A Brief Look At The Time Boxing Matches Were Held At Fenway Park
By Bobby Franklin
Fenway Park is the home to a team that can now be called among the best, if not the the best, in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox were dominant this year and in the World Series.
Fenway Park is the proud home to the Sox. It is considered one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country and one of the few remaining old time parks. Bostonians are not only proud of their team, they also take great pride in having such a wonderful home venue to host that team.
Fenway Park first opened in 1912. Over the years it has been the sight of baseball games. It has also been known to have other events as well. Among these were professional wrestling, rock concerts, ice hockey, football, ski jumping, and boxing.
The first boxing card to take place at Fenway was on Monday, August 11, 1919. In the main event that night, local boxer Frankie Britt won a 12 round decision over Ralph Brady in a lightweight battle.
There would be two more fight cards held at the park over the next year before taking a break. Boxing would resume being staged at Fenway on June 26, 1928 when Al Mello faced Billy Murphy for the New England Welterweight Title. Mello came away with a win after 12 rounds. Other local fighters who appeared that night included Hy Diamond, Charlie Donovan, Jack Donohue, and Ray Cross. They all were victorious.
There were 22 more fight cards held at Fenway from 1928 through 1937. The last during that period was held on August 24, 1937 when Tony Shucco and Al McCoy fought to a draw in the main event promoted by Rip Valenti. There would not be another fight held there until after WWII.
During those years there were a number of great venues for staging boxing matches. These included the Boston Garden, Boston Arena, the Mechanics Building, and another ballpark; Braves Field.
Staging an outdoor fight always came with the risk of bad weather forcing a cancellation or hurting attendance. Often times big title fights were held outdoors because they could accommodate the huge crowds eager to attend so the risk was worth taking.I don’t believe crowd capacity was the reason for holding outdoor fights in Boston. It more likely was because it is such an attractive place to be on a warm summer night. Also, in the days before air conditioning was widespread it could be a nice alternative to sitting in a stuffy arena.
During the 1930s some of the world’s leading contenders made appearances at Fenway Park. The ill fated Earnie Schaaf lost a decision to Babe Hunt on September 2, 1930. Tony Shucco fought there again in 1937 when he lost a decision to top contender Natie Brown. Maxie Rosenbloom defeated Joe Barlow there in 1932, and the great Kid Chocolate also fought at Fenway in 1932 defeating Steve Smith by decision. Future heavyweight king James J. Braddock made his only appearance at the park when he won a decision over Joe Monte in 1930.
In 1936 former heavyweight champ Jack Sharkey, on the comeback trail, took on Phil Brubaker in a ten round main event at Fenway. He came away winning a close ten round decision. The Associated Press gave this report on the fight:
“Jack Sharkey projected himself back into the heavyweight picture today as the result of a close but convincing 10 round victory over young Phil Brubaker. Sharkey got up off the floor at Fenway Park last night, gave the 22 year old Brubaker an artistic boxing lesson, and promptly served notice that he’s serious about making a comeback. Knocked down, cut and battered by Brubaker’s first round rush, Sharkey rallied to outbox, outpunch and outpoint the California clouter. The 33 year old ex-champion, all things considered, waged one of his best fights to score an uphill victory.”
The win would earn Sharkey a match against an up and coming heavyweight contender by the name of Joe Louis. Jack would retire after losing to Louis.
Boxing returned to Fenway in 1945 when two aging former heavyweight contenders faced off. Tami Maurlello took on Lou Nova. Both had challenged Joe Louis for the championship years before and were at the tail end of their careers. Tami showed he still had quite a bit of fire in him when he destroyed Nova in the first round, dropping him less then a minute into the fight. He then opened a cut over Lou’s left eye before finishing him off with a right to the jaw.
There would only be two more fight cards promoted at Fenway Park and they would be in the mid 1950s. Both would be headlined by one of the most exciting fighters to ever come out of Boston, the great Tony DeMarco.
In 1954, hot on the trail for a shot at the world welterweight title, Tony showed his vaunted power when he stopped George Araujo in the 5th round. Araujo put up a valiant effort but was outgunned by the power punching DeMarco.
The final boxing show to be held at Fenway Park took place on June 16, 1956 when Tony DeMarco once again headlined a show promoted by Sam Silverman. Tony was now the former welterweight champ, but was on the comeback trail coming off two wins since losing the title to Carmen Basilio.
Tony showed he was still a serious contender to be dealt with as he won a ten round decision from the very talented Vince Martinez. Martinez started fast, winning the early rounds, but Tony came on to dominate the rest of the fight nearly stopping Vince in the tenth round.
I don’t know if Boston will ever again see another boxing show at Fenway Park, but it sure would be exciting. Taking a seat at ringside on that field of dreams would be an unforgettable experience. Maybe some promoter will consider doing it again.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet up with the great Roberto Duran. The legendary four division world champion was the guest of honor at the annual Ring 10 Veteran Boxers Association benefit. It was a rare public appearance for the now 67 year old warrior. Yes, 67! As expected, Duran’s presence electrified the 400 plus fans in attendance.
The fighter nicknamed “Manos de Piedre” (Hands of Stone) engaged in 119 bouts and knocked out 70 opponents. While those stats are indeed impressive (especially the number of knockouts) they are not unique. Boxers who accumulated 100 or more bouts were quite common during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, 55 other pro boxers have knocked out 70 or more opponents. But, in spite of that, Roberto Duran’s record stands out for another reason that very few can match: He is one of only three boxers in the entire history of the sport who fought in five consecutive decades.
What qualities did these boxers possess that allowed them to survive for so many years in their brutal profession? I came to the conclusion that the first ingredient had to be a deep understanding of their craft. All three were well schooled in the finer points of boxing technique.That quality was further enhanced by the seasoning they gradually acquired during their first decade of competition. On top of that they had to be flexible enough to make the necessary adjustments as they aged. It also helped that all three had great chins.
These boxers weren’t just great athletes—they were very smart athletes. They were able to compensate for deteriorating speed and reflexes by combining experience with superior athletic intelligence and excellent defensive strategies. Even near the end of their careers they were rarely knocked out or subject to a sustained beating. It was a method utilized to great success by two former champions who stretched their careers to the maximum and are among the dozen master boxers who just missed the five decade mark: Welterweight champion Jack Britton (1904-1930) and light heavyweight champion Archie Moore (1935-1963). Both used an amalgam of those four skill sets—athletic intelligence, flexibility, superior defensive strategies, and vast experience— to keep them in the game long after their contemporaries had retired.
I could have added another master boxer to the list, the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. But despite his having fought in five consecutive decades (1897-1930) there were several gaps in his record. Johnson remained active up to his winning the title in 1908. But from 1911 to 1930 there were seven years in which he did not engage in a single prizefight. I felt this was too much inactivity, even for a five decade man, so I decided that only a fighter with not more than three separate years without a fight could qualify. Those ground rules would have applied to George Foreman as well. Big George fought in four separate decades (1964-1997) but was idle from 1978 to 1986, so even if he had fought into a fifth decade that lengthy stretch of inactivity would disqualify him.
