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10 heavyweight champions who ducked their closest rivals – from John L Sullivan to Riddick Bowe via Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes

Tyson Fury vs Anthony Joshua isn't the first elusive dream heavyweight showdown

THERE are obviously reasons why Tyson Fury is fighting Deontay Wilder again and not Anthony Joshua, who in turn is busying himself with Kubrat Pulev, but the desire to see the No.1 and No.2 collide is greater than ever before.

The longer it doesn’t happen, the more likely it gets that it never will, which would be a great shame. But it’s not the first-time boxing fans have been denied or made to wait for their dream match of big men.

Heavyweight history is immersed in accusations where a top dog in the division was ducked at one time or another. Here are 10 former titleholders who at one time avoided their most deserving opponent, making him wait an unreasonably long time for an opportunity or not boxing him altogether.

JOHN L. SULLIVAN DUCKS PETER JACKSON

The mighty John L. ruled the heavyweight roost from 1882-1892, his legend perpetuated more on myth than actual ring accomplishments. Emerging as his most worthy contender at the time was a sleek black man from Australia, by the name of Peter Jackson. As much as Sullivan was revered, it was no secret that Jackson represented a threat to his reign.

Sullivan was, by most accounts, a racist and a proud one at that. Maybe he feared Jackson to an extent, maybe not. In any event, Sullivan made it clear from the start that Jackson would not get a shot at the coveted title. “I draw the colour line,” he boasted.

To put it in the context of the times, we had not been too far removed from slavery. In fact, Jackson had been one. Hence, Sullivan’s insensitive stance while not endorsed, was never challenged. As a result, he was able to dodge Jackson without much backlash.

Gentleman Jim Corbett, had no such inhibitions. He and Jackson engaged in a 61-round contest in 1891, which ended in a draw. Reportedly, the verdict was fair with the contestants being praised for their extraordinary skill and courage. One year later Corbett outclassed Sullivan to win the crown.  Jackson would have probably done the same had he been given the opportunity at any point in Sullivan’s reign.

TOMMY BURNS DUCKS JACK JOHNSON

Tommy Burns was the smallest heavyweight champion in history, standing only  around 5ft 7ins. Nevertheless, he could more than hold his own with the big guys, as evidenced by his 11 successful title defenses. Although Burns was vastly underrated his double-digit championship reign could be attributed to him avoiding his leading contender Jack Johnson for as long as he did.

Burns defended his title in various countries, but wherever he went Johnson followed. The harassment and a payday of $30,000 considered major money in 1908, forced the Canadian’s hand and made Burns relent.

When they boxed it became obvious why Burns had avoided Johnson for so long.  The American was on a different level, dominating before it was stopped in the 14th round.

LEGEND: But Jack Johnson’s reign didn’t exactly run smoothly

JACK JOHNSON DUCKS SAM LANGFORD

Johnson defeated Langford soundly over 15 rounds when they met in 1906, but because not many witnessed the contest “The Boston Tar Baby’s” manager Joe Woodward was able to concoct a tale that his man dropped Johnson and might have been victimised by a bad decision. The Langford side appealed to Johnson’s pride, figuring that if they got him mad enough he would relent and agree to a rematch.

Two years after they fought, Johnson won the heavyweight championship, never even entertaining the thought of boxing Langford again. His contempt for Langford was so great he did not want to reward him with a shot at the title after all the false innuendos he had endured. As a result they never met again, but had they it would have been Johnson all the way. He was a legitimate heavyweight, Langford a middleweight. All factors equal, bigger is better.

JACK DEMPSEY DUCKS HARRY WILLS

Dempsey held the title from 1919-1926. During that time the consensus number one contender was Harry Wills. Unfortunately, Dempsey never gave him a crack at the crown. The reason primarily was because we were only a decade removed from Johnson’s turbulent reign. Although Wills was the consummate gentleman he was the victim of stereotyping, being black as was Johnson. As unthreatening as Wills really was, the great White Hope era was still too fresh to give ‘The Black Panther’ the clean slate that he deserved. Dempsey’s promoter Tex Rickard used Johnson’s conduct as a reason to avoid a Wills fight, but he doubtless was aware of the threat the challenger posed to his meal ticket. Therefore, Wills never fought for the title.

Dempsey was probably not afraid of Wills, but he did not show much interest in fighting him either. Had they met there is a reasonable chance that Wills would have dethroned Dempsey. He would have enjoyed physical advantages while arguably being the more skillful of the two.

JAMES J BRADDOCK DUCKS MAX SCHMELING

When Schmeling sprung a colossal upset over Joe Louis in 1936 neither was champion at the time, but it did put Max a former title holder in line to fight for the title. The champion was “The Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock who had won the title from Max Baer the year before and had yet to defend it. Braddock’s reign was not expected to last long and the goal was to cash in.

