By Mike Silver
On September 23, 1952, in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, Jersey Joe Walcott defended his heavyweight crown against challenger Rocky Marciano. During the seventh round of a thrilling fight a caustic substance got into Marciano’s eyes. He returned to his corner blinking and squinting. “There’s something in my eyes, they’re burning.” Freddie Brown, one of the best corner men in the business, sponged Rocky’s eyes with copious amounts of water, giving the challenger some relief. But the burning began again in the eighth round. At the bell Rocky returned to his corner in obvious distress, telling his trainer Charley Goldman, “My eyes are getting worse. Do something, I can’t see.” Goldman and Freddie Brown continued to douse his eyes. Al Weill, Marciano’s volatile manager, was beside himself. Leaving the corner he approached referee Charley Daggert and pleaded with him to investigate Walcott’s gloves and shoulders. The referee waived him back to the corner.
If there was something illegal going on in Walcott’s corner Weill’s complaining must have gotten someone’s attention because by the end of the 10th round Rocky’s eyes have cleared and his vision returned to normal.
After 12 brutal rounds Walcott was ahead in the scoring. Unless Rocky can win by a knockout he will lose the decision. Less than a minute into the 13th round Marciano connects with a devastating right cross to Walcott’s chin and one of the greatest heavyweight title fights of all time comes to a sudden and dramatic ending.
The kinescope of the closed circuit telecast lends credence to the belief that Walcott’s gloves were doctored.
Was there foul play in Philly? The kinescope of the closed circuit telecast lends credence to the belief that Walcott’s gloves were doctored. At the end of the sixth round the camera shifts to Walcott’s corner and if you watch closely you can see Felix Bocchiccio, Walcott’s manager, rubbing Walcott’s left and right gloves as if he is applying something. Was this just a nervous reaction? I think not. The action looks too deliberate. After the eighth round the camera again follows Walcott to his corner. As soon as he sits down we see Bocchiccio leaning through the ropes and he again rubs Walcott’s right glove for at least six seconds in a circular motion before the camera moves over to Rocky’s corner. (My personal kinescope copy clearly shows this but for some reason it has been cut from the version available on YouTube). Just before the bell rings to begin the ninth round the camera moves back to Walcott’s corner and we again see his manager quickly rub Walcott’s gloves and then wipe his hands on the fighter’s stomach and trunks, as if trying to remove something. This part is included on the current YouTube version. Could the substance just be Vaseline? It’s doubtful. There is no reason to apply Vaseline to a fighter’s gloves in the midst of a fight.
Rocky never believed Walcott was aware of anything illegal going on in his corner. “He was too wrapped up in the fight (to notice),”
Rocky Marciano always believed that Jersey Joe’s manager had rubbed a hot, irritant salve—perhaps a capsicum ointment—on Walcott’s gloves and upper body. Rocky had good reason to suspect foul play. Felix Bocchicchio had resurrected Jersey Joe’s career and put him on the road to the championship, but he was also a well-known gambler and an organized crime figure in Philadelphia and New Jersey with a rap sheet dating back to 1925. Rocky never believed Walcott was aware of anything illegal going on in his corner. “He was too wrapped up in the fight (to notice),” Marciano said. “He was too great a champ to go along with something like that. They wouldn’t tell him. But somebody did it, because I know what was happening to my eyes.” Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother: “Rocky believed he was blinded intentionally until the day he died. He spoke of it often.” After he retired as undefeated champion Rocky accused Bocchicchio of rubbing the substance on Walcott’s gloves and upper body in a story published in the Saturday Evening Post in October 1956. Walcott’s manager sued for libel. A Pennsylvania jury believed the allegations and found in favor of the Post.
In Liston’s corner his principal seconds are two men whose home base just happens to be the City of Brotherly Love.
Now let’s jump ahead to February 25, 1964. The scene is the Miami Beach Auditorium. Cassius Clay, a 7 to 1 underdog, is about to challenge heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. It’s not Philadelphia, but it might as well be. In Liston’s corner his principal seconds are two men whose home base just happens to be the City of Brotherly Love: Joe Polino, a well-known trainer and corner man, and former heavyweight contender Willie Reddish, Sonny’s chief trainer.
As the fourth round came to a close it was apparent that the odds did not reflect what was taking place in the ring. The challenger appeared quite capable of pulling off a huge upset. But near the end of the round Clay looked pained and began to blink furiously. He returned to his corner in an agitated state. “Cut the gloves off!” screamed young Cassius whose eyes felt like they were burning up. A caustic substance of unknown origin had somehow gotten into Clay’s eyes just as he seemed to be taking charge of the fight. The very capable and experienced Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer and chief second, kept a cool head. He sponged the stricken fighter’s eyes in an attempt to wash away whatever was causing the problem. At the bell to begin the fifth round Clay was still complaining. “I can’t see. We’re going home.” “No way” answered Dundee. “Get in there and fight. If you can’t see, keep away from him until your eyes clear. This is the big one. Nobody walks away from the heavyweight championship.” Dundee shoved him out of the corner.
