By Jay McIntyre: To view a version of this article with photographs and corresponding discussion, please visit the page on my blog: http://a-neutral-corner.blogspot.ca/2014/08/rocky-marciano-crude-phenomenon.html
Rocky Marciano retired in 1956, and walked away from the sport as an undefeated heavyweight champion of the world – something no one else has ever done in the history of the sport. Only two men have come close to Marciano in this regard: Gene Tunney and Lennox Lewis.
Gene Tunney avenged his lone defeat to Harry Greb at light heavyweight in 1922, and Lennox Lewis punished Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman for their impertinence in 1994 and 2001, respectively. These men defeated every man they ever fought, and yet only Marciano can say that he never tasted the bitterness of defeat and reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Rocky Marciano’s story is one of humility and hard work. He wasn’t remarkably talented (though power is certainly a much coveted ability) and was not a very well-rounded boxer. He was humble. He fought with unwavering determination. He was gracious in victory. But he also wasn’t the biggest. He wasn’t the smartest. He certainly wasn’t the fastest. If one were to look at his attributes on paper they would probably think that such a career would amount to mediocrity. After all, great punchers don’t necessarily make great champions. But life is full of its pleasant ironies, and while he lacked much, he also accomplished much. Perhaps that is why A.J. Liebling – famed writer for the New Yorker – aptly described Marciano as ‘a crude phenomenon’.
To truly appreciate the man known as “The Brockton Blockbuster”, let’s analyze some of his trademark maneuvers and tendencies in the ring.
Although boxing stances can be categorized as upright, “peek-a-boo”, crouching, etc., each fighter does something with that stance to make it their own. It is important for a fighter to know who they are and what they are good at so that they can fight out of a stance that will make them as hazardous as possible. Having an identity crisis in the ring can lead to mixed, or very unfavorable results.
Marciano knew he had one hell of a right hand, so he fought out of a stance that kept his right hand loaded and kept his weight on his rear foot – much like a loaded spring. He also knew that he the lacked dexterity and footwork to slide and slip around the ring, so he always tucked his chin and kept his gloves high minimize damage.
While Marciano’s stance has a variety of advantages, here are the ones that are of particular use to him:
- bladed stance allows for his body weight to be behind his right hand when he throws it (giving it more power).
- he presents a smaller target to his foe.
- chin is tucked and guarded by lead shoulder.
- gloves are up to help deflect/muffle any incoming punches that he may not be able to evade.
- his weight is coiled on his rear foot so that he can fire off his right quickly and powerfully.
While this bladed stance actually lends itself to effective jabbing, Marciano was never known to be much of a jabber. The biggest disadvantage for Marciano in this stance is that it means that his left hook is essentially non-existent because his body is turned too much to his own right. In order for him to effectively land the left hook, he would have to rotate his body to his left in order to load up on the hook (but this would rather obviously telegraphs his intentions). As you will read shortly in this article, Marciano would modify his stance when closing the gap to make his left hook more hazardous.
It is fitting that Marciano’s first name is Rocky because the study of geology (basically the study of rocks) is really the study of two variables at work: time and pressure. In the ring, it was always only a matter of time before Marciano’s pressure would eventually break his opponent. Since Marciano could hit like a thrown rock and was as durable as one, these two ingredients became essential to his success.
Marciano wasn’t much of a jabber, he would instead try to find or create opening with other tactics. One pretty common method was to crouch and move his head when stepping in towards his opponent. This would allow him to slip or take the edge off any incoming punches as Marciano tried to close the gap. With a reach of only 68 inches, he needed to get close in order to get to work.
In 1955, “The Old Mongoose” Archie Moore thought that he had Marciano’s number. He felt that the subtleties and the nuances of boxing which he so capably understood would be his allies when he threw down with “The Brockton Blockbuster”. Frankly, he had more tools in his toolbox and more experience than any active fighter at that time. What he couldn’t anticipate, however, was how tiring it would be for a fighter to react to everything that his opponent was doing. Moore was a tactical mastermind and clearly went into this fight with an awareness of Marciano’s weaknesses. But knowing these weaknesses, and being able to fully exploit them are not the same thing.
By the second round Moore knew how much to step back to make Marciano’s punches whiz past him harmlessly. Timing him with a precise right hand after baiting him to throw a punch, Moore floored Marciano. That was the high water mark for Moore. Marciano was up by the count of four and went right back to work. The rest of the fight was characterized by Marciano’s brutal style of attrition slowly taking its tool on the tired “Old Mongoose”. For the remaining seven rounds Marciano never let his cagey adversary take a break. Marciano was all too willing and able to take punches in order to give punches because he knew that his punches hurt more. But he also knew that pressuring his opponent in the aforementioned style can be incredibly wearing.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Marciano’s gritty and constant style of combat took its toll on even the most prodigious of talent and skill in the ring.