In chronological order here are the three members of the exclusive “Five Decade” club:
Kid Azteca: Professional career 1929 to 1961. Won-lost-draw record: 192-47-11, including 114 wins by knockout .
A legend in Mexico, and one of that country’s greatest fighters, the 5’8” 147 pound welterweight had his first pro bout when Herbert Hoover was president, Babe Ruth was still belting out home runs for the Yankees, and Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion. When, 32 years later, he entered the ring at age 47 for his last pro bout Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the home run kings for the Yankees, Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion, and John F. Kennedy was president. But longevity is not the only item that distinguishes Azteca’s boxing career. He was a top ten title contender for seven years. Between October 1933 and May 1941 (40 months) Azteca was ranked as high as the #1 world welterweight contender by The Ring magazine.
Kid Azteca earned his rating with wins over contenders Joe Glick, Young Peter Jackson, Eddie Kid Wolfe, Baby Joe Gans, the Cocoa Kid, Izzy Jannazzo, Morrie Sherman and future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia (two out of three). In 1939 he lost a close decision to future welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. After losing twice to Zivic in return matches Azteca finally gained a victory in 1947. Other notable opponents were Jackie Wilson, Baby Casanova, Bep Van Klaveren, Leon Zorrita and former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Most of his fights took place in Mexico City but he also appeared in Los Angeles, Texas and South American rings. There are no gaps in his record—he engaged in at least one or more fights every year from 1929 to 1961.
Throughout his life Kid Azteca remained hugely popular among his countrymen and even appeared in several movies produced in Mexico. Unfortunately there are no films of him in action. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be a stretch, considering his career and high rating, to say that Azteca possessed an outstanding defense. Fighters who are “catchers” or who engage in too many wars are worn out quickly and cannot sustain a career anywhere near that length of time.
Roberto Duran:Professional career 1968 to 2001. Won-lost record: 103-16, including 70 wins by knockout.
The street urchin who emerged from the slums of Panama to become one of the sport’s greatest and most charismatic champions turned pro at the age of 16. Five decades later, on July 14, 2001, in the final fight of his career, the 50 year old legend lost a unanimous 12 round decision to 39 year old Hector Camacho.
The Roberto Duran who lost to Camacho was many years passed his prime. He was not the same fighter who took down Ken Buchanan, Estaban DeJesus, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lampkin, Pepino Cuevas and Iran Barkley. Nevertheless, he could still display the subtle boxing moves and ring smarts that kept him from being dominated by much younger opponents.
Roberto Duran was one of the greatest punchers in the history of the lightweight division. But, as sometimes happens with exciting punchers who can also box, their cleverness often goes unrecognized or underappreciated. Duran had a world of natural ability but he also was intelligent enough to understand that there was far more to this sport than throwing punches at an opponent. There is a telling quote in Kelly Nicholson’s excellent article on Duran (“The Panamanian Devil”, International Boxing Research Journal, September 2018): “As to the motivation for his career, Duran would say shortly before the first fight with Leonard, ‘I got into boxing to learn it…I didn’t enter the ring to get out of the gutter. Those are stories. I got into it because I like it.”
Duran’s nascent career benefited tremendously from the expert teaching of his two old school master trainers Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel. These two professors of pugilism had nearly 100 years of combined experience. They answered his desire to learn as much as possible about his craft, smoothed out the rough edges, and made him even more dangerous. They taught him the tricks of his trade and the result was that Duran eventually developed into the type of throwback fighter that is virtually extinct today.
Watch a video of any Duran fight after 1974 and you will see that even in his dotage he never gets trapped on the ropes, often rides with and slips punches aimed at his head and performs subtle feints to lure his opponents into making mistakes that are paid for with damaging and accurate counter punches (especially to the body). As he moved up in weight and as he aged Duran’s punch was not as devastating as it had been during his eight year tenure as lightweight champion. As a result, he had to rely more on his strategic boxing skills. To watch Roberto Duran fight is to experience a textbook lesson in the lost art of boxing. He is one of the few genuine ring greats who still walks among us.
Saoul Mamby: Professional career 1969 to 2008. Won-lost-draw record; 45-34-6, including 18 wins by knockout.
It is virtually impossible to go through an entire professional boxing career and expect to come through relatively unscathed. But if anyone came close to achieving such a goal that person would be Saoul Mamby, which is all the more remarkable since he had his last professional fight at the age of 60!
Just as there are born punchers I believe there are also born boxers. What I mean is that some neophyte boxers seem to grasp the concepts of on balance defensive boxing more readily than most. Perhaps it’s a genetic disposition that tells them it is better to give than to receive.
Saoul Mamby never thought it a good idea to receive a punch in exchange for the opportunity to land one of his own. He did not seek a knockout victory, although if presented with the opportunity his solid right cross was capable of dropping an opponent. His basic strategy involved keeping his hands up to protect his chin, using a busy left jab to keep an opponent off balance, and always keep moving. He never threw a right hand punch unless he deemed it safe to do so. It was a style that didn’t win fans but it kept him from taking a sustained beating. Jim Corbett would have approved.
Mamby’s defensive prowess was put to the test when he faced a prime Roberto Duran on May 4, 1976 in a non-title 10 round bout. The lightweight champion tried mightily to make Mamby his 49th knockout victim. Duran won the unanimous decision but he did not come close to scoring a knockout. Six months later Mamby faced another test when he crossed gloves with the formidable former champion Antonio Cervantes who had knocked out nine of his previous ten opponents. Like Duran, Cervantes could not find his elusive opponent’s chin and had to settle for unanimous decision.
His first attempt to win a title occurred in 1977 and resulted in a controversial split decision loss to the WBC Super Lightweight champion Saensak Muangsurin. The fight took place in Thailand, the champion’s home turf. Mamby believed he was the victim of a hometown decision.
Three years later, in his second try for the 140 pound title, he challenged Sang Hyun Kim of Korea. Once again he found himself fighting in his opponent’s backyard. Not willing to take any chances on a hometown decision the 32 year old challenger displayed a more aggressive style and was intent on ending the fight before it went to a decision. In the 14th round, Mamby saw an opening and landed a powerful right cross on Kim’s jaw that dropped him for the full count.
Winning a world title seemed to energize Mamby and in his first defense he stopped former lightweight champion Estaban De Jesus in the 13th round. Four more successful defenses followed before he lost a controversial 15 round split decision to Leroy Haley. After outpointing Monroe Brooks he was given a chance to regain the title from Haley but lost another close decision. In 1984, in his final title challenge, he fought Billy Costello for the super lightweight championship and lost a 12 round unanimous decision.
By the 1990s Mamby was losing more often (he won only five of his last 17 bouts) but, win or lose, he continued to frustrate opponents. Mamby finally announced his retirement on May 19, 2000 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 52 years old.
Eight years later Mamby attempted a comeback. After being told that no boxing commission would dare license a 60 year old prizefighter Mamby found a place that would—the Cayman Islands. On March 8, 2008 he lost a 10 round decision to a 31 year old boxer with dismal 6-26 won-lost record. As usual Saoul emerged unscathed. As of today there are no plans for a comeback.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.
