Mythical Matchup: Jack Dempsey vs. Rocky Marciano
The following feature originally ran in the May 2021 issue of The Ring magazine, on sale now at The Ring Shop.
DEMPSEY VS. MARCIANO
Ron Lipton is a veteran world-class referee, a former amateur boxer and historian who was inducted into the New York and New Jersey boxing halls of fame. He previously penned two well-received mythical matchups – Rocky Graziano vs. Rubin Carter and Dick Tiger vs. Canelo Alvarez – for The Ring, but he says he’s saved his best for this one.
“The result of this particular mythical matchup has the potential to generate deep-rooted feelings of approval or anger, because it involves two legendary heavyweight champions,” said Lipton. “One epitomized the Roaring Twenties, the other helped usher in TV’s Golden Age during the 1950s. Both are idolized by boxing fans to this day.”
By the end of this article, I will bring you ringside with me to Madison Square Garden for a historical main event: Jack Dempsey vs. Rocky Marciano for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
In one corner we have Dempsey, who beat Jess Willard for the lineal championship in 1919 at age 24 and became the biggest star of the sports world during his reign of five title defenses, culminating with his epic shootout with Luis Angel Firpo in 1923. In the other corner we have Marciano, who knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott to win the Ring Magazine championship in 1952 at age 29 and emerged as a boxing hero as he defended the title with fight-of-the-year battles, including a dramatic stoppage of Ezzard Charles in their 1954 rematch.
I have put more thought and study into this mythical matchup than any I have ever done. Styles make fights in boxing, and in their case, search-and-destroy mentalities create wild and explosive outcomes. There could be a rematch with a different result, but this is what I believe would happen the first time both men clashed.
I will pull historic boxing figures from different eras and bring them alive with a stretch of poetic license.
THE MAKING OF THE FIGHT:
Jack Dempsey had disposed of Willard and Firpo in brutal fashion and was thinking of answering the allure of show business and all the tempting life-changing offers pouring in.
Jimmy DeForest, his legendary trainer and cornerman, who had guided Stanley Ketchel, Jim Jeffries and Joe Gans among other greats, always said that Dempsey was his favorite. As far as DeForest was concerned, there wasn’t a man alive who Dempsey could not overpower. Dempsey’s right hand was nicknamed “Iron Mike,” his left hook “Big Bertha;” both punches had the impact of nitroglycerin exploding.
DeForest believed Dempsey was the fastest and hardest-hitting heavyweight ever, and the most ferocious. He often said that Jack wasn’t satisfied until his opponent was lying senseless at his feet.
But DeForest was worried sick that everything they worked so hard to achieve would go down the drain if the Manassa Mauler lost his fighting edge. The siren call of Hollywood threatened to take Dempsey away from the spartan existence that made him great. DeForest knew that Dempsey’s hunger and passion for fighting were what set him apart. Boxing was not just a sport or business to Dempsey; he possessed that savage magic that Ketchel had, but had it in spades. DeForest would be damned if he would let anything ruin it.
They needed motivation to grab Dempsey’s attention and turn it back to fighting. The perfect “motivator” would be the main challenger to Dempsey’s lineal championship, the man with the Ring title and the other major sanctioning organization belts, Rocky Marciano. The public was clamoring for them to fight. DeForest knew Charley Goldman, Rocky’s boxing guru and mentor, and had the utmost respect for the boxer-turned-trainer’s old-school knowledge.
Thanks to Goldman’s development, Marciano would be the most dangerous foe Dempsey would ever face, but DeForest had faith in his fighter. DeForest scouted Rocky. It was as if he put the essence of Marciano into a pipe and smoked deeply until it became part of him. He knew what he had to know.
Jack “Doc” Kearns, Dempsey’s manager, had to negotiate with Al Weill, Marciano’s manager, as well as Madison Square Garden to make the fight, but coming to an equitable agreement would not be easy. Both Dempsey and Marciano had tempestuous relationships with their managers for various reasons, financial and personal. And because both Kearns and Weill were equally shrewd and immutable, the negotiations with Weill and Kearns quickly became intolerable.
The bickering between the managers was ugly, almost digressing to fistfights at times. However, their fighters wanted to settle who the real heavyweight champion was with a showdown in Madison Square Garden. So, a 50-50 split was eventually agreed to as well as equal percentages from the live streaming, films and merchandising. Finally, the contracts were signed
for a 12-round undisputed heavyweight championship fight with 10-ounce gloves.
The boxing world trembled with anticipation and the Garden was sold out within 20 minutes of the box office opening.
