By Geoffrey Ciani: Rocky Marciano set the standard of excellence in heavyweight boxing. Of course, I’m referring to his unblemished record of 49 wins without a loss or a draw in 49 contests. This record has stood since Marciano retired after defending his heavyweight crown against Archie Moore in 1955. Amazingly, Marciano did what few other pugilists in the sport’s history have been unable to do—he walked away at his peak and never returned. More amazingly, Marciano had just turned 32 years old when he decided to call it a career.
Fifty-two years later, Marciano’s unblemished record is being challenged for a fourth time. The most recent challenge to the standard comes from the seven foot tall, three hundred thirty pound WBA boxing champion, Nicolay Valuev. Kind of ironic that the most recent threat comes from a man who is Marciano’s polar opposite in terms of physical stature. After all, Marciano was just 5’10 and weight around 185 pounds—that is giving up 14 inches in height and almost 150 pounds in weight!
The first time Marciano’s record was threatened happened not long after Marciano retired. In 1958, a 24 year old pugilist from Cedar City, Utah began his professional career; his name was LaMar Clark. In that year alone, he compiled a professional record of 31-0. By the end of 1959, 11 more wins improved his record to 42-0. It’s incredible that someone could win 42 bouts in just two years, but upon closer inspection, one will realize that the combined records of his opponents was just 7 wins versus 40 losses.
Obviously, Clark’s run was a sham. 27 of the 42 opponents he’d beaten by that point were making their professional debut. His record was literally built fighting overweight bouncers and unemployed bartenders. In any case, he eventually improved to 44-0 before losing three of his final four fights in what wound up being a very short career. Incidentally, his final bout was against Muhammad Ali, who easily disposed of Clark in just two rounds.
The last threat to the 49-0 standard set by Marciano came from Danish pugilist, Brian Nielson. Actually, Neilson technically “matched” Marciano’s 49-0 mark, but much like the case with Clark this, too, was a sham. To his credit, at least Neilson fought and defeated a few name contenders along the way, so this wasn’t an obvious hoax like the one perpetuated by Clark—but it was still a sham none the less. When Neilson was about to surpass the 49-0 mark, he was unexpectedly defeated by Dicky Ryan in his fiftieth professional bout; it was as if the ghost of Marciano haunted him in that fight. Incidentally, Dicky Ryan was recently stopped in the first round by Valuev.
Nicolay Valuev currently has a professional record of 46-0, just three shy of Marciano’s standard. As the reigning WBA heavyweight champion, he has successfully defended his title three times. Unlike the cases with Neilson and Clark, Valuev at least holds a portion of the heavyweight championship. Even still, he hasn’t beaten anyone that warrants a comparison to Marciano.
Wins against the likes of Jameel McCline, Larry Donald, Monte Barrett, and John Ruiz highlight his resume, but it should be noted that his “wins” against Ruiz and Donald were very controversial and it should further be noted that he’s never beaten a top contender. This one also reeks of a sham, although, in fairness, Valuev’s is the most genuine threat of the three mentioned thus far.
The only boxer who legitimately challenged Marciano’s standard is the great Larry Holmes. Holmes was universally recognized as the real heavyweight champion during his title reign, where he compiled a mark of 48-0 before losing back-to-back controversial decisions against Michael Spinks. Unlike Valuev, Holmes fought and defeatedreal top contenders and wasn’t just considered an alphabet-soup titlist. The shame of it is, the way I see things, Holmes deserved victories in his two bouts with Spinks which should have made him the first and only heavyweight to reach 50-0.
Critics of Marciano’s unblemished record like to point out that Marciano did not fight in the toughest era, and that his early record was padded. They like to point to the 500 combined career losses of his opponents and undermine the fact that heavyweight boxers were much smaller during that era than they are in today’s behemoth-filled landscape. Some people fail to recognize that times were different back then. These days, too much emphasis is placed on having and maintaining an undefeated record. Back in Marciano’s days it wasn’t about your record, or how you performed in your last fight, or what type of winning streak you were on—it was about what you did in your present fight.
If Valuev does surpass Marciano’s mark of 49-0, it is doubtful that anyone will place the same type of significance on this accomplishment. Marciano fought in a better era when there was one champion who faced the best available contenders and continuously proved his worth as a champion. He was the heavyweight champion of the world, and he defeated every man placed in front of him. By comparison, Valuev is an alphabet title holder who’s never beaten or faced the very best the division has to offer.
In the modern world of boxing, way too much emphasis is placed on the “0”.
This article was also published at East Side Boxing