Contributed by guest writer Paul Zanon
He had no business being in the ring with Rocky Marciano. That was the general consensus when Donald John Cockell, a blown-up light heavyweight, stepped into the lion’s den. However, the Battersea bruiser begged to differ.
Born in Balham on 22 September 1928, he was raised by his mother Mary, a domestic servant in Battersea. In fact, he never even met his father. Cockell cut his teeth boxing in fairground booths, worked through the amateur system and then turned professional at the age of 17, on 26 June 1946.
His strong physique was developed through his day-to-day labouring as a blacksmith, and in less than five years after his debut, he collected the British and European light heavyweight titles. However, following a loss against ‘The Leamington Licker’, Randolph Turpin on 10 June 1952, the south west London favourite decided to make the move up to heavyweight.
Now scaling north of 200lbs, it seemed that Cockell had found his natural resting home. Over the next 21 months he went undefeated, clocking up a further 10 victories against decent opposition, earning the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles. Recognised scalps such as Harry ‘Kid’ Mathews, Tommy Farr and the man to have got closest to putting a blemish on Rocky’s record, Roland La Starza, were duly dispatched. Perhaps it was Cockell’s convincing performance against La Starza that gave him the promotional and media traction needed to lock horns with the legendary Marciano.
The date was set for 16 May 1955 at the Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, California.
Cockell walked off the Queen Mary ocean liner in New York a couple of weeks before the fight, flanked by his management team, John and Fred Simpson, promoter Jack Solomons and sparring partner Ron Harman. Heading the gang and sporting a tailored single-breasted suit, pressed white shirt and silk tie, he had all the poise and elegance of a Hollywood star.
Marciano, known for his softly spoken, if not slightly shy manner in public, had a reputation of fighting like a barbarian in the ring. His showdown with the 27-year-old Cockell proved to be no exception. The press had already prepared headlines of ‘Marciano KOs Cockell in 2,’ but the Londoner had other plans – despite a brutal onslaught from the Rock.
At the end of the eighth, Cockell was hanging over the ropes and had to be helped back to the corner, before going on one knee in the ninth round after a barrage of blows. While the defenceless Londoner was aware of the ‘protect yourself at all times’ command, he also knew that didn’t apply when on the canvas. A thunderous right hand from Marciano almost caved his face in, displaying scant attention for the finer points of the Queensberry Rules. An almost certain disqualification in Britain at the time.
The BBC’s Eamonn Andrews who was ringside said, "Marciano is one of the toughest champions who ever rubbed a foot in resin." He continued, "But he has never read the rule book. He played a different sport from the one Cockell was taught. He butted unmercifully, he hit with his elbows, he hit low.”
Perhaps this was out of frustration, because the ‘Brockton Blockbuster’ said afterwards, “I hit him harder than I ever hit anybody!” Cockell stayed in the ring longer than 80 percent of Rocky’s world heavyweight title challengers. He did himself and Britain proud with such a brave performance.
Following two further losses, he decided to hang up the gloves after a very respectable 66 wins in 81 fights. In retirement, he moved down south and went on to become the landlord of the Jenny Lind pub in Hastings, where he proudly displayed his belts behind the bar, while recounting his ring battles to eager listening patrons.
Cockell did return to his working roots in 1975, taking on the role of craftsman blacksmith, at the London Underground Bridge depot in Fulham. Unfortunately, he was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labour and passed away on 18 July 1983, after a battle with cancer.
The Battersea Blacksmith was only 54.
Paul Zanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.