By Kevin Kincade
Photo © John Booz/FightWireImages.com
Just a little more than fifty-one years ago, a short, compact punching machine by the name of Rocky Marciano hung up the gloves for the last time. There are varying reports as to why he retired at the relatively young age of 32; but in doing so, he became the only champion of the division to walk away from the sport without ever suffering defeat, never to return.
In 1905, World Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries retired with an undefeated record of 17-0-2 (14 ko’s); but then returned five years later at the age of 35 to be slowly dismantled by then-champion Jack Johnson.
The only other heavyweight champions to retire with the belt and never re-enter the ring were Gene Tunney and Lennox Lewis and both had suffered defeat before their retirements, leaving Marciano as the only former heavyweight champion with a completely unblemished record upon his exit from the prize ring. He was small by today’s Cruiserweight standards and defended his title only six times in his three-year reign, yet is revered as one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time by most boxing experts. Why? The “0”?
Is it because of his dominance of the heavyweight division during his era? Is it because of his sheer rugged determination and never-say-die attitude that he showed in winning and defending his title? Perhaps it’s because he was one of the first champions to be seen on television and known by the masses? The answer is up for debate.
What is not is how when his place in the heavyweight pantheon is challenged, his supporters never fail to point to that big “49-and-0” which he left behind. Well, that landmark record is three fights away from being tied by a modern title-holder who is not exactly held in the highest of regard among his contemporaries, even if he is more than twice the man Rocky was, literally.
The WBA Heavyweight Champion, Nikolai Valuev, is seven-foot, 300 plus pounds and currently sports a record of 46-0 with 1 no-contest. Does that one NC on his record prevent him from ever tying the score set by Rocky so many years ago? Upon first glance, one would think so, which would save the Marciano fan-base the indignation of saying, “Yeah, but…” However, in documented interviews with Valuev on the subject of his 20th pro fight, in which he faced German, Andreas Sidon, in Prague, the decision to label that match a no-contest was due to the nature of the fight, which was allegedly more of an exhibition due to the shorter than average length of rounds, and the referee supposedly leaving the ring after Nikolai had been declared the winner some three to four rounds before the bell tolled for the end of the sixth and final round.
If this is actually what happened, an “exhibition” would not count against the Russian Giant in his quest to tie and eventually surpass Marciano’s legendary record. What would that say about Valuev…..or Marciano for that matter? Would we have to reevaluate Marciano’s place in history? Would Valuev surpassing Rocky’s record automatically place him towards the top of the all-time heap? Does the record define the fighter that much?
Very simply, no.
The ever-popular goose egg or “0” is the most overrated aspect of a fighter’s record in the modern world of smoke-and-mirrors that is boxing. So much is made out of a fighter’s loss column as if that were the only statistic that mattered in determining a boxer’s quality or earning potential. “Of course he’s great, he ain’t never lost a fight! He must be the best!” Well, allow me cut right through the crap: A “zero” in the loss column means absolutely “zero” if a fighter’s faced “zero” quality opposition….or, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing…..you gotta have something”, to abuse some lyrics from an old Billy Preston classic.
For a fighter to be worth his weight in gold, he has to have tough competition by which to judge his skills. Or, every great fighter needs another great fighter so the two can fight over who’s greater. Ali needed Frazier, Leonard needed Hearns, Robinson needed LaMotta, and Marciano needed Walcott, for “Jersey” Joe was great on a few occasions, especially the night he lost his title. Can we say that Ruiz was great, or Beck, or Barrett, or McCline?
A fighter’s record is only as good as the men he beat to achieve it. Ruiz was a crafty above average fighter and Barrett and McCline were legitimate fringe contenders; but as of now, Valuev’s 46-0 isn’t anywhere near as impressive as Buster Douglas’ 38-6-1, much less Marciano’s 49-0. Boxing is more than numbers or what is written in the record book; it’s what’s written between the lines.
Physically, the fighter formerly known as “The Beast from the East” makes “The Brockton Blockbuster” look like a character in Tokein’s “Lord of the Rings.” Heavyweights today are just bigger than the heavyweights of yesterday; and no one is bigger than Valuev. Whether or not any are better is another question which has yet to be answered. Now, if Valuev goes on to unify the heavyweight division under one champion, beating Briggs, Maskaev, Klitschko, and whoever else along the way, we will have to look at his credentials and give more credence to that undefeated record.
Does he have a chance to be “greater” than Marciano?
Well, what defines “greatness”? If it’s the record, Valuev is just three fights away from achieving that goal. Opposition, domination, timing, fanfare?
