I have always maintained boxing is an addiction that is all but impossible to recover from. Once it is in your blood there is no getting rid of it. This applies to those who have actually competed (Once a boxer, always a boxer), or to those who get caught up in its very rich history.
It is no secret baseball fans are sticklers for statistics, and boxing isn’t quite the numbers game that the American Past Time is. But in many ways the Sweet Science is even more fascinating when you start digging into the records of those who once made it great sport.
It seems like hardly a week goes by when I get a call, or I call, a fellow boxing aficionado and we share some new fact or oddity we have just learned. Sometimes these little known factoids just pop into our heads as if some enchanted muse of boxing has whispered to us. It is great fun to share these thoughts, and just about always the response is “Wow! I never thought of that”, or “That’s really amazing”.
By now I think we have amassed enough material to put together a game of Trivial Pursuit dedicated solely to boxing. We could also supply enough items to the TV show Jeopardy to keep them going with “Boxing” as a weekly category for years.
While a lot of these facts may not exactly excite the non boxing fan, they certainly prove to be great fun for those of us who are really into the history of the sport.
I have shared some of these in the past, and this week I want to offer up another.
Harry Greb is considered by just about all boxing historians to have been one of the greatest fighters of all time. A few even rank him at the top of the list. Unfortunately, no film of him in action is known to exist, but just taking one look at his record is enough to confirm his being listed as great.
The other day I was thinking about Greb and the man from whom he won the title, my friend the late Johnny Wilson. I remembered talking with Johnny about their fights and how animated he would become when the name Harry Greb was mentioned even though decades had passed since they fought. I was recalling how Johnny was a southpaw and just how few middleweight champs had been southpaws. Then it hit me. Harry Greb not only won the title from a southpaw, but he lost it to one too.
The fellow who defeated him for the title was Tiger Flowers, also a leftie. As far as I have been able to determine this was the only time that a middleweight champion both won and lost the title to a left handed opponent. It may be the only time it has happened in any division.
Is that a big deal? Not really. Does it change how we evaluate Greb’s greatness? Not at all. However, it is a lot of fun to come up with things like this, and it is a reminder about how many hidden gems there are to still uncover in boxing lore.
If you are into boxing history consider yourself an archeologist that is engaged in digging for more and more information among the ruins left behind. Grab your pick and start your search. You never know what you might find, but I’m sure you can come up with some artifact that will make the rest of us go “Wow! I didn’t know that”!
Joe Bugner Former British Heavyweight Champ Has Unique Accomplishment
By Bobby Franklin
Joe Bugner was born in Hungary in 1950. In 1956 during the Soviet invasion of the country his family fled to Great Britain where they settled. At school Joe excelled at sports and eventually gravitated to boxing, and after a brief amateur career he turned pro at the early age of 17. He got off to a poor start losing his first bout by a TKO in the third round.
That first loss did not discourage the young Bugner and he came back to win 18 straight, 13 by knockout. His next loss was to the more experienced American Dick Hall who won a decision over 19 year old Joe.
Again, undaunted, Bugner would go undefeated in his next 14 fights earning himself a shot against Henry Cooper for the British Empire and European Heavyweight Titles. Bugner won by the closest of decisions that was booed by the crowd, but sportswriters were mixed on who they believed the victor was. Unfortunately for Joe, it was not only the controversy over the scoring but the fact he had ended the career of the beloved Henry Cooper that caused the public to turn on him. Being the man who dethroned “Our ‘Enry” would prove a curse to him. Coupled with the fact he was not a native born Brit he would not receive the adulation he should have gotten.
Bugner was only 21 when he defeated Cooper and by that time he had already beaten such known heavyweights as Jack O’Halloran, George Johnson, Chuck Wepner, Brian London, and Eduardo Corletti.
Joe defended the European title against Jurgen Blin but lost all his titles in his next bout against Jack Bodell. Bugner was criticized for not fighting hard enough to beat the veteran, a cry that would be heard throughout his career. There is a reason many believe Joe would often back off in a fight.
In a fight earlier in his career he defeated a fighter by the name of Ulric Regis by decision. Regis collapsed after the bout and later from a brain injury. An autopsy ruled the death was from a preexisting medical condition, but the memory of that tragedy buried in his subconscious, would cause him to hold back in fights.
After the loss to Bodell, Joe came back winning ten of his next eleven fights while also regaining the European Title. This would pave the way for him to fight former champ Muhammad Ali in 1973. That year would prove to be a pretty amazing one for Bugner and it is what made him unique.
He began the year with a victory over Rudi Lubbers and then traveled to Las Vegas to take on Ali. You may remember this bout as the one where Ali wore a robe into the ring that was given to him by Elvis Presley emblazoned in jewels with the words People’s Champ. At a party given days before the fight Joe met Elvis Presley and asked him if he could get a robe as well seeing that he was also a champion. When Elvis responded by saying ”You’re no champion” Bugner told the King to ”Stuff it” and walked out.
Joe went into the Ali fight an 8 to 1 underdog but gave a very good account of himself while losing a 12 round decision. You would think it would have been time for a rest, but not for the hard working Bugner.
In his very next fight less than five months later he took on former champ Joe Frazier in England. In the tenth round Frazier dropped Joe with a left hook, but Bugner arose and hurt the former champ near the end of the round. While the decision was not in doubt, Frazier knew he was in a fight and looked the worse for wear at the end. Joe Bugner left the ring with his head held high last night. He also left going down in history as the only man to fight Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in back to back fights.
Amazingly, Joe was not done fighting in 1973. He would close out the year with wins over Giuseppe Ros and the hard punching Mac Foster. He would continue winning bouts and earn a rematch with Ali who had by now regained the heavyweight crown. The fight took place on June 6, 1975 in Kuala Lumpur. Bugner was disappointing in this match fighting from a mostly defensive stance while losing a one sided decision. This performance further fueled the anti Bugner sentiment in England where it seemed he just could not get any respect from the fans.
At the age of just 25 he had gone the distance with Ali twice and Joe Frazier once. Taking the two former champs in the space of a few months was a truly remarkable feat, but one that is largely forgotten.
