On Oct. 26th, 1951, a crowd of 17,241 descended on the old Madison Square Garden at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue to witness a 10-round heavyweight fight between Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. The Rock, a shoemaker’s son from Brockton, Massachusetts, was five fights and 11 months away from winning the world heavyweight title, but this would yet be the match that future historians would look back upon as the changing of the guard, a fight akin to Corbett-Sullivan, Willard-Johnson, and Joshua-Klitschko.
At age 37, Joe Louis was slowing down. This was painfully obvious the previous year when he was widely outpointed by Ezzard Charles in a 15-round contest at Yankee Stadium. But the Brown Bomber had won eight straight in the interim, most recently a dull 10-round decision over Jimmy Bivins at the Triple-A baseball park in Baltimore, home of the Orioles.
At age 27, Rocky Marciano, undefeated at 37-0 with 33 KOs, had youth on his side. But it was hard to find another discernible edge. A living legend, the Brown Bomber’s 66-2 record included 25 successful title defenses. Moreover, Louis was the bigger man. He had a three-and-a-half inch height advantage and an 8-inch reach advantage over the short-armed Marciano who he would out-weigh by approximately 25 pounds. On the scales, Louis came in at 212 ¾; Marciano at 187. (These numbers, culled from the New York Times, differ but are in close proximity to what appears in BoxRec.)
Louis was an 8/5 favorite.
Through the first seven rounds, the fight was uneventful. In the early going, Louis had trouble adapting to Marciano’s crouch, but he came on in round four and round five and the fight was literally dead-even at the midway point. Joe’s best punch was his left jab which he landed with regularity, drawing a trickle of blood from Marciano’s nose, but his reflexes had dulled and he didn’t follow it up with a straight right as had been his custom.
The momentum shifted ever so slightly in Marciano’s favor in round six and he pressed his advantage in round seven where he rocked Louis with a hard left hook at the bell.
In the next round, Rocky dropped Joe with a left hook to the jaw. Louis, although clearly hurt, was up in a jiff and took a knee as he waited out the mandatory 8-count. Then the fight resumed and Rocky tore after his stricken foe.
We’ll let New York Times ringside reporter Joseph C. Nicholls take it from here:
“Rocky missed a fast flurry of punches intended for the head, suddenly slowed his overeager gait and levelled his punches directly at Louis’ jaw.
Two lefts landed with sharp, authoritative impact, the second one forcing Louis back to the ropes. He was standing, but with his eyes glazed and his arms dangling at his sides.
Here the younger man made no mistakes. He looked at his foe, ascertained his helplessness in a fifth of a second, and shot across a right to the jaw. Through the ropes toppled Louis, landing on the ring apron.
Referee Ruby Goldstein didn’t bother to count. The official time was 2:36 of round eight. Joe Louis never fought again.
In Louis’s dressing room, every reporter had a lump in his throat and those in Louis’s entourage, including Sugar Ray Robinson, wept openly. Joe was gracious in defeat. “There’s no reason to cry,” he said calmly. “He was the better man tonight. That’s all.”
Marciano was gracious too. “I’m glad and sorry to be the guy who did it. Joe was the greatest champion in the world. Naturally I’m proud I knocked him out, but on the other hand I’m sorry, if you know what I mean.”
It would be written that the mood up in Harlem after the fight was funereal, as somber as if there had been a death in the family. In Brockton, a blue-collar city of 65,000, there was jubilation.
Within minutes after the fight, wrote a correspondent for the Associated Press, “deserted Main St. changed into a roaring, horn-tooting ‘Times Square.’” People from surrounding communities flocked to town to join in the revelry and the party lasted well beyond midnight.
Those were the days.
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