Rocky Marciano cried the night he knocked out Joe Louis. Louis had retried in 1948 after defending his title against Jersey Joe Walcott. Joe stopped Walcott in the 11th round. Seven months earlier Louis had won a controversial 15 round decision from Jersey Joe, so winning decisively was a great way to cap off his career and make a dignified exit.
Unfortunately, money problems forced Louis to embark on a comeback. He had a huge outstanding debt with the IRS, and the only way he knew how to make money was by stepping back into the ring. His first bout back after a two year layoff was against Ezzard Charles in an effort to regain the crown now held by the Cincinnati Cobra. After 15 brutal rounds Charles prevailed by earning a unanimous decision.
That fight did not earn Joe the money he needed to pay off his debts, so he continued fighting in the hope of getting another shot at the title. Louis fought often over the next year engaging in 8 fights with 8 wins. He still flashed signs of greatness, but it was clear his reflexes had slowed. At 36 years of age and after a lifetime of hard training his body was just worn down. On top of this, even with fighting so often, he could not earn enough money to pay off his debt. The interest kept compounding, and he was up against a tide that would not recede.
His bout against Rocky Marciano, which took place on October 26, 1951, was a classic match of the young up and coming star versus the fading veteran. It’s a script that has played out many times, but in this case it was cloaked in sadness. Joe Louis was well loved by the public. Everyone knew that he would rather have been enjoying a richly deserved retirement but had no choice other than to fight. So it came to be that a man who was arguably the greatest heavyweight who ever lived would face a future great.
Even after all of these years it is still painful to watch the footage of that October night 67 years ago at Madison Square Garden.
Even after all of these years it is still painful to watch the footage of that October night 67 years ago at Madison Square Garden. Louis, now 37 years of age, entered the ring a 6 to 5 betting favorite against the unbeaten Brockton Blockbuster. Many felt experience would win out over youth, but the years had caught up to Joe.
When the bell rang for the first round a balding Joe Louis moved out in his classic stance. Rocky came out very aggressively and won the first two rounds big, landing numerous overhand rights that Joe just could not avoid. He had not been hit like this since his first fight against Max Schmeling in 1936, 15 years earlier.
It is a testament to Louis’s championship heart that he was able to become competitive against his younger opponent when he won the 4th and 5th rounds. Even though he took those rounds it was obvious he was a shadow of his old self. He was throwing combinations but his punches were not firing off like they used to. It was taking just that much longer for his body to respond to what his brain was telling it. While Joe outweighed Rocky by nearly thirty pounds he could not keep the younger man off of him. The fifth round would be the last round Joe would win in his career.
In the sixth round you can see how Joe’s legs appeared stiff. He lost the bend in his knees and could not move away from Rocky. There was no spring in his legs. At this point he began to take an awful beating. Rocky was landing rights to the head while punishing Joe’s body. It was just a matter of time before the end. Suddenly, Joe became an old man. Boxing is a cruel sport where old age strikes early.
When the bell rang for the 8th round an exhausted and bruised Louis stepped forward slowly. He was not only worn out from the blows of Marciano, but also from the years of fighting and training. Louis had been fighting professionally since 1934 and as an amateur before that. He had always trained hard and he had fought often, only taking time out to serve his country during WW II. He had never failed to give his all and was doing it again on this night. However, his tank was now empty and his opponent was relentless.
About a minute and a half into the round Marciano floored Louis with a short and powerful left hook. Louis stayed on one knee while taking an eight count. When Joe rose Rocky went in to end the fight. He backed Louis up to the ropes and landed two left hooks. After the second hook, Louis’s hands dropped to his side and Marciano landed a right that drove Louis down and through the ropes. As he landed on his back members of the press sitting at ringside reached up to help him. You can see the look of sadness on their faces. A police officer jumped onto the ring apron. Cornermen and the ring doctor rushed to him and made a protective circle around the fallen champ. There was a sudden outpouring of grief that can still be felt while watching the old black and white footage. The scene made me think of a line from Shakespeare’s Richard II, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the death of kings”.
As you look at Rocky’s face as they announce him the victor, you see no joy. It has been reported Marciano wept in his dressing room. He said to Louis, “I’m sorry Joe”. Joe responded “What’s the use of crying? The better man won. I guess everything happens for the best.”
Joe Louis would retire for good after this fight, but his financial problems continued. He turned to professional wrestling for a time and did some refereeing. He eventually ended up working as a greeter in Las Vegas. While his life didn’t turn out the way it should have, he never lost the love and admiration of the American people. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a fitting tribute to a man who gave so much to his country.
Rocky Marciano went on to win the championship and retired undefeated. The Rock remained retired, being one of the few who was not lured back into the ring. Tragically, he died in a plane crash in 1969 at the age of 45.
Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano were two of the greatest heavyweight champions. Both displayed class and dignity in and out of the ring. That class was displayed by each man when they met in the ring. If you want a lesson in how to be a good winner, how to be a good loser, just follow their example.
In exciting news for both boxing and theatre fans, the Huntington Theatre Company production of Man In The Ring will be opening at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts on November 16. The play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer, will run through December 22. Man In The Ring chronicles the life of former Welterweight and Middleweight Champion Emile Griffith.
Griffith’s story will span the time of his humble beginnings in the Virgin Islands, his love affairs, and the tragedy in the ring that forever changed his life. It its a complex story that is both touching and tragic.
I am very excited to hear that John Douglas Thompson has been cast in the role Emile Griffith as an older man. Mr. Douglas is one of the best actors on stage today, and I had the pleasure of seeing him in the world premiere of Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf n 2012. He was simply phenomenal that night. Most recently, he played Starkeeper in the Broadway production of Carousel. It will be interesting to see him play Griffith as an older man who if suffering from the effects of his years in the ring as well as the emotional turmoil from the Benny Paret fight.
Kyle Vincent Terry will be playing the younger Griffith. Mr. Terry served as fight choreographer for The Royale which I saw last year at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. The fight scenes in that production were very creative and well done. It is a challenge to create what happens in a boxing ring onto a stage, and Mr. Terry work was quite impressive.
Playwright Michael Cristofer won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for his 1977 play The Shadow Box. In his script for Man In The Ring, Mr. Cristofer explores Emile Griffith’s struggle with his homosexuality which was an open secret in the boxing world during his career. Benny Paret’s taunts of Griffith before their tragic fight have always been thought to have contributed to Emile’s fire in the ring that night.
“Emile Griffith was a true hero in my book”, says Cristofer. “He was a young immigrant form the Virgin Islands and a man struggling with his identity while in a brutal sport who, as an older man slipping into dementia, worked to find peace amid the love, pain, and joy that was his life.”
Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois says “One of the hardest things to do in theatre is to tell the full story of a complex person’s life. Michael Cristofer beautifully captures the excessive, eccentric, and emotional parts of Emile’s amazing story by mixing the champ’s easy charm with the raw and traumatic things he experienced.”