After the second loss to Ali, Bugner seemed to lose motivation. He continued fighting but at a much less hectic schedule. In many of his fights from this point on he did not appear to have the drive to again earn a title shot.
In 1986 he moved to Australia where he continued fighting as well as acting in movies. There was talk of him fighting Mike Tyson, but in 1987 after being stopped by Frank Bruno he retired. He was 37 years old at time.
He made a comeback in 1995 and won the Australian Heavyweight Title. He was victorious in 8 of his last 9 bouts before retiring for good at the age of 50 in 1999.
Joe Bugner is rarely mentioned when talk turns to the heavyweights of the 1970s, but he should not be forgotten. He had a stand up European style and possessed a very decent left jab. He could put together combinations when he wanted to. He ended his career with a very respectable record of 69 wins (41 by knockout), 13 losses, and 1 draw. He was only stopped on four occasions.
Joe should be remembered as the only man to step in the ring with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in consecutive bouts. The fact that he did this within a few short months of each other is truly amazing, and for this Joe Bugner deserves respect.
“I have anchored here,” John L. Sullivan said, speaking of Donelee Ross farm in Abington, Massachusetts, “until my time comes. There is no place like home.” It was at Donelee Ross that he died 100 years ago today, February 2, 1918, of heart failure at the age of 59. Surprisingly for a man whose exploits had often led the news, Sullivan’s passing did not make the front page of the New York Times, dominated by coverage of the war in Europe, in which American soldiers, shipping out across the Atlantic in ever-growing numbers, would soon start fighting. The country that Sullivan helped define—the America of the Gilded Age, what some called the Age of Confidence—already seemed quaint and far away, its outlines receding into history. Sullivan died a nineteenth-century man at his pastoral home, far from the mechanized clamor of a nation always impatient to race into the future.
“It is a dollar to a nickel that he is known to more people in this country than George Washington,” the Police Gazette had written of Sullivan as late as 1905. But like almost all heroes, his memory began to fade as the years passed.
By the time I encountered Sullivan in the 1970s, browsing books on boxing at my local library, he may as well have lived in Roman times. Younger generations see a great, lauded figure from the past, and they think to the present for reference. My point of comparison back then was Muhammad Ali, the only champion I’d yet known. Ali was then in his second reign as heavyweight champion and generally regarded as the most-recognized face on the planet. He was a hard man to compete with, even for his contemporaries; all the more so for those dim figures in boxing histories, who fought only in photos, not on film. They looked frozen in antiquity by comparison, their fighting stances ponderous, their bodies less defined. They wore tights. It was as if the history of boxing mimicked the timeline of the evolution of man, a slow accretion from crawling to walking, left to right, across a foldout page. Ali stood, arms raised, at the far right. Sullivan, barely off all fours, occupied the space on the far left. Or so it seemed to my young mind then.
It would be some time before I could understand Sullivan and his world and come to appreciate his fighting accomplishments and the trajectory of his remarkable life. He was champion for ten years, from 1882 to 1892, and he lost only one match, his last, to Jim Corbett, in New Orleans, losing the heavyweight championship along with it. They fought into the 21st round, and Sullivan took a relentless battering for over an hour before finally succumbing. His greatest victory was a 75-round marathon bout against Jake Kilrain in 1889, waged with bare fists under the old London Prize Ring rules, in 100-degree Mississippi heat. That battle lasted more than two hours and took on mythic qualities almost the moment that it was over—with fans gathering up sod, pieces of ring posts, and any other sacred relic that they could find. Sullivan vs. Kilrain stands alone in the history of boxing, a real-life myth. Nothing else compares with it.
Sullivan’s idea was that his possession of the heavyweight title made him an important person, a kind of king.
Certain people have ideas about themselves, and when they live out these ideas, they create new realities. Sullivan’s idea was that his possession of the heavyweight title made him an important person, a kind of king. There was no precedent for thinking so. There had been heavyweight champions before him. They were small-time figures, toiling in an illegal sport for modest payouts, and usually slipping into obscurity (and poverty) when their fighting days were over. None were known widely to the general public or written about with such fevered interest. When Sullivan won the title in 1882, prizefighting, as it was then largely known, was illegal in every state, and the efforts that went into making and staging matches were sometimes as dramatic as the matches themselves. When Sullivan left the ring, the sport remained broadly illegal, but his matches had been covered nationally and internationally; he had been to the White House; he had been the subject of literature, song, and art; he had made “the heavyweight championship of the world” (though he was not recognized overseas) into a compelling—and commercial—prize; and he had identified that title with America itself.
“There isn’t a self-respecting American,” he said, “no matter what tomfool ideas he may have about boxing in general, who does not feel patriotic pride at the thought that a native born American, a countryman of his, can lick any man on the face of the earth.” Where a void had been, Sullivan left behind a world. Alas, that world included the infamous color line, which Sullivan took it upon himself to draw against black fighters, shutting them out of a chance at the title. (It would take Jack Johnson to breach the line and Joe Louis to eradicate it.)
Even as a kid, ignorantly dismissive of him as a fighter, I was struck by Sullivan as a character. His story leapt off those musty library pages. He did everything on a grand scale: traveling, boasting, eating, drinking (especially drinking), and spending. He estimated later in life that he had earned about $1 million and squandered all of it. His famous boast, “I can lick any sonofabitch alive!” became an archetypal fighting man’s motto. It lingers today, as does “Shake the hand that shook the hand of the Great John L.!” a line that originated in a vaudeville song and became emblematic of the adulation so many Americans, especially men, had for him.
When I was working on The Boxing Kings, one of my brothers asked me where the book would begin. With John L. Sullivan, I said. Many years had passed since that name had come up in conversation between us. My brother thought for a moment and then, as if pulling the phrase from the mists, said: “Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of John L.—that’s him, right?” That’s him.