Marciano’s rep is built not just on beating a few top contenders and several former champions who were past their best; but on the way in which he did it, the heart and will to win that he showed…his raw determination. Rocky was not the biggest, nor the most skilled man to ever hold the title by any stretch of the imagination; but you’d be hard pressed to find any other champion in the history of the sport who “wanted it” more than Rock. If anything, at 5’ 10” and 185 Lbs with a mere 69’ reach, his lack of size emphasized his incredible desire.
He started late in the game at age 24 after a relatively brief amateur career; and it was only through the genius of his trainer, the great Charlie Goldman, that he was able to develop a style which fit perfectly to his physical proportions. By contrast, Valuev has all the size a heavyweight would need and then some. Rocky had no such advantages; he had to work his way to the top and had to be in twice as good of condition as his opponents to win, employing the all-out-assault style which he chose.
Concerning opposition, let’s make a brief comparison. On the “up and comer list”, Rocky beat big punching Carmine Vingo, slick boxing Roland LaStarza (barely), and the highly touted Rex Layne. Among the old guard, he knocked out a faded Joe Louis, a shopworn Lee Savold, and came roaring from behind to cold-cock a 38 year old World Heavyweight Champion, “Jersey” Joe Walcott. While it is true that he was favored to beat the older champ, it should be noted that Walcott came out looking to destroy his younger challenger, dropping him for the first time in his career in the first round and was ahead on the scorecards by the time Rock landed that fabled right hand in the 13th; so, Walcott did present a formidable challenge, the last of his career, which is worthy of note, to say nothing of the fact that he was in fact the World Heavyweight Champion, old or not. (back then, there was only one)
Comparatively, Valuev on his march to alphabet gold, achieved wins over Paolo Vidoz, who had previously lost an 8 round decision to Zuri Lawrence, up and comer Gerald Nobles, who essentially quit by launching low blows, getting himself disqualified in the 4th, Clifford Etienne, who had just been blown out in three by Calvin Brock, and the well-seasoned Larry Donald, a fight in which the decision was booed lustily by Niki’s adopted hometown crowd.
Valuev then eeked out a majority decision win over restored WBA Heavyweight Titlist, John Ruiz, to become the largest man ever to hold any version of the World Heavyweight Championship.
After winning the title from “Jersey” Joe, Rock gave Walcott a chance to regain his title, as he deserved it; but old Joe went down from an uppercut in the first, seemingly content to submit, though he claimed he blacked out between the count of 8 and 10. The next order of business was the man many thought defeated Rocky before he won the title, Roland LaStarza.
The Bronx native had gone 16-2 since he lost a split decision to Marciano three years prior in Madison Square Garden; but had avenged both defeats and had just decisioned Rex Layne, so he was indeed a top notch contender, especially when one considers the controversy over his loss to Rocky back in 1950. Just as the Great Joe Louis defended his crown and avenged his sole loss at that point by defeating his tormentor and former conqueror, Max Schmeling, Rocky wanted to set the record straight as to who was better between he and LaStarza. He did so by devastating 11th round TKO after bursting blood vessels in LaStarza’s arms by pounding on his guard for the previous five rounds and eventually knocking Roland through the ropes, causing the referee to stop the match a few moments later.
Up next was former World Heavyweight Champion, Ezzard Charles, who had gone 14-4 since losing the title to Walcott. Surprisingly, the former champ, who was a month shy of his 33rd birthday, put up a tough fight and became the only man to go the distance with Rocky during his championship reign, which justified the rematch three months later. Marciano was easily handling Charles in their second encounter until Ezzard opened up a ghastly gash in Marciano’s nose midway through the 7th. The referee told Rocky he was going to give him one more round and then stop the fight due to the horrific-ness of the wound; Rocky stepped it up and stopped Charles in the 8th to come back from the brink of defeat and retain his crown.
Two fights later, Marciano faced his final opponent, the great Light-Heavyweight Champion, Archie Moore, who was entering the third year of his reign in his division and had earned a shot at Marciano in his by defeating top heavyweight contender, Nino Valdes. At the time, the nearly 39 year old Moore sported a record of 148-19-9 and is on record as having more knock-outs than any other fighter in the modern era. Weighing a quarter-pound less than Marciano, Archie displayed that power with a perfectly timed right hand in the second which stunned Rocky, dropping him to the canvas for a four count.
