Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight champion to go undefeated from the start to the finish of his professional career, an achievement well recorded and widely known. But less documented and less known is the fact that he did once lose a fight, a three-round amateur bout against Coley Wallace, a handsome New York Negro.
Rocky vividly remembers the defeat because, he claims, he really did not lose. No, sir, he insisted recently as he sat in the office of his Fort Lauderdale, Fla. insurance office, he was not beaten, he was robbed.
"I don't like to put a rap on boxing, but even in the amateurs there was maybe some skuldujjery," he said, mauling the word as though it were one of the 43 victims he knocked out in his 49 professional fights.
The year was 1947. Rocky, then Rocco Marchegiano, had won the New England Golden Gloves heavyweight title and had come to New York with the New England team to compete in the Eastern Championships, a tournament sponsored by the New York Daily News. Opponents were drawn by lot, and Rocky was matched against Wallace for his first fight. This was ominous for two reasons:
First, the News had been writing up Wallace as the tournament's star attraction, and with reason. Wallace boosters were already calling him a future world champion, another Joe Louis.
Second, out-of-town boxing coaches generally suspected the judges and referees of being overly sympathetic toward New York fighters. "You gotta knock out a New York fighter to be sure of a win," they warned their boxers time and again. Their reasoning, correct or not, was that the judges, by nursing the New York fighters through the first two days of the tournament, would pack the final card with enough local boys to attract a good crowd to Madison Square Garden.
The tournament opened at Ridgewood Grove, a shoebox fight club in the German section of Brooklyn. Rocky was not frightened, but he was a little worried. "Wallace," he says, "was the terror of New York. Seventeen one-round knockouts!" Both Rocky and the New England team's coach, Tommy Rawson (now a Massachusetts boxing commissioner), agree that the split decision eventually awarded Wallace was outrageous, but the two men remember the progress of the fight differently. Rocky recalls getting somewhat the better of Wallace in the first round, while Rawson remembers him taking a beating.
"I got underneath his punches," says Rocky, "and hit him in the rib cage and clubbed him on the back of the head. He stood tall, like Ezzard Charles, but he couldn't box me because of my awkward maneuvers. Also I had a little bob and weave, even then. So I did fairly well in the first round. I surprised my corner. They said: 'You're doing just fine. Now go out there this round and hurt him.' "
Rawson does not recall Rocky doing just fine at all. Wallace, says Rawson, roughed up Rocky with elbows and forearms, and teed off on him. "He threw Rocky all over the place," declares Rawson. "Oh, he hit Rocky some awful punches."
Rocky acknowledges that Wallace out-boxed him in the second round, taking the round by a slim margin, whereas Rawson figures Rocky's memory is playing tricks on him again. "Rocky took the bull by the horns," says Rawson. "He just lifted Coley Wallace like a sack of flour and shoved him around, and Wallace began retreating."
The third round, at any rate, brings Rocky's and Rawson's narratives into concert, like a couple of Mack Sennett fire engines that have parted at a fork in the road and reunited full speed where the roads join three miles distant. Rocky tore into Wallace as the round began. Wallace backpedaled, but Rocky stubbornly worked to pin him on the ropes. "Basically," says Rocky, "my style was always my own. I pressed. Once you get a guy in the corner, he has nowhere to go." With about 45 seconds left in the round, Rocky recalls, he cornered Wallace and for the rest of the fight pounded him with shots to the body.
"Then the bell rang," says Rocky, "and I'll never forget wha happened, because I was standing there facing Wallace's corner and saw it. One of his handlers threw a towel at Wallace in disgust, as if to say, 'You big bum, you. You blew the fight.' "
All along Rawson had tried to score the fight dispassionately, as if he had been refereeing it. He had Rocky winning big. He was astounded when he heard the decision, and so was the crowd at Ridgewood Grove, which began breaking up the furniture. Gene Tunney went to Rocky's dressing room and told him he had been robbed. Tunney also told him he liked the way he body-punched Wallace, because few amateurs punch to the body.
Meanwhile, a fight manager named Al Weill heard about Rocky's bout and got in touch with Tommy Rawson.
"Tommy, is that your boy?" asked Weill.
"No, he isn't, Al." replied Rawson. "A friend of mine handles him. I'm just the coach of the New England team."
"I like him," said Weill. "You don't mind if I talk to him?"
Rawson said he certainly did not mind, but when he went to report this to Rocky he found himself with a most discouraged fighter who was going to give up the sport. Baseball scouts were interested in Rocky as a catcher, and Rocky told Rawson: "Tommy, I have a chance to play baseball, and I want to get married soon."
"Listen, Rocky," said Rawson. "After last night you'd be crazy to do anything but stick to boxing. Crazy! You can go places!"
Rocky had his doubts. But the more he thought about the Coley Wallace fight, the more confidence he gained in himself—he was sure he had whipped "the new Joe Louis." And Al Weill kept following him and talking to him. So Rocco Marchegiano went places.
Coley Wallace also went on to a pro boxing career, a brief one. But bum decision or no, he is still the only man who ever beat Rocky Marciano.