In 1905, the 47-year-old Sullivan was 13 years past his championship years and well into a second career as a touring stage personality—but he was also deeply mired in the alcoholism that scarred so much of his life: it had wrecked a marriage and several friendships, got him into scrapes with the law, cost him half a million dollars by his own estimation, nearly killed him more than once, and left behind him a long trail of terrible behavior. Now, sitting in a hotel bar in Terre Haute, Indiana, Sullivan drained a glass of champagne (ale, in other accounts) into a cuspidor and vowed never again to take another drink—and never did, amazing his friends and more importantly, laying the foundation for a new life. He became a temperance lecturer. A few years later, he married a childhood friend, Kate Harkins, and they settled on their humble estate, Donelee Ross— its name an amalgamation of their Irish ancestral origins—and farmed, among other things, potatoes. After Kate died in 1916, Sullivan took in an orphan boy, William Kelly, and at the time of his death seemed to be preparing to adopt him. By all accounts, he doted on the boy, who was left parent-less, again, by his passing. Sullivan was also adored by the children of Abingdon, whom he regaled with stories while letting them play on the farm. He gave generously to charity. Thus Sullivan, who had been as notorious as he was famous during his fighting days, died a cherished old lion, revered in a way not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge after his ghostly visitations. “I have seen it all,” he said, and he had—and perhaps had attained some measure of redemption, too.
The arc of Sullivan’s life and career would be recreated by some of his heavyweight successors, in addition to becoming a kind of celebrity template: rise, fall, rebirth. But for all its familiarity, the model has a timeless lesson: one is never counted out unless he counts himself out. A century after Sullivan poured out that last glass of booze, Mike Tyson began traveling a redemptive path of his own. The stages of his life and career had resembled Sullivan’s: spectacular, iconic success; decline, fall, and descent into caricature; reclamation. Like Sullivan, Tyson left much wreckage behind him and had battled the demon of substance abuse; like Sullivan, he found an anchor in a later marriage; and like Sullivan, he wound up on stage, giving his testimony. Not everyone buys this reformed Tyson, but few would describe him as the same man who served a three-year prison term for rape or bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
All the heavyweight champions had to start over in some form or another when their fighting days were done. Some of their transformations, like George Foreman’s, or, more somberly, Muhammad Ali’s, were dramatic, others more ordinary. The courses they took illustrated in different ways that the qualities that make champions—determination, will, and the capacity to envision something that others may not see—can be applied outside the ring as well, for more enduring purposes.
John L. Sullivan was buried in Old Calvary Cemetery (now Mount Calvary Cemetery) in Roslindale, beside Kate. “He was an old and valued friend, and I mourn his death,” Theodore Roosevelt said. It had been such a bitter winter, and the day of the funeral itself was so frigid, that the ground had to be dynamited to make room for his body—a parting touch he would surely have cherished. “Never has the American prize ring had such a character as Sullivan,” the New York Times observed, “and never again will the fighting game produce another man who will stamp his personality on the world of pugilism as the blunt, gray, old philosopher of Donelee Farm.” One hundred years have passed now, and great and memorable champions have come and gone to challenge that judgment. But John L. is father to them all.
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled the Ring.
Neeno! Neeno! Fifty Years Ago Nino Benvenuti Arrived In America
By Bobby Franklin
On April 17, 1967 Nino Benvenuti stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden to challenge Emile Griffith for the Middleweight Championship of the World. This would only be the third time Nino had fought outside of his native Italy and would be his first appearance in the United States. He brought a record of 71 wins in 72 fights with him. Twenty-nine of his victories were via knockout.
While it was not unusual for European fighters to arrive in the States with outstanding records on paper, many of the opponents they had would be viewed as being of questionable talent and lacking in motivation. With Benvenuti this wasn’t the case.
In the 1960 Olympics Nino had won a Gold Medal in the welterweight division. He was voted outstanding boxer in the games beating out a young American boxer by the name of Cassius Clay for that honor. Of course, the Olympic games that year were held in Rome, but by all accounts Nino was deserving of the recognition.
It has been reported he had an amateur record of 120 wins and no losses. It is hard to verify that figure, but anything close is still quite impressive. He won numerous amateur titles.
Nino would turn pro in 1961 and begin amassing a very impressive record that led to his winning the Italian Middleweight Title in 1963. In 1965 he won the World Light Middleweight Title by defeating Sandro Mazzinghi. He would beat Mazzinghi in a rematch. In Sandro’s career he suffered only three losses in sixty-seven bouts, two of those being to Benvenuti.
Nino would stay busy in the ring defending the title and fighting non-title bouts. He defeated American Don Fullmer and in his first fight outside Italy he defended the title against Jupp Elze in Germany. His next stop would be a title defense in South Korea against Kim Ki Soo. Fighting Soo in the Korean’s hometown Nino tasted defeat for the first time losing the title. Benvenuti claimed he was robbed and that is very likely. However, instead of looking for a rematch and a chance to regain the title he decided to campaign for a shot at the World Middleweight Title.
Emile Griffith was the champion, and promoters were looking for someone exciting to match against him. Things were a bit slow in the division at that moment and Nino had wins over top contenders Mazzinghi and Fullmer. Nino also had something else going for him; personality. He was handsome and could light up a room with his smile. Combine that with his not so bad boxing abilities and you had the perfect combination for a very attractive bout. Tex Maule writing in Sports Illustrated would call Benvenuti “The best Italian import since olive oil.”
As Nino entered the ring for the fight he looked fit and relaxed. At 5’10” he was tall for a middleweight and he had broad shoulders. One thing that was in question was how he would adapt to fighting under American boxing rules which allowed for a lot more infighting and roughhousing than he was used to. Remember, all but one of his previous fights took place in Europe where the rules were similar to those in Olympic boxing and a fighter could be disqualified for crouching too low and going to the body too aggressively. Nino dispelled any notion that he would have a problem with the change as he came out very strong in the first round and showed that he could be every bit as rough as his his American counterparts. He fought hard in the clinches, so much so he had Emile complaining about the tactics he was using. It was clear Benvenuti was there to win and was not going to give any ground.
Nino floored Griffith in the second round for a two count but the champion wasn’t hurt. In the fourth round the champion connected with a solid right that put the Italian down and had him hurt. Griffith was unable to take advantage of the moment and Nino, using his defenseive skills, survived the round. The rest of the fight was hard fought with Benvenuti bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose that he sustained in the second round.
