For Years I have pored over accounts of the English prize ring bare-knuckle battles and tried to visualize what those fights were like. Daniel Mendoza, the heavyweight champion from the London ghetto, had introduced the art of footwork and some fancy blocking, but the average bare-knuckle pug a century ago was a strong, squat, determined slug of a man who stood his ground like an ancient gladiator, dealing out punishment to the limit of his endurance and taking the full force of his opponent's blows without flinching. The prize ring was a test not so much of skill but of what the fancy liked to describe as "British courage." If a man had sufficient pluck—or "bottom," as they used to say—if he was a glutton for "facers" or belly blows, he could make a name for himself inside the ropes. He might be a feeble hitter or a sluggish performer, but as long as he fought on manfully to the bloody, insensate end in his hopeless cause, he was carried back to his barouche and cheered like a winner.
Except for the technicality of wearing eight-ounce gloves, Don Cockell's stand against Rocky Marciano in the fading daylight hours of a cool San Francisco sunlit day was a glorious—or appalling—throwback to this pre-Marquess of Queensberry condition. This was a bare-knuckle brawl with gloves—and not a pleasant sight either—as an uncouth, merciless, uncontrolled and truly vicious fighter (the unbeaten Champion Marciano) wore down an ox-legged, resolute fat man who came into the ring with the honor of the British Empire weighing heavily—and consciously—on his massive, blubbery shoulders. He had promised his Union Jack supporters that he would not let them down, and the first words he mumbled through swollen lips after his fearful beating in nine rounds were an apology to his fellow countrymen for not having done better.
A DUTIFUL GLUTTON
But the sad truth is that Don Cockell never will do better than he did against Rocky Marciano in the waning light of Kezar Stadium. American boxing writers had not underestimated him in unanimously dubbing him as a hand-picked opponent with whom Marciano would toy for a little while before he knocked him out. They had only underestimated his gluttony. He can eat thundering left and right hooks by the dozen, stagger around the ring like a Skid Road drunk, throw up between rounds from the force of the body blows, and then rise dutifully at the sound of the bell for another frightful three minutes of the same. Don Cockell was acclaimed by sportswriters on both sides of the Atlantic for his ability to absorb hundreds of Marciano's hardest blows, and one Englishman went so far as to write that "...this was the kind of extra courage which makes you proud to belong to the human race and to have been sired by the same breed as the boy who grew up in the back streets of Battersea."
May 29, 1955
The defeat, in which the English champion won only a single round, and that by a shade before Marciano had warmed up to the slaughter, has installed Cockell as a national hero. "It was really a victory," insisted the London Star. English Promoter Jack Solomons after the fight was talking of the rematch as a natural for London, where the sporting bloods have convinced themselves that their man could win if Marciano's foul tactics were prevented by a fair referee willing to enforce the rules.
British pride has always run high and perhaps never higher than in these embattled years when the sun finally seems to be setting on the second Elizabethan Empire. Every one of the visiting Englishmen I talked to, including Cockell, his high-strung, peevish manager, John Simpson, and the angry British newsmen in the tense visiting dressing room after the fight, seemed acutely and even painfully conscious that this was not just a scrap between a couple of heavyweights but between representatives of brawny America and dear old England.
ANOTHER BRAVE BULL
The plain fact is that Don Cockell is not too much of a fighter, despite the fact that most of us thought he would only be around for five or six rounds and he managed to suffer on for eight or nine. He's just another brave bull who comes straight at you, holding and moving his hands fairly well until he gets tired; he doesn't hit nearly hard enough for the head-on style he uses, nor does he have any of the evasive footwork and headwork of a Walcott or Charles when they were at their best. He's just a light-hitting plodder, a sitting duck—and a nice plump one too—for any heavyweight with the guns to bring him down. If he were not the champion of the British Empire, and if the patriotism of fading glory did not steam up the prose of the British sportswriters, he would seem to be what he is—a willing trial horse, a dogged tub of fat.
You may give three cheers for his stoutness of heart; but even braver, it seems to me, are those who talk of a rematch, for one has to be a man of iron nerves—utterly fearless—to throw this defenseless warrior back into the pit with the most destructive heavyweight since Joe Louis and the most uninhibited one since Two-Ton Tony Galento used to swing fists, shoulders, elbows, head and knees in the general direction of his victims. Tony even bit 'em once in a while and may qualify as the only cannibal now residing in Orange, N.J.
In the Cockell dressing room after the fight there was much to-do about Rocky's unmannerly tactics and such bitter attacks on American sportsmanship that we were more than ever aware of the difference between American fist-fighting and British boxing. There is no doubting that the English adhere more closely to the rules. Their boxers are penalized for infractions that are overlooked as "just part of the game" over here. Fritzie Zivic, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Jake La Motta and other topnotchers have gotten away with stuff that would probably get them banished for life from the English ring. It may have something to do with the difference in cultures. The British would seem to be more "civilized," while we still have one foot in the backwoods. Or, in Rocky's case, it would be more apt to say, in the jungle. Yet despite the rising tide of British indignation, I don't think Rocky fouled his hapless opponent deliberately. He goes into a fight like an old-time rough and tumbler who locks himself in a room with a man to see which one of them can stand it the longest. He lunges at you like a fullback, and when two big men collide in the middle of a ring heads are going to smash together. His punches are the equivalent of a home-run-happy slugger, and when he misses his elbow is likely to catch you on the swing-around. He's a wild man when he's in there bombing for a knockout and he isn't listening for the bell at the end of the round. In this case the bell happened to be a dull antique, and the roar of the crowd and Rocky's obsession with annihilation could easily account for his hitting after the bell. Punching poor battered Cockell while he was down was another foul—in the old Dempsey over-exuberant tradition—but, as Rocky tried to explain next afternoon, he had already started his swing and it isn't easy to suspend a punch in mid-air. Just the same, I thought Referee Frankie Brown might have warned Rocky occasionally—or even taken a round away from him for butts and low blows.
"Is Marciano the dirtiest fighter you ever fought?" Cockell was asked as he sat in his dressing room. He is a sturdy, proud, touchy man, who seemed not to like the fresh or direct questions of his American interviewers. Cockell resented this one. He rose and started to walk away. He alone of the British party had not complained.
Peter Wilson, who set the tone of indignation for the whole British contingent, summed it up for all of them when he said, "We still conduct boxing as a stylized sport under a formal set of rules. Here it is legalized cobblestone brawling. The methods used are unimportant. Winning is."
Thus, even in these days of NATO and Anglo-American brotherhood, the revolutionary war crackles on.
If this one-sided match should be made again, even on Cockell's home grounds with a neutral referee, it is my humble, star-spangled opinion that Rocky will drape him over the ropes like wet laundry again, formal rules and all.