by Mike Silver
“He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.”
The date was June 5, 1953. Thirty year old former featherweight champion Willie Pep, one of boxing’s all-time greats, was in trouble. For eight rounds the 3700 fans in Madison Square Garden and a national television audience of several million had been treated to another brilliant performance by the man who defined the art of boxing. The elusive “Will o’ the Wisp” was giving Brooklyn’s tough Pat Marcune a boxing lesson when the tenor of the bout abruptly changed. Moments before the round was to end Marcune bounced a left hook off Pep’s brow that opened a deep gash.
During the one minute rest period the ringside physician visited Pep’s corner. He took one look and advised the referee to halt the fight if the cut continued to bleed. Pep’s seconds worked frantically to patch him up. At the bell starting the ninth round an inspired Pat Marcune charged out of his corner intent on ending the bout. Pep, fearing the bout would be stopped, planted his feet to get more leverage into his punches. He had to try and stop Marcune before the cut reopened. The round was the most competitive of the fight.
At the conclusion of the round the doctor climbed into the ring again to take another look at Pep’s damaged brow. He nodded to the referee indicating the bout could continue. Marcune, way behind on points but on the verge of a huge upset, knew what he had to do—but he had to do it quickly.
A victory over Willie Pep was a rare happening. In 13 years and 184 previous fights only three opponents had been able to chalk up a win. Would 25 year old Pat Marcune’s name be added to the list? He possessed a modest but respectable record that included 36 wins against 11 losses and 2 draws. Over the past year he had shown steady improvement. Leading up to the bout Marcune had scored impressive victories over Tito Valles, Bill Bossio, Eddie Compo and former featherweight champion Lauro Salas. In May 1953 he was rated the 10th best featherweight in the world by The Ring magazine.
Marcune was expected to give a credible showing, but very few thought he had a chance to win. Nevertheless, he’d already achieved a victory of sorts. For no matter what else he accomplished the highlight of Pat Marcune’s boxing career would always be his ten round bout with Willie Pep. How many people can say they fought one of the greatest boxers who ever lived?
Willie Pep is no longer with us, but I am happy to report that Pat Marcune is alive and well. I caught up with the 90 year old former featherweight contender in his home on Staten Island where he lives with his daughter. (Pat’s wife passed away in 2013). Despite his age and the wear and tear of 60 professional bouts Pat is spry and alert. He even jogs three times a week to keep in shape. Of course the first question I asked was about the Pep fight.
“I pressed him the entire fight but Pep was very shifty and very difficult to hit”, said Marcune. “He’s in front of you, in back of you. He’s all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you.
“I was a young kid and Pep was on his way out. But he was a great boxer. I don’t think I could ever duplicate him. A win over Pep would have put me in line for a title shot but that was not my main goal when I turned pro in 1949. I just wanted to fight the main event in Madison Square Garden. That was the big thing. To be champ would be something, but, like Brando said in On the Waterfront, ‘I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender’. I wanted to be a contender, but most of all I wanted to top the card at the most famous arena in the world.”
Within four years of his professional debut Pat had accomplished both goals. He became a contender and also topped the card at the Garden not once but twice (vs. Lauro Salas 13 weeks earlier).
Pat Marcune fought in an era when boxing had eight undisputed world champions in eight traditional weight classes. Eight champions! The idea seems almost quaint today but that’s the way it was for over half a century before a gaggle of competing quasi-official “sanctioning organizations” in cahoots with rapacious promoters took control of the business in the late 1970s and destroyed forever boxing’s traditional infrastructure. Perhaps most obscene of all, the boxers are forced to pay hefty “sanctioning fees” out of their own pocket for the “privilege” of fighting for an organization’s title belt. Since the 1980s hundreds of obscure boxers of dubious quality have fought for a title. The only people happy about that are the leeches who run the sanctioning organizations. Currently there are over 90 “world champions” spread across 17 weight classes. Even the most enthusiastic boxing fan cannot name more than a few of them.
How different it was during Pat Marcune’s day when everyone knew the names of the champions and top contenders. The featherweight title (126 pound limit) was ruled by the awesome Sandy Saddler, a ring great who won the title from Pep in 1949, but lost it back to him in 1950. Saddler subsequently defeated Pep twice in rematches. Rocky Marciano, the indestructible “Brockton Blockbuster”, was heavyweight champ. The ageless wonder Archie Moore was king of the light heavyweights and Cuban’s colorful Kid Gavilan ruled the welterweights. The incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson, as close to a perfect fighter the sport has ever seen, had recently given up the middleweight title to enter show business. A tournament involving the four top rated contenders was underway to determine a new champion.
These were the waning years of boxing’s great golden age of talent and activity that spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, an era when champions and contenders achieved their status the old fashioned way—they earned it. There were no shortcuts to a title shot or contender status. Pat Marcune had 44 fights before engaging in his first ten rounder.