Griffith worked the body hard in hopes of slowing Nino down in the later rounds, but the tactic did not work. To the chants of Neeno!, Neeno! from the crowd Benvenuti finished strong and won a unanimous decision bringing the Middleweight Crown to Italy for the first time.
After the fight the new champion had to be secluded in his dressing room for about an hour before meeting with the press as he was ill. No, not from the effects of the punches but rather from the emotions of having accomplished his dream.
Nino Benvenuti not only won the title that night, but he also gave boxing a much needed shot in the arm. He brought an excitement to the sport. He proved so popular that in his rematch with Griffith five months later it was decided to hold it at Shea Stadium. Nino would lose the title on a close majority decision that night and then regain it the following year.
Nino was in his thirties now and his fine boxing skills were slowly starting to diminish, though he still could dig down and show what made him a champion. He did just that in his defense against former Welterweight Champ Luis Rodriguez where he was taking a pretty good lacing and then flattened Luis for the count in the eleventh round with a perfectly timed uppercut. He defended the title four times before losing it to the great Carlos Monzon. After losing to Monzon in a rematch he retired. Benvenuti always said he would get out of the game when he no longer had it and he made good on that promise. He was one of the few who knew when it was time to pack it in.
He invested wisely, acted in movies, hosted a television show, and opened a restaurant. He also became a city counselor in his home town of Trieste. He maintained a friendship with Emile Griffith and helped him out financially. Griffith was godfather to one of his sons. Nino also became friends with Carlos Monzon and had him as a guest on his television program a number of times.
Nino Benvenuti is living la dolce vita in Italy. On April 26th he will celebrate his eightieth birthday making him the oldest living middleweight champion, though he looks years younger. He still flashes his infectious smile and looks more like a movie star than a former boxer.
Nino’s name is rarely mentioned when the topic of all time greats comes up, but he certainly was a very impressive boxer/puncher. He was a master at throwing a hook off the jab. He could move very fast, had great defense, a lethal right hand and a devastating uppercut. Nino was always very courageous in the ring and had no quit in him. He was a proud and popular champion and is still well loved in Italy.
His professional record was 90 total fights with 82 wins, 35 by knockout, 7 losses and 1 draw. He was stopped on only three occasions, two of those were in his final two bouts which were against Monzon.
Nino Benvenuti was a classy champion. He made the sport interesting and fun. He deserves to be remembered with the respect and dignity he earned. On April 26th raise a glass of wine to him and say “buon compleanno Nino Benvenuti campione”
How The Quiet Dignity Of The Great Champ Influenced A High School Wrestler In 1982
By Bobby Franklin
Recently, I read the latest biography of Muhammad Ali. In it the author describes former Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis as having been “docile”. This view of not only Joe but so many other black celebrities who were in the public eye before the 1960s has become all too commonplace. It has been said that Joe Louis played the “white man’s game”, that he went along to get along, that he remained silent in the face of injustice. The same has been said about Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong to name just a couple of others.
During the nervous breakdown our country was having during the 1960s it became cool to denigrate many who had suffered and struggled in the past. The mindset had become one of having to show your convictions by having a public temper tantrum. To acknowledge there had been people who were able to accomplish great things while not going out of their way to alienate others was considered being subservient. If you weren’t screaming at the top of your lungs you weren’t serious about change. And if you were black it meant you were being “docile”. Ali belittled Louis for this as did Miles Davis when talking about Louis Armstrong.
In the case of Joe Louis it worked in managing to erase all he had accomplished when it came to the cause of Civil Rights. Not only in what he did concerning policy where he had refused to box exhibitions before the troops unless the audiences were integrated or when he would become the first black man to play in the Professional Golf Association, but also in all he did to bring people together.
You see, Joe Louis set a tone. Joe’s actions outside of the ring mirrored what he did in the ring where he stood strong and forceful yet always dignified and respectful of his opponents. While Louis may not have talked a lot and never bragged, he certainly got the job done. This was true in and out of the ring. Jackie Robinson once said that baseball would have gone another ten years before being integrated if it had not been for Louis.
Louis did something else; He brought people together through leading by example. He showed that being strong did not mean being obnoxious. If you were going to emulate Joe Louis, and most young people wanted to, you would have to show respect to others and earn it yourself. You would act like a gentleman in the best sense of the term. My, how times have changed. The way celebrities, dare I say role models, behave influences people, especially young people. In the case of Joe Louis, he showed us how it should be done.
This all brings me to a conversation I recently had with a good friend of mine named Paul. He related a story from his time as a wrestler in high school.
Paul was a huge boxing fan but seeing as his high school did not offer boxing he joined the wrestling team. He hadn’t been terribly successful and had yet to have his “glory moment” when in 1982 he was matched up with an opponent with comparable abilities. They were paired up to go at it in a junior varsity match which normally did not garner a lot of attention. However, in this case the match took place just before the varsity matches so the gym was packed. On top of this, Paul’s brothers were there and got the place going crazy in support of him. As the young grappler stepped into the circle he could hear the crowd shouting his name. It was nice to have the encouragement but also meant the pressure was on.
In Paul’s head he was thinking of the focus Roberto Duran had before his first fight with Ray Leonard. He wanted to carry that same type of determination into this match, and he did. Paul came out on fire and in the second period he pinned his opponent. When he heard the referee shout “pin” his first impulse was to stand up and pump his fist into the air. You can imagine his excitement and the rush he must have felt.
But, then something happened. In that instance an image flashed in his mind. No, it was not one of Roberto Duran gloating as he got the decision over Leonard. Instead, he suddenly saw Joe Louis in 1941 calmly walking away from the fallen Billy Conn. Joe was “cool as a cucumber” after having finally caught up with Conn who had been giving him an awful time of it. Joe hadn’t jumped around doing a victory dance. No, he had shown respect to his defeated opponent. It was this image the young Paul
wanted to emulate. He wanted to be seen as winning with honor and dignity, and what better role model for such behavior than Joe Louis. You have to remember, this was 1982 and by this time it had become the norm to practice self praise when winning. Paul would take another road. In his moment of competitive sport’s glory he would think back to footage he had seen of a great champion in victory. For Paul’s win that day in a high school gymnasium meant as much to him as Joe’s win against Conn at the Polo Grounds meant to Louis, and Paul got it right.