The cast also includes Victor Almanzer as Luis, Griffith’s lover and later his caretaker, Starla Benford as Griffith’s mother Emelda, Krystal Joy Brown as his wife Sadie, Gordon Clapp as manager Howie Albert. Sean Boyce Johnson is cast as Benny “Kid” Paret with Carla Martinez playing his wife Lucia. Eliseo Sosa will play Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro.
Man In The Ring will be directed by multiple Tony Awardnominee Michael Greif. Michael McElroy is the music director and composer of incidental music.
Man In The Ring
Huntington Theater Company
Playing at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center For The Arts
On September 22, 1955 Rocky Marciano stepped into the ring to defend his title in Yankee Stadium against the great Archie Moore. It was a bruising fight with Moore dropping the Champion in the second round, but Rocky eventually wore down his cagey opponent and stopped him in the 9th round. While the fight was one sided in the scoring up until the stoppage, it was by no means an easy fight for the Rock. Moore was a great boxer and a powerful puncher, and he landed punches on Marciano that would have flattened other mortals. But Marciano was no mortal when he was in the heat of battle. He seemed to get stronger when he got hit, and his drive and determination were too much for the 49 men he met and defeated in the ring.
This would be Marciano’s last fight, seven months later he would retire citing his desire to spend more time with his wife and daughter. He did leave a slight window open for a return to the ring when he said “No man can say what he will do in the future, but barring poverty, the ring has seen the last of me.”
It is reported that Rocky told those close to him that the real reason for his retirement was his displeasure with his manager Al Weill and the way his money was being handled. Rocky believed he was being taking advantage of and wanted out.
I was speaking with Mike Silver, the author of The Arc of Boxing, and we both agreed that while both of these reasons are legitimate we felt that Marciano may have finally tired of the grind of training and the pain he had to go through in each of his fights. Again, while the Moore bout may have seemed one sided in the scoring, Rocky took some terrible blows in the fight and had to be feeling the effects for days afterwards. The Champ was not a stupid man and may have figured it was best to get out while he still had his faculties, a decision, sadly, too few fighters make, and one that he should be admired for.
Rocky went on to enjoy retired life, and with only a bit of a tease when he pretended to consider a comeback when made an offer by promoter Jim Norris about a year after the his retirement, he looked to be permanently out of the ring.
Recently, I got to view some photos of Marciano that were taken in 1959. They show a healthy but bit pudgy former champ hitting a heavy bag under the watchful eye of his trainer Charley Goldman. Was this some type of a publicity stunt? I called the expert, my friend Dan Cuoco of IBRO to ask what he knew about this. He told me that Rocky had indeed contemplated a comeback in 1959. It was to be a one bout deal for in excess of a million dollars, and he would challenge Ingemar Johansson for the title. So, what happened?
There hasn’t been a lot written about this subject, but it does appear the former champion trained for about a month in Florida and that these sessions did receive coverage. Dan sent me a copy of an item that appeared in the Boston Traveler on January 16, 1960. In the short piece penned by Bill Liston, he states that he has heard that Marciano is training for a comeback but hopes it doesn’t happen. Though he believes Rocky would have no problem dispatching the new Champion he thinks Rocky should leave well enough alone. He also theorizes that Marciano was doing this to enhance his marketability for public appearances and refereeing.
Others have said he was serious about fighting Johansson and only gave up on it when his back, a life long problem he had, started giving him trouble. Mike Silver told me Rocky had met the Swede and felt he would have no problem taking him. I can see how tempting the thought must have been to Marciano. Here he would stand to make over a million dollars, hit the magic 50 and 0 mark on his record, and be on top of the world again. However, Ingo lost the title back to Floyd Patterson and that would lead to a third match between the two, and another year gone by before a bout with Marciano could be negotiated, another good reason not to keep at it.
I think the real reason is a combination of the two theories. There had to be no doubt in Rocky’s mind that he could beat Johansson and he had to have thought seriously, even if just briefly, about taking him on. He also saw how this enhanced his image as so many great athletes are forgotten not long after they leave the spotlight. By doing this, Rocky was able to keep his legend alive and his name in the news. he would go on to host a popular television show and continue to be in demand for public appearances.In a second item sent to me by Mr. Cuoco, an AP story dated January 15, 1961, once again Marciano teased the public a bit about a possible comeback. When asked about how he would do against Liston or Patterson Rocky states “ I’m not the boasting type, I don’t want to say I could whip them. But then I don’t want to lie about it either.” He seemed to be enjoying tantalizing his fans with the thought they could see him in the ring again.
Rocky would eventually return to the ring in a futuristic and bit eerie way. The Rock and Muhammad Ali sparred a number of rounds together and the footage of that sparring was pieced together to make a computer created match that was shown in theatres across the country. The sparring was filmed in 1969, just a few months before Rocky’s untimely death in a plane crash. It was shown in 1970. It is strange that Marciano’s comeback, such as it was, would happen after his death. The computer had the Rock winning by knock out in the 13th round.
This article first appeared in the Boston Post Gazette on March 20, 2015 in slightly different form.
In 1958 Eddie Machen was the leading contender for the heavyweight championship held by Floyd Patterson. Machen was undefeated and held victories over such men as Joey Maxim (twice), Nino Valdes, Bob Baker, and Tommy Jackson. Of course, having a strong claim to a title shot during the reign of Floyd Patterson was a sure way of never receiving one. The leading contenders of the day were routinely bypassed in favor of inferior opposition.
While the top contenders included men named Liston, Valdes, Pastrano, and Folley, Patterson’s manager Cus D’Amato opted instead for bouts with the likes of unranked Roy Harris, Pete Rademacher (he was making his pro debut in his title shot), Brian London (whose ticket to Floyd was a loss to a young Henry Cooper), and Tommy Jackson (Floyd had already defeated him before becoming champion). It was truly a dark time for the heavyweight championship.
Meanwhile, over in Sweden a young star was making some waves. His name was Ingemar Johansson and he was undefeated. Ingo was scoring knockouts with a lethal right hand that was known as “Ingo’s Toonder”. His record was impressive but not his opposition. He had won the European Heavyweight Championship when he kayoed Franco Cavicchi in the 13th round.
His other notable wins were a 10 round decision over Brit Joe Bygraves, a one round kayo of Hein Ten Hoff, a 5th round knockout of Henry Cooper, and a decision win over American Archie McBride. None of these opponents were near the quality of Machen, Liston, or Folley. Also, Ingemar had not been seen by fans in the U.S., so he was truly an unknown quantity. On top of this, ever since Tommy Farr had given Joe Louis a very tough go of it in his title challenge, European Heavyweights had not been taken seriously.
What happens next in the heavyweight division is something that is worth looking into. It is 1958 and we have Eddie Machen as the top contender. He is undefeated in 24 fights with 15 knockouts. In any other era he would have received a well deserved title shot. But the title is now controlled by D’Amato and he is having nothing to do with signing Floyd to fight a serious opponent. Machen now signs to fight number two contender Zora Folley, another deserving contender. The two fight to a draw. Meanwhile, Patterson bypasses both men and takes on Harris and London instead. A disgrace.
