'Cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him': Marciano vs Cockell
Garry White on the night that Battersea's Don Cockell received a battering from Rocky Marciano, but proved himself a man of bravery, through his resolute desire to reject any notion of surrender...
Kezar Stadium, San Francisco. On the evening of 16 May 1955 Britain’s Don Cockell met Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The fight was broadcast to 83 movie theatres in 59 cities in the US. Across the Atlantic, listeners wrestled with a seven-hour delay to catch the action, via a device that old-timers quaintly refer to as 'the wireless'.
Top of the UK music charts - then only three years old - was smooth New York crooner Tony Bennett with his rendition of ‘Stranger in Paradise'.
It was anything but paradise for Cockell in San Francisco as he entered the ring with minimal respect from the press or oddsmakers, zero backing from the California crowd and the destructive presence of the ‘Brockton Blockbuster’ waiting to enter the fray.
The song itself would have made a fitting ring intro for the challenger, facing off against the unbeaten legend of Marciano:
“If I stand starry-eyed
That’s a danger in paradise
For mortals who stand beside.”
It probably all seemed a long way from the familiar environs of Cockell’s native Battersea, an area of south-west London still festooned with the bowing heads of riverside cranes and pea soup smog that enveloped the towers of the recently completed power station. Arriving in San Francisco must have felt like being given the keys to a new exotic, sunshine filled world. Albeit a dangerous one against an opponent fluent only in the language of all-out war.
A contract that gave Cockell 20 per cent of the gate receipts acted as a sweetener, despite allegations that promoter Jimmy Murray had skimmed $10,000 off the top of both fighters’ purses (it would have been a brave man to pilfer money under the nose of the famously frugal Marciano). But, all standard practice, one supposes, in this old black and white world of cigar smoke and distorted mirrors.
Cockell’s challenge was the first time a British fighter, or 'Britisher' in the old school American fight announcer lexicon, had fought for the title since Tommy Farr lost to Joe Louis in 1937. The challenger weighed in at 205lbs. A natural light heavyweight Cockell’s additional poundage owed little to increased muscle and more to blubbery girth. It rippled and wobbled around his middle to such an extent that the American press thought up all kinds of 'witty' nicknames for him: 'Dumpling Don' and 'The Battersea Butterball' were just two of the kinder ones.
The 5’11" Cockell should never have been a heavyweight. He was forced to move up a division due to continued difficulties in making the 175lbs limit - the result of a debilitating thyroid condition. Finding himself weak and increasingly ineffectual at light heavy he had little option but to make the change. But he would always lack the firepower in the heaviest division to mete out lasting damage to fighters with the class and resilience of Marciano.
In fact, the old pictures of the Englishman are striking. As a light heavy his face is youthful and chiselled; completely at odds with the pale, fleshy, double-chinned opponent that American fight fans witnessed.
Cockell was a worthy challenger though who had recorded positive results against the likes of Tommy Farr, Roland La Starza and Harry ‘Kid’ Matthews. The latter earned him a number two rating from The Ring magazine and, ultimately, a shot at the richest prize in sport.
As the sun began to set in the ‘City by the Bay’ the combatants entered the ring; one that was the smallest allowed by the rules in California, and derided by Cockell’s manager John Simpson as being the size of “a postage stamp”.
The master of ceremonies, sporting a white dinner jacket, introduced the challenger to the expectant crowd: “In the red corner, weighing 205lbs, the heavyweight champion of the British Empire, from Battersea, England… Don Co-Kelle.” The exotic misrepresentation of his surname was completely at odds with its plain and simple south-west London vocalisation of “Cock-all.”
The big man, in turn, gave three short, stiff bows, clad in a bulky, heavy dressing gown that looked halfway towards being a military greatcoat. This, combined with his heavy girth, gave him the look of a man bending to pick up the morning mail from his doorstep rather than one about to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
In the other corner lurked the 'The Brockton Blockbuster', his hood up. As his name was announced, he gave a little skip and the full Tony Soprano wise-guy grin: all narrow lips and squinting eyes, with the teeth safely hidden - If anyone was ever born to play the older, post-retirement Marciano it was surely the late James Gandolfini.
Underneath Marciano’s robe was a white vest that was lifted off over his head by his cornermen. He may have weighed in 16lbs lighter than the challenger, but he was finely proportioned and possessed a toned, hirsute, barrel chest. His meaty arms hung by his side, in readiness to ‘lock and load’, as soon as the bell invited him to do so.
