In 30 years of sitting near the fighters, I've seen some of the great natural matches—boxers in there with sluggers, punchers in there with defensive virtuosos, mean guys in there with boys you would gladly invite home for dinner. But Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore, in their memorable encounter for the championship of the world last week, provided a truly classic study in contrast. Their careers, their personalities, their backing, their styles of fighting were as sharply differentiated as mountains are from valleys, as water is from rock.
Contrast makes conflict and conflict makes drama, and the struggle at Yankee Stadium in the presence of a throat-tightened audience of 61,000 was a beautiful spectacle of pain and skill and endurance and die-slow courage and a resoluteness that makes champions and wins wars. The protagonists pitted against each other for the highest stakes in pugilism combined to make a nine-act play of violence that followed a tragic pattern. The Greeks would have understood the grim necessity of Marciano's triumph. And they would have wept for Moore, the oldest man ever to seek the laurels, who did almost everything he said he would do. Almost—therein lay his tragic flaw.
Before we review the battle, with its thrilling but inevitable ending, its moments of surprise and passion, let us quickly tick off the differences between champion and challenger that caught the imagination of the fans as have only two other rivalries, the Dempsey-Tunney and the Louis-Conn. Moore, as everyone knows, is a true master of self-defense, a science he has developed in 20 years of barnstorming. Marciano is the master of no defense, who moves in swinging punches like all the club fighters of all time, only more so. Moore is in the tradition of the tough colored middleweights, kept out of the big clubs, who roam the world in quest of eating money. Marciano's is the legend of the poor boy who hitchhikes to New York and strikes not gold but something of equivalent value in the person of Al Weill, later to be the Garden matchmaker. Weill was impressed by Rocky's strength, signed him to a contract and placed him in the knowing hands of old bantamweight Trainer Charley Goldman. Rocky delivered, and for the last five years he's been on the golden road (better known as the inside track), with every move thought out for him by one of the shrewdest and best-connected businessmen in boxing.
Archie, meanwhile, was fighting his way into old age on $300 purses in the tank towns. As if to shore up his confidence and his dignity, Archie is a boastful, somewhat over-articulate man who, on the eve of the fight, could elaborate on the subject of Marciano's inability to hit him. Rocky, on the other hand, belying his aggressiveness inside the ropes, is a modest and soft-spoken fellow who will say without apology: "You know how awkward and clumsy I am," and who would much rather talk about his Red Sox or about his father in the shoe factory and the fabulous eating contests in his Italian neighborhood than about his powers or his intentions in the ring.
As they climbed through the ropes a week ago, their differences were vividly revealed in their appearances. Rocky wore a blue cloth robe trimmed in white. But Archie Moore was resplendent in a robe of black brocade trimmed in gold, with Louis XIV cuffs and a brilliant gold lining. No Othello was ever more lavishly costumed. Archie had come through ulcers and years of tough fights and poverty to reach this moment of glory in the ball park, and his manner seemed to say, I am going to dress and act the part. He glared across the ring at Marciano like some South Sea emperor staring down an unruly subject. But Rocky doesn't play those games, he just comes to fight; and Archie's evil eye played no part in the events that followed.
The delay before an epic fight is always tantalizing. Most of the spectators have been waiting for the fight all week, talking it up all day, betting it, masterminding it, until they have brought themselves to an exquisite peak of anticipation. The crowd is both festive and tense and so much resembles the Pierce Egan descriptions of bare-knuckle fight crowds that you know there is a consistent line of boxing enthusiasm up through the centuries. The impatient thousands cheer their old champions, Dempsey and Louis and Walker and Canzoneri, and then at last the ring is cleared and the two men are left alone to face the demands the night has in store for them. The significance of it presses on the crowd and it falls silent, grave. The stadium seems to hold its collective breath. Will Rocky, the 4-1 favorite, preserve his legend of invincibility? Can Archie Moore, the young old man of 38, make good his boast, "I'm a stylist, I can cope with any situation"?
So we have come to one of the good, nerved-up moments in heavyweight history. The champions touch gloves and are at each other, Archie moving nicely out of danger and jabbing as he promised to do, Rocky lumbering forward in his crouch. Marciano is starting slowly, as usual, but there is just a touch more finesse to his bulling ways than meets the back-seat eye. Weaving and bobbing, always moving forward, he is not as easy to hit as Archie had figured. He's catching punches on the shoulders and the gloves.
It's in round two that Archie nearly lives up to his own descriptions of his abilities. Here is old-time boxing such as the good ones practiced before and after the first World War. Archie is feinting with his hands, his head, his shoulders—it is so good that he can't resist a little self-satisfied smile. He anticipates Rocky's lead and counters sharply—scientific fighting at its best. Rocky lunges in again and Archie times a masterful right-hand counter. Down, to the amazement of everybody including Marciano, goes the Rock.
There was blood on Rocky's left eye as he knelt on the canvas. Blood seemed to be oozing through the flesh of his nose. In my notes for this round I jotted, "Rocky cut, hurt, dazed." As the champion rose on the count of two I scratched out "dazed," replaced it with "startled." I was close enough to the ring to see their eyes and again there was a study in contrast. When Rocky unexpectedly had dropped, a flush of excitement and self-satisfaction had made Archie's eyes bright. Now he was watching Rocky carefully, perhaps remembering Walcott's mistake in not following through after felling Rocky in the first round the night Rocky got up and won the championship. Archie had announced publicly that if ever he had Rocky on the floor he would not let the champion escape. "Once I have my man hurt I know how to finish him," he liked to boast. Rocky was hurt but he was barging in again. He looked both wary and determined beyond your ordinary man's determination. It was a look that promised trouble for Archie Moore, and yet the Marciano fans held their breaths and some later reported a feeling of pressure around their hearts because Rocky was clearly in need of recuperation and Archie was hurting him again with a wise selection of punches, stiff jabs, straight rights and a well-executed left uppercut. Marciano's body seemed to shudder but his eyes were sharply fixed on Archie and he kept coming in, landing a hard right to Archie's chin just before the bell ended a momentous round.
In years to come Archie may ask himself: "When I finally came to the moment I had been dreaming of for 20 years, what did I do wrong?" I think the answer is, nothing. The answer is that Rocky rose with his legs a little rubbery, but with his will to win challenged but unbending. Some unique power in him was refusing to lose, no matter how badly he might be out-boxed and out-hit. A boxing match is a test of will power, perhaps the supreme test; and in this vital department he excels any fighter I have ever seen.