On this day in 1955, Rocky Marciano won the final fight of an unblemished professional boxing career. ‘The Brockton Blockbuster’ knocked out reigning light heavyweight king Archie Moore to retain the heavyweight championship of the world in nine rounds at Yankee Stadium in New York City. It was a spectacular way to move to 49-0 and, as it turns out, it would be Marciano’s last fight.
Marciano’s 49-0 marker for a retiring world champion would go unmatched for decades. But 30 years to the day after he clubbed Moore to the mat in the Bronx, Marciano had a worthy challenger. 21st September 1985 saw the 48-0 world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes looking to take his seat next to ‘The Rock’ in the annals of time. Though, to hear Larry speak, he probably had designs on throwing Marciano off the throne rather than sharing it.
Marciano had tragically passed on by the time Holmes was closing in on emulating his record. The former champion had died in a plane crash in 1969 at the age of just 46. But his shadow still hung over a sport he had dominated. The tragic loss of the beloved champion meant that not everyone was happy to see the sainted Rocky’s record at risk of being eclipsed.
Being chastised for outdoing iconic heavyweights was something Holmes was used to. ‘The Easton Assassin’ had been vilified for his 1980 pounding of a tragically faded Muhammad Ali, despite appearing reluctant at times in the fight and even asking the referee to stop the massacre. Holmes was essentially a background player that night. That version of Ali would have been second best in an empty ring, such was the wrath of two years of inactivity and two decades of ring wars. But Holmes could never quite shake the association.
The Ali fight was Holmes’ eighth defence of the world heavyweight title. He would make 12 more. But throughout the late 70s and early 80s, the ring technician would have to hear unflattering comparisons to what went before him. Too aloof to engage the public as Ali had, not destructive enough to be as feared as George Foreman or Joe Frazier had been, Holmes was a paradoxical figure. He was easy to admire but hard to love.
Holmes’ superb jab and ability to flit between boxing elegance and attritional warfare depending on the opponent made him the aficionado's choice. But the mainstream electorate had voted. Holmes was not their champion, no matter who he beat or how impressively he did so. This contrived to make his chase to capture Marciano’s record more of a personal quest for respect than a mere statistical pursuit.
Holmes’ opponent for his 49th fight was suitably regal. While lesser men would have taken a soft touch to reach the magic number, Holmes aimed for history against a fellow world champion. Undisputed light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks was looking to make some history of his own. ‘Jinx’ was aiming to become the first man to win the world championship at light heavyweight and heavyweight since Bob Fitzsimmons 82 years previously. Spinks would also become the first man to hold the titles simultaneously if he could find a way past Holmes.
Both men had a permanent place in boxing folklore on their minds as they faced off at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But only one man could claim it. Spinks would pull off what The Ring magazine voted as their Upset of the Year for 1985, winning a unanimous decision over the long-time heavyweight champion. The fight was close but the chance was gone. Holmes was 48-1 and Marciano’s unblemished record was secure. He remained the only heavyweight champion in history to retire undefeated.
Holmes was reminded of this fact in the immediate aftermath, during his post-fight interview. His response would do his reputation even more harm than a decade of Ali comparisons. “If you want to get technical about it, Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap”.
Holmes had just lost the championship he had held for over seven years and been reminded once more of his failure. His brusque response came off as disrespectful but it is more understandable than the resulting furore made it out to be. Holmes would be reminded of this comment for years. The old ‘Assassin’ is still asked about it now. Holmes fought Spinks in hope of having his name inextricably linked with Rocky’s in the history books. In a warped way, he got his wish.
Marciano’s record still stands. No other heavyweight champion has retired undefeated. Only one world champion at any weight has ever retired with a better record than Rocky’s. Floyd Mayweather walked away from the sport with a 50-0 ledger. But the trumped-up exhibition with Conor McGregor that served as his farewell will always serve as an asterisk. Of the current crop of unbeaten champions, nobody comes close.
Current heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk would need to fight 29 more times to equal Marciano’s record. Super welterweight king Jermell Charlo seems unlikely to have 17 more fights left in him at the age of 32. 25-year-old super featherweight boss Shakur Stevenson could get it done perhaps, but winning 31 fights is a huge ask even for a supreme talent like him. The staggering numbers here underline just what an incredible statement of longevity, consistency and ability Marciano’s 49-0 record is.
Longevity was something Holmes proved to have in abundance, too. After losing a rematch to Spinks, the legendary champion retired. Re-emerging two years later, he was splattered by Mike Tyson in four ill-advised rounds. But ‘The Easton Assassin’ wasn’t done yet. He would go 30-3 between 1988 and 2002, with two of those three defeats coming in world title challenges. He would also finally get his flowers from a boxing public that was slow to warm to him. Holmes curried more favour as the respected veteran who still had it than the dominant but surly heavyweight champion of the world.
Holmes got his seat next to Marciano in the pantheon of boxing greats after all. He might not have matched ‘The Rock’ and his mighty 49-0, but you cannot have a conversation about history’s greatest heavyweights without mentioning both men. Rocky and Larry, Larry and Rocky. Their primes were 30 years apart but they will forever be linked by history.
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