediately with some vicious ripping left hooks to the body of the taller man. Corrales had his guard a little high, maintained in that spot by Barrera’s use of the straight right with less intent to land as intent to keep his opponent’s elbows too high, and the effect was devastating.
Caught between the Scylla of Barrera’s body attack and the Charybdis of eating a right hand right on the point of the chin, Corrales finally lowered his guard to protect his ribs, and Barrera reacted first by hitting the guard with a left hook to the now-protected body, but followed it up with a second hook rising to meet the head. Finally, a third punch, a right uppercut, split the guard…and Corrales went down for the second time in the fight.
All the questions coming into this fight were about whether Barrera had enough power to knock anyone out at 130 pounds, but if any opponent were ever vulnerable to punches thrown with bad intentions by a guy punching below his weight, it was Diego Corrales, he of the chin that was as easy to dent as an empty tin can when one is in possession of a hammer.
The fourth round ended, Barrera tightening the noose around the neck of “Chico” Corrales.
The only guys who ever dented Barrera’s chin were Manny Pacquiao and Junior Jones. Corrales may have been the equal of Jones in terms of power, but Pacquiao anywhere south of lightweight? That’s another story. The first fight with Jose Luis Castillo is instructive as to Corrales’ tendency to be unable to get to an iron chin—even when he had Castillo out on his feet, he was never able to put him on the floor.
The notion that raw damage is less important than the armor of the opponent has been a staple of tabletop wargames for ages, to the point where that same calculation—damage inflicted minus damage threshold—carried forward into video game design.
So it went here. Sure, there wasn’t any explicit math involved, but the fact remained that anything Barrera lost in terms of raw power was made up for by his opponent’s lack of ability to stand up to the punches, especially as the effect of those body punches began to show as the fight went on.
Against Floyd Mayweather, it was obvious the fight wasn’t long for the world when a short, chopping left hook in the tenth sent Corrales to the canvas even as the punch itself did not look terribly effective.
Against Barrera, the same thing happened in round five. On the inside, and again coming behind the uppercut, the Mexican landed what appeared to be a glancing blow, but Corrales went down like he’d been hit by a heavyweight. He rose at the count of nine, but from the attitude of Tony Weeks, it sure didn’t look like this fight was going to continue if Corrales got into trouble again.
Barrera seemed to instinctively know this as well, and the time was ripe to close the show. A series of double hooks to the body and head and a consistently-applied straight right as the third punch in a pattern of three-punch combinations led finally to the corner of Corrales stopping the fight in between the end of the fifth and what would have been the start of the sixth round. Barrera was just the better, more polished fighter, and he had a fight plan that was perfectly suited to exploiting the greatest weakness—the ability to stand up to the left hook, a punch that dropped Corrales repeatedly throughout his career, including twice against Castillo and five times against Mayweather—of the guy in front of him.
In any event, the fight was over, and Marco Antonio Barrera reigned supreme.
RESULT: BARRERA TKO5 CORRALES.
The middleweight division returns, as Historical Fight Night features Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the first time, and it’s the version of Hagler who destroyed Thomas Hearns. He gets one hell of a live opponent, as we grab a 39-year-old Bernard Hopkins from his last knockout of his career, when he folded Oscar De La Hoya in half on September 18, 2004.
Your co-feature? It’s a killer battle. Literally. Emile Griffith, put in the time machine on the same night that he killed Benny Paret in 1963, gets a scrap with the just-mentioned Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, himself grabbed from the pages of the history book on the day he smashed Roberto Duran in two rounds, June 15, 1984. The fight will go down at junior middleweight.
As always, Historical Fight Night will hit The Boxing Tribune at 6 PM Eastern, 3 PM Pacific, right on the nose, every Friday afternoon, the perfect start to your weekend whether you’re just getting home in the East or goofing off waiting for your release at work out West. Enjoy!
Fox Doucette covers boxing news and trends for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If and Historical Fight Night alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. As always, fighters’ styles are representative of fights throughout their careers, with special emphasis on the date listed. Fan mail, hate mail, and suggestions for future Historical Fight Night matchups can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.