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Still No Consensus on Rocky Marciano’s Place in Boxing History

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Aug. 31 marks the 45th anniversary of the day when Rocky Marciano died in the crash of a small plane in an Iowa cornfield. The only heavyweight champion to quit the ring while undefeated — he was 49-0, with 43 knockouts, following his final bout, a ninth-round knockout of the great Archie Moore on Sept. 21, 1955 — Marciano was on his way to a celebration of his 46th birthday the following day, Sept. 1, in Des Moines, but he and the Cessna 172’s other two occupants, both of whom also perished, never got there.

More than four decades later, boxing historians and fight fans of a certain age who actually saw Marciano bludgeon his way to the top are still divided as to whether the “Brockton Blockbuster,” just 32 when he announced his retirement on April 27, 1956, is truly among the best of the best, or an inelegant but sturdy brawler who was fortunate enough to come along during a fallow period in the heavyweight division that fell between the more regal reigns of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.

Opinions as to Marciano’s place in the all-time heavyweight pecking order are as strongly stated, and as widely diverse, as any that can be found in the fight game. His crushing overhand right, which he had dubbed the “Suzie Q,” has to rate as one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of any fighter. But, some critics sniped, that big right hand, as well as Marciano’s relentless determination to succeed and seeming imperviousness to pain, were the only real assets of a short (5-10¼) and short-armed man (his reach of 68 inches is 4 inches shorter than welterweight Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s) whose original goal was to become a catcher in baseball’s big leagues. That dream died when Marciano, a decent hitter with a bat in his hands, was sent home without a contract from a Chicago Cubs tryout camp in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1947 because of – get this – a weak throwing arm.

Even when he won, Marciano was sometimes targeted for barbs that stung his pride as much as the punches he received from gloved opponents. In writing of Marciano’s emphatic stoppage of Moore, the 175-pound champion who was moving up in weight, Nat Fleischer, founder of The Ring, noted that the winner was “crude, wild-swinging, awkward and missed heavily.”

After his eighth-round TKO of a 37-year-old Joe Louis on Oct. 26, 1952, in Madison Square Garden, Arthur Daley was almost contemptuous in his dismissal of the then-29-year-old Marciano as a worthy heir to the twice-removed crown of the faded “Brown Bomber.”

“The Louis of 10 years ago would have felled Rocky with one punch,” Daley wrote. “Louis losing is more important than Marciano winning.”

Even Marciano’s very astute trainer, Charley Goldman, had to admit that his man had rough edges that could never be completely sanded smooth by any chief second, no matter how much time and effort was put into the attempt. Marciano had only taken up boxing in the Army to get out of kitchen duty and other less-than-desirable assignments, and although he won the 1946 Armed Forces boxing tournament, he was just 8-4 as an amateur, getting by almost solely on crude, raw power.

In recalling his first glimpse of “prospect” Marciano, Goldman jotted down all his negatives into a notebook: wild punches, poor balance, legs too far apart, stride too long, non-existent defense, over-reliance on his right hand and a disinclination to throw combinations, among other things. But when the kid connected, he somehow made magic.

“Marciano was so awkward we just stood there and laughed,” Golden was quoted as saying in author Bert Randolph Sugar’s 2005 book, “Boxing’s Greatest Fighters.” “He didn’t stand right, he didn’t throw a punch right. He didn’t do anything right.”

Later on, as Marciano continued to knock everyone stiff, Goldman, who had previously been the manager-trainer of middleweight titlist Al McCoy, allowed that “I got a guy who’s short, stoop-shouldered and balding with two left feet. (Rocky’s victims) all look better than he does as far as moves are concerned, but they don’t look so good (laying) on the canvas.”

So what is the most accurate assessment of what Rocky was, or wasn’t?

Sugar, always opinionated and frequently controversial, had Marciano at No. 14 on his list of the 100 greatest fighters of all time, and the fifth-best heavyweight, behind Louis (4), Ali (7), Jack Dempsey (9), Jack Johnson (10) and Gene Tunney (13). Other renowned big men who fell in behind The Rock were Sam Langford (16), Ezzard Charles (24), George Foreman (31), Joe Frazier (37), Evander Holyfield (42), Larry Holmes (45), John L. Sullivan (54), Bob Fitzsimmons (66), Jim Corbett (69), Sonny Liston (73), Jersey Joe Walcott (79), Peter Jackson (80), James J. Jeffries (84) and – obviously, a lot of fight fans will dispute back-of-the-line status – Mike Tyson (100).

