When you think of sheer determination and heart, not many fighters can rank above Rocky Marciano and Evander Holyfield. Numerous times throughout their careers, both men were labeled undersized for the weight class and made underdogs against larger and sometimes more skilled opponents. And yet, each man consistently defied the odds and carved out memorable Hall of Fame careers.
Rocky Marciano is no stranger to most boxing fans. As the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history (49-0, 43 KOs), the Brockton Blockbuster holds a distinction over other undefeated champs like Sven Ottke in having fought and beaten the best fighters of his era. Initially dismissed as a crude, clumsy, and defense-deficient contender on his way up, Marciano began turning heads when he knocked out promising contender Rex Layne in 6 rounds in 1951.
The performance led to a showdown with his boyhood idol Joe Louis later that year. Louis was far past his prime but still dangerous, having won his last 8 bouts. Marciano dominated the contest and scored a 8th round TKO that served to be the end of Louis’s career. From there, Marciano went on to win the heavyweight title in a classic come from behind KO against Jersey Joe Walcott, and made 6 defenses (5 by KO) before retiring on top in 1955 at the age of 32.
Evander Holyfield began his career as a cruiserweight, making his mark as possibly the best fighter ever at that weight with wins over Dwight Muhammad Qawi (2X) and Carlos De Leon. Bulking up, he moved to heavyweight in 1988 and scored impressive wins over lower tier names Michael Dokes, Alex Stewart, and Pinklon Thomas.
An early heavyweight showdown with Mike Tyson was not be, as Iron Mike was upset by Buster Douglas in 1990. Holyfield went on to defeat Douglas in just 3 rounds and made 3 successful defenses before being losing to an undefeated Riddick Bowe in 1992. He avenged that defeat in 1993, but lost the title right back in 1994 in an huge upset to southpaw Michael Moorer. The Real Deal’s career seemed to be at a close when he was knocked out in 8 rounds in the rubber match with Bowe in 1995.
But only a year later, Holyfield secured his signature win by outmuscling Mike Tyson to an 11th round TKO, and winning the rematch by DQ. He held the title until 1999, when he lost to Lennox Lewis.
For the past 10 years, he has continued to fight past prime to mixed results, but is still a top 20-25 fighter despite being 47 years old.
In a proposed matchup between them, two words come to mind: pain and bloodshed. By today’s standards Marciano was a small heavyweight, weighing no more than 189 in his prime and standing at 5’11 with a 67 inch reach. But pound for pound, Rocky was one of the hardest punchers in history. The majority if his opponents were never the same afterward, either retiring (Walcott, Louis) or posting losing records over their remaining bouts (Charles, LaStarza).
Marciano was great at cutting off the ring and forcing fighters into dangerous exchanges. With immense stamina, Rocky would routinely throw over 100 punches per round, with the majority being power shots. Most fighters were simply overwhelmed. Roland LaStarza for example, suffered busted blood clots in his arms for simply trying to cover up against the ropes.
While not a defensive marvel, Rocky Marciano was also better than given credit for. Many opponents stated afterward that he was not as easy to hit clean as he looked. Marciano fought out of a crouch, and Muhammad Ali noted this point after their stimulated computer fight, praising how well Marciano was able to slip his jab in spots.
With Holyfield, Marciano would have an opponent that wouldn’t be afraid to brawl in the trenches with him. Marciano, whose shorter arms were an huge asset in trench warfare, would seek to make the entire fight a prolonged brawl and prevent Holyfield from having any space to box. A good example of this would be the first fight with Ezzard Charles, who was the only man to go 15 rounds with Marciano. Charles did very well early, but could not continue to sustain Rocky’s pace and was definitively outworked in the crucial later rounds.
At 6’2 and over 210 pounds, the always in great shape Evander Holyfield has 2 skills necessary to beat Marciano; being able to equally brawl and box. For the Real Deal to win, these skills must be matched evenly. As seen in fights with Ray Mercer, George Foreman, and Riddick Bowe (rematch), Holyfield can box well off the back foot and with his jab. That will be essential to piling up points as Marciano wades in.
Too much movement will tire him out, so when Rocky does breach mid-range distance, Holyfield will have to fire off combos and hold as he did to Mike Tyson. Evander is one of the stronger heavyweight champs, so it’s likely he’ll be able to control Marciano in the clinches and of course land those rough, illegal head butts of his to open cuts or disrupt Rocky’s game plan.
This fight essentially comes down to how smart Evander Holyfield chooses to be. In the past, we’ve seen Holyfield’s strategy go out the window once he’s hit hard (Bowe I and III). If that happens with Marciano and he tries to wage a battle of machismo, Holyfield gets taken out by about the 8th round. But I believe Holyfield will respect Marciano’s ability as he did Tyson, and combine the best elements of that fight with his boxing ability as seen in the Bowe rematch. And Evander has taken shots from the division’s biggest punchers in George Foreman and Lennox Lewis, so it’s likely Holyfield’s chin will see him through the rough spots.
After 12 brutal and career shortening rounds, I see Evander Holyfield emerging victorious with a majority decision, with scores resembling 114-114 and 115-113 twice.