THIS weekend Johann Duhaupas will try to wrest the WBC heavyweight title from Deontay Wilder in Birmingham, Alabama and it’s safe to say he starts a huge underdog. Of more interest than the outcome, perhaps, is that Duhaupas is one of very few Frenchmen to contest the sport’s biggest prize (or a sliver of it in this case, as Wladimir Klitschko holds all the other significant heavyweight belts).
The list becomes slightly longer if one accepts Andre Sproul’s fight against jack Johnson in Paris in November 1913 as a legitimate world title affair. For years the Boxing News Record Book and the Ring Record Book listed it as a world title defence for the Galveston man, but nowadays Boxrec don’t even have it on Johnson’s record as a fight. It’s established fact that “Papa Jack” kept busy with several ring appearances that were mere exhibitions or sparring sessions, or even moneymaking ventures against celebrities.
So the first real French challenge for the heavyweight crown came from Georges Carpentier, against Jack Dempsey in 1921. Carpentier was the reigning world light-heavy champ when he stepped into the ring at Boyles Thirty Acres in Jersey City New Jersey in front of 91,000 people. He hurt Dempsey in round two but the size difference told and Jack triumphed on a fourth-round knockout.
Did I say size difference? Dempsey weighed 188lbs, making him a cruiserweight by today’s standards, while Carpentier was a mere 172lbs – only four pounds over the super-middleweight limit. (When Joe Calzaghe beat Bernard Hopkins in his penultimate fight, Joe was 173lbs).
Remarkably, after Carpentier it would be another 62 years before a Frenchman contested the sport’s supreme prize. In March 1983 an ageing Larry Holmes was looking for some less demanding challenges and alighted upon Lucien Rodriguez, who had cleaned up at European level but had been well beaten by Mike Dokes in a US bout three years earlier.
Rodriguez, who had been born in Casablanca, Morocco, was so lightly regarded that his Holmes challenge went ahead in Scranton, Pennsylvania (setting for the US version of The Office and thus an American byword for a “nothing” town). But Lucien showed grit to hang around for the whole 12 rounds, although the most any judge gave him was a share of one session (and that was just the one judge).
The only French heavyweight title challenge since then was probably the most pointless – it was certainly the most one-sided. Jean-Marc Mormeck, a former world cruiser champion, three months short of his 40th birthday when he fought Wladimir Klitschko in March 2012. The WBA “Super”, WBO, IBF and IBO belts were on the line in Dusseldorf and poor Mormeck hardly landed a punch before going down for the count in round four.
Johann Duhaupas is no Carpentier, and probably not a Rodriguez either, so his aim will be to fare better than Mormeck and last a few rounds against big-hitting Wilder.