“As indestructible as any fighter in history, Marciano walked into, and through, thousands of hard, clean jolting shots in the manner of a human steamroller, wrecking his opponents with baseball-bat swings to the arms, the midsection, the head, and just about anything else within reach,” Sugar wrote. “Always ready to give two or three punches to land one, the determined Marciano melted down the guards of his opponents, and with the shortest arms of any champion in the history of the heavyweight division, hewed them down to size.”

Moore, who was on a 21-bout winning streak when he challenged Marciano, wasn’t about to dispute Sugar’s assessment. “The Mongoose” holds the all-time professional record with 131 knockout victories, so he knows a thing or two about what it feels like to deliver and to be on the wrong end of a takeout shot. And Marciano, he marveled, rose above all the big bangers of his acquaintance.

“Marciano is far and away the strongest man I’ve ever encountered in almost 20 years of fighting,” Moore said in an article that appeared in the New York Times the day after the bout. “And believe me, I’ve met some tough ones.”

The Rocky Marciano story is pure Americana, regardless of where the so-called experts are apt to place him on their best-of lists. The grandson of Italian immigrants, the young Rocky – whose birth name was Rocco Marchegiano; it was changed by his manager, Al Weill, because Weill thought the shortened version was easier to pronounce and to fit in newspaper headlines – grew up knowing only that he didn’t want to work in the shoe factory where his father, Pierino, worked long hours for short wages under dismal conditions.

Perhaps Marciano’s burgeoning popularity owed in part to the exciting nature of his no-frills, all-thrills style; he was involved in The Ring’s Fight of the Year in three consecutive years, from 1952 through ’54, scoring knockouts of Jersey Joe Walcott, Roland La Starza and Ezzard Charles (the last two were rematches). Maybe it was because he was seen in some quarters as a “White Hope,” the man who would end a 17-year domination of the heavyweight division by black fighters that had begun with Louis and extended on to Charles and then Walcott. There also was the constant expectation of sudden lightning, a thunderbolt in the late going of bouts Marciano was trailing on the scorecards, with his undefeated record further endangered with each passing round.

Such was the case in his challenge of Walcott, who had wrested the championship from Charles on a seventh-round knockout on July 18, 1951, in Pittsburgh, the putaway blow a perfectly timed, walk-in left hook that was and still remains one of the most aesthetically perfect punches in boxing history. For all the world, it looked as if Jersey Joe was headed to an even more significant triumph, increasing his points lead over the bull-strong Marciano as the fight, scheduled for 15 rounds on Sept. 23, 1952, in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, headed into the 13th. Marciano clearly needed a knockout to claim the title, and he knew it. So, you would have thought, did Walcott.

But Walcott wanted to chisel boulder that had been The Rock down to a pebble, and he attempted to put an exclamation point to his seemingly imminent success in that fateful stanza by stepping up the pace even more. Instead he was sent down and out by what might have been the most spectacular one-punch knockout ever, a short – maybe six inches – right to the jaw that landed with the force of a meteor slamming into the earth. Walcott, whose face was distorted into that of an anguished gargoyle at the point of impact, was unconscious as he slid down the ropes. Referee Charlie Daggett went through with the formality of a count, but he could have tolled to 100 and Walcott wouldn’t have risen in time.

After vanquishing Moore, however, the inner fire that had always burned so hot into Marciano began to cool. His retirement stuck after he defeated Moore, who had decked him in Round 2, although Rocky was sorely tempted to go for win No. 50 after Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson lifted the heavyweight title from Floyd Patterson on a third-round TKO on June 26, 1959, in Yankee Stadium.

“I don’t want to be remembered as a beaten champion,” said Marciano, who understood how great the difference was between 49-0 and 49-1, for the purpose of retaining the unique legacy he had consecrated with his blood. And so he walked away from a seven-figure payday that would have added a bundle to the $4 million or so in career earnings he had amassed at a time when a million dollars went a hell of a lot further than it does now.

There would be one more moment of semi-glory for Marciano, however. A Miami-based entrepreneur named Murry Woroner in 1967 came up with the idea of a “fantasy boxing tournament” to determine the best heavyweight of all time, the results of which would be spit out by something called the NCR 315 computer. The data on 16 all-time greats fed into the gadget, admittedly primitive by today’s standards, and in the final Marciano emerged as the winner via 13th-round knockout of Jack Dempsey.

