1. September 21, 1955, Yankee Stadium, New York, N.Y. – Rocky Marciano KO 9 Archie Moore
The 32-year-old Marciano was making the sixth defense of the heavyweight title he blasted off Jersey Joe Walcott’s head against a genuine legend in the 38-year-old reigning light heavyweight king. To get the fight, “Ancient Archie” embarked on an exhaustive letter writing campaign, spent $50,000 in advertising and even had “Wanted” posters depicting Moore as the sheriff and Marciano as the criminal. The champion, who sported an enviable 48-0 (42) record, simply shrugged and granted Moore his shot at the brass ring.
Marciano’s perfect ending was nearly spoiled in the second. Moments after Marciano stunned Moore with a hook to the jaw, the challenger stepped in with a short counter right to the chin that sent the New Englander to one knee, only the second knockdown of the champion’s career. As Marciano leaped to his feet and tried to collect his senses referee Harry Kessler briefly intervened to wipe off Marciano’s gloves. Though Kessler’s actions took less than four seconds Moore claimed to his dying day that the brief intermission prevented “The Old Mongoose” from winning the heavyweight crown. Though shaky and bleeding from the nose and left eye, Marciano managed to safely navigate the final two-plus minutes by weaving away from Moore’s bombs and executing well-timed clinches.
Marciano steadied himself in the third, which saw him stage a late comeback behind solid hooks and follow-up rights. Both fighters hammered away in the fourth but while Moore got in his share of punches he had been drawn into Marciano’s type of fight. Still, Moore enjoyed a good fifth as his sage counters often caught Marciano wading in.
The fight turned irrevocably for Marciano in the sixth when a heavy right to the temple caused Moore to crumble along the ropes. Kessler briefly continued to count once Moore rose, neutralizing the Mongoose’s claim about Marciano’s knockdown because the count on Moore lasted slightly longer than the one administered to Marciano. It provided only a brief respite for the storm that was to come. Marciano swarmed over his aged adversary, digging hard shots to every available area of Moore’s anatomy. Though Moore fought back valiantly, he fell to a knee after absorbing a overwhelming series of rights.
Moore insisted between rounds he was fit to continue and he proved it by staging a terrific comeback in the seventh against the arm-weary champion. But even in the midst of Moore’s success one got the feeling he was postponing the inevitable. At the bell Moore’s legs shook and nearly collapsed as he neared his stool, for that rally nearly exhausted every remaining physical resource.
From the eighth round on, “The Brockton Blockbuster” shifted into overdrive. Moore had the look of a man fighting off an avalanche as he swayed along the ropes and looked for openings that seldom showed themselves. Though Marciano missed with many of his blows, he got in enough of them to exacerbate the swelling over Moore’s left eye. In the final moments of the round Moore caved in after absorbing a chopping right above the ear. Following a consultation with ringside physician Dr. Vincent Nardiello, the bout was allowed to continue.
Marciano’s strength and unrelenting pressure in the ninth was enormous as he bombarded Moore with bomb after bomb. A pair of hooks sent the battered Moore to the floor near his corner. His seconds knew the end was near, for the stool was already on the apron at seven. He tried to rise at eight but his legs no longer obeyed his brain’s commands. In the moment of his final triumph, which came at 1:19 of the ninth, a concerned Marciano tried to helped Moore’s seconds lift Archie onto the stool.
Marciano said after the fight that his mother had been begging him to quit fighting and that he was giving the notion some thought. On April 27, 1956 Marciano announced his retirement and forever stamped himself as the first – and so far only – undefeated heavyweight champion to retire and never come back. His unique status guaranteed his place on just about everyone’s top 10 list of greatest heavyweight champions but it also completed the greatest “fairy tale” ending in the sport’s history.
These are only 10 of boxing’s best swan songs, but there were other candidates that were under consideration. For example Jimmy McLarnin retired at 28 with back-to-back victories over Tony Canzoneri and reigning lightweight champion Lou Ambers (a non-title 10 rounder) while the notoriously light-hitting “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom scored just the 18th knockout of his 289-fight career with a third-round stoppage of Al Ettore in Hollywood. Other great swan songs include the following:
* A blood-soaked Michael Carbajal capped his Hall of Fame career in July 1999 with a dramatic come-from-behind 11th round knockout over Jorge Arce, who would go on to become one of Mexico’s most beloved personalities.
* Henry Maske emerged from a 10-year retirement to avenge his only defeat to Virgil Hill in March 2007 before a cheering throng in Munich, Germany.
* Sven Ottke ended his lengthy – and sometimes controversial – reign at 168 in March 2004 at Magdeburg, Germany with a 12 round decision over Armand Krajnc that lifted his record to 34-0 (6 KO), of which 22 wins were in title fights.
* Though Lennox Lewis stopped Vitali Klitschko in six rounds due to a grotesque eye cut in June 2003, the victory becomes more impressive with each passing day due to “Dr. Ironfist’s” subsequent feats. A few months after the victory, Lewis announced his retirement in regal style and despite several lucrative offers he resisted the urge to return.
* The most frustrating swan song belongs to Paul Pender, whose final fight saw him regain the middleweight title from Terry Downes in April 1962 before his hometown fans at the Boston Garden. The political bitterness that followed was hardly the stuff of fables. After the New York State Athletic Commission stripped Pender for not signing to fight Dick Tiger, Pender sued and had his title reinstated the following year. Arrangements to schedule his next fight resulted in more legal wrangling and a frustrated Pender announced his retirement in May 1963, still the middleweight champion of the world.
* Horacio Acavallo’s final outing was a controversial 15-round split nod over Hiroyuki Ebihara that enabled him to retain the WBA flyweight title. The Argentine announced his retirement six weeks after the August 1967 bout but the fact he wasn’t dominant in his final bout kept him from breaking into the main list.
* In March 2004 before a boisterous crowd at Foxwoods, New England legend Vinny Pazienza notched his 50th pro win with a typically blood-and-guts decision over Tocker Pudwill.
* Finally, the fight that inspired this treatise – Jake Matlala’s seventh round knockout of Juan Herrera in March 2002 before his home fans in South Africa to retain his WBU junior flyweight belt. The 40-year-old “Baby Jake” had announced beforehand that this would be his last fight and the occasion drew a huge throng that included Nelson Mandela. Matlala seldom looked better as he battered Herrera with right hands and the joyous scene at its conclusion prompted this feature.
As this list proved, happy endings are indeed possible for those who choose to ply their trade in the squared circle. Just like in the ring, timing is everything – especially when it comes to calling it a day. Here’s hoping that future years will result in several more entries to this most exclusive list.
Photos / Al Bello, Timothy A. Clary, THE RING, Getty Images
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.