From Mike Tyson back through the decades to Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston to Rocky Marciano and beyond, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most recognisable sportsman on the planet.
The crown has slipped
From Mike Tyson back through the decades to Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston to Rocky Marciano and beyond, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most recognisable sportsman on the planet. They still call it the richest prize in sport, but 40 years after Marciano's death in a plane crash (one day before his 46th birthday on September 1, 1969), the heavyweight crown has lost its golden lustre.
Three men can ludicrously lay claim to the title that was once the preserve of legends: Russian Nikolay Valuev (WBA), Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko (WBC) and his younger brother Wladimir (WBO and IBF). They might be heavyweights according to the scales but in the history of the division they are anonymous lightweights. A generation ago whenever Ali announced details of his next ring appearance, governments would be scrambling over one another for the right to stage the fight which would be beamed live to an audience of millions.
As author Everett M Skehan described the excitement surrounding such an event in his definitive biography Rocky Marciano: "The crowning of a heavyweight champion is the supreme occasion in sport. People who have no interest in boxing attend the fight that creates the new king because it is the most chic place to be. It's celebration sizzles like rare champagne that intoxicates the world. It is the ultimate in charisma, excitement and suspense."
In stark contrast to the furore of bygone days, Vitali Klitschko's forthcoming defence against Mexican-American Chris Arreloa in the Staples Centre basketball arena in Los Angeles three weeks hence has yet to cause a ripple of anticipation among ring aficionados let alone spark the imagination of mankind. Having three world champions - none of whom is American - offers only limited box office appeal.
Heavyweight boxing is in dire need, therefore, of a new ring giant, a figure such as Marciano who is recognised globally as the undisputed world champion no matter who is in possession of the four alphabet spaghetti titles. Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano (in his early days the ring announcers could not pronounce his family name hence the adoption of Marciano), he reigned supreme from 1952-56 and remains the only heavyweight champ to have retired undefeated, winning 43 of his 49 fights inside the distance.
As Bob Girard, one of only four men to conquer him as an amateur, explained: "How did I beat Rocky? I beat him because it was over three rounds. There were 100 guys who might have stayed with 'The Rock' for nine minutes. But no man in history was going to beat Rocky over 15 rounds: not Jack Dempsey, not Muhammad Ali." Like Tyson, when Marciano climbed through the ropes he became a fighting machine, scorning any form of defence in order to keep throwing murderous hooks and uppercuts until his opponent was toppled. His final defence before retirement was against the wily world light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore who put "The Rock" on the seat of his pants in the second round only to be floored himself in the sixth and eighth before Marciano delivered a knock-out blow in the ninth.
Moore said: "I could feint, try to get them to anticipate my moves. "Marciano didn't know enough about boxing to know what a feint was. He never tried to out guess you - he just kept trying to knock your brains out. "If he missed with one punch he simply threw another. Physically and mentally he was like an animal once the bell sounded." As a so-called world heavyweight champion, Vitali Kiltschko is not fit to lace The Rock's gloves...