Muhammad Ali – who was in the midst of his three-year suspension from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army and whom the computer had deemed a quarterfinals loser to James J. Jeffries – filed a $1 million lawsuit against Woroner for defamation. Ali claimed that Woromer had, in effect, stolen his good name by rigging the computer to have him lost to someone he claims he could have beaten a hundred times in a hundred tries.

Woroner slipped the legal punch by offering Ali a filmed fantasy fight against Marciano, who was 45 and had not fought in 13 years. Both men signed on, and the filming took place in early 1969 with a flabby Ali nearly 40 pounds over his best fighting weight and Marciano, wearing a toupee for vanity’s sake, 45 pounds lighter thanks to a crash diet. Seventy one-minute rounds were filmed, including seven different endings. Neither Ali nor Marciano, it was said, was told beforehand which outcome would used in the telecast, to be shown in some 1,500 closed-circuit locations around the world.

A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Arnold Davis, told Ali – who was cash-strapped and who reportedly accepted Woroner’s offer of $9,999 to participate – that he was crazy if he thought the final cut would have him winning.

“The end is supposed to be a mystery? To whom?” Davis asked Ali. “Marciano will beat you bloody. And it will sell like hell in South Africa, to say nothing of Indiana and Alabama.”

As Davis had predicted, Marciano did win, coming from behind to win by a knockout in the 13th round, just as he had done in his title-winning bout with Walcott. An unusually gracious Ali, speaking to Howard Cosell on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1976, said, “I think on my best day and his best day I would have beaten him, (but) probably not knocked him out. I think he was better than Joe Frazier, and you know what Joe Frazier did to me.”

Three months after the Ali-Marciano “fight” became a cause celebre, Rocky’s plane crashed in that Iowa cornfield and his legend was forever set, no longer susceptible to the alteration of ongoing events.

So, again, the question must be asked: How good was The Rock? Better than his detractors insist, or worse than his admirers claim?

Given Marciano’s squatty build and comparative lack of heft – his highest weight for any fight was 192½ pounds – his most obvious reference points are Frazier and Tyson, similarly constructed close-to-the-ground power punchers.

Boxing writer Monte D. Cox said transposing Frazier’s opponents with Marciano’s tells you all you need to know. “Is there one person that Marciano beat that Joe Frazier would not beat?” he asked. “The answer is clearly no. Joe Frazier would have little trouble with Marciano’s opponents and would easily have gone 49-0 against them … Had the two all-time greats switched eras, Frazier would have been 49-0 and Marciano would likely have had losses to Ali and Foreman on his record.”

But the floating of hypotheticals is easy. It is human nature to remember what we care to remember, to believe what we want to believe, and we will furiously forward our point of view with those holding a contradictory position. So let Peter Marciano, whom I interviewed in 2006, offer his thoughts on his older brother in response to all the Monte Coxes who would cast aspersions upon Rocky’s memory.

“Any fighter you might mention – and I like to believe I’m not being prejudiced – could not have beaten Rocky,” Peter said. “I honestly believe that. The only way I can ever imagine him losing is on an accidental head-butt, a head cut or something like that. Forget size. Rocky was tremendously strong. His strength was, and I hate to use the word, but it was almost superhuman. Big guys were made for him. The bigger they were, the easier it was for Rocky to tire them out and then to knock them out.

“Muhammad Ali was terrific, but it wasn’t just his speed and mobility that made him a great champion. It was his mental strength. He believed, as Rocky did, that he could not be beaten. The difference between them is that Ali told everyone how good he was and Rocky, who was a very humble man, did not feel he had to come out and say it. It was enough that he knew it.

“The other difference, of course, is that Rocky was never beaten.”

Which brings us back to that 49-0 record which remains the unassailable summit that all other heavyweight champions have endeavored to scale without success. Larry Holmes came closest, getting to 48-0 before he was dethroned on a close but unanimous 15-round decision to Michael Spinks on Sept. 21, 1985, in Las Vegas – ironically, but not coincidentally, the 30th anniversary of Marciano’s 49th and farewell win against Moore.

At the postfight press conference, a miffed Holmes said, “Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” a rather indelicate statement considering the fact that Peter Marciano was on hand to offer a congratulatory handshake he really didn’t want to extend, and now didn’t have to.

“Quite honestly, I never want to see Rocky’s record broken,” Peter said. “As a boxing fan, if someone is good enough to ever do it, I would tip my cap to him. But I think the chances of that happening is almost non-existent given the current landscape. The best fighters don’t fight more than two or three times a year once they achieve pay-per-view status. That makes it difficult for the elite guys to even have 50 fights, much less to win them all.”