Ringside tickets were set at $5,000; the cheapest seats were $300, and people paid it without question. The live pay-per-view stream on various outlets was set at $99.99. No delayed broadcast would be shown for a month.
Dempsey was in DeForest’s training camp, which was moved from West Allenhurst, New Jersey, to Long Branch, New Jersey, where Dempsey could run in the sand, which he loved to do.
Dempsey ran seven miles a day on the beach and punished his sparring partners, Big George Godfrey and 6-foot-5 Bill Tate. For speed, he used smaller and faster Jock Malone, Jamaica Kid and the legendary Joe Gans.
He worked the pulleys, endless calisthenics, neck and abdominal work. The brutal sparring and heavy bag work had real-fight intensity. The sparring partners suffered injuries and new blood was brought in. Kearns hired David Tua and George Chuvalo, both known for their durability, with orders to keep the pressure on Dempsey from bell to bell. Tate and Gans stayed on.
Dempsey was different from Marciano, who was very private, especially with his training camps. Dempsey loved crowds. He didn’t mind working out with an audience, and they were awestruck watching him. He mingled with them and they adored his outgoing personality while he was deep in training.
Rocky trained in the Catskills in New York on the grounds of Grossinger’s Hotel. He was affable when not in training, but he changed when preparing for a fight. Marciano cut off communication with his family and friends and refused to speak to anyone, including members of his camp, unless it related to the fight.
His training quarters were off-limits to the other hotel guests. The hotel staff had strict orders to leave him alone and not to allow any strangers to meet with him. His diet was strictly monitored, and no food from outside of the camp confines was allowed.
Marciano’s training sessions were closed to the public and the media, which drove the promoters crazy. But he trained like a triathlete. Goldman was preparing him for a shootout with Dempsey that could go the full 12 rounds at top speed.
Marciano’s edge against all competitors was his stamina, which was on display during long sparring sessions with Toxie Hall, Nino Valdez, Keene Simmons, Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson and Gene Gosney. Marciano brutalized them all.
Goldman then brought in Curtis “Hatchet Man” Sheppard, Bob Satterfield and Cleveland Williams. He figured if Rocky could handle those big punchers, Dempsey would be easy.
DeForest had a friend of his check into Grossinger’s as a guest to keep an eye on what was going on. When reports came back that these heavy punchers and iron-jawed fighters were brought in, DeForest smiled slyly as he chewed on his trademark cigar.
“It won’t help, Rocky. Nothing will.”
But when DeForest found out that Goldman brought in Harry Greb to spar with Marciano in secret, he became livid.
Despite being a middleweight, Greb had given Dempsey a hellish sparring session years ago, and there was even talk of them fighting at one time.
Now DeForest would bring in someone who would counter that move. He sent word to his friend Stanley Ketchel, “The Michigan Assassin,” who would be brought in not to spar with Dempsey, but to provide a psychological edge in response to Greb being in the other camp.
Meanwhile, the war of words between Kearns and Weill was getting almost as much press as the fight.
Dempsey could not stand the way Kearns always took center stage, often boasting to the press that he taught Dempsey all he knew. DeForest should have received more credit, and Jack knew it.
Dempsey asked Kearns to lay off that stuff in public. Kearns, while drunk, put up his hands and told Dempsey he could lick him right then and there. Disgusted, Dempsey glared fiercely at the slender manager and cursed at him under his breath as he turned his back and walked away.
Marciano had it worse with Weill. When Rocky was starting out, Weill got him to sign away 50 percent of his earnings to him and never allowed Marciano to make the money he deserved. Both fighters would have rather knocked out their managers than fight each other.
The managers’ egos got out of hand before the fighters took part in HBO’s Face Off feature with Max Kellerman moderating.
As Rocky and Jack waited off-stage for Kellerman to get ready for the show, Weill started shooting his mouth off to Kearns, loud enough for everyone to hear: “You better pay up Dempsey’s medical insurance, because he’s going to need it, and your meal ticket will be gone, you crooked grifter. Your guy gasses out, Rocky is going to crush him.”
A triggered Kearns retorted: “You chiseling punk, you still robbing Rocky? Your guy has been beating old men! They’re all worn-out retreads, for Christ’s sake. Walcott knocked him on his ass with a left hook. It took Rocky 13 rounds to beat that old man. Roland LaStarza beat him the first fight. The rest of his record is bullshit; he’s been fighting sparring partners who you paid off.”
