What Makes a Legend? The Intrigue of Marciano
18.07.06 - By Nick Porter: It seems like glory always comes with a bullseye. Standing at about 5’10” and weighing well below the modern Cruiserweight limit, Rocky Marciano’s reign as champion would likely otherwise be forgotten if not for one detail: he is the only heavyweight champion in history to retire undefeated, with no losses and no draws on his 49-0 record. While this and several other factors have vaulted him into legendary status, they have also created a counter movement seeking to invalidate the accomplishments of this Italian from Brockton, some of which have even appeared on this very publication. Therefore, I will set out to nullify the arguments put forth by Marciano critics, and also try and pin down just what it is about the man that makes him so popular after all of these years.
Article posted on 18.07.2006
The main knock against Marciano’s legend is that his opponents were all either vastly over the hill or otherwise vastly untalented, and as such his record is impressive only on paper. This is not necessarily untrue; many of Marciano’s opponents were in fact past their prime, and the others were taken out rather handily by the Brockton Blockbuster. However, the “Who did he fight?” criticism is far too subjective and as such invalid, as it is used to criticize any fighter.
Don’t believe me? Joe Louis (whose older shell was knocked out of the ring by Marciano) is renowned for his historic, still standing record of 25 world title defenses, and rated either #1 or #2 behind Muhammad Ali as the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. However, many of those were no-hope non-contenders who became known by the press corps as the “Bum of the Month” club, with Louis fighting men who had over 20 (sometimes over 40) losses. However, this does not diminish his legend, his record, or his overall greatness in the least, because he ultimately had the only thing that is remembered in sports: the W. It is unimportant that Billy Conn almost defeated Joe Louis, or that Michael Moorer almost beat George Foreman. In sports, as with war, or love, or everything else in the world, to the victor go the spoils. Also, this criticism is unique to boxing: you’d be hard pressed to hear someone criticize Roger Federer for the level of his competition winning four straight Wimbledons, or attempt to dismiss Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak due to the quality of the pitchers he was up against. The stories are entertaining, but the records that are remembered.
So then, is it only that magic number of 49 wins that makes the Marciano legend so pervasive, 50 years after his short reign? What is it that makes his short time as the post-war champion so memorable?
Firstly, we must remember that Rocky Marciano was the last “white” American linear heavyweight champion. While this is hardly all-important, only the most politically correct die-hard would say that this has no bearing on his standing as a symbol in sports, and also brings me to my final point.
Our heroes must be identifiable with us. We as sports fans must admit that part of the allure of watching sports is the ability to share in the glory of the champion: that if our team or our player wins, it’s as though we have won as well. This is why we seek people with weaknesses to admire, and also why so many seek to tear legends down: if they are not gods but men, then we can both share in and hope to emulate their glory.
I am a white male, at 5’9 and 165 pounds. That’s not that much smaller than the Rock. While I know that I could never have the speed and grace of an Ali or the brute crushing power of a Tyson, I can identify with this “little” white man and use his performances as an ideal: cut up, off balance, throwing wild haymakers with unpolished technique, but still coming through every single time using stamina, grit, and heart. This is the essence of boxing, and the essence of sport. It makes Marciano real in a way that a prime Ali or Joe Louis never could be; while they soared above their competition, Marciano always seemed far below his. Despite this, every single time, he came through and did what he needed to win. Was Rocky overrated? Absolutely, but he is still a legend, and for the same reason that Arturo Gatti can still sell out the Atlantic City Boardwalk:
Because every time that referee raises their hand in victory, we see him raising our hands instead.
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