He could not have been blamed if he had pulled a Duran or an Ali and jumped all over the place in celebration of his big win. It would not have been shameful had he done that. It would have been entirely understandable, but showing deep character means keeping things in perspective. It means showing respect for those whom you compete against whether you have come out victorious or on the losing end. It means having class.
Joe Louis had died the year before Paul’s big moment came, but the legacy of this very great champion lived on the heart of that young high school wrestler. We’d all be better off if there were a few Joe Louis’ around today to help guide us in how we behave towards one another. We’d also be better off if more young people acted in the manner 16 year old Paul did back in 1982. On that day he showed not only that he could win a wrestling match, but that he could also be a champion.
The Title Of Greatest Pound For Pound Fighter Would Have Been At Stake
On September 21,1948 Marcel Cerdan defeated Tony Zale and won the Middleweight Championship of the World. Cerdan had made his American debut just two years earlier with a hard fought win over the very tough Georgie Abrams. With the win over Abrams Cerdan proved he was no paper tiger, and he would cement his reputation as the best middleweight in the world with his decisive victory over Zale. He gave the Man of Steel a terrible beating, dropping him with a left to the jaw at the end of the 11th round. Zale had to be helped back to his corner where his seconds decided he had taken enough punishment and ended the fight.
After the Zale fight Marcel returned to Europe where he had a couple of non title fights stopping Dick Turpin and Lucien Krawczyk. He returned to the States to make the first defense of the title against Jake LaMotta on June 6, 1949 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. LaMotta was the top rated middleweight contender and one very tough customer. Never the less, Cerdan was made a two to one betting favorite.
Only fragments of film footage from the fight exists, and these fragments do not include what happened early in the first round of the fight. It was widely reported that LaMotta threw Cerdan to the canvas. Marcel landed on his left shoulder causing an injury serious enough that he was not able to use his left hand for the rest of the fight. Remarkably, Cerdan continued to fight. Sportswriter Red Smith reported:
“In spite of his injury and in spite of a severe beating in the first round … Cerdan won the second round big and the third and fifth by lesser margins. A master at handling his opponent, turning him, tying him up, slipping or blocking his punches, and setting him up, Cerdan could do none of this one-handed. He couldn’t even stick his left out to ward off his foe … it is difficult to believe LaMotta would have a chance with a two-handed Cerdan.”
Fighting Jake LaMotta with two hands would be enough of a problem for any fighter, just ask Sugar Ray Robinson, so standing up to him with one arm was truly remarkable. Unfortunately for Marcel, he just couldn’t keep it up. Cerdan hung in there until the end of the 9th round when his corner stopped the fight.
Because of the circumstances surrounding the end of the fight a rematch was quickly scheduled for September 28th of the same year. Ironically, the bout had to be postponed when LaMotta suffered a shoulder injury while training for the fight. The bout was rescheduled for December 2, 1949. In the meantime, Marcel returned home to Paris.
According to legend, Marcel was booked to travel back to the States via ship, but when he got a call from his paramour, the singer Edith Piaf, asking him to make the trip by plane so he would arrive earlier and they could spend time together before he began serious training, he changed his plans. It has also been rumored that a fortune teller him told him not to fly. If so, Marcel ignored the advice from the seer and on Friday, October 28, 1949 boarded a Lockheed L 749 79 46 Constellation in Paris for the trip to New York City.
After leaving Paris the flight was scheduled to make a stop at Santa Maria, Azores. The flight crew reported into the tower there that they were approaching and traveling at an altitude of 3000 feet.They received their landing instructions and that was the last that was heard from them. The wreckage of the plane was later found on Redondo Mountain, there were no survivors.
Cerdan’s death was widely mourned and thousands attended his funeral which was held in Morocco where he was laid to rest. Marcel Cerdan was extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and it seemed unbelievable that this larger than life man was no longer alive.
Boxing history was almost certainly changed by this tragedy. Most boxing experts agree Marcel would have regained the title in his rematch with LaMotta. While Jake was a great fighter, Cerdan was just that much better, and there seemed to be little doubt that a Marcel with two good fists would prove too much for the Bronx Bull.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If Cerdan had gone on to regain the crown it would have meant that Sugar Ray Robinson would have faced him and not LaMotta for the title in 1951. This would have been a truly great matchup between two all-time greats. At the time if his death Marcel had a record of 111 wins against only 4 losses. He was only stopped once and that was because of the shoulder injury in the LaMotta fight. If the fight had taken place at the same time as Ray’s bout against LaMotta, Robinson would have entered the ring with a record of 121 wins, 1 loss, and 2 draws. Cerdan had defeated 65 opponents via the knock out route while Ray had stopped 77 foes at that point in his career. In spite of these amazing knockout records I don’t see this bout ending in a stoppage. Both of these fighters had rock solid chins along with great defensive skills. Both fell solidly into the category of boxer/puncher. Cerdan had always campaigned as a middleweight while the majority of Ray’s fight at that time had been in the welterweight division where he also held the world title. For the previous few years Robinson had been successfully testing the middleweight waters where he suffered his only loss to Jake LaMotta. A defeat he would avenge.
I truly believe this is a difficult fight to pick. Cerdan would certainly have to rate as one of, if not the, toughest opponent Robinson would ever face. This had all the makings of a dream match and would have been a major attraction. I could see it breaking records for attendance and gate receipts. It would no doubt have been held in a ballpark.
So, who wins? Well, as with any truly great matchup it is impossible to say with any certainty. I will tell you that Marcel Cerdan had a better chance than LaMotta did of defending the title against Sugar Ray, and it would not have surprised me if he won. It must also be kept in mind how different boxing history may have been if Cerdan had defeated Ray and then gone on to defend the title for a number of years. If that had happened we very well may be calling Marcel Cerdan the pound for pound greatest fighter who ever lived instead of Sugar Ray Robinson. Unfortunately, fate intervened so we will never know.