Weill went berserk, rushing and swinging at Kearns. In an instant, the two old men were rolling around on the floor gouging, choking and punching each other. HBO security broke it up and escorted both of them out of the building.
Dempsey and Marciano watched in gut-wrenching embarrassment before being fitted with microphones and brought up to sit at opposite sides of the table with Kellerman.
Minutes before the show started, Dempsey said softly to Marciano, “Sorry about this, Rocky; it’s none of my doing. I apologize for him.” Marciano replied: “Same for me, Jack. It was sickening.” They shook hands across the table.
The fighters conducted the interview with mutual respect no matter how hard Kellerman tried to get them to make a prediction or reveal what their fight plan was.
The fireworks between the fighters would not start until they shared the ring.
One week before the fight, Dempsey sat alone in his training camp quarters when DeForest knocked softly on the door. Jack told him to come in.
King, Jack’s powerful fighting pit bull lay across his legs, sleeping on the spartan bed. King was cool with Jimmy but as always was instantly alert, like a sleeping lion, to make sure there was no threat to his beloved master, whom he did road work with.
“Jack, we have to talk about this fight now. My guy at Grossinger’s hotel says Goldman has Marciano training for 12 rounds of constant punching. He’s running 12-15 miles a day and beating the dog shit out of the sparring partners. Rocky doesn’t draw a breath. He fights out of a crouch, as you know, and breaks down the body until he can throw his over-the-top ‘Suzie Q’ – the right hand he dropped Rex Lane with – or the short, straight right that won the title for him. He’s also got that left hook that finished Moore and Carmine Vingo and scored that first knockdown against Joe Louis.
“His recuperative powers and balls say one thing to me, Jack: We can’t let him get started. He’s a slow starter that needs to warm up, but he’s still aggressive right out of the gate, and his thing is to close the gap, take up the slack, come in low and break your ribs to pieces. He takes quick, small steps to get close and gets stronger as the fight goes on.
“So, I’m gonna give you the best strategic advice we all could figure when we put our heads together. We gave hours of thought and conversation to this. We asked everyone – Jimmy ‘The Greek,’ Bill Tate, Joe Gans, Ketchel and Kearns – pooled all our collective boxing experience and this is the best boxing genius shit we came up with, Jack: As soon as that opening bell rings, pull up your socks and knock him the fuck out.
“Now it’s your turn to speak. With this dangerous guy, I have to ask you, Mr. Dempsey, what is your plan? What are you going to do?”
Jack sat there with no smile. As soon as his camp had closed to the public, Dempsey hadn’t smiled once for the last two weeks, which pleased DeForest. Dempsey had become a snarling tiger with two days’ growth of beard already on him.
Dempsey looked right through DeForest, totally silent while deep in thought.
“Well Jack, what are you going to do? You’re doing the fighting,” DeForest said.
Without the slightest bit of jest in his voice, Dempsey replied: “I’m going to pull up my socks and knock him out.”
Back at Grossinger’s, four days before the fight, all the hard work was done. The sparring partners were gone. Goldman and assistant trainers Freddie Brown and Allie Colombo were taking an after-dinner walk with Rocky. Weill was back in the hotel making phone calls.
Goldman was the voice that no one dared interrupt when it came to fight talk.
“Rocky, we are going to fight him like we trained to do. Stick to the game plan and fight your fight. Play him close; don’t give him any punching room and start breaking down his body right away. Drag him into deep waters where he will gas out. No one has your stamina; use it to win. When he is tired, let him have the Suzie Q, not slow but like a bolt of lightning, greased and tied to a snake’s tongue. Save it until the time is right. Let him have some each round until he gets careless, and then take him out.”
Brown and Colombo nodded their heads in agreement.
WEIGHT: 192½ pounds
REACH: 73 inches
RECORD: 53-4-8 (43 KOs)
(Age and record after the Luis Angel Firpo title defense.)
WEIGHT: 187 pounds
REACH: 68 inches
RECORD: 47-0 (41 KOs)
(Age and record after the Ezzard Charles rematch.)
The Garden is sold out and every celebrity imaginable is there.
HBO’s broadcasters are ringside with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Max Kellerman and Ray Arcel. Both fighters, looking cool as ice but with deadly focus, are on the big screen from their dressing rooms, where they are getting their hands wrapped under the supervision of the New York State Athletic Commission.
DeForest wrapped Dempsey’s hands with Colombo watching for the Marciano camp. Goldman lovingly taped Rocky’s hands as Jimmy “The Greek” Luvadis watched.