Looking at some of Marciano’s post-fight photographs one could easily believe that Marciano would take a beating in the ring if it meant securing victory. While it is certainly true that a lion-sized heart was beating in his chest, he could not absorb a sustained punishment for 49 fights and still be coherent at the time of his death. The human body simply isn’t designed to take that kind of bruising without consequence.
One thing Marciano’s trainers were very careful to avoid, as A.J. Liebling observed, was to never “try to teach a boxer more than he can learn”. Marciano turned pro at the age of 24 after a very brief amateur career and a failed attempt at professional baseball. With little time and little experience, his trainers took his fighting personality and augmented it with a few techniques to maximize his potential.
Here are some of his defensive techniques:
- head movement and changing levels to make him harder to hit when closing the distance
- crouching forward when attacking so that his body is a more difficult target to hit (coupled with head movement)
- tucking chin behind left shoulder
- after punching he either moves his head to avoid a counter, or clinches his opponents if he is close enough so that he can’t be countered as easily
- on the inside:
- placing his forearm across the top of his opponent’s and grabbing behind his elbow so they couldn’t load up on their punches
- using underhooks to control an opponent’s movements and limit his punching
- keeping his head close against his opponent so that he is harder to hit
In war, as in single combat, the old adage goes “sometimes the best defense is a good offense”. Marciano – under the guidance of his pragmatic trainers – used his aggression, coupled with some subtle techniques, to keep him safe and help pave the way to victory each time he stepped into the ring.
The Right Hand Counter
He wasn’t a one-armed puncher, but the one punch that felled so many opponents was indeed his right hand. By the time Marciano was stepping into the ring against battle-tested opponents he had to do more than pile right hands on them until they collapsed. His right could be compact, but it was also often anticipated. Remember his stance allows for his body to be loaded behind his right hand, but it also gives it greater distance to travel and this more reaction time for his foe. Throwing it ‘cold’ rarely got him the desired results and often left him exposed.
In 1951, even an old and worn out Joe Louis had no problem avoiding Marciano when he led with his right hand. In the instance above Marciano found himself wasting his own energy and getting picked off for his efforts. Landing his right hand successfully was often accomplished by countering his opponent or setting it up.
Besides constant movement, a good jab is an effective way to keep a pressure fighter at bay. But every punch thrown can leave the puncher exposed and at the mercy of a counter strike. With a reach of only 68 inches, and little hand speed, Marciano was never destined to be much of a jabber. It’s purpose was therefore cursory, and though the jab can be a great set up for the right hand, we did not see much of it from Marciano. Instead here are a few ways that Marciano brought his right hand into contact with his opponent’s skull.
One method would be countering his opponent’s jab with a right hook to the body, or the head.
Left Hook Set Up
Upon developing his left hook, Marciano was able to use that punch to set up his right hand as well. In his rematch on May 15th, 1953, against the ultra-savvy Jersey Joe Walcott, Marciano stalked, pressured and time Walcott’s jab to land a left hook, and follow it up with a right uppercut.
Although this fight only lasted a portion of the first round, Walcott had already established the pattern of ducking any of Marciano’s headshots. Punching around Walcott’s glove, Marciano – like so many other great punchers before and after him – used his left hook to set up his right hand.
Inevitably, pressure had a way of eroding his opponent’s response time. Set ups become less necessary when the opponent isn’t moving or punching with much force. Volume then became the prerogative for strategy, and the late rounds would have the unwelcome sensation of feeling like quicksand for his opponents. Such was most obviously the case in Marciano’s fight against the aforementioned Moore. By the eighth round Moore was rolling with some of Marciano’s power punches, but his feet were no longer moving him into a position of safety. He lost control of the distance and courageously prolonged the inevitable.
His brutality existed only within the confines of the fight. Upon ending his opponent’s term in the ring he would be the first one to walk over and give them the respect they deserved. He fought with a crowd pleasing style: taking punches, giving punches, and moving in only one direction – forward. He couldn’t fight any other way. How could he? After all, a rolling rock has a hard time changing direction.
Marciano may be remembered for dolling out an impressive highlight reel of knockouts. He may be remembered for oppressing a division during one of its weaker eras. Perhaps most of all he will be remembered as someone who truly left it all in the ring and hung up his gloves having given his best and against the best of his time.
A crude phenomenon, indeed.
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