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ABOUT THIS SORRY BUSINESS OF HAND-PICKING OPPONENTS FOR CHAMPIONS, PARTICULARLY IN THE CASE OF ROCKY MARCIANO
Budd Schulberg
May 16, 1955
The english are supposed to be models of restraint, as their American cousins are wielders of hyperbole, but happening to glance at a British sporting journal the other day I saw that the impending Marciano-Cockell match for the championship of the world is being heralded over there as the battle of the century.
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May 16, 1955

About This Sorry Business Of Hand-picking Opponents For Champions, Particularly In The Case Of Rocky Marciano

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The english are supposed to be models of restraint, as their American cousins are wielders of hyperbole, but happening to glance at a British sporting journal the other day I saw that the impending Marciano-Cockell match for the championship of the world is being heralded over there as the battle of the century.

Not even the loyal percussion section who beat the drums and crash the cymbals for the IBC have gone that far. They may go out of their way to explain that Don Cockell was knocked out by our light heavyweight trial-horse Jimmy Slade because he had to slice himself down from a porky 225 to an undernourished 175 to meet the conditions of the match. But so far the promotion boys on this side of the pond haven't the nerve to call next Monday night's activities the fight of the year much less the century.

The truth is, Don Cockell, for all his empire laurels, is a manufactured opponent, hand-picked by Al Weill as the least menacing of the heavyweight contenders. The hand-picked opponent, far more than the occasional fixed fight, is the monkey wrench in the functioning machinery of professional boxing as a sport. Fixed fights are less common than many fans believe. The majority of fights are indeed earnest, and the tides of fortune are often violently reversed as the result of an off night or an unexpected punch. The other evening, in Miami, for instance, I watched Ezzard Charles, intent on working back into the big money, run into a hard right hand thrown by unknown John Holman; when Ezz fell apart in the ninth round it is possible that his post-Marciano career fell apart as well.

Every once in a while, of course, there are fighters like Jake La Motta or Willie Pep, who for all their prowess are willing to go in there and defile their trade for business. But the hand-picked opponent is the prevalent vice. It simply means that the manager of the champion or the hot attraction is in the driver's seat and neither promoters, boxing commissioners nor sports columnists can dissuade him from his avowed purpose of by-passing logical contenders for some softer touch.

There is nothing novel about this gambit. Gene Tunney chose an obliging hulk from Australia, Tom Heeney, for his only title defense after the Dempsey fight. For years the managers of successive light heavyweight title-holders Gus Lesnevich, Freddie Mills and Joey Maxim maneuvered their champions out of gun range of Archie Moore, preferring the money shots with each other. That colorful old slickster, Jack Kearns, obviously preferred a club fighter like Bob Murphy for Maxim's first title defense.

In a way you can't blame the manager. He's protecting his merchandise. But you can't blame the fans for squalling either. They come to see a fight.

Maybe they'll see one in San Francisco next Monday night. Maybe the soft-spoken fat boy from Battersea, England will stand up to the appealing, gusty Italian shoemaker's son from Brockton, Mass. Maybe Cockell will cross up us wisenheimers and go all the way like his hardy predecessor Tommy Farr. Maybe lightning will strike and he'll crack Rocky's vulnerable nose and win it all like another hand-picked underdog, Jimmy Braddock.

But I don't think so. Braddock caught up with Baer on a night when Maxie was sluggish with dissipation. Maxie had the equipment but not the dedication. Rocky is easy to hit and he's a bleeder and he still has moments when he looks like a six-round preliminary fighter. But he's got the dedication, he's got the confidence, he's got the pride. I'm ready to risk a bob or two he'll mess around with the English importation for three or four rounds, and then give him a leveler, as they used to say, in the fifth or sixth. And so another hand-picked bites the dust.

TIME FOR ARCHIE

Then it may be time for Archie Moore, who has stepped neatly into the Methuselah role, now that his fellow 20-year-man Jersey Joe has become a peaceful citizen in Camden. Old Archie, pushing 40, ain't what he used to be. His legs were wobbling from plain tiredness in his spectacular title defense against Harold Johnson last fall. He would have been all over an earnest, slow-moving fighter like Nino Valdes a few years back. Just the same, he isn't hand-picked. In fact Archie Moore's life story can be summed up in half a dozen words: he's the antithesis of the hand-picked. Tough to fight and never much of a draw, this incredible old fistic-machine has been forced to wander all over the world to keep working at the trade he has mastered.

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