“It is going to come down to Marciano’s stamina, relentless pressure and power against Dempsey’s two-fisted onslaught, youth and speed,” Merchant said at the start of the broadcast. “Both can take a tremendous punch, and the word ‘quit’ doesn’t enter into either of their thinking.”
Michael Buffer stands ready for the introductions in the ring, resplendent in his tuxedo, and, per the boxers’ agreement, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played before they emerge from their dressing rooms.
The “legends” introductions bring tremendous ovations from the crowd as Stanley Ketchel greets the crowd, then Harry Greb, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Luis Angel Firpo, Jess Willard and Jack Johnson.
When Greb enters the ring, Ketchel purposely bumps into him and says something that makes Greb answer back in anger. Commission inspectors get between them and peace is restored. The crowd loves it, because the rumor is they are signed to fight for the middleweight title.
The introductions are over. A dazzling light show bathes the arena in an ethereal display of purple and red.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Suzie Q” blares, driving the crown into a frenzy as Marciano makes his way to the ring with the diminutive bucket-carrying Goldman, swabs stuck behind his ears. Rocky is wearing his dark blue robe trimmed in white with the pointy hood hiding his face like a monk. Colombo, Weill and Brown trot behind him.
Charlie and Allie sit on the third rope as Rocky ducks into the ring and the crowd roars.
Everyone looks for Dempsey as the spotlight focuses on his aisle, and here he comes with Kearns leading the way. DeForest is behind Dempsey, with Luvadis and Big Bill Tate bringing up the rear. Jack is unshaven, wears no robe, just an old red woolen sweater he wore in training camp, looking like a stone-cold killer.
The promoters asked Dempsey about his walk-in music. “Music? I came here to fight, not dance.”
The heavyweights are in the ring and there isn’t a heart that isn’t pounding with excitement. Buffer announces:
“Ladies and gentleman, this is the main event of the evening, the fight we have all been waiting for: 12 rounds of boxing for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world! It’s brought to you by Al Weill Promotions and Jack Kearns Enterprises in conjunction with Madison Square Garden Boxing, sanctioned by the New York State Athletic Commission.
“The three judges scoring from ringside assigned by the New York State Athletic Commission are Harold Lederman, Tony Castellano and Al Berl.
“Inside the ring, the man in charge of the action when the bell rings is championship veteran Charlie White.
“Now the officials are ready, the fighters in the ring are ready, and for the thousands in attendance and the millions watching around the world: Are you ready? Ladies and gentleman… LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!”
Buffer’s famous introduction thunders through the Garden, and around the world the boxing crowd explodes in response.
“Introducing first in the blue corner, wearing the black trunks with white trim, weighing in officially at 187 pounds with a record of 47 wins, no losses with 41 knockouts, hailing from Brockton, Massachusetts, the undefeated, unified heavyweight champion of the world: THE BROCKTON BLOCKBUSTER, ROCKY MARCIANO!”
The crowd’s response is deafening as Rocky raises one glove.
“And in the red corner, wearing all white silk trunks with the star-studded sash, weighing 192½ pounds with a record of 53 wins, 4 losses and 8 draws with 43 knockouts, hailing from Manassa, Colorado, the reigning lineal heavyweight champion of the world: THE MANASSA MAULER, JACK DEMPSEY!”
The fans go wild as Dempsey, with a scowl that would melt steel, steps forward and without the slightest smile raises one gloved hand for a brief second.
Charlie White calls out, “Just the fighters and their chief seconds,” then beckons them all to mid-ring. “I’ve given you the rules. Let’s get this straight right now. If either of you hits a man on the deck, I’ll disqualify you on the spot. Tell me right now if you understand. Dempsey?
Jack nods; Rocky does likewise.
White continues, “No fouls will be tolerated. You knock down your opponent, stop punching, go to the farthest neutral corner and stay there until I call you out. Protect yourselves at all times. Now touch gloves and come out fighting.”
Marciano comes out of his corner in a crouch and tries to work in close to Dempsey, who weaves and pivots as fast as a middleweight to the side. Dempsey feints while darting in and out.
Marciano regroups and straightens his stance up with his gloves held a bit low as he moves in to work the body. Dempsey explodes like lightning, driving bone-jarring punches to the body that land so fast it is hard to count them. A thundering five-punch combination digs into Rocky’s body. The finishing shot is a vicious left hook that cracks onto Marciano’s jaw like a grenade exploding, and the Brockton Blockbuster is dropped to his knees.
Dempsey runs to the neutral corner as the crowd is stunned into total silence for a few seconds, then erupts in a roar of shock. White is counting as Marciano, visibly stunned by the left hook that landed flush over his low-held right hand, struggles to his feet.