The knock-down awakened a ferociousness within Marciano that his other opponents knew all too well as he went after Moore with a new-found vigor. The “Old Mongoose” showed his incredible defensive skills over the next few rounds, slipping and rolling and blocking Rocky’s barrage, causing the champ to tire from missing badly; but eventually thunder landed in the 6th, and Moore went down from a vicious overhand right. He arose on shaky legs but somehow managed to survive the rest of the round as Marciano shot his load, finally dropping Moore again at the end of the round, which allowed the bell saved him.
Archie came out strong in the 7th, throwing stout leather and stunning the arm-weary champ; but by the 8th, Rocky had caught another wind and began punishing Archie once more, dropping him midway through the round and at the end, only to see Archie saved by the bell yet again; but it was apparent the end was near. Rocky came out bombing in the 9th to put the valiant Light Heavyweight Champion down for the 5th and final time, making the 6th and last defense of his title.
So far, Valuev has defended his WBA strap against Owen Beck who had gone 1-2 in his previous three, Monte Barrett who had handed Dominick Guinn and Owen Beck their first defeats by split decision and 9th round TKO respectively, and Jameel McCline who was on a six-fight winning streak against mediocre opposition before injuring his knee in the third round against Nikolai. Two of those three contenders, Barrett and McCline, may not be the top of the heap; but they are just below.
Prior to his shot at Valuev, Barrett had just lost to Hasim Rahman who was awarded the WBC title on the strength of his victory over “Two Gunz;” and McCline has been hanging around the Top 10 for years. Though, in truth, he was on the outside looking in by the time he stepped over the ring ropes in Switzerland for his third shot at a belt. As of right now, Nikolai Valuev has not defeated the kind of opposition Marciano had by the same point in his career.
What happens from here on out has yet to be seen. With the impending return of Vitali Klitschko to challenge for his old WBC strap, the mix at the top of the division becomes a little bit thicker. Should Valuev, with his immense size, be able to clean up the division by toppling Briggs, Peter, Maskaev, and both Klitschkos, he will have a good argument concerning his place in history because three of those men are legitimately tough and proven fighters; and Valuev is already well loved in his native Russia, whether we Americans appreciate him or not.
The argument is that the big Russian is unimpressive because he doesn’t show that much skill…..neither did Marciano. And nostalgic as some of us may be, the fact is “size does matter” in the heavyweight division. If Nikolai beats all of the top contenders out there and then retires undefeated, it would hardly be fair to leave him out of All-Time heavyweight consideration when Marciano is still in the mix more than fifty years later for remaining undefeated against much smaller men.
The men of today may be smaller than Nikolai; but they are big enough to beat him, just as the men of Marciano’s time may have been smaller than today’s heavyweight, they were still big enough to beat Rocky. If, however, Valuev closes out his career defending against the Owen Becks and the Monte Barretts of the world, he doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a Rocky Marciano. It’s all about perspective.
The funny thing is even if at the close of the day, if Valuev falls short as so many feel he will and Marciano remains among the elite, can any of you honestly see Rocky toppling Mount Valuev in a head-to-head match-up? Seriously? God love Rocky; but he’d need a damn step-ladder or platform soles just to rack Nikolai on that huge noggin of his. And I don’t see Marciano’s body and arm work being that effective against a man who could sling him over one shoulder and carry him around the ring like a small child. That, of course, means historically speaking, Rocky would be considered “greater” than a man who he could probably never beat in the ring. Ironic, no?
When it comes to ranking fighters in the annals of time, size really means next to nothing, for how a fighter is ranked is based on their own individual achievements. It’s all about perspective of what they did in their time in their division. Rocky did all he could do in his division while he was on top while Valuev has yet to really make a ripple outside of the former Soviet Bloc.
He could retire at 60-0 and be remembered as nothing more than a footnote in boxing history if he never takes on the best, ‘cause that’s what being a World Champion is all about: licking any and every son of a bitch in the house; and Nicki’s not even a World Champion in the truest sense of the words. He’s the Champion of the World Boxing Association, not the World. Until he beats two or three of the other so-called “champions,” that title will not be his to claim. To be the man, you gotta beat the man someone once said; and at the moment, “the man” is Wladimir Klitschko, even if he’s not the “World Champ” either.
Can Valuev be “greater” than Marciano? Yes he can; the opponents are out there for him to prove himself against should he choose to do so. But, just winning his next three or four fights is not going to be enough to turn the trick. We are boxing fans and students of the sport, not accountants; and numbers will not fool us.
Too many gladiators have spilled their blood on the canvas of courage and pain on their way to fistic immortality over the years for a giant fraud to fee-fi-fo-fum his way to the top of the record books. We know Nikolai Valuev is the biggest man. What he has yet to prove is that he’s the best; and no mere 49-0 is going to do that.
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