Rocky Marciano v Nino Valdes
Valdes, a 6ft 3in, 15st Cuban with an 80-inch reach, exploded on to the heavyweight scene when he outpointed the in-form former champion Ezzard Charles in Miami in 1953. Yet when Marciano looked for a defence in June 1954, he ignored Valdes, who had continued to win, and selected instead Charles, who in that time had also lost to Bob Satterfield. When Charles ran Marciano close, he was given a rematch in September 1954.
Mike Tyson v George Foreman
Foreman’s comeback began in the late 1980s, when Tyson was the young, supposedly invincible world heavyweight champ. Foreman talked himself up as a challenger, but not many believed he was serious. Gradually, however, as Foreman’s comeback gathered momentum and Tyson’s flaws were exposed, it became one of those fascinating ‘what-if’ fights. Foreman lost to Evander Holyfield, but by the time he beat Michael Moorer for the title, Tyson was in jail.
John L Sullivan v Peter Jackson
Sullivan famously drew the ‘colour-bar’ rather than face the now-legendary Peter Jackson even in so much as a brief exhibition with sparring gloves. San Francisco promoters even linked together to offer Sullivan $10,000 to defend against Jackson, but were told: “I have never fought a Negro and never shall.” Jackson boxed 61 rounds to a standstill with James J Corbett, before Corbett dethroned Sullivan. Corbett called him ‘the greatest fighter I have ever seen.’
Joe Louis v Elmer Ray
From 1943 when Ray lost in one round to Albert Turkey Thompson, until 1948, Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray, was beaten only on a majority decision by Jersey Joe Walcott against 57 wins, including a decision over Walcott and a knockout of Lee Savold. He deserved a chance at the title, but was black – and until Louis boxed Walcott in December 1947, he fought only one black challenger, his friend John Henry Lewis, the light-heavyweight champion, in 1939.
Henry Cooper v Jimmy Ellis
The British Boxing Board of Control denied Henry Cooper the right to box World Boxing Association champion Jimmy Ellis in September 1969 because they were not affiliated to the governing body and refused to recognise them. Cooper gave up the British title in protest, and considered boxing Ellis in Rome or Dublin. The fight was arranged in spite of the Board’s stance for Wembley Stadium and tickets printed, but was cancelled when Henry needed knee surgery.
Jack Dempsey v Harry Greb
Dempsey was happy to box light-heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier in the first of the million-dollar gates, but even though he would have outweighed middleweight champion Greb by 20lbs or more. According to legend Greb, the only man to beat Dempsey’s eventual conqueror, Gene Tunney, gave him fits in a sparring session and Jack never forgot it.
Jack Dempsey v Harry Wills
Aside from a disqualification against Bill Tate, Wills was unbeaten in a run of more than 50 fights between 1917 and 1926. The general feeling was that he was a natural challenger for Dempsey’s world championship. However, Wills was black – and Dempsey’s promoter, Tex Rickard, had staged the infamous Jack Johnson-James J Jeffries fight in Reno in 1910, after which there were race riots around the country. Johnson had also become a scandalous figure who had more or less banished the championship to the social fringes. Rickard had no interest in repeating the exercise and, in spite of some pressure from the New York Commission, the fight was never made.
Jack Johnson v Sam Langford II
Johnson did beat Langford on a 15-round decision in Boston in 1906, but once he became heavyweight champion saw no point in a return. Langford was way better than men who had their opportunity like Fireman Jim Flynn, Battling Jim Johnson and Frank Moran, but he was ignored.
Roy Jones v Lennox Lewis
When Jones outboxed John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title in March 2003, there was brief talk of his going on to a unification fight with Lennox Lewis, who was acknowledged as the genuine champion. Neither Jones, nor Lewis, showed much inclination for it, however, and the idea was rapidly dropped.
James J Braddock v Max Schmeling
Braddock’s manager Joe Gould agreed a deal with Schmeling for a championship defence in September 1936, the year after the Cinderella Man had upset Max Baer and months after Schmeling’s sensational knockout of Joe Louis. Braddock at first pulled out with a finger injury, then was diagnosed with rheumatic elbows, which postponed the fight until June 1937. Schmeling weighed in and passed his medical, ten hours before the fight, only for Braddock not to show.
He had agreed instead to defend against Louis in Chicago a few weeks later.