Rocky Marciano’s hasty retirement, still unbeaten in 49 contests, following the victory over Archie Moore, a fight in which he was floored, created one of the world’s greatest and most long-standing sporting landmarks. The closest anyone has come to surpassing the Rock’s pristine benchmark was in the early eighties when Larry Holmes, who once suggested Marciano wasn’t fit to carry his jock strap, came within one points decision of equalling the marker. Until of course, a Russian giant appeared on the heavyweight landscape.
Holmes’ loss to Michael Spinks, and specifically the closeness of the decision, encouraged the conspiracy theorists to suggest a racial influence had ensured that a black man didn’t surpass one of the last remaining demonstrations of white supremacy. A chilling flashback to a social mood supposedly long since soothed and overcome. As someone living outside the time and place, I can’t comment on the legitimacy of such a claim, and though possible to believe outside influence on judges is not unheard of, I struggle to conjure how far any right wing reach could be within a business where Don King is leading promoter, and Larry Holmes as heavyweight champion, both held great sway.
What is true, is since Holmes nobody has shown the ability or consistency to challenge the long standing record. OK Tyson, for a brief time, looked capable of surpassing it with ease – young and seemingly irresistible – the fearsome champion fought frequently and against mediocre competition and could, with dedication, have come close. But that bubble was unceremoniously burst by Buster Douglas and since his time, and that of Bowe, Lewis and Holyfield a dominant champion has failed to emerge.
Until, that is, the gargantuan Russian fighter Nicolay Valuev strode across the top rope and into the peripheral vision of the boxing public. For a long time he plied his trade away from the limelight of American, and even German, television and though his incredible dimensions caused a stir among hard-core fans he was dismissed as a curiosity by the major players. But the wins kept coming and slowly, his record took on proportions close to his own.
European contenders like Paulo Vidoz were dispatched alongside a host of imported bodies from the States and around the globe and victory over Larry Donald in a world-title eliminator, a decision win with some contention, announced him as a fighter who could no longer be ignored. At 325lbs, or 23stone, Valuev stands 7ft tall. Against those odds it is hard to summon a case for any heavyweight to be able to find a way to beat him. But of course, the size brings inherent weaknesses too, so plenty of contenders eagerly believe they can.
In a fight for the vacant WBA belt, John Ruiz thought he had discovered the secret, but despite looking like a Super-Middleweight against the Russian – as the photo above portrays – Ruiz failed to convince the judges his superior activity had done enough. Back to back points victories, both with a degree of controversy, suggested momentum and promotional clout was now behind the giant, and with Vitaly Klitschko retiring, Lewis gone and Tyson, Holyfield and Byrd increasingly peripheral, evidence began to mount that Valuev was being groomed to unify the division and through his huge frame stimulate interest in the forlorn sport.
Four successful defences on and Valuev is now 46-0 (with 1 no contest). Ruslan Chagaev is next, a solid pro, but an insipid choice from those available, even in these shallow times in the heavyweight division. It easy to presume that moves him to 47-0, just two short of the Marciano marker. News that Vitaly Klitschko, now unretired, will have to negate Oleg Maskaev and Sam Peter before he can contemplate unification precludes the biggest risk to the path to 50-0 for at least 8-10 months.
Of the remaining contenders, it is hard to summon a fighter with either the speed, power or workrate to dislodge a fighter so physically advantaged as Valuev. Not that size is everything, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, some of the weight of his contemporaries is counter productive, but – as in so many ways – I feel Valuev is an exception.
Imagine if you will, a boxing world where the answer to the question “who is the heavyweight champion who was unbeaten the longest?” is not Rocky Marciano. It will be a strange new world wont it?
I don’t think we’ll need to imagine much longer.