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A brief history of fight delays

fight delays
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images
Jack Hirsch looks at 10 major fights that were delayed

HISTORY tells us that not every fight that should happen actually does, and not every fight that does happen, takes place at the right time. In short, the waiting game for fighters and fans is nothing new.

Below we look, firstly, at five eagerly-awaited fights that took place after a long wait and ask whether it really were was a case of better late than never, or if it should have remained better never than late. Secondly, we examine five fights that never heard the opening bell and wonder what would have happened had they managed to meet in ring.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER?

1. FLOYD MAYWEATHER w pts 12 MANNY PACQUIAO May 2015, Las Vegas

Rarely has a fight been hyped like this. It dragged on and on until the sell-by date had passed, but so desirable was the product, it was bought by the masses anyway. In turn, those fans paying record PPV numbers were left dissatisfied. It was not one-sided, but Mayweather’s speed and defensive prowess kept him a small step ahead of Pacquiao, and he took a unanimous 12-round decision.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? By the time they fought they both needed it equally.

WHOSE FAULT WAS THE DELAY? Mayweather more or less admitted he had waited for the appeal to get to such a point that the money to be made was off the scale. However, the numerous breakdowns in negotiations in the years before could be blamed on both teams, from the demands about drug testing to Mayweather clashing with old enemy, Bob Arum, it was really was a case of egos behaving badly.

DID THE DELAY AFFECT THE OUTCOME? Possibly. The Pacquiao who dominated Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto and Ricky Hatton would have gotten much closer. But Mayweather always found a way, and would likely have squeaked home on points.

2. MUHAMMAD ALI w pts 12 JOE FRAZIER January 1974, New York

After their first fight, the rematch dragged along, not being made until close to three years later. Considering that Frazier made a couple of more title defences and was not relieved of the throne until nearly two years after defeating Ali, you would have thought that the public demand for a rematch would have seen them squaring off before they did. When they fought again, Ali won by unanimous 12-round decision.

WHO NEEDED THE REMATCH MORE? Initially, it was Ali, without question. At some point Ali had to avenge the loss of that first fight, the defeat was a huge blot on his record. But after he was steamrolled by George Foreman, Frazier needed the sequel to get his career back on track.

WHOSE FAULT WAS THE DELAY? Both. Frazier’s loss to George Foreman and Ali’s to Ken Norton didn’t really help, either.

DID THE DELAY AFFECT THE OUTCOME? Again, possibly. But it’s likely that Frazier expended so much energy while defeating Ali in 1971 that he could never again reach the same heights. As for Ali, he too might have lost a step but his decline was not as pronounced as Frazier’s.

Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier
The Ali-Frazier rematch did not compare to their first fight

3. EVANDER HOLYFIELD w rsf 11 MIKE TYSON November 1996, Las Vegas

Evander Holyfield chased a fight with Mike Tyson for a long time. Ironically, by the time they met, most felt that Holyfield was way past his best and would be easy pickings for “Iron” Mike. But Holyfield showed he had a lot left, stopping Tyson in the 11th round in one of the greatest upsets in heavyweight history.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Definitely Holyfield. Tyson was again the biggest attraction in boxing, appeared to have regained his best form, and could have continued to garner the multi-million dollar purses and retain his prestige as the baddest man on the planet.

WHOSE FAULT WAS THE DELAY? Tyson’s, but not because he was ducking Holyfield. They were supposed to box six years earlier, before a loss to Buster Douglas and a subsequent spell in jail forced this one back by several years.

DID THE DELAY AFFECT THE OUTCOME? Good question. Not to disparage Holyfield’s triumph, but Tyson was not the same fighter he was during his prime. Even so, Holyfield would have withstood Tyson’s attack and defeated him had they boxed in 1990.

4. FLOYD PATTERSON w pts 12 EDDIE MACHEN May 1964, Rasunda, Sweden

Zora Folley’s name was always linked to Machen’s as the men who Patterson avoided during his two title reigns as world heavyweight champion. He never did box Folley, who had to wait until 1967 when he was past his prime to receive a title shot against Ali. However, Patterson did ultimately get around to fighting Machen one year after he was stopped in a round by Sonny Liston for the second time.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Machen initially but it was Patterson by the time they fought. Coming off the Liston debacles, he needed to defeat a top contender to prove he remained a force.

