In Nat Fleischer's future encyclopedias of swat you will find that Ezzard Charles fought Rocky Marciano twice, first on June 17 and again September 17, but the 35,000 who waited out the rain for two days to see the heavyweight title match finally get off last Friday night are not to be fooled by technicalities. They will tell you that Charles fought Rocky only once, and that was in his agonizing, pain-resistant effort three months ago. The 185½-pound Charles who dared to trade punches with the soft-spoken, hardhitting Champion of the World had the same name and bore some physical resemblance to the passive 192½-pound challenger of last Friday evening. But there similarity ends. In June, Charles the Bold was still in there with the rough and ready Rocky at the end of 15 livid, vivid rounds. Last Friday, Charles the Tender hesitated and lost in less than 24 minutes of indifferent fighting, as Marciano, a pocket-sized Jeffries who bleeds and keeps coming, won as he pleased in an eight-round anticlimax to the show of courage this pair put on in the same Yankee Stadium before a larger audience in June.
Henry James, that elegant man of letters, wasn't in the house last Friday evening, and indeed, as he would say, he would have cringed at the thought of so brutal a spectacle as prize fighting, but he once said something relevant to Charles's half-hearted effort to become the first of eight ex-champions to win it all back. "A second chance," said James, "that's the delusion, there never was but one." After a pleasing first round in which the aging (33) Ezz outboxed the slugger-champion, Charles succumbed like a man who agreed with James's disparagement of second chances. As did Conn in his second-time around with Louis, like Schmeling in his rematch with Joe, and Walcott in his one-round fiasco with Marciano a year ago, Charles was merely going through the motions in this second chance at Marciano.
THE LOOK OF DEFEAT
September 27, 1954
He was still boxing with some confidence in the second round when Rocky hit Ezz a terrible punch under the heart. The handsome, ebony-skinned, introverted challenger took an inadvertent half step backward. A different look came into his eyes. It wasn't fear that front-rowers read there so much as defeat. "Oh my God," you could almost hear him saying to himself, "now I remember what it was like in June. My head swollen out of itself like an overblown balloon. My eyes lost somewhere in the welted flesh. That frightful hematoma in my cheek. Oh God, now I remember. If I'm not careful it will happen again. My mother will weep when she sees me. A man could even get killed as I once killed poor Sam Baroudi. Or maimed for life like young Carmine Vingo after this same rough-tough Rocky got through with him."
Not as clear as all that, of course, but Charles, a sensitive man who talks to himself without moving his lips, felt more than a single punch as he shuddered under that blow to the heart. He felt: I can't win, I was lying to myself with all the brave talk about learning from the first fight and being able to punch harder with the extra pounds and figuring to improve more than Rocky because he's always the same, just a crude, awkward swinger. All those things I told the reporters with an easy smile. But this Rocky has improved. He's hurting me early this time. Last time my ticket to Painville wasn't punched until the sixth round when I was five big rounds in front. And this is only the second round and—Ezz was down, chopped to the canvas with a series of vicious rights.
THE ATTACK PHASE—ABANDONED
He was up at the count of two but the fight was out of him. He wasn't fighting to win now as he was in the first four minutes. He was running for cover. Backing away. Gone was the careful strategy talked out week after week with Trainer Jimmy Brown and Advisor Izzy Kline, with Managers Jake Mintz and Tom Tannas. The attack phase of the operation was already abandoned and panic took over from plan. It was a disorderly retreat, from Marciano instead of Moscow.
There were six more rounds but they were like a superfluous epilogue X'd out of a play before it's brought to New York. The Charles of June who stood up under the bone crushers in one of the memorable modern exhibitions of stamina and the sponging up of pain, that worthy suddenly had departed the premises and in his place was a more familiar Charles, the Charles of the spiritless road shows with that old trouper Jersey Joe, Charles the Ferdinand who wished they would open the gate because he really didn't want to hurt anybody and he didn't want anybody to hurt him.
A CHAMPION OUT OF BALLADS
In the sixth round Ezz made a bloody hash of Rocky's nose, a strange, unsightly ripping of flesh that poured blood in a messy flow. It was just the sort of wound that a sharp-jabbing, right-crossing Charles could have exploited, for if Rocky ever blows one it will be on cuts that are widened and deepened by a sharp-shooter. But Ezz was all out of ammunition.
A New York Times literary critic who occasionally doubles as a boxing observer invoked his literary heroes to describe his fistic heroes in borrowing from a celebrated Hemingway-Fitzgerald exchange to define Marciano and his camp as speaking with the authority of success while Charles's spoke with the authority of failure. Now in the sixth round Rocky was even bleeding with the authority of success and Charles was unable to press his advantage because that punishing second round made it painfully and finally tediously clear that his motions were directed by the authority of failure.