After the Folley fight Machen is offered a match against Ingemar Johansson in Sweden. The fight doesn’t make any sense for Eddie other than it would be a decent payday, but number one contenders do not look for decent paydays, as the ultimate payday is winning the crown. Why would he take on an unknown quantity such as Johansson in Ingo’s home town and risk everything, while having nothing to gain?
For years it was thought Machen took a dive in the fight. When I was young that was the word among all the knowledgable fight people. The story was that D’Amato’s people, and he had some very shady people around him, had told Machen that if he lost to Johansson they would guarantee him a title shot later on. This was not unprecedented. Jake LaMotta had agreed to such a deal when he fought Billy Fox. He threw the fight and did get a title shot in return.
Why would D’Amato want Ingo to win? In Ingo he saw the potential for a big draw with little risk of Floyd losing. He had heard Johansson was another slow moving European heavyweight who would pose no threat to Floyd. His undefeated record would make good copy for publicity, and a win over Machen would give him number one contender status, a status none of Floyd’s previous challengers had ever come near to having.
The story gets really interesting here. Machen travels to Gothenburg and is knocked out in one round. Word in the States is Eddie took a dive. Movies of the fight were not distributed here so the rumors were easy to believe. It wasn’t until decades later that footage of the bout made its way to the U.S.
Looking at it you see that not only did Ingemar legitimately kayo Machen, he nearly killed him. At the opening bell both fighters came out tentatively. Machen was standing straight up in a classic boxer’s stance throwing left jabs. Johansson was moving very quickly on his feet and circling Eddie while pawing with his left jab. About a minute into the fight, Ingo landed a tremendous right hand that dropped Machen. Eddie struggled to his feet and was dropped again by an Ingo right. He went down hard but managed to get to his feet. The fight should have been stopped here, but the “courageous” referee let it continue. Machen was driven to a corner and sank half way down while Johansson pummeled him mercilessly. The referee stood idly by. Finally, Machen fell to the canvas unconscious. It was as brutal a knock out as you will see.
It looks as if this proves the fight was not fixed, right? Well, no. The fight could have been fixed and at the same time Johansson could have legitimately knocked out Machen. You see, Eddie would have been planning on losing a ten round decision. He would fulfill his end of the bargain and eventually get a title shot, though I very much doubt that would have happened. At the same time, Ingo proved to be much better than anyone believed and he was too much for Machen. His Toonder was the real thing. It ends up Machen ws knocked out before he could throw the fight.
Now, another question arises. If D’Amato was so hell bent on avoiding serious competition for Floyd, why would he now agree to have him defend against Johansson? Not only did Ingemar prove he could fight, he also showed he had one of the hardest right hands in heavyweight history. Cus would have taken Floyd and run for the hills to get away from him. If things had followed their usual M.O. it would have been Machen who would have been more likely to get a title shot after having been destroyed.
I believe D’Amato never saw a film of the Machen v Johansson bout. He believed Machen lost as planned, though made his exit sooner than exoected, and still figured Ingemar was an inferior opponent. Looking at how Cus managed Patterson it makes no sense he would have signed to fight Johasson after what he did to Machen. This was one time when Cus outsmarted himself, as Ingo took the title from Floyd in his next fight. Not only did he win the title but he destroyed Patterson in much the way he did Machen, only in this bout it ended in the third round.
There is one final question that begs to be answered. If Machen was going to take a dive anyway, why didn’t he just stay down after the first knockdown? That’s easy to answer. Eddie was a pro with tremendous heart. He was seriously hurt when he went down the first time. It is likely he no longer knew where he was and began fighting on instinct, and his instincts were those of a courageous fighter. If you look at the film of the fight you will see Machen sitting in his corner after being stopped. He is seen mouthing the words “What Happened?” When his seconds respond you can read his lips again and see him saying “Really?”
And what did really happen? We’ll never know for sure, but I think the evidence backs up my theory.
Things never came easy for Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Joe Frazier once said to him “You’ve got three things going against you; You’re black, you’re a southpaw, and you are good”. Joe was right. Marvin had to do it the hard way.
Even before he won the title Hagler was taking on the toughest middleweights in the world, and he was doing it for short money.
Even before he won the title Hagler was taking on the toughest middleweights in the world, and he was doing it for short money. In his fourth fight he took on local rival and outstanding amateur star Dornell Wigfall over whom he won a decision. He would win by a knockout in a rematch.
In his 15th fight he beat Olympic Gold Medal winner Sugar Ray Seales. In a rematch in Seales’s hometown Marvin would be given a draw in a fight Marvin won easily, and in a third match in Boston Hagler removed all doubt by destroying Seales in one round.
Marvin would go on to beat the undefeated knockout artist Johnny Baldwin. After that fight, promoter J. Russell Peltz invited Hagler down to Philadelphia to try his hand against the best fighters the City of Brotherly Love had to offer. He took on Bobby Boogaloo Watts and lost a highly disputed decision. Next was Willie The Worm Monroe who beat Marvin fair and square though Hagler would come back to kayo Monroe in two rematches.
There were more victories against the likes of the murderous punching Eugene Cyclone Hart, Bennie Briscoe, Mike Colbert, Kevin Finnegan, and Doug Demmings. Remember, these fights were all before the Marvelous One had won the title.
In fact, it wasn’t until his 55th bout that Hagler finally got a shot at the title only to be the victim of a terrible decision when, after clearly winning over fifteen rounds, the judges called his bout against Vito Antoufermo a draw.
Hagler would have to wait a year before getting another title shot, this time against the new champion Alan Minter. Marvin left nothing to chance by destroying Minter in the third round and finally, finally taking possession of the title.
Marvelous Marvin would successfully defend his title 12 times against the best and only Roberto Duran was able to last the distance with him.
Out of those defenses the one most talked about was his war against Tommy Hearns in which Marvin stopped the Motor City Cobra in the third round of one of the most exciting fights in history.
After that fight Hagler would make one more defense of the title before his showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987. It is that fight against John “The Beast” Mugabi that has somehow become lost when talk of Marvin’s career comes up. That is a shame because it very well may have been his finest hour. It also may give some clues to why Marvin fought the way he did against Leonard.
John Mugabi, from Uganda fighting out of England, was a natural boxer/puncher. He had incredible power in both hands and was also blessed with a chin made out of iron. He had earned a shot at Halger by beating a number of other up and coming middleweights and doing so in impressive style, knocking out all 25 of his opponents.
The fight took place on March 10, 1986 outdoors on a cool evening in Las Vegas. While Mugabi did not have anything matching Marvin’s experience, he did enter the ring with intense confidence and showed no fear of Hagler.
It was just short of a year after Hagler’s war with Hearns and from the opening bell looked very much like it would be a repeat of that fight as Mugabi came out throwing bombs. There was one difference though, The Beast could also take the best Marvin had to offer and the grueling match went on for 11 rounds. While there were moments when the intensity would ebb just a bit, this was all out war.