December 5th marked the 70th anniversary of the first meeting between Champion Joe Louis and challenger Jersey Joe Walcott which took place at Madison Square Garden in 1947.
Louis had been a very active champion and this was to be his 24th defense of the title. Up until 1942 Joe defended the title often and always successfully. In 1941 alone he had met eight challengers including his historic match against Billy Conn. Things would change at the beginning of 1942 as the country was now focused on World War II. After defeating Abe Simon in March of 1942 Joe would not defend the championship again until his rematch with Billy Conn in June, 1946.
Louis stepped up and supported his country during the war by enlisting in the Army. During this time he fought a number of exhibition matches at Army bases around the world, but for such an active fighter the four year layoff took its toll. The Joe Louis who returned to the ring after the war was older and slower than the devastating fighting machine who had dominated the division throughout the 1930s and into the 40s. While Joe’s physical abilities may have faded a bit, he was still a very great fighter.
The long awaited rematch between Louis and Conn turned out to be a disappointment as it didn’t come close to having the excitement of their first go. After the Conn fight Louis dispatched Tami Mauriello in the first round of their fight. At this point the heavyweight division was looking quite weak with no truly outstanding challengers.
Promoter Mike Jacobs decided to go with a former sparring partner of Joe’s for his next title defense. Jersey Joe Walcott was a very slick boxer with a solid punch who never seemed to get a break. Walcott had been a pro since 1930 and was now having a fairly successful run of it. He had only lost 3 of his last 21 bouts which took place since 1944. He avenged all three of those losses. Joe had also missed a few years during the war not fighting since being stopped by Abe Simon in 1940. Walcott was back and giving it one more try in an attempt to get a title shot.
It should also be noted that early in his career Walcott had been trained for a brief time by Jack Blackburn. Blackburn ended up taking on Joe Louis as a pupil so Walcott and he parted ways.
Jersey Joe wasn’t given much of a chance of defeating Louis who entered the ring a ten to one favorite. The challenger made the oddsmakers look a bit silly when he decked the champion in the first round. The two fighters were mixing it up with Louis having Walcott against the ropes. Suddenly, Walcott landed a short right hand that was a solid punch but also caught the Brown Bomber off balance. The Champ went down for a two count.
In the fourth round Walcott would again deck Louis with another right hand. This time Louis was down for a count of seven and hurt. Louis got up and fought his way out of trouble avoiding numerous rights thrown by the challenger.
The rest of the fight was a cat and mouse game with Walcott using his brilliant boxing skills, his feints and shuffle, to keep Louis off balance. Louis’s left eye was swelling while Walcott had no marks on his face. Louis, while determined and steadfast, just could not land a solid combination on Walcott. Jersey Joe, who had started the fight quite aggressively, seemed to be content to keep at a distance as much as he could and rely on his speed tasty out of trouble. Perhaps he was thinking back to when Billy Conn fought Louis the first time.
Before the start of the 15th and final round Walcott’s cornermen told him he had the fight and he should play it safe. He followed their instructions and spent the final round moving and circling Louis intent on not being knocked out.
When the decision was announced two of the judges gave the fight to the champion while the referee scored it for Walcott. The crowd also thought the challenger had done enough to win.
It has been written that even Joe Louis believed he lost the fight. There are two reasons for this. One, Joe tried to leave the ring before the verdict was announced. Second, Louis went over to Walcott and told him he was sorry.
In an interview years later with Curt Gowdy Louis made it clear that while he was not happy with his performance he truly believed he did enough to win. He said he left the ring early because he was disgusted with himself and felt he should have done better. And as far as why he told Walcott he was sorry, Joe responded “I said that to everyone I beat.” Louis felt that in order for Walcott to win the title he would have had to fight more aggressively and not run so much. Apparently, the officials agreed with him. The press, however, did not. 21 out of 32 boxing writers that were polled said they saw Walcott as the winner.
In reality, this was a tough fight to judge. While Walcott fought beautifully, he also seemed to be playing it safety first. It is difficult, especially in that era, for judges take a title away from a champion when the challenger hasn’t won it decisively. It should also be remembered that the scoring of the fight was on the rounds system, so the two rounds where Walcott scored knockdowns did not count anymore than the other rounds he won. Even if it had been scored on points Louis would have won.
The two would meet again a little over six months later. Walcott would once again floor the champion, but Joe Louis would show the old fire in the 11th round when he knocked out Walcott with a blistering combination. Louis would announce his retirement after the fight, but unfortunately, he would’ve to make a comeback because of financial problems.
Jersey Joe would go on to fight for the title three more times finally winning it in the third try against Ezzard Charles. He was 37 years old at the time.
While the first Louis/Walcott may not have been the greatest Heavyweight Championship bout of all time, it was certainly an interesting one and very much worth watching.
By Bobby Franklin
. This past October 8th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billy Conn. The Pittsburgh Kid held the Light Heavyweight Championship but is best known for his challenge against Joe Louis for the Heavyweight Crown. In that fight Conn gave Joe all he could handle for twelve rounds before Louis caught up with him in the 13th round for the knock out. I consider that bout to be one of the greatest of all-time as both fighters put on a brilliant display of what the Art of Boxing is all about. Conn was magnificent on that June night in 1941. He was fast and sharp. He mixed his punches up and feinted beautifully. He also showed he could withstand the power of the great Joe Louis. Louis was also remarkable. In a fight where he easily could have become frustrated at not being able to catch up with his elusive opponent Louis remained cool and launched a sustained attack on Conn’s body. This strategy paid off as he finally was able to slow Billy down enough to be able to take him out in the 13th round.
Conn was outweighed by over thirty pounds in the fight. Joe Louis had every advantage over him; Height, reach, weight, power, and just being Joe Louis. Max Baer once said of the Brown Bomber, “Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” Conn was one of the very few men to step into the ring with Louis to not be gripped by that fear. Billy was the consummate professional, he was in there to win and had no doubt he could do the job.