Schmeling initially had an agreement to box Braddock, but when Louis’ people offered a bigger purse and a future slice of his earnings, the champion detoured and signed to defend against him instead. A livid Schmeling trying to prove a point held a bogus weigh in that was held during the time of the intended Braddock fight.

Louis knocked out Braddock in 1937, then Schmeling the following year.

Braddock ducking Schmeling was based on business considerations and nothing more. Had they boxed it would have been a toss up as to who would have prevailed.

FLOYD PATTERSON DUCKS EDDIE MACHEN, ZORA FOLLEY, AND SONNY LISTON

This might seem a little harsh considering Patterson did eventually step up and accept the hardest challenges, but during his first reign as champion (late 1950’s), his title defences were against mediocre opposition. He clearly ducked top contenders Folley, Machen, and Liston, to defend against the likes of Pete Radamacher (who was making his professional debut).  

FALLEN: Sonny Liston stands over a fallen Floyd Patterson

To Patterson’s credit, after regaining the title from Ingemar Johansson he not only disregarded his manager Cus D’amato’s wishes, but also those of president John F. Kennedy who did not want the thuggish Liston to be given a chance at the crown. History shows us Patterson should have listened being that he was stopped inside of a round by Liston in both of their fights. But from that point forward, Patterson took on all comers including a past his prime Machen who he outpointed. However, it did not exonerate him from avoiding Folley and Machen while he was champion. With that said, Patterson probably would have beaten both, but never would have stood a chance against Liston despite eyeing a third fight with him.

MUHAMMAD ALI DUCKS KEN NORTON

Ali did box Norton three times in the 1970s, but it was only after their third fight that he wanted no part of him. After three nip and tuck encounters in which Ali was fortunate to be up 2-1, he concluded Norton was all wrong for him. Ali even reached out to George Foreman, promising him a rematch if he would get Norton out of the way first.

Circumstances allowed Ali to avoid a fourth meeting, but it was at the expense of validating that Norton had his number. That is probably what would have played out had they continued their trilogy. Norton in the prime of his career would have probably outpointed Ali who was on the backend of his.

LEON SPINKS DUCKS KEN NORTON

The WBC allowed Ali to defend his title against Spinks in 1978, under the condition that the winner box mandatory challenger Norton next. When Spinks pulled a shocking upset he not only became the new world heavyweight champion, but also inherited Ali’s obligation in the process. But Spinks had a dilemma, a rematch against Ali would pay him much more than a defense against Norton. That, and the prevailing feeling that he could not defeat Norton led to the new champion making his first defense against Ali. The WBC then swiftly turned around, stripped Spinks, and made Norton their champion.

Spinks had a good reason for ducking Norton, but the bottom line is that he did.

LARRY HOLMES DUCKS PINKLON THOMAS

In the early 1980’s Holmes was focused on passing Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Because of this he selected his opponents carefully. Holmes’ skills were diminished, but the feeling was he could still beat any other heavyweight with the possible exception of Pinklon Thomas who emerged as the top contender.

ONE OF THE BEST: But Holmes didn’t face all-comers during his time as champ

Holmes showed absolutely no interest in defending against Thomas who continuously called him out. Ultimately Holmes’ strategy backfired. In fight number 49, he was outpointed by world light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Maybe the same would have happened had he boxed Thomas, but we’ll never know because of Holmes’ reluctance.

Thomas ultimately won the WBA heavyweight title, but always resented Holmes for refusing to box him.

RIDDICK BOWE DUCKS LENNOX LEWIS

One of the great matchups in heavyweight history failed to materialise because Bowe’s manager Rock Newman wanted no part of a fight against Lewis. During the 1990s Lewis relentlessly challenged Bowe, willing to take less than market value money to prove he was the best heavyweight in the world. Bowe simmered, upset with Lewis, but apparently never mad enough to insist his manager make the match.

At the time it would have been a pick em contest, but subsequent events have shown that Lewis probably would have won had they met. In any event, it is still hard to fathom that with all the ballyhoo the two never did fight.

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  • Think there’s a bit of an omission “Wilder ducks Joshua – at least 3 times & counting”. If I was Joshua I would now do to Wilder what jack Johnson did to Sam Langford and treat him with the contempt he deserves – however I’ve got a feeling Joshua really fancies the job.

  • If “The Greatest” can be said to have “ducked” Norton after fighting him 3 times and reaching the age of almost 35 then there’s no hope in this regard for any boxer – Ali above ALL other boxers didn’t shirk a challenge and imo his record clearly proves that beyond any doubt.

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