I had seen just about all of Hagler’s fights going back to his amateur days and had never seen him rocked the way he was against Mugabi. The two traded monstrous punches round after round with Marvin staying ahead but at the same time absorbing some unbelievable blows. You saw two things in this fight that were very rare in a Hagler bout; Marvin’s head snapping back from the force of the uppercuts Mugabi was landing, and Hagler being forced to give ground. Also, Marvin’s left eye was almost completely closed by the end of the fight. But, as the saying goes, you should have seen the other guy.
This was like an extended version of the Hagler/Herans fight.
While all rounds of the fight were exciting, it was the 6th that really stands out. In that round Hagler came out determined to end matters, and it appeared he would do just that as he unloaded with brutal blows to Mugabi’s chin. The Beast was rocked, he was forced back, he looked on the verge of crumbling, but then he came back to life and was rocking Halger with bombs of his own. The crowd was on its feet cheering as the round ended. After that it became a battle of attrition.
Marvin was relentless in the fashion of Rocky Marciano. He wore Mugabi down and by the 11th round the effects of the punches and exhaustion put Mugabi down for the count. Marvin had dug down and showed what a champion is made of. Hagler survived punches that would have sunk a battle ship yet never was discouraged. Mugabi took monster shots from Hagler and kept coming. This was like an extended version of the Hagler/Herans fight.
Marvin would next fight Ray Leonard who had said he saw something in the Mugabi fight that told him he could beat Marvin. He felt he could outbox him after that night.
Going into the Leonard fight Marvin was coming off two brutal wars; The battle with Hearns and the war with Mugabi. Hagler had no easy touch in between, but then again, nothing ever was easy for Hagler.
I have always thought Marvin made a tactical mistake in the Leonard fight by not pressing Ray early. He allowed Leonard to get a rhythm and to gain confidence in the early rounds. I believe that Hagler, having just had two brutal wars, wanted to show the public he could outbox Leonard, beat him at his own game. I think if he had shown the same intensity he had displayed against Hearns and Mugabi he would have stopped Leonard. I still think Marvin deserved the decision in the fight, but once again, he couldn’t catch a break.
I do know one thing. Marvelous Marvin Hagler showed just why he was a great champion the night he stopped John Mugabi. He not only showed his talent, conditioning, punching power, and indestructible chin, he showed that indomitable “will to win” that makes for a very great champion. Marvin ranks high on the list of all time greats, and he earned that designation the hard way. We will never again see the likes of a Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
A few weeks ago I watched an HBO boxing double header featuring two light heavyweight title fights: Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez and Dmitriy Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba. The bouts confirmed to me that the art of boxing, as I knew it, is dead and unlikely to be revived anytime soon.
It’s not so much what I saw but what I didn’t see. As in so many other televised contests the sophisticated boxing skills that were once so common among the top echelon of professional fighters 50 or more years ago are absent from today’s champions and contenders. In the title fights mentioned above less than a dozen body punches were exchanged and there was virtually no infighting. There were no double jabs or combinations and no feints, ducking, parrying, or weaving under punches. Footwork was in two directions—forward and back. Absent was lateral movement or circling an opponent. Other than occasionally stepping back out of range to avoid a punch, defense was limited to the usual gloves in front of the face while standing still and waiting to be hit. No attempt was made to slip a punch and counter. Every round was a repeat of the previous because the fighters did not have the experience, training or ring savvy to know how to change tactics.
Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible.
With few exceptions the majority of today’s top professional boxers all fight the same way. There is very little variety in their fighting styles. Even several years after turning pro it is basically the same style they used as amateurs. In the past that would have been perceived as a weakness when competing against an experienced professional. Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible. And that is why, in boxing’s current culture and climate, it is impossible to produce a world champion who merits comparison to the greatest boxers of the 1920s to the 1970s.
One of the sport’s current stars is the former two time Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012) Vasyl Lomachenko. This extremely talented boxer won his first title in 2014 in only his third professional fight. Over the next four years he added two more divisional titles to his impressive resume. But we will never know how great Vasyl can become because the talent pool in the lighter weight divisions lacks depth. Where are the great fighters to test him? Answer: there are none.
Lomachenko is a rare commodity. He reminds us of the very promising professional prospects who often caught our attention during boxing’s golden age. But even if he had been competing during the last vestiges of that era—the 1960s and 1970s—his rise to the top would not have been as rapid or as easy. And there would be no guarantees he would ever win a title. Despite his amazing amateur record he would not have been ready this early in his career (less than a dozen professional fights in four and a half years) for the likes of Sugar Ramos, Vicente Saldivar, Carlos Ortiz, Nicolino Loche, Roberto Duran or Aaron Pryor.
This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today.
What makes Lomachenko stand out today is his use of extreme speed of punches combined with rapid and constantly shifting footwork that he uses to confuse and befuddle second rate opponents. This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today. I’m grateful to Lomachenko for reviving it. Hopefully it will catch on. After all, a target swiftly moving to and fro is always more difficult to hit than a stationary one. It is a simple concept that doesn’t seem to have penetrated today’s boxers or their trainers. The best way to neutralize a constantly moving target is to either keep your opponent preoccupied with a busy left jab, make him miss, and then counter, or cut off the ring while applying unrelenting pressure. Luckily for Lomachenko there are no outstanding pressure fighters today in the mold of a prime Manny Pacquiao or Julio Ceasar Chavez. Another was Ray “Boom Boom” Manicini who gave the great Alexis Arguello trouble for 13 rounds. Ray wasn’t ready to take on Arguello but if we were to replace Arguello with Lomachenko I think the result would be a win for “Boom Boom”.
Forty years ago another gifted professional, Wilfred Benitez, won the junior welterweight title from the great Antonio Cervantes in his 26th professional fight. It is the same title Lomachenko won by stopping Jorge Linares in the 10th round on May 12th 2018. It was Loma’s 12th pro fight. Linares had a decent amount of professional experience but at best he is a slightly better than average boxer. Yet by using an effective jab and quick counters he was able to keep the fight even through nine rounds. Now what do you think would happen if we were to replace Linares with a prime Antonio Cervantes or Wilfred Benitez?
Perhaps a boxer with as much natural talent as Lomachenko may have adapted if he had come along 50 or more years ago. But it’s impossible to say. In years past there were so many terrific prospects who faltered when it came time to make the leap from great prospect to great boxer.
I don’t say this to demean the current crop of world champions. (At last count there were over 100 spread over 17 weight divisions!) The best of them possess an abundance of natural talent, are in excellent physical condition, have extensive amateur experience, and usually put forth a tremendous effort. It is not their fault that after turning pro they do not receive the type of quality training and competition that would have a positive impact in improving their boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique. Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I think it is important to make comparisons between today’s best and those of decades past if only to gain perspective and to inform and enlighten us as to what it truly means to be a great boxer.
