The success of Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood’s emotionally charged tale of a novice female fighter, and before it Will Smith’s plausible facsimile of Muhammad Ali, startled Hollywood but encouraged those with the power to look more fondly on film projects with boxing at their heart. Suddenly, Russell Crowe was able to strike a chord as the Cinderella Man, Sylvester Stallone given the go-ahead to conclude his life-affirming Rocky series and projects detailing the lives of Micky Ward and Joe Louis are at advanced stages with screen figures as popular and talented as Matt Damon and Spike Lee involved respectively.
None of these films, or their illustrious predeccessor Raging Bull, present me with my most memorable cinematic boxing moment though, that honour – if such a word isn’t too over egg the proverbial pudding – is bestowed on Eddie Murphy’s barber shop scene in the film Coming to America.
Clarence: “Ohhh, there they go. There they go. Why every time I start talkin’ about boxing a white man gotta pull Rocky Marciano out they ass? Rocky Marciano was good, but compared to Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano aint shit. “
Saul: “He beat Joe Louis’ ass. “
Morris: “He did beat Joe Louis’ ass. “
Clarence: “Joe Louis was 75 years old when they fought, Joe Louis came out of retirement to fight Rocky Marciano. Joe Louis always lied about his age. One time Frank Sinatra came in here and sat down on this chair. I said Frank u always hanging out with Joe Louis. Just between me and you how old is he? You know what Frank said? Joe Louis is 137 yeas old. 137 years old!”
Even now twenty years on, those few lines make me laugh out loud. Eddie Murphy, who practically invented the idea of one actor playing multiple parts in a film, plays Clarence as an energised, raspy old man and his Jewish regular – the one pulling Marciano out of his ‘ass’ – with a slow, drawling sarcasm. It’s a magical few moments.
As a boxing fan, I’ve grown to appreciate Marciano far more as I’ve aged. I’ve wondered whether this new found affection for the short-armed, bustling, relentless undefeated champion stems from a dislocated version of the old man’s cliche, ‘it were better in my day’ – because Marciano is from an era long before my own – or perhaps, more likely, a complete disengagement with the present, (what is the collective noun for mediocre heavyweights? The Eighties?), herd of over-sized tower blocks that masquerade as contenders. This plethora of lumbering nobodies was always presumed to have the upper hand on their ancestors in any mythical match-up because of their natural weight, reach and height advantage. I’m increasingly beginning to believe few of the current crop use any of those physical advantages to their own..well…advantage.
Watching Bernard Hopkins outthink Antonio Tarver, Roy Jones fizz past John Ruiz and Mike Tyson cut a swathe through a host of giants not so long ago I’ve slowly revised my own opinion on this. A hardened fighter like Marciano, fuelled for 15 rounds of relentless combat, with dynamite in either hand and destructive intent loaded into every blow would, despite his 185 pound frame, have been a nightmare for a whole host of present day heavyweights. True, their power would have been a problem, but Marciano would have proved quicker, been harder to hit, busier and stronger than any of the 40 year old jugs of molasses currently earning a crust as heavyweight contenders.
Imagine what Marciano would have done to static opponents like McCline, Briggs or Ruiz. Imagine the pain he would have inflicted on the rangy, lazy fighters like Kirk Johnson, Audley Harrison or Tony Thompson, contemplate how chinny fighters like Wladimir Klitschko would have contained his energy and constant punching. The Rock is a paradox, both vastly over-rated because of his pristine record, and routinely under-rated because of his relative size to the current custodians of the fractured heavyweight belt.
I’d have love to have seen Hasim Rahman’s 265 pound face, when Marciano was buried to the shoulder in his gut and wailing away at his hips, arms, kidneys, liver and any other square inch of skin he left exposed. I doubt even Rahman could muster an excuse for the defeat I’d venture Marciano would inflict.