Billy Conn was born in Pittsburgh, PA in October 8, 1917. When he was a kid his father took Billy to work with him one day at the Westinghouse factory. Billy took one look around and decided working 9:00 to 5:00 everyday was not for him. He decided early on he would much prefer to make his living in the ring. He made his professional debut in 1934 just shy of his 17th birthday. Hs first year in the ring was not overly impressive as he had eight wins and 8 losses. Even though it didn’t look like an auspicious beginning, Billy was learning his trade. In the second half of 1935 Conn hit his stride. He went 28 and 0 over the the next two years and was gaining recognition. He went on to win the Light Heavyweight title in 1939 by defeating Melio Bettina. Billy defended the title in a rematch with Bettina and then twice against Gus Lesnevich before relinquishing the belt in pursuit of a bigger prize, the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Conn began campaigning as a heavyweight taking on the leading contenders while working his way to that title shot. It is interesting to note that while Conn rarely weighed more than 180 pounds, and was usually closer to 170, he never lost a fight against a heavyweight. In fact, though not preciously known as a big puncher, Conn knocked out more than half the heavyweights he faced. He did not do this by bulking up. What happened is when he got in against the slower moving big guys he was able to set himself more in order to throw harder punches.
Billy Conn was a truly great fighter. Watching him in action is a master class in the Art of Boxing. There have been very few fighters who were as consistently good as Conn. When you take his outstanding skills and combine that with his boundless self-confidence, superb conditioning, and tremendous heart you have all the makings of one of the greatest fighters to ever step into a boxing ring.
Conn had just the style to give Ali all kinds of problems.
I have given some thought to how The Pittsburgh Kid would have done against Muhammad Ali. It is a dream fight that is never brought up when old school fight people argue about what might have happened if two greats from the past had been matched up, but it should be. I believe Billy Conn had just the style to give Ali all kinds of problems.
What is often overlooked when analyzing Ali is the trouble he had with smaller and faster opponents. Going back to his fights with Doug Jones and Billy Daniels you could see how when his speed was not dominant he had problems. Even against Henry Cooper it was shown how he could be tagged by a smaller and faster man. Ali did his best against the big and slow moving heavyweights, much as Conn did.
In Billy Conn Ali would be facing a man that not only could match him in hand and foot speed, I would argue Conn was faster in both departments, but also a man who would not be in the least intimidated by him. Conn was also a much better scientific fighter than Ali as Ali depended more on his speed and reflexes when young and his amazing toughness when older. Conn had a full palette of boxing moves he could tap into.
In Ali’s fight against Jimmy Young he was frustrated by Young’s cagey moves, and Jimmy Young was no Billy Conn. In three fights against Ken Norton, Ali could never improve on his performance, never being able to solve the one dimensional style of Norton.
In Conn’s fight against Louis the deciding factor was Joe’s body punching which slowed Billy down and made hm vulnerable. Ali never threw body punches so Billy would have never tired in a fight against him. Conn would have set a torrid pace against Muhammad darting in and out and while throwing a broad array of punches. Ali would for the first time be facing an opponent who was faster than he was. He would also be facing a smaller man who had incredible physical strength. Watch Conn in the clinches with the much bigger Joe Louis and you can see how he was able to hold his own with a much bigger man.
The more I think about this match up the more surprised I am that it is never discussed. It has all the makings for a great fight and a great argument. Sure, Ali had blinding speed when facing big men like Liston and Foreman, but what would happen if he was in with a talented boxer who was faster than he was? Billy Conn would have provided the answer.
Word has reached us that Doug Jones, the former light heavyweight and heavyweight contender of the early 1960s, passed away recently at the age of 80. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s three and a half year exile that began in 1967 Doug Jones gave the fighter then known as Cassius Clay his toughest fight. On March 13, 1963, before a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,732 fans, Clay struggled to win a close but controversial 10 round decision over his persistent foe.
Opinion was split as to who deserved to win. Many fans in the Garden and those watching the bout at 40 closed circuit locations thought Jones had done enough to edge Clay who chalked up his 18th straight victory. Doug’s record fell to 21-3-1. (Eleven months and two fights later Cassius would upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title).
Interviewed 20 years later the defeat still rankled Jones. “Clay ran like a thief”, he said. “I carried the fight to him. Suppose I went the other way, what kind of fight would it have been? Clay didn’t hit me with any solid punches. There wasn’t any real power in his punches.”
Few boxers at his weight have engaged in so many tough fights against top competition in so short a time as Doug Jones. He was a talented boxer with a powerful right hand but what separated him from the crowd was his incredible toughness and heart. Doug had an extensive and successful amateur career during military service in the Air Force. (He was alternate light heavy for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team).
Doug turned pro in 1958 with a four round decision over Jimmy McNair. He was rushed much too quickly yet managed to survive and attain contender status in spite of Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner’s tendency to destroy up and coming talent through horrible matchmaking. Doug only had 10 pro fights when he fought his first main event against tough former New York Golden Gloves champ Juan Pomare. After two more victories he took on hard punching Philadelphia prospect Von Clay in back to back10 rounders. His next outing was a nationally televised bout against former middleweight champion Bobo Olsen. Doug ended matters with a left right combination in the 6th round. He followed up with knockouts of Floyd McCoy and Pete Rademacher before taking on Von Clay for the third and final time winning via a 10th round TKO.
Up next was top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Doug lost the decision and five months later faced Harold Johnson for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Doug never stopped trying but with only 20 pro bouts under his belt he was just too inexperienced to take the measure of the great boxer and lost a unanimous 15 round decision. On October 20, 1962 Doug was matched with a 9 bout pro named Bob Foster. He stopped the future light heavyweight champion in the 8th round. (Previously Doug had defeated Bob twice in the amateurs while both were in the Air Force).
Although he rarely weighed more than 190 pounds the rest of Doug’s career was spent fighting heavyweights. A dramatic 7th round KO of top ranked Zora Folley (a few months earlier he dropped a decision to Folley) moved Jones into the ranks of heavyweight contenders and led to his match with young Cassius. Doug’s manager Alex Koskowitz and his trainer Rollie Hackmer decided the best strategy was for Doug to slip past Clay’s jab while constantly pressuring him, upset his rhythm, and land the right.