Marciano’s sheen of perfection is not entirely resistant to the shadow of doubt. In his first fight with La Starza, who was 37-0 at the time, The Rock won a decision that was more than a little disputed. And if title fights went 12 rounds in his day, instead of 15, he would never have gotten the chance to starch Walcott in Round 13. As another Rocky – that would be Graziano – once said, “Somebody up there likes me.” And that may well have been the case for Marciano, who didn’t get to 49-0 easily, but got there nonetheless.

The fight game is primordial, and that is reason enough to have an affinity toward the Marcianos and the Fraziers and the Tysons, who give it all that they have for as long as they have it. They strike a chord within us, the sound of a wolf howl, reminding us that at our core we perhaps aren’t really as prim and proper as genteel society might prefer.

“Rocky is not in there to outpoint anybody with an exhibition of boxing skill,” Ed Fitzgerald, one of the top sports writers of the Marciano era, observed. “He is a primitive fighter who stalks his prey until he can belt him with that frightening right-hand crusher. He is one of the easiest fighters in the ring to hit. You can, as with an enraged grizzly bear, slow him down and make him shake his head if you hit him hard enough to wound him, but you can’t make him back up. Slowly, relentlessly, he moves in on you. Sooner or later, he clubs you down.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Marciano, and know that a little bit of you lives on in certain select fighters who know that even the sweet science sometimes needs an infusion of sweet savagery.

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Results from Las Vegas where Rafael Espinoza Retained his WBO Title in Grand Style

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Top Rank made its first foray to the newest Las Vegas Strip resort, the Fontainebleu, tonight. Topping the bill was an all-Mexican featherweight title fight between Guadalajara’s Rafael Espinoza and Oaxaca’s Sergio Chirino. The lanky Espinoza, at six-foot-one the tallest featherweight world title-holder in history, was making the first defense of the title he won with a shocking upset of Robeisy Ramirez and tonight he looked sensational.

Espinoza, who advanced his record to 25-0 with his 21st KO, had his countryman on the canvas in the very first round, the result of a counter left uppercut. Chirino wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that he was out-gunned. In round three, Espinoza sent him to the canvas again with a four-punch combo climaxed by a short left to the liver, and Chirino would be down once again in the following round, hunched down from a series of punches that caught only air. At this juncture, referee Raul Caiz Jr wisely stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:45 of round four. Chirino, who came in riding a 13-fight winning streak, declined to 22-2.

Espinoza is expected to have a rematch with Ramirez, provided that Robeisy gets past his Mexican opponent later this month in a match that, on paper, looks like an easy win for the Cuban southpaw. In their first meeting, the unheralded Espinoza was a massive underdog. Based on his showing tonight, he looks no worse than “pick-‘em” in the sequel.

Co-Feature

In a 10-round junior lightweight fight, North Las Vegas native Andres Cortes scored a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Abraham Nova. The scores favored the local fighter by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Cortes had the crowd in his corner, but the reaction when the verdict was announced was one of surprise. Nova, who was credited with throwing and landing more punches, was in better condition and seemingly had the best of it in the late rounds. It was the twenty-second win without a loss for Cortes. Nova (23-3), a class act,  was diplomatic in defeat.

Also

In a true crossroads fight (a “pink slip” fight in the words of ESPN commentator Mark Kriegel),Troy Isley, a former Olympian and stablemate of Terence Crawford, out-worked Javier Martinez to win a unanimous 10-round decision. The judges had it 96-92-and 97-91 twice.

The middleweights were well-acquainted, having split four fights at the amateur level. Isley, from Alexandria, VA, improved to 13-0 (5) Martinez, born in Milwaukee to immigrants from Mexico, was 10-0-1 heading in. Both fighters lost a point for low blows after repeated warnings from referee Tony Weeks.

Other Bouts of Note

In an 8-round bantamweight fight that turned zesty after a slow start, Floyd Mayweather Jr protégé Floyd “Cashflow” Diaz improved to 12-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Francisco Pedroza (18-12-2). The judges had it 78-73 across the board. Diaz was making his second start under the tutelage of Brian “Bomac” McIntyre. Pedroza lost a point in round six for hitting on the break.

Steven Navarro, a hot prospect from a prominent SoCal boxing family, won his second pro fight with a 6-round shutout over rugged but outclassed Juan Pablo Meza (7-4), a 33-year-old Chilean.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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