They never recognize the powerful lure. Never.
It's the thought that they have one more fight left in them, that somehow, someway, they'll regain the reflexes they once had. Boxing to a champion fighter is like a drug.
The game grips them and twists them to such intoxicating heights, they can't let go. Regrettably, most fighters don't know when to quit, especially world champions near the end. It's just too enticing to walk away, their drive fueled by ego, money and continued fame.
After Rocky Marciano got off the canvas to knock out Archie Moore in the ninth round at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 21, 1955, he had the strength to walk away. It was his indomitable will that made Marciano into the only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history. It was that same will that enabled Marciano to leave the one thing in his life that he did better than anyone else, and not look back. But knowing when to say when is a problem that plagues many fighters 50 years later.
Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward knows a little about when the time is right. Lennox Lewis, whom Steward trained, was the dominant heavyweight of his era, like Marciano was during his time in the early to mid-1950s. Lewis, like Marciano, made the decision to quit while still on top.
"I respected Lennox so much for that, like I did when Marciano decided to retire," said Steward, who is training Wladimir Klitschko for his big heavyweight test Saturday night against Samuel Peter. "Lennox made a commitment and went through with it. The one thing I told Lennox before he quit was that he was so far above everyone else in the heavyweight division, that when he did quit, he would be tempted to come back.
"That's the key. When you do quit, you quit and you don't come back. I respect him for that. Marciano did the same thing. You see what happens today is that you have two guys whom he beat, like Vitali Klitschko and [Hasim] Rahman, and you see Lennox's former sparring partners, like Lamon Brewster and Jameel McCline, and they're still around making millions. That's what you have out here today. You look at all of that and it is so tempting to come back, especially with such a dominating champion like Lennox was.
"That's why it must have been so hard for Marciano, who became a beloved champion who beat everyone they put in front of him. He had to be tempted to come back."
What made Marciano so special, so tangible to fans was that he was an everyman. He was the 9-to-5 guy in a hard hat, with stubby arms, a penchant for getting his feet tangled and a seething ambition that far exceeded his talent, or so he was told often.
The only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history spent a good portion of his life being told many discouraging things, such as he'd never make it as a professional boxer, or as a baseball player, or that he had no job skills. He suffered from unforgivable dimensions (a stocky 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame, and his 67-inch reach was the shortest of any heavyweight champion). Yet he overcame it all to become a legendary figure in the ring. His 49-0 record still stands today as a hallmark to his enduring legacy.
Marciano began boxing professionally because he couldn't make it as a baseball player. But the "Brockton Blockbuster" made a vow to himself that he would provide a better life for his parents. Marciano, born Rocco Francis Marchegiano, got an early indoctrination at the age of 20 of their harsh life, working alongside his father in a dusty shoe factory, sneezing and trying to see through watery eyes that stirred from allergy attacks.
Once Marciano began fighting professionally full-time at the relatively late age of 25, he rapidly ascended the heavyweight ranks by beating Jersey Joe Walcott on Sept. 23, 1952, for the world heavyweight championship, scoring a dramatic 11th-round KO while down on all scorecards.
The acclaim and money soon followed. That was not bad for someone whose own trainer, Charley Goldman, once referred to as a "guy who's short, stoop-shouldered, balding, has two left feet, but God, how he can punch. He ain't pretty; he's just devastating."
Marciano was one of the biggest overachievers in boxing history, but he is also viewed today as one of the underappreciated champions.
Look at any list of all-time great heavyweights, or of all-time great fighters and you'll usually find Marciano's name down much lower than it should be. He often receives criticism for fighting older fighters at the time, like Joe Louis, Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Moore. Say what you will, each one of those fighters is in the Hall of Fame, though not all as heavyweights.
"Rocky Marciano is one of my favorites," Steward said.
"He was short, not very graceful on his feet, and that's putting it mildly, but made up for it with tremendous heart and conditioning. He was always very smart in the ring, and I know people could say what they want about Rocky fighting guys who were past their primes.
"But you can't beat guys from other eras who aren't there to fight. All they can be is the best in their era. He was. It is a shame he doesn't get the respect that he deserves today. I was amazed that Rocky would get knocked down and keep coming back."
But Marciano knew when to quit. Marciano wouldn't fool himself. He had enough sense to leave boxing. It's an example many former champions in their twilight -- such as Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield -- should follow. Marciano went out as a beloved champion who never lost a fight. Jones and Holyfield are two future Hall of Famers who regretfully might be remembered more for their losses near the end of their careers than their many accomplishments.
"Most of the guys who come back do it because of money problems; they don't want to admit it, but that's why a lot of these guys do come back," Steward said.
"Marciano, I was told, had some physical problems late in his career, but he took care of his money. He accomplished everything he set out to do. One of my favorite phrases in coming out a big winner in anything in life is the ability to know when to stop. It involves everything you do in life. The art to say I'm done determines who the winner is."
The winner was Rocky Marciano.
Joseph Santoliquito is the managing editor of Ring Magazine.