By Frank Lotierzo
Sixty-five years ago, on October 26th, 1951, Joe Louis fought Rocky Marciano. It was a crossroads bout for both. Louis was 37-years-old and needed to beat Marciano in order to get one last shot at the title. For the 28-year-old Marciano, who was in his fourth year as a pro, Louis was his first big name opponent. A loss to Louis and Marciano’s title shot would have been derailed.
These were two of the greatest and most iconic heavyweight champions in the history of boxing. Louis held the title longer and Marciano is the only heavyweight champ to retire unbeaten for his entire career. Louis’ 25 consecutive defenses and Marciano’s record of 49-0 are two of the most notable numbers in heavyweight history. Something else Joe and Rocky shared besides being great ambassadors for the sport was that both could knock your head off in the ring with one punch. And it is Marciano who is the all-time great linking Louis and Muhammad Ali, who to this day have a lock as number one (Ali) and two (Louis) among the greatest heavyweights ever.
When they met Louis was a 6 1/2 to 5 favorite on the night of the fight. Louis, stylistically, is one of the greatest boxer-punchers in boxing history, regardless of weight. But in October of 1951, the “Brown Bomber” faintly resembled the well-oiled and efficient fighting machine he was during the mid to late 1930’s. He had nothing left offensively but a semblance of his left jab. He was slow of both hand and foot, and needed to have his feet set perfectly in order to get off. His punching power had all but evaporated, evidenced by him scoring only three knockouts in his last 10 fights. By contrast, Marciano, who would retire as one of the great swarmers in the history of the heavyweight division, was just entering his prime. Due to Louis not having the punch at age 37 to bother Marciano, in addition to him needing to be lined up perfectly to get off, something he couldn’t manipulate because of Rocky’s aggression and big over-hand rights, Joe was never really in the fight.
From the onset, Marciano had much more spring in his movement whereas Louis looked as if he was trying to get his footing in a mud pit. Marciano carried the fight to Louis looking to hurt him on the way in with over-hand rights. Once he had Joe’s back to the ropes, he’d crowd him and try to force Louis to trade. No doubt Marciano picked up that once he navigated past Joe’s jab, which was only a moderate weapon at the time, allowing Rocky to get the better of it on the inside.
After five rounds the fight was close, either 2-2-1 or 3-2 Marciano. From the sixth round on, Louis’ jab lost steam and Marciano barely acknowledged it. During rounds six and seven, Louis had nothing left to even attempt to impede Marciano’s aggression. Rocky knew it and fought with a little more urgency. In the eighth round Marciano dropped a tired and spent Louis with a left hook, Louis got up on one knee at the count of three and took the mandatory eight count. Marciano moved in to finish Joe, catching him with a terrific hook to the jaw followed by a big right hand to the head that sent Louis through the ropes at 2:36 of the round and the fight was over. Louis never fought again and 11-months later Marciano knocked out heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott with one punch in the 13th round to capture the title.
After beating Louis, Marciano said in his dressing room – “I didn’t enjoy what I did tonight. Ten years ago it might have gone the other way.” And that’s a great question — who would’ve won had Louis and Marciano met in their prime?
Louis was no doubt the more polished fighter and better technician, and both had dynamite in either hand. Walcott, who was stopped by both, said Louis punched better in combination but Marciano was the bigger one-punch banger. Stylistically, Marciano could only fight and be effective moving forward, whereas Louis, who was considered a stalker, could be equally dangerous moving to his opponent, or stepping off to either side and countering with left and right uppercuts followed by right hands and left hooks.
Louis said on occasion that he was bothered by swarmers who liked to crowd their opponent, and that was Rocky at his best. Other than George Foreman, Joe Louis is the last heavyweight in history that you’d ever want to bring the fight too. Like Foreman, Louis could take an opponent’s head off with his left or right uppercut. The difference was that Louis could get his off much faster and more succinctly, and he needed very little room to explode with them. Louis was a much underrated fundamental boxer and some wrongly think of him as being Max Baer, only with two hands. Conversely, Marciano, as Louis said, was harder to hit than he looked. Rocky could be nailed by his opponents lead shot, but he mostly evaded the follow-ups really well. Some came to view Marciano as being a heavyweight version of Gene Fullmer, only with a bigger punch, which is completely wrong.
The Marciano-Louis clash of 1951 sheds about as much light on who would’ve won between them in their prime, as the Mike Tyson-Larry Holmes bout in 1988 is an indicator as to who would’ve won between Larry and Mike in their prime. When Louis fought Marciano in 1951, Joe was devoid of everything in his offensive arsenal. Joe’s speed and power were just a memory. His accuracy and timing were long gone and his reflexes were no longer instinctive. Basically, Louis was a sitting duck for Marciano’s strength, aggression and work-rate. In other words Louis, at age 37, had nothing left to neutralize Marciano.
However, prime for prime it’s a different story. Marciano would’ve had to deal with Louis’ explosive and hard jab, set-up uppercuts and finishing hooks and right hands. Rocky would’ve carried the fight to Joe, and instead of meeting him at center ring and trading, Louis would’ve inched back and countered Marciano and looked to fight him on the inside with his back to the ropes. Because Louis needed little room to punch and could get off in tight quarters, he would’ve been able to punch inside and beat Rocky’s round punches to the mark all night.
Rocky’s best shot to beat Louis would’ve been to nail him with a big right hand from the outside as he was trying to work his way in. If he could hurt Joe on the way in, then maybe on the inside he might finish an already hurt Louis. And yes, Louis could be hit with right hands, but that was usually when he was in the role of the stalker and was moving in. But against Marciano, Louis wouldn’t have met force with force. Instead he would’ve lured and walked Rocky into his big uppercuts and left hooks on the inside. Joe’s hands were so much faster and more accurate than Rocky’s, especially on the inside and in combination. As tough and durable as Rocky was, it’s not like he was impossible to hurt or drop….and Louis in his prime would’ve hit harder and more often than anybody Marciano ever faced during his career.
Sure, Marciano would’ve pressured Louis and would’ve been dangerous throughout the fight. And both carried their punch late into the bout. But the question is, how much could Rocky endure? I think had they met in their prime, the fight would’ve resembled Louis’ second bout with Arturo Godoy, won by Louis via an eighth round kayo. Godoy was aggressive like Marciano and also two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. He was durable like Rocky and was only stopped twice in 124 fights. No, he didn’t punch as hard, but he punched hard enough to keep Louis honest.
I think Joe would’ve fought Rocky the same way he fought Godoy during their rematch. Louis would’ve let Marciano back him to the ropes and countered him up the middle, taking the most advantage he could asserting his vastly greater hand speed and punching ability in close.
Stylistically, Louis could gain the upper hand by letting Rocky do the work and force the fight. At ring center Rocky is much more dangerous to Joe, because of his over-hand right, which he threw from a low crouch, and that would’ve made it tough for Louis to disrupt and defend. But Louis is too smart to put himself in that predicament. Joe knows if he inches back and goes to the ropes, Marciano is no doubt going to go there to get him, and in that close he can block and counter Marciano almost at will. The problem for Marciano is, inside Louis is safer and can hit Rocky with his Sunday best shots inside at close range…..and eventually, that would’ve been Marciano’s undoing.
Prime for Prime, Louis stops Marciano somewhere after the 10th round. The style clash between them would’ve been something to see, but it definitely favored Louis. It’s hard to imagine Marciano taking the fight to Louis and coming out on top.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com