- - Sunday, September 1, 2019

The sports world woke up to a punch in the gut 50 years ago the morning of Sept. 1 — the death of iconic heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.

The night before, on the eve of his 46th birthday, Marciano died in a small plane crash in Newton, Iowa, reportedly on his way to a birthday party for him in Des Moines.

It was front-page news around the world, with two companions killed as well when his plane struck a tree and smashed to earth on a farm less than two hours from where rock and roll icon Buddy Holly died in a little more than 10 years earlier in another Iowa crash.

It was top of the fold in the Sept. 1, 1969, Washington Evening Star, as the Associated Press reported Marciano was found dead in the fuselage of the single-engine Cessna.

Marciano’s death was not the day the music died in boxing.

No, thanks to Muhammad Ali, the fight game was dancing to much different tune in the late ‘60s than the one that played when the Brockton Blockbuster was heavyweight champion from 1952 to 1956.

Marciano’s time had been only a decade earlier, but by the start of the golden age of the heavyweight division in the 1960s, it seemed more distant — almost like another century.

Despite his undefeated 49-0 record, he’d quickly come to symbolize a dying breed in American sports — the white heavyweight champion.

Nearly 30 years after Marciano retired, that undefeated record was the target of then-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, who, at 48-0, seemed like a lock to at least tie Marciano when he faced light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in September 1985.

But he lost the decision to Spinks, and, in the post-fight press conference, when his failure to reach Marciano’s record came up, Holmes directed comments at Marciano’s brother Peter, saying, “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.”

He apologized a few days later. “I want to offer my apologies to Rocky Marciano’s family for remarks I made at the press conference,” said the 35-year-old Holmes said. “I have no hard feelings against Rocky Marciano. He was one of the greatest fighters of all time. His 49-0 record speaks for itself. If I hurt Marciano’s family, I regret it.”

It was a tough spot for Holmes, and illustrates the difficulty in determining Marciano’s legacy.

Marciano was an undersized heavyweight, 189 pounds at 5-foot-11. He won the heavyweight title by knocking out 38-year-old Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia in 1952, a fight that Walcott was winning until Marciano knocked him out in the 13th round. He knocked Walcott out in the first round in their rematch a year later.

He successfully defended the belt four more times, with two of those wins over former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles and then knocked out Archie Moore, who was 38 at the time, in the ninth round.

Shortly after, at the age of 32, Marciano announced his retirement.

It’s not exactly an impressive record of title defenses, primarily against well-known fighters past their prime. Ironically, you could make the same case about Holmes and the lackluster opponents he defended his title against.

But as heavyweight champion, all you can do is defend against the opponents in your era. The quality of Holmes’ opponents should not diminish his legacy as one of the great heavyweight champions. Neither should Marciano’s title defenses.

I’ve spoken to a number of boxing trainers over the years about Marciano’s legacy, including many African-American trainers. There is, for the most part, universal respect for his heart and toughness — his willingness to survive a beating and come out victorious.

Marciano fought once in Washington — Sept. 30, 1948, at the Uline Arena — his ninth professional fight. He knocked out Gil Cardione in the first round before a crowd of 1,272. That card also featured beloved District middleweight Holly Mims, who made his professional debut with a four-round victory over Julian Keene.

Marciano had one more fight after his death — the “Superfight,” a computer-generated bout between Marciano and Ali during Ali’s ban from boxing where both fighters stepped into the ring and spared for 75 one-minute rounds, with a formula fed into a computer of the results used to determine probabilities and outcome.

The filming was completed three weeks before Marciano died, and the film was released in select theatres in January 1970, five months after the plane crash.  Marciano was the winner in the American version of the film, while Ali won in the European release.

It may have been a farce of an event, but the “Superfight” had more credibility than Floyd Mayweather supposedly surpassing Marciano’s 49-0 record with the fraudulent bout between Mayweather and mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor, where Mayweather’s 10th round stoppage of a glorified sparring session gave him a 50-0 record career mark.

Long after that fateful Iowa plane crash 50 years ago, Rocky Marciano still has a complicated boxing legacy.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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