He is up at seven and takes the mandatory eight count.
White waves them on. Dempsey is on Marciano, twisting, turning, snarling like a jaguar, driving straight shots between the gloves. Marciano tries to duck under power punches as he is driven back. Dempsey ducks under a looping, over-the-top right hand from Marciano and both fighters bang heads as each tries to weave lower than the other.
White momentarily stops the action and asks if they are OK. Dempsey snarls, “Yeah.” Marciano nods, but he is still glassy-eyed with a look of confusion on his face.
“He was dropped with a left hook reminiscent of the one Walcott got him with in the first round before Marciano warmed up,” said Lampley.
Dempsey is all over him again, and the wallop of leather landing resounds throughout the arena. Marciano is dropped to his knees by the same combination to the body with a finishing hook to the side of his head as the bell rings, ending the first round.
White continues the count while chasing Goldman from entering the ring. Marciano makes it up onto one knee at eight and beats the count. He is sent to the corner by White, who scolds Goldman but does not disqualify him for trying to enter the ring. 10-7 DEMPSEY.
“I told everyone that would listen that Dempsey would murder Marciano and any other heavyweight in history,” Arcel, the legendary trainer, says to his fellow HBO commentary crew between rounds. “I saw them all: Louis, Foreman, Frazier, Johnson, Jeffries. Dempsey would destroy them one by one. This is no surprise to me.”
Dempsey is frightening as he storms out on the attack again. Only Marciano’s powerful legs and conditioning enable him to come out of his corner. He doesn’t retreat. Rocky takes the fight to Dempsey.
Marciano manages to get in close and slams Dempsey’s body with one of the shots he practiced in training camp on his 300-pound bag. A right hand to the pit of the stomach has Dempsey’s attention. Rocky moves in and nails Dempsey with the “Suzie Q” right on the left side of the jaw and follows it up with the same right uppercut that knocked Roland LaStarza out of the ring.
Dempsey’s knees buckle for a moment before a Marciano follow-up uppercut deposits him onto the ring apron. No one helps him back into the ring like the Firpo fight. But he climbs through the ropes by the count of eight. His gloves are wiped off, and White waves in Rocky.
Before Marciano can come any closer, Dempsey rushes him with blood in his eyes and an unstoppable fury.
Every moment he had to ride the rails, fight for pennies and fight every killer in mining camps, saloons and in the ring powers him forward. Dempsey launches a right hand and two left hooks. The second hook lands on Marciano’s temple. A follow-up right crashes his jaw and sends him face-forward to the canvas as Dempsey hits him with one more crushing right to the side of the head on the way down. The crowd screams for the fight to stop.
Dempsey walks emotionless to a neutral corner, leans back with his lower legs crossed and watches Marciano motionless on the canvas like a tiger searching for any movement in its prey.
Marciano gets up at White’s count of nine and is badly staggering backward. White stops the fight.
Blood streams from a cut by Marciano’s right eye. His face, nose and cheekbones are swollen and purple from the pounding.
Buffer takes the mic: “The time is two minutes and 37 seconds of the second round, the winner by a TKO and now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the Manassa Mauler, Jack Dempsey!”
The crowd is still stunned in disbelief, as are the commentators and every media member.
The HBO crew is on camera. Lampley turns to Merchant and tasks him to sum up what they just saw.
“I have seen Joe Frazier, known for his relentless punching and stamina, go through every contender. I sat ringside while he beat Muhammad Ali, knocking him down in the process. Then I saw Joe destroyed by the power of George Foreman. Marciano has met his own Foreman tonight.
“The legacy of Rocky Marciano is written in stone. No one trained harder than him, no one in boxing history has more courage, but boxing isn’t just about conditioning and guts. It’s a young man’s game, and when you get taken over the line of what the human body can endure by a puncher like Dempsey, you get what we saw tonight.”
Lampley: “Max Kellerman is with Dempsey in the ring now.”
Kellerman: “Jack, what a performance; I’m still in shock seeing it.”
Dempsey: “Thanks, Max. It is what my team and I trained to do, and I wish Rocky the best. I had to get him quick; he is not the kind of guy you want to let into the fight.”
Marciano approaches Dempsey and puts his arm around him. Jack does the same.
Marciano: “I want to let my family and friends know I am 100 percent OK. Jack was the better man tonight. I hope he gives me a rematch.”
Dempsey: “I promise, Rocky, and I hope we will always be pals.”