Among today’s fighters there are a few who are not of the cookie cutter variety. Lomechenko, Terrance Crawford and Gennady Golovkin are in this category. They are pleasing to watch because they are capable of performing at a higher level than the sea of mediocrity that surrounds them. They bring back memories similar to the type of young talent we used to see years ago. Golovkin is the most “old school” of the three. But an accurate appraisal of their current level of overall skill and experience indicates they are not as well rounded and seasoned as the top contenders and champions of boxing’s golden past. Through no fault of their own they will never be tested in the same way the best fighters of the 1920s to 1970s were tested. They will never experience the type of brutal competition their counterparts in decades past had to contend with while trying to hold onto a title or a top ten rating.
Let’s return to the four fighters mentioned at the beginning of this article, all of whom are either current or former light heavyweight champions. How would they have fared against the best light heavyweight champions of the 1970s and early 1980s? (Comparisons to golden oldies like Loughran, Rosenbloom, Lewis, Conn, Moore or Johnson are unnecessary because the answer is too obvious). Does anyone who has seen the following boxers actually believe today’s champions could defeat Bob Foster, Mathew Saad Muhammad, Victor Galindez, John Conteh or Michael Spinks? And what about Richie Kates, Jerry “The Bull” Martin, Yacqui Lopez, Eddie Mustafah Muhammed, Jorge Ahumada, Dwight Braxton, Marvin Johnson and Eddie Davis? These 1970s era light heavyweights did not build up their records fighting 2nd and 3rd rate opponents, as is the norm today. They did not avoid the hard fights.
All of the above proved to be tough and seasoned professionals capable of giving any great boxer of the past a competitive fight. Aside from the quality of their training and the seasoning they acquired over the course of their careers these accomplished professionals possessed another very important weapon: psychological toughness. A fighter who could combine that type of resilience with superior boxing skills was very, very tough to beat.
Of the four light heavyweightswho headlined the HBO show the best of the lot is Alvarez who won his portion of the title by stopping Kovalev in the seventh round. He did very well considering he hadn’t fought in over a year. (Long layoffs and inactivity is another feature of the current boxing scene). I am impressed by Alvarez but also saddened. He is extremely talented, well-schooled in basic boxing technique and is very determined. Had he been more active (only four fights in the last two years) he could have eclipsed Andre Ward as the star of the division. But at the age of 34 and with only 23 pro fights in 11 years the former amateur champion will never have the opportunity to realize his full potential.
Another example of unrealized professional talent is Dmitry Bivol. As a successful amateur boxer he engaged in nearly 300 fights, winning a slew of regional titles before turning pro in 2014. Three years later Dimitry won a portion of the world light heavyweight title in only his 12th professional fight. As an amateur he performed at the highest level. Using those same amateur skills he has attained great success in a very short time as a pro. Dmitry won’t be required to improve much beyond his current skill level because the line that once separated top amateur boxers from top professional boxers has become blurred. In his most recent bout he won a dreary 12 round decision against a second rate opponent whose purpose was just to survive the 12 rounds and collect his payday. It would be nice if the four current champs were to engage in a tournament to determine who is best—but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Forty years ago Dmitry Bivol would be labelled a hot prospect and maybe in line for a semi-final in Madison Square Garden. But as good as he is Dmitry would not be ready to challenge a prime Victor Galindez, the reigning world light heavyweight champion. At that time 300 amateur fights and 14 pro wins (88 rounds) didn’t make you ready to challenge an outstanding professional boxer whose record showed over 50 pro bouts and 485 rounds.
That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen Kovalev’s fighting spirit.
And what of Kovalev—the once mighty “Krusher”?Three years ago he put up a stirring but losing effort against a very good Andre Ward. That decision could have just as well gone to Kovalev. It was that close. His return bout with Ward seven months later ended in controversy and left many fans puzzled. Slightly ahead on points “The Krusher” took several borderline shots to the midsection. He reacted by draping himself over the ropes. The referee awarded the tko win to Ward. In his recent bout against Alvarez he was also ahead on points. Kovalev tried hard for a KO in rounds five and six but couldn’t put Alvarez away. That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampenKovalev’s fighting spirit. He came out for the seventh round looking tired and discouraged. Carrying his left hand dangerously low and moving slowly Kovalev was knocked down by a solid right cross.
What surprised me was that Kovalev, after arising from the first knockdown, did not appear to know what to do.But a quick review of his record explained why. In nine years Kovalev had fought only 143 professional rounds. Seventeen of his 28 knockout victims never made it past the second round. A seasoned pro in the same situation would have known how to tie up his opponent in a clinch or bob and weave his way out of trouble, or at least make the attempt. Kovalev, used to knocking out inferior opposition, didn’t know what to do when the situation was reversed. He remained an open target and was quickly dropped twice more before the referee stopped the fight.
If the reader is interested additional information related to the topic of this article is contained in the author’s book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing). It is available on Amazon.
Mike’s other book is “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing”, also available on Amazon.
Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson spent some time in the ring together, but not much. Their two fights combined lasted a total of only 4 minutes and 16 seconds with Liston winning by knock out in the first round on both occassions. The first fight took place in Chicago on September 25, 1962 and Sonny floored Floyd once, with that one knock down being for the ten count. Ten months later on July 22, 1963 in Las Vegas Liston dropped Patterson twice the with the second time being for the full count.
In the two fights Patterson landed only one blow of any consequence, and that wasn’t much of a one. He grazed Liston with a right hand during the second fight. Other than that it was all Sonny. It is interesting to note that while the fights were blow outs, Liston did not come out swinging wildly. He took Floyd apart methodically, setting his man up with left jabs and solid body shots. Sonny showed fast hands, using an accurate left jab, along with hooks and uppercuts. He had a definite game blame and executed it perfectly. If they fought a hundred times during that period the result would have been the same.
Patterson won the crown that had been left vacant when Rocky Marciano retired. He fought Archie Moore as the two were considered the leading contenders, and it was agreed the winner would be named the new heavyweight champion. After winning the title Cus D’Amato, Floyd’s manager, steered the new champ clear of any serous contenders. He had him fight second raters who appeared to pose no threat to Patterson. Fighters such as Roy Harris, Brian London, and Tom McNeeley. He even took on Olympic Champ Pete Rademacher who was making his pro debut the night of their title fight.
Floyd did run into one contender who proved himself to be underestimated; Ingemar Johansson. Johansson won the title by defeating Patterson by kayo in the third round. Floyd would come back a year later to become the first man to regain the heavyweight championship when he flattened Ingemar n the fifth round. The two would meet a third time with Patterson winning again.
From 1956 through 1961 the top contenders for the title were shut out from getting their deserved title shots. Men such as Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, and Sonny Liston had to sit on the sidelines. It was not a good period for boxing, nor was it a good time for Patterson. It turns out that even though Floyd was making money and winning fights, he felt he was not proving himself as a man. In a high testosterone profession such as boxing that can cause feelings of shame.
It was Floyd who pushed D’Amato to make the match with Liston. Floyd had to prove to the world, and even more so to himself, that he was a true champion. Unfortunately, the outcome of both fights only left Patterson feeling more shame. The losses deeply embarrassed him. You think he might have given up boxing and taken up a more peaceful profession, but he soldiered on.
