Nature Vs Nurture: Looking At Ali And Marciano

By Bobby Franklin

Boxing has been called physical chess. Gene Tunney once described the sport as “The art of thinking expressed in action”. In fact, in spite of its primitive nature, boxing was the most cerebral of competitions. While the basics of the sport went back to Cain and Abel, the science developed over the centuries. Prizefighting became an art form, albeit a brutal one. When matches were made, fans didn’t just discuss the size and strength of the men involved, they also argued over whose style would prevail. In the simplest of terms there were those who favored sluggers and those who favored “boxers”, but it was more nuanced than that.

It is easy to put fighters into an either or category. Muhammad Ali would be called a boxer by many while Rocky Marciano would be placed in the slugger file. However, it’s not all that simple. While Ali had great speed and reflexes, when those physical attributes declined later in his career he ended up on the receiving end of some serious punishment. An example would be his fight with Earnie Shavers, a bout in which he took some horrific punches; hardly the performance of a “boxer”.

Rocky Marciano would be put into the slugger slot by many fans. This does not do credit to the very great technical skills he had. Did Rocky ever take the type of brain rattling shots in a fight that Ali did when he fought Shavers? I think the answer is clearly no. On a technical level, Marciano had better defensive skills than Ali.

Now I know many will be shaking their heads at that statement, but bear with me. In Ali’s earlier career he possessed amazing physical skills. They could be called phenomenal. He had an uncanny sense for anticipating punches, something he called his “internal radar”. Along with this sense he had the amazing speed to react to what his radar signaled him. As he aged he started to lose that ability to react. Once he slowed down he started getting hit more. In truth, he had never acquired the technical skills to mount a great defense as he slowed down. He started winning fights on guts and willpower. He got hit with a tremendous amount of punches in the second half of his career. This was what caused him to end up in such terrible condition toward the end of his fighting days. This worsened after his retirement. He actually ended up in worse shape than any other heavyweight champion.

Why did this happen? It was because Ali became a victim of his own natural talents. He never learned the fine points of the art of boxing. He didn’t need to when he was young. He did so many things wrong, but never paid a price for these mistakes because he was so fast. Once the speed left him he had no skill set to fall back on other than his ability to absorb punishment and his improvisational moves.

Now let’s look at the slugger, a man whose natural abilities were not the greatest fit for boxing, but when schooled properly he was able to take what he had and become an unstoppable force in the ring. He also used the schooling he received to become a difficult target for damaging punches.

Rocky Marciano was not the usual model for becoming successful as a heavyweight fighter. He wasn’t as tall as the average competitor, he had short arms, weighed under 190 pounds, and came to boxing later than most (his first wish was to be a professional baseball player).

When the great trainer Charley Goldman was initially asked to school the young prospect from Brockton, he didn’t have much hope for turning him into a top boxer, but once he got to know Rocky he could see there was something special in this man.

Marciano though clumsy, possessed amazing strength, stamina, willpower, self- discipline, and an extraordinarily hard punch. Goldman was able to work with him to develop a style that played on Marciano’s plusses and compensated for his weaknesses.

Over time the Rock became one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Goldman schooled him well, but the style Marciano used would not have worked for a man that didn’t possess his unusual physical attributes. He became a cagey yet brutal force in the ring. It wasn’t just his powerful punch but also his ability to throw one blow after another with all the force of his body behind it while moving forward. Yes, he had skill, but he also had the endurance to be as strong in the later rounds as he was in the early rounds; in fact, he actually got stronger as his fights progressed; just ask Archie Moore.

Some fighters are called “naturals.” They are the ones that show tremendous talent from the moment they first step into the ring. This talent is the type that is not taught; it is rather a combination of great physical ability and good instincts. Ali possessed both of these traits. Marciano, while very powerful, was not blessed with great moves right out of the box. His had to be developed.

What Charley Goldman did with Rocky was to come up with moves that would take his strengths and build on them while compensating for his shortcomings. It took time and a lot of dedication, and hard work to mold the diamond in the rough from Brockton into the great champion he became. Ali, on the other hand, had so many natural moves that Angelo Dundee pretty much let him ad lib his development. This is not to say he did not give Ali instruction, but this advice came more as suggestions rather than schooling. This method worked as long as Ali had possession of his amazing physical gifts, but he paid a huge price for having not learned to supplement that gift with a schooling in the Art of Boxing.

In Ali’s career you can see an arc in his skills. That arc follows the changes in his athleticism and the decline that ensued as his physical abilities waned. With Marciano, the trajectory you see shows continual progress. He was always learning, always listening, and aways improving.

With both men, their physical strengths played a major role in their greatness. But with one, Ali, he almost exclusively depended on his natural gift, while the other, Marciano, nurtured the strong points he had. So when comparing the two I would say nurture was the better path than nature.Rocky Marciano retired in 1955 at the age of 32 after his 49th fight, and until his death in 1969 he was clear headed and showed no signs of damage from his career. Of course, because of his unfortunate death at the age of 45 there is no telling how he would have fared as he got older. But we do know when he walked away from the sport he was fine.

Ali retired in 1981 after his 61st fight. He was 39 years old and had already been showing signs of brain damage for a number of years. He not only stayed in the game too long, he took terrible punishment in those later years. Much of this is attributable to the fact he never learned good defensive skills. Those would be the kind of skills men like Archie Moore and Harold Johnson possessed that allowed them to fight for many years without ending up badly damaged. If Ali had at least some of the skills these men possessed he very well would have been able to avoid the awful shots he took from Earnie Shavers and others.

Just imagine how great Muhammad Ali would have been had he allowed himself to be schooled in the finer points of the art. If he had, he may have walked away with his faculties intact as Marciano did, rather than becoming the poster boy for boxing head injuries.