In the eighth round Rocky's face came apart a little more as Charles managed to tear open the scar tissue over Rocky's left eye, a memento of their primeval battle in June. Rocky's heart, however, remained in one piece. He tore after Ezzard like a Dempsey—or maybe, since he has truly come into his own, like a Marciano, a now familiarly terrible figure, a champion out of the ballads in his ability to remain bloody and unbowed. Charles was down a second time, on his hands and knees as if in unconscious prayer for mercy. Mercy is a word left out of Rocky's fighting vocabulary. He raked the weary ghost of a better Charles with lefts and rights until the hapless and now witless former champion sagged back onto the canvas in a position of abject prayer. There was a wistful, faraway look on his dark, finely made face as Referee Al Berl reached the count of nine. He was up at "10" but a fraction of a second too late, recalling Walcott's tardy ascent in his farcical Chicago one-rounder. The doubting Thomases and Jimmys of the press row were of the opinion that Ezzard had chosen to sit this one out, surrendering pride to discretion in the manner made infamous by Maxie the Baer, the song and dance man, who included himself out in his fourth round with Louis. Boxing is a cruel sport and it makes inexorable demands of its professionals. Just as a Prussian duelist must not flick an eye when his face is laid open, so a prize fighter must fight on until he can no longer rise or lift an arm. Anything less brands him as a bum who should be in wrestling or some gentler endeavor. In Ezzard's case it may be more complicated than the harsh, quick verdict of cowardice. The psychoanalysts, who seem to get into everything these days and might as well be dragged in here, probably would describe Ezzard's hesitation to rise as a June-17 trauma. Or you might say that Ezz is not so totally committed to what he is doing as is the champion.
Their dressing rooms after the fight provided an ironic contrast. Unlike the post-battle interviews in June when a gallant, disfigured Charles had answered in tortured whispers, this unmarked Charles chatted cheerfully with the press and when he dressed he was a natty, smiling figure in his dark-blue silk suit, his blue sport shirt and his fedora worn at a smart angle. He was up at ten, he said, but if he was feeling any deep resentment at not having been allowed the privilege of further punishment, he hid it convincingly. He was smiling like a winner, perhaps in anticipation of the $90,000 he'll share with Managers Jake Mintz and Tom Tannas, representing a net 20% (as against 40% for Rocky) of the disappointing, weather-damaged $350,000 gate plus $160,000 from radio-TV. The prospect of this bundle did not affect the gloom of Mintz and Tannas, nor Corner Men Jimmy Brown and the veteran Izzy Kline, who were unable to reflect Ezzard's incongruously sunny spirit.
"I wouldn't say Ezz quit," a knowing old-timer summed it up in the dressing room while Charles was holding court with the reporters. "Sure he was hit good and hurt to the body where it don't show. But I will say this, I've seen some fighters get up better."
Over in Marciano's dressing room the big winner looked like a loser. His nose had been split out grotesquely and may require plastic surgery. Manager Al Weill was hovering over him like an anxious father while Rocky's actual father, a simple, friendly little immigrant Italian shoemaker from Brockton, Mass., waited nearby.
HE CHOPS YOU DOWN
Rocky may be a crude champion, missing plenty and easy to hit, but he's a champion in the classic tradition. Like Joe Louis he has innate taste and graciousness. As is often true of fighters, his ring manners, which are not too couth, have nothing to do with his social manners, which are gentle and warm-hearted.
But in the ring he'll take the heart out of the current crop of heavyweights, just as he removed it in his crude surgical operation on Ezzard Charles. Dempsey fought you as if he had just caught you with your hand in his pocket. Tunney stabbed and sliced you like a fencing master. Louis was an executioner setting you up for the hangman's trap with decisive hand movements sometimes quicker than the eye. Rocky chops you down like a tree, with an ax swung by a powerful if somewhat inaccurate woodsman. If he misses he just swings again, always taking it out on the trunk of his opponent. He chops a deeper and deeper wedge into his man until the victim falls of his own top-heavy weight, as Ezz went timbering back into the ranks of ex-champions and ex-challengers who had nothing left for the fatal second try.
Wherever Rocky Marciano goes in his green Cadillac, his punch goes too. This special license plate was first given to Rocky by Massachusetts Governor Paul Dever after Brockton's strong boy won the heavyweight championship by knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott in their Philadelphia fight in 1952.