Free of D’Amato’s protective hand he started fighting top contenders. He beat guys like Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo, and Charlie Powell. These wins put him in line for a shot at Muhammad Ali and the championship. Ali did not like Patterson and wanted to punish him. Floyd, unfortunately, went into the fight with a bad back and was limited in his movement. The one sided fight was stopped in the 12th round.
Once again, Floyd did not let this stop him and he continued fighting. It was at this point in his career that Patterson started to really mature has a fighter. He would not lose a one sided fight again for the rest of his time in the ring. He kayoed Henry Cooper in four rounds, Fought a draw with Jerry Quarry in a fight many believed Floyd had won. In a rematch it was also thought he got a raw deal when Jerry was given the decision over him. Hebeat Oscar Bonavena.
In a shot at Jimmy Ellis for the WBA Heavyweight Championship Floyd was robbed of a decision after fifteen rounds. He broke Jimmy’s nose in the first round and appeared to have captured at least a portion of the title for a third time. The sole judge, referee Harold Valan, thought differently.
During these same years Sonny Liston was on the comeback trail as well. He was also seeking to prove himself after his two embarrassing and suspicious losses to Ali. And, while Patterson was growing as a fighter, Sonny was taking on mostly journeyman and starting to age. He was hardly leading a life of health and fitness. His got wrapped up in the Las Vegas nightlife and was hanging out with shady characters. If you look at photos of him over these years you can see the aging in his face. In 1969 he took on Leotis Martin, and in the early going was having the better of it. But when Sonny came out for the 9th round he suddenly looked like an old man. It was apparent age and bad living had finally caught up with him. Martin flattened him in that round.
Sonny would have one more fight six months later when he stopped Chuck Wepner. Six months after that he would be found dead.
I have heard Floyd Patterson always wanted a third fight with Sonny Liston. He still wanted to prove himself and show he good take the Big Bear. If the two had fought a rematch in, say, 1969 or so what would have happened? Patterson was fit and clean living, Sonny was old and had slowed down. It can be argued Floyd was stronger at this point in his life, though he hadn’t really grown much physically. However, he had grown a lot emotionally.
I think a solid case can be made that Floyd would have won a third matchup. After losing to Ali in 1965 Floyd had 16 more fights with only three losses. Two of those three losses were considered bad decisions that should have gone in Patterson’s favor. He was not stopped again until his last fight which was against Muhammad Ali, and that stoppage was because of a cut eye. In the rematch with Ali, Floyd was doing much better than in their first encounter. He was competitive and it was too bad his eye was cut. It was an interesting fight.
A third fight with Liston would have also proved to be very interesting. Just imagine the Patterson of the Ellis fight fighting the Liston of the Martin fight. I think Floyd could have pulled out the victory. Now, wouldn’t that have been something!
On August 28, 1923 Harry Greb won the World Middleweight Championship from Johnny Wilson. Greb gained a fifteen round decision over the reigning champ who fought out of Boston. The fight was held at the Polo Grounds in New York. It has always been believed that Greb won the title in easy fashion over an outclassed Wilson. In fact, the New York Times reported that Harry won 13 of the 15 rounds. The headline said “Wilson, Slow and Awkward, Bewildered By Opponent’s Attack”.
After reading the Times’s report it appears it was only a formality for Greb to take the title. Wilson comes across almost as inept. The reporter from the Times also went on to write that “…the crowd showed its approval with a boisterous shout of acclaim for the-newly crowned champion”.
Six months later the two would meet in a rematch. It seems there would have been no call for the two to step into the ring against each other since the first fight was so one sided. Well, one sided at least according to the New York Times. Could the Times’s story been a case of “fake news”?
In the early years of the 20th Century, most states made it illegal for decisions to be officially given after a boxing match. Professional fights were only supposed to be exhibitions as the game was pretty much outlawed at the time. People still wanted to bet on the matches and in order to decide who won or lost fans would rely on the opinion of reporters covering the fights. Of course, this led to some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes in order to get a newspaperman to give a decision in favor of a certain boxer so that gamblers could collect on their choice. It was just another way of fixing fights.
By the time Greb and Wilson fought, it had become legal for official decisions to be given in fights. However, newspaper reporters still liked to pick up that extra cash on the side and would take payoffs from managers and promoters to give favorable publicity to certain boxers. In some cases reporters would write stories about fights they had not even attended. Fake news was just as abundant then as it is today.
In the case of the first Wilson vs Greb fight, the coverage from the Times has pretty much defined how that fight is remembered. Recently, the great boxing historian Gregory Speciale uncovered another report on the the fight. This one was written by the very highly esteemed reporter Robert Edgren. Mr. Edgren’s account of the fight is quite different from the New York Times’ piece.
“Nobody felt sure which would get the decision when the fifteenth round was over.”
He begins his story, which was published in the New York Evening World on September 1, 1923, by completely contradicting the New York Times’ reporter who said the crowd shouted its approval of the verdict. Edgren wrote “Harry Greb today is the middleweight champion of the world but when Announcer Joe Humphreys…began his announcement ‘Winner and new champion’ there was no wild burst of applause. It was a victory with no sensational features, and not at all the overwhelming triumph the crowd had expected him to score over Johnny Wilson. Nobody felt sure which would get the decision when the fifteenth round was over.”
That’s quite different from what was reported in the Times. Edgren went on to report that Wilson gave Greb all kinds of trouble and even stated there was a case for Greb being disqualified because of the amount of holding and hitting he did. Wilson’s southpaw style and tactic of going to Greb’s body seems to have made things difficult for Harry.
Edgren ended his piece by opining how it was not a very exciting fight. He wrote “I’ve seen more excitement at a chess tournament, but it was all right. A world’s championship changed hands as expected.” I think if you read just a bit between the lines you get the message that there was no way Greb was going to lose that night.
I tend to believe the Edgren version over the NYT one as Robert Edgren had an impeccable reputation until the day he died. In fact, the same New York Times wrote in Edgren’s obituary that he was “known for truthfulness”.
There is no doubt that Harry Greb was one of the greatest middleweights of all time, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have trouble with certain boxers. As I have written before, Greb was the only middleweight champ to both win and lose the title to southpaws. (He lost it to Tiger Flowers).
Greb and Wilson fought two more times. Their second was a rematch for the title six months later, and according to Boxing Blade it was a close fight. The last fight took place in Boston on April 17, 1925 at the Mechanics Building. This was reported as the most exciting of their three fights with Greb winning a very close decision.
It appears Wilson’s southpaw style was a problem for Greb, and it is also possible that Johnny very possibly could have been given the decision in any of these fights.
It is unfortunate that Johnny Wilson is often considered more of a footnote in boxing history and best remembered for losing to Greb. It is also unfortunate that most people think Greb won in a cakewalk over him when it turns out Johnny Wilson gave Harry Greb more than enough to handle. It’s time to reassess Wilson’s talents as a fighter. The man could fight.