In recent years the Internet has spawned a cyberspace cottage industry devoted to alternate history, with DVDs, books and scholarly reports analyzing possible outcomes of the great "what-ifs" through the ages.
What if Hitler hadn't flunked out of art school?
What if Lincoln had gone bowling, instead of opting for a night at the theatre?
What if Wile E. Coyote had discovered where the road-runner sleeps at night?
With this week marking the 40th anniversary of the death of Rocky Marciano, there's been a spike in Internet buzz about possibly the most intriguing "what-if" in boxing history: a fantasy heavyweight title bout matching the seemingly indestructible Marciano against "The Greatest" -- Muhammad Ali.
In this case, however, the fight really happened -- and it really featured the unbeaten Marciano (49-0, 43 KOs) trading punches with the unbeaten Ali (29-0, 23 KOs).
In July 1969, the late Hank Kaplan, technical director for what producer Murray Woroner dubbed The SuperFight, analyzed all the film of each man's fights, then compiled data on 129 variables from their best five consecutive years.
Every jab, hook, uppercut, power punch, defensive move, knockdown and cut was assigned a mathematical value and transcribed onto computer cards. They were then fed into the NCR-15 -- at the time the world's most sophisticated electronic brain.
Seven different results were hypothesized, with only Kaplan, Woroner and some technical assistants aware of the outcomes. Not even the fighters knew.
In order to make it look real, Ali and Marciano agreed to a secret weeklong film shoot in Miami. Seventy one-minute segments were filmed, then later spliced into three-minute rounds.
Both fighters agreed to pull their head shots, but body blows were fair game.
Marciano, 46, took the project very seriously and trained for several months before filming began. Having retired in 1955, he shed 60 pounds and bought a new toupee in order to look like the Rocky of old.
Ali, 27, was in the midst of a three-year banishment from the ring for refusing to go to war in Vietnam. At six-foot-three and 215 pounds, he towered over the five-foot-10, 180-pound Marciano and enjoyed a reach advantage of 83 inches to Rocky's 68.
In the end, The SuperFight's melding of science and fantasy was a study in pure fiction -- but still a lot of fun.
From the outset, Ali used his size and speed to dominate the smaller man. By the time Marciano was knocked down in Round 8, his face was a mask of fake blood, with deep cuts over both eyes.
In Round 10, however, Rocky managed to mount a "miracle" comeback, dropping Ali for a five-count before unleashing a hellacious body assault through the next three stanzas that resulted in Ali being KO'd in Round 13.
Like I said, pure fiction.
In reality, Ali would have been a merciless matador in slicing up Marciano's bull-like rushes, cutting him to pieces before finally knocking him out inside of six rounds.
That's not to say The Rock wouldn't have had his moments.
That 49-0 record is a timeless testament to his ability to shrink the ring and negate an opponent's physical advantages -- but it simply wouldn't have been enough against a prime Ali.
The SuperFight was screened in theatres for just one night -- Jan. 20, 1970 -- but later that year it aired as a primetime television special in Britain, with one of the "alternate" endings showing Ali winning by TKO.
Sadly, Marciano never knew any of the outcomes.
On Aug. 31, 1969, just weeks after filming concluded, he died in a plane crash en route to a birthday party in Iowa.