Jones at 188 pounds and 6 feet tall was 14 pounds lighter and three inches shorter but was significantly faster than Clay’s previous opponents. In the first round Clay was sent back on his heels by Jones’s right cross. He was tagged solidly again in the 4th and 7th rounds. Clay responded with swift combinations and it was anybody’s fight going into the ninth round. Clay turned it on in the final round landing frequently with combinations to seal his victory.
After splitting two fights with Billy Daniels, Doug’s tenure as a heavyweight contender ended with an 11th round TKO loss to George Chuvalo on October 2nd 1964. During the fight Chuvalo centered his attack on Doug’s body and many punches strayed into foul territory. As a result of the punishment Doug suffered a hernia and was out of action for close to a year. His last chance for a title ended with a 15 round loss to WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell on June 28, 1966. By the time up and coming Joe Frazier knocked him out in the 6th round on February 21, 1967 Doug was pretty much used up and punched out. If he needed any more convincing to retire it was provided six months later by young Boone Kirkman who TKO’d him in six. The Harlemite ended his career with a 30-10-1 (20 KOs) record. He appeared in 11 nationally televised bouts.
Doug was an unlucky fighter. He came along at the wrong time when Harold Johnson was light heavy champ. If not for that Doug was a good bet to have won that title but he chose to go for the big money and take on heavyweights. Never an easy opponent at any time during his nine year pro career, he would be a terror among the light heavyweights of today. They did not come any tougher than Doug Jones.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, A Photographic History (Lyons Press).
Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art. The practitioners of this once noble form, men such as Johnson, Robinson, Dempsey, Louis, Leonard (Benny and Sugar Ray), Moore, Tunney, and so many others, were the Michelangelos and DaVincis of their craft. And while the likes of the great Florentines will never be seen again, so it is with the Old Masters of Boxing.
Boxing was once a great art. Unfortunately, it is now a lost art.
Leonardo has been dead for hundreds of years, but we can still gaze upon his art in museums around the world. The sculpture, painting, and architecture of Michelangelo is still very much with us. To gaze upon the David in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is a moving experience. These great works and so many others still speak to us and leave us in awe, so much so that it is almost impossible to think of the men who created them as being dead. They live on through their work and the influence it continues to have on us.
While I may be bordering on hyperbole to compare boxing with such great masters in the classical arts, when it comes to the world of sports I can think of no other that encapsulates the art spirit as much as boxing. So, how are we able to experience and appreciate what is now a lost art? You certainly cannot hang the Louis/Conn fight on a wall in a museum. We can read about these great practitioners and learn what interesting lives they led, but in order to truly experience what they accomplished we have to see it.
The art form boxing is closest to is dance, something that is beautiful because of its motion. You can look at photograph of Nureyev gliding through the air in much the same way you can see one of Ray Robinson executing a perfectly timed left hook, but that only gives a view of a split second in time of their performances. To truly appreciate what these great talents do you have to see them inaction. Thanks to Thomas Edison and his invention of moving pictures many of these great works have been preserved on film. However, it was not until recently that we were able to gain access to so much of this material. Yes, thousands of hours of footage were recorded but it was very rare that we ever got to see any of it. That is until the advent of YouTube.
YouTube is the Smithsonian of boxing. For anyone interested in looking back at the years when boxing was a true art form YouTube is the Holy Grail. It is beyond belief what can be seen there. Not only is there film of great masters dating back to the 19th Century, but much of it has been restored and even corrected for problems with the speed at which it was originally shown making these pieces even better then when they were originally shown.
Where is all this footage coming from? I have no idea, but there are a lot of people out there who are digging it up and sharing it with the rest of us. They are the caretakers of this history, and their work is invaluable. Because of them I have been able to finally view the great Sam Langford in action. I can watch Jake LaMotta training at the original Bobby Gleason”s Gym. Do a search for “D’Amato, Dundee, and Ali training” and you will be a fly on the wall listening in while the two great trainers exchange comments while watching Ali spar. You can see Gene Tunney in a playful sparring match with James J. Corbett. But most of all you can go back and watch some of the great fights of all time, some you may have only read about. You can watch them as often and whenever you want to, and quite often you may find they are a bit different from what you have read about them. I found this to be the case when I watched the first Joe Louis v Billy Conn bout.
Now that we have this great museum of boxing masters available for us to watch in our homes how do we best appreciate them? As with all great art, you can enjoy them just by watching them. But, to really delve into the art it is best to learn more about what you are watching. There are many ways to learn what I call “Boxing Theory”, understanding what is happening on a deeper level when watching these artists. Looking at the Mona Lisa is a moving experience, but as you learn more about the subtleties and different interpretations of it you gain so much more. Great art truly appreciated often leaves us asking more questions the more we view it. This is true of boxing.
Seeing how there are no courses on “Boxing Art Appreciation” it is up to us tom take the autodidactic route. Finding books that work as guides that lead us to uncover more and more of these treasures is a good place to start. Good books on boxing will also cue you in on what to look for when watching a classic fight. It will also give you historical context which is very important. As with any art, it is important to view it with a proper perspective of when hit was created. Seeing Jack Dempsey in the ring with Jess Willard is much more interesting when you know what led up to him being there.
Paul Beston’s The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring is an excellent overview of a great period in boxing history. As you read each chapter you can then go to YouTube to watch footage of the men Mr. Beston has written about. Reading and watching in tandem makes it a truly wonderful experience.
To delve more deeply into the techniques of the old masters I would recommend Mike Silver’s The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Reading this work along with viewing the fights all help you to better understand that is happening in the ring.
There are also many autobiographies and instruction books that were written by the fighters from the great era of boxing. For instance, I read Tommy Farr’s autobiography in which he gives a beautiful account of his fight with Joe Louis. After reading it the fight took on a whole new meaning as I watched it.
With great books such as those written by Mike Silver and Paul Beston as your guide you can embark on a wonderful adventure studying the Art of Boxing. Bring a critical eye when watching these films. Look for the subtleties. As with any great art, look beneath the surface, you will find there is so much there. I must warn you though, once you start it will become an addiction.