Even though he was fighting half blind Clay incredibly was able to survive the round despite Liston’s best efforts to render him unconscious. Swaying and shifting like an Indian rubber man Clay instinctively avoided most of Liston’s punches. It was an amazing display by an extraordinarily talented 22-year-old athlete.
In the following round, with his vision improved, Clay dominated Liston, landing dozens of unanswered punches. The exhausted and demoralized champion returned to his corner at the end of the sixth round a tired and beaten fighter. Claiming an injured shoulder he told his seconds he could not go on. Cassius Clay—soon to be renamed Muhammad Ali—became the 22nd heavyweight champion of the world.
There is strong reason to believe that someone in Liston’s corner tried the same illegal methods used in the Marciano-Walcott fight to influence the outcome…
Conclusion: There is strong reason to believe that someone in Liston’s corner tried the same illegal methods used in the Marciano-Walcott fight to influence the outcome by temporarily blinding Clay. When asked his opinion Angelo Dundee, ever the diplomat, said that a substance used to treat Liston’s cut under his eye must have accidentally gotten into Clay’s eyes. But couldn’t it have gotten into Liston’s eyes as well, and why would anyone choose to treat an eye cut with a caustic substance in the first place?
Eddie Machen told reporters, “The same thing happened to me when I fought Liston in 1960.
Two days after the fight heavyweight contender Eddie Machen told reporters, “The same thing happened to me when I fought Liston in 1960. I thought my eyes would burn out of my head, and Liston seemed to know it would happen.” He theorized that Liston’s handlers would rub medication on his shoulders, which would then be transferred to his opponent’s forehead during clinches and drip into the eyes. “Clay did the worst thing when he started screaming and let Liston know it had worked,” said Machen. “Clay panicked. I didn’t do that. I’m more of a seasoned pro, and I hid it from Liston.”
Years later Joe Polino, Liston’s assistant trainer, told Philadelphia Daily News reporter Jack McKinney what actually happened.
According to Polino, in between the third and fourth rounds, Sonny had told him to “juice the gloves.” Polino said they were always ready to do that if Sonny was in real danger of losing. He admitted they had done it in Liston’s fights with Eddie Machen and Cleveland Williams. He said it was a stinging solution but did not specify what was in it.
According to McKinney, “Polino told me that he put the stuff on the gloves at Sonny’s express instructions and then threw the stuff under the ring apron as far as he could.” McKinney also added, “Joe himself felt so conflicted over this. He’d been sucked into it, but he knew if he ever came clean he would never work again.”
…both Walcott and Liston were handled by Philadelphia boxing people.
In each of the above scenarios the heavyweight champion of the world was facing defeat. It appears that desperate and illegal measures were taken by someone in the champion’s corner to influence the outcome. The other common denominator is that both Walcott and Liston were handled by Philadelphia boxing people. Philadelphia was home base for Blinky Palermo, the notorious fight fixer and longtime godfather of the city’s boxing scene. Blinky operated freely in Philly but was banned in New York State. This is not to say that he was involved in either incident (in fact he was in jail in 1964) just that Philadelphia was no stranger to boxing scandal considering who had been in charge for many years. Fight fans with long memories remember the notorious incident involving Harold Johnson, who claimed he was drugged after someone had given him a “poisoned orange” just before he stepped into a Philadelphia ring to face Cuban heavyweight Julio Mederos in 1955. Johnson, the betting favorite, was stopped in the second round. Professional boxing was suspended in Philadelphia for six months following the incident.
Perhaps because Marciano defeated Walcott to win the title the matter was not pursued by Weill or anyone else. There was no investigation by Pennsylvania boxing officials into the possibility that Walcott’s gloves were doctored. Florida officials were even more lax in the aftermath of the Clay-Liston bout. Florida didn’t even have a state boxing commission. Instead, local municipalities (in this case Miami Beach) ran the show. The only investigation that took place concerned the veracity of Liston’s claim that he injured his shoulder, which may have been bogus or exaggerated, but could not be proven.
The nefarious attempts to alter the course of boxing history failed…
Both Rocky Marciano and the fighter then known as Cassius Clay were destined for greatness. The nefarious attempts to alter the course of boxing history failed because Clay’s amazing speed, reflexes and uncanny athletic instincts enabled him to survive the fifth round. The attempt to foil Marciano was also unsuccessful because of the Rock’s almost super human toughness and determination. For three full rounds Marciano could barely see the target in front of him yet he kept attacking in his relentless way, bringing the fight to Walcott despite taking punches that would have stopped most heavyweights in their tracks. On that night it would have taken more than the two fists of a mortal being, let alone a “caustic solution”, to defeat the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster.”
Article is excerpted from “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing” by Mike Silver (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020).