“Today guys are winning titles with just nine fights, or whatever it is”, said Pat. “That’s ridiculous. I’d be glad to fight a guy for the title who just had nine fights. They’re beginners.”
I asked Pat how he was able to avoid the debilitating neurological damage suffered by so many ex-professional boxers. “I knew how to fight” he said. “The reason I’m talking like this is that I never took that kind of punishment. I was an aggressive fighter but I tried to avoid getting hit. Today’s fighters take too many punches. I don’t think they get the proper trainers. They’re all gone.
“The fighters I see on television couldn’t compare with the fighters in my time”, he said. “They were tougher and more talented. Today’s fighters are not hungry enough. Remember Ike Williams? There were so many good fighters. I would see them in Stillman’s gym. Guys like Beau Jack, Rocky Marciano, Roland LaStarza and Archie Moore. Pep was on top of all of them. Him and Ray Robinson.”
Pat did his roadwork on the Coney Island boardwalk. “From the boardwalk I’d run down to Ocean Parkway, then to Seagate and back. I used to meet Herbie Kronowitz and Vinnie Cidone and other boxers doing their roadwork on the boardwalk. I miss those days.”
One of the fondest memories of his fighting days was the huge block party his Coney Island neighbors threw for him when he knocked out Brooklyn rival Tommy Pennino, who was an undefeated Golden Gloves champ.
As often happens with opponents who were once bitter ring rivals, Pat maintained a decades long friendship with former featherweight contender Bill Bossio. Their first bout on March 8, 1950 was so exciting promoters brought them back six more times, including three semi-final eight rounders in the Garden. They were tied at 3 wins apiece when Marcune won their last fight in 1952 by a split 10 round decision at Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway Arena.
Pat is also proud of the friendship he maintained with heavyweight contender Roland La Starza and light heavyweight champ Archie Moore. He met both while training in Stillman’s gym in the early 1950s and stayed in touch with them for years.
Despite the good memories he is also mindful of the downside of his brutal profession. “I got destroyed by the fight game”, he said. “Lost the sight in one eye, got my nose busted, busted my ears. I’ll show you a picture of what I looked like before I started fighting”. He produced a photo of a strikingly handsome young man in a Coast Guard uniform. Pat at the age of 17. He had just enlisted in the Coast Guard in the spring of 1945.
Pat realized he was passed his prime as a fighter after consecutive losses to featherweight contender Miguel Berrios and future junior lightweight champion Harold Gomes. He announced his retirement in 1956. His final stats were 38 wins against 19 losses and 3 draws. Twenty of his victories had come via knockout.
Needing a steady source of income to support his wife and infant son, Pat opened up a retail jewelry establishment. He operated the business for several years before selling it and taking a job with the Port Authority of New York, working in their maintenance department for 20 years.
Although Pat no longer worked for the Port Authority when America was attacked on September 11, 2001, he was quick to respond. He used his PA badge to gain access to Ground Zero where he volunteered to be part of “the bucket brigade” that helped to remove tons of debris. He believes the throat cancer he was diagnosed with a few years ago may have been caused by his exposure to the toxins at the site. Fortunately his cancer never progressed beyond stage one and he is now free of the disease.
Less fortunate was his son Patrick, an officer with the New York City police department. Patrick was a first responder and worked for weeks at Ground Zero. Like so many other first responders he later became sickened by the toxic dust clouds and developed a variety of illnesses, including respiratory disease and cancer. Previously robust and healthy, Patrick was constantly ill in the years that followed 9/11and passed away from cancer in 2009 at the age of 55. His father wears a replica of his son’s policeman’s shield on a chain around his neck.
Oh, I almost forgot! I want to tell you what happened in the crucial tenth round of Pat’s bout with the peerless Willie Pep. At the close of the ninth round Pat was hurt by a flurry of punches. He wasn’t fully recovered when the bell rang for the start of the tenth round. Pep quickly backed him against the ropes and was landing shots but Pat wouldn’t go down. The round was only 14 seconds old when the referee—former featherweight champion Petey Scalzo—jumped in between the fighters and called a halt, awarding the bout to Pep. The following day The New York Times, while acknowledging Pep’s superior boxing skills reported that “the Coney Island warrior gave a fine display of courage as he absorbed Willie’s punches.”
To no one’s surprise Pat objected to the stoppage. To this day be believes the referee purposely acted hastily to end the bout because Pep, in jeopardy of losing on a tko, had the right connections and he did not. But it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is how he lived his life after his boxing career ended.
Pat Marcune never won a world championship but to his everlasting credit when his city suffered a horrific terrorist attack, he did not hesitate to step up to the plate, as did his noble son, to give selflessly of himself in the service of others. If that’s not the definition of a true champion, I don’t know what is.
Note: Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing, 2008), and most recently “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History” (Lyons Press, 2016)