Cockell bounced out energetically and jumped in with a left to the body - en garde, like a portly d'Artagnan. The punch bounced off Marciano in the manner of a golf ball on a corrugated iron roof, as did the remainder of the Englishman’s work for the next 25 minutes of action. Marciano, a gentleman outside of the ring, famously became his very own Mr. Hyde when hemmed in by the suffocating strands of the ring ropes. He recognised no chivalric values and carried only a grudging acknowledgment of the Marquess of Queensbury rules.
Despite, the obviously gargantuan task ahead of Cockell, the fight was relatively even through the opening two stanzas. Marciano introduced his fists to Cockell’s kidneys but otherwise opened sluggishly, whilst Cockell moved well and kept his distance.
In the third, in their tiny, made-to-measure ring, it was inevitable that eventually, Marciano would catch up with his foe. The rhythm was set, with Rocky drumming out his familiar beat on the head, arms and body of the Englishman. The same pounding, clubbing caveman fists that had smashed the blood vessels in previous challenger Roland La Starza's arms, prior to him being stopped in 11 rounds, now got to work on the Englishman.
The ‘Blockbuster' - insufficiently erudite to manoeuvre around his opponent's defence - simply smashed his way through it like a pugilistic trebuchet.
Gallant Don, kept pushing forward, though. Honouring the coaching manual and faithful to his gym work: “Cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him,” focused on his own unsteady march into “the jaws of hell.” As the round ended Marciano tagged Cockell after the bell, in a little reminder that this is his ring and his rules, as the referee looked on impotently.
Into the fourth and while Marciano's big swinging roundhouses failed, the trailing elbows hit their lacerating mark. The champion, fighting out of his familiar low crouch, at one point straightened up and took a bloody slice of Cockell’s forehead with his head, introducing a nasty cut. Having to absorb a bludgeoning right-hand below the belt in the fifth, the challenger reeled into the ropes, pursued by the heavy-footed bull.
The tone was now set for the sixth and seventh rounds. The accumulation of legitimate punches, butts, elbows, low blows, and kidney punches, continued to sap the remaining reserves of energy from the Londoner. The painful traffic soon became one way as Cockell staggered into punches and listed around the ring like a drunken sailor haunted by a ravenous albatross.
Wobbling into a corner, the bell rang, ordinarily the cue for some respite, but Marciano unloaded with a right and left to the body and head, oblivious to the fact the round had ended, or perhaps the animal scent of blood was too overpowering for Marciano to halt the chase.
As this point the fight was as good as over. Marciano’s brutal punches continued to snap Cockell’s head back sickeningly, but still, he refused to go down. At one point, he stepped away from his torment and gave his best attempt at a little dance step, shimmy. It didn't convince and was as heart-breaking as it was hopeless.
But when you know you have nothing left, and you cannot hurt your opponent with any of the limited tools at your disposal, then perhaps this was the only form of defiance available. Throughout the fight, Cockell must have felt like he was playing ‘Battleships’ armed only with a tugboat against a fleet of dreadnoughts.
In the final seconds of the eighth, a crude and mighty right hand sent the challenger sprawling forward over the top rope. There he hung like an abandoned children's toy as the bell sounded to prolong his suffering.
In the ninth and ultimately final round, Marciano required just 54 seconds to conclude proceedings. A right-hand -suspiciously close to the belt line, followed by two left hooks, a huge right, and another left hook, caused Cockell’s knees to sag. The final right landed to Cockell’s head just as his knee had already touched the canvas, and soon the rest of his burly frame joined it there.
Remarkably, he rose and staggered into more frenetic roundhouses before falling to the floor once again. Beating the count, but mentally and physically broken, he regained his footing and faced off to his own corner. Perhaps, it was mere delirium but it could instead have been a plaintive plea for clemency, following his earlier final words to Simpson, as he left his dressing room" "No matter what happens, don't you dare stop the fight.”
Finally, Cockell turned, bewildered, in order to finally locate his opponent, whereupon his face was swiftly massaged by two more mighty blows, as the referee eventually stepped in to end the slaughter.
No one would ever suggest that Don Cockell was among the best heavyweights that ever fought, but he must surely have been one of the bravest.
Few could suggest that he deserved to be heavyweight champion of the world either. But in a different place and a different time it is tempting to think that Marciano should have paid the highest price for his persistent foul play.
American pressman Joe Williams wrote at the time: “Marciano violated practically every rule in the book. He hit after the bell, he used his elbow and head, several times punched below the belt and once hit Cockell while he was down. If Cockell should get the idea that anything goes in the American ring, short of wielding a knife or pulling a gun, you couldn’t blame him.”
The Englishman didn’t win, but by his resolute desire to reject any notion of surrender, he reminded the weary and hungry post-war British people of something about themselves.
For 25 minutes on a distant May evening, he was Dunkirk and the Blitz personified.