My favourite fighter: It should have been Rocky Marciano...
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
In the latest in an irregular series in which BM writers pick their favourite fighters, Luca Rosi on why Rocky Marciano should be - but isn't - his favourite fighter...
He was my father’s favourite fighter by a country mile, the unbeaten ‘champeen’ of the world with the perfect 49-0 record. I grew up with tales of the 'Rock' and all the other great Italian-American fighters. LaMotta, Graziano, Basilio, Joey Giardello, Willie Pastrano, Joey Maxim. A golden era and source of incredible pride for Italians around the world.
The first boxing book I ever read was Everett M. Skehan’s biography of the ‘Brockton Blockbuster’, which I still treasure (and highly recommend). I bought it at the Lonsdale shop on Beak Street, off Regent Street, and it was sold to me by the late, great Denny Mancini. ‘Paisan’ he would always greet me with. Because Denny never forgot his Italian roots. It was in Cairo Jack’s bar across the road that I would get my signed copy of Reg Gutteridge’s book on Mike Tyson - The Release of Power.
Yet as I sit here pondering the question of my favourite fighter, it doesn't take long for the penny to drop. The person I decide to write about didn’t even fight for a world title, let alone become a world champion.
He was a British and European welterweight champion. But he left an indelible mark on a teenager watching his first fights on TV and falling in love with a sport that reels you in like no other.
I’ll never forget those 10-15 minute highlights on ITV’s World of Sport on a Saturday, being mesmerised by a fighter who seemed to have it all. He could box, fight, dance, he had all the skills imaginable. The dreadlocks, he was the ‘King of Cool’. As free a spirit – as it transpired - outside and inside the ring. I was entranced and he unwittingly became my hero, a cult figure.
I didn’t see much more of him and his career, which had promised so much, just fizzled out. I’m limited in terms of what I can write but I never forgot him. I had seen enough. So much so that years later I wrote to a tabloid newspaper and had a question about him published. I was chuffed that they had decided to print and answer my question (I wish I still had the cutting).
I learnt that he had actually fought and beaten one of the all-time greats of the sport, so you can imagine my joy knowing that this fighter that had so captured my imagination had validated my elevated opinion of him. He was as good as I had believed him to be.
Not that long ago I watched a moving documentary about him, and it was sad to see how the ravages of time and a not exactly monastic lifestyle had caught up with him. Yet despite the demise, you could tell that he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
That was who he was and he didn’t appear to have any regrets. He was a colourful character who just couldn’t dedicate himself enough to reach those heady heights. Like many before and after him, a flawed genius.
It brought closure in some ways to my story and transported me back to that Saturday afternoon in March 1987 when I first witnessed the brilliance of Kirkland Laing – stopping Sylvester Mittee at the Elephant & Castle Leisure Centre for the vacant British welterweight title.
Five years earlier in Detroit the Jamaican born ‘Gifted One’ had won a split decision verdict against the great Roberto Duran – ‘Manos de Piedra’ himself. How ironic that the Laing vs Mittee fight took place only three weeks before the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler superbout.
For Laing was our Sugar Ray and who’s to say, he might have been able to share that same stage. That’s what I’d like to think anyway.
It should have been Rocky Marciano. But sometimes logic just flies out of the window, doesn’t it? It’s about emotions. It’s about memories. You don’t even know why but some things just stay with you.