WHOSE FAULT WAS THE DELAY? It was primarily Patterson’s or, more accurately, his manager Cus D’Amato’s. Machen, though, was partially responsible for not taking care of business against Ingemar Johannson in 1958, getting stopped in a round. The result was a shock that resulted in the Swede getting the opportunity to box Patterson for the title in his next fight.

DID THE DELAY AFFECT THE OUTCOME? Unlikely. Patterson was a little quicker and better than the crafty Machen. He would have beaten him on points a few years earlier, but probably not as decisively.

5. JACK JOHNSON w rsf 14 TOMMY BURNS December 1908, Sydney

Johnson followed Burns all over the world before the champion agreed to face him, an awesome chore considering the lack of technology in the early 1900’s. Johnson’s dominance was such that it was the Australian police who jumped into the ring and halted the contest.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Johnson without question. If Burns could have, it’s likely he would have avoided the fight. But Johnson’s hounding, public pressure, and a lucrative purse made him finally cave in.

WHOSE FAULT WAS THE DELAY? Technically it was Burns’ but a racist society played a pivotal role as well. It was okay, just about, in that era for a black man to hold a world title in a lighter weight class, but there was reluctance to let one challenge for the heavyweight crown.

DID THE DELAY AFFECT THE OUTCOME? Burns was a highly underrated fighter, but was too small for Johnson. Had they boxed a couple of years earlier it would have made absolutely no difference.

Jack Johnson fight delays
Jack Johnson had to chase down his fight with Tommy Burns

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

1. RIDDICK BOWE vs LENNOX LEWIS, 1992-1996

They did meet in the Olympics in 1988, but their failure to fight as professionals defined the relationship. Considering they both held versions of the heavyweight title at the same time, it is still hard to believe that this match slipped through the cracks.

WHO NEEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Initially, Lewis. Bowe’s claim to the title early on, after beating Holyfield, was more legitimate. By the end, though, as Bowe’s reputation faltered, he needed the fight more.

WHOSE FAULT WAS IT THEY NEVER FOUGHT? It was completely Bowe’s to the point that he threw his WBC belt in the trash bin to avoid facing Lewis when he was his mandatory. Lewis was always willing to fight Bowe for short money, that is how confident he was of defeating his rival.

WHO WOULD HAVE WON HAD THEY FOUGHT? There are still people out there who think Bowe would have won and he very well might have, but examination of each at their best suggests Lewis would have prevailed by a late round stoppage in a classic.

2. ROCKY GRAZIANO vs JAKE LAMOTTA, 1946-1951

For pure action you could not have gotten a better match-up. Because fighters boxed so often in the 1940s and 50s it was thought that the two middleweights would eventually square off, but it never happened.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Marginally you could say it was LaMotta. It took him so long to get a shot at the title that a victory over Graziano might have seen him get that chance earlier. Both were champion at different times of course, and both reigns would have benefited from a win over the other.

WHOSE FAULT WAS IT THEY NEVER FOUGHT? Graziano’s. Because they were close friends Graziano said he would never fight the “Bronx Bull”. When LaMotta was asked, he responded by asking when he could sign the contract.

WHO WOULD HAVE WON? LaMotta. His granite chin would have withstood everything the hard punching Graziano would throw. Conversely, Rocky would not have been able to withstand Jake’s attack for the duration of the contest.

3. BARRY McGUIGAN vs AZUMAH NELSON, 1985-1986

Both are in the Hall of Fame, but when we talk about their careers talk eventually turns to this bout that got away.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? When one man (Nelson) is continually calling out the other without getting a meaningful response in return the answer is obvious. The charismatic McGuigan could earn well boxing almost anyone during his peak years, such was his drawing power. Nelson, for a while, did not have this luxury.

WHOSE FAULT WAS IT THEY NEVER FOUGHT? The blame has to be placed on McGuigan’s team. Nelson even joked that he would fight him in the Irishman’s living room and that Mrs McGuigan could referee, a sarcastic but revealing remark as to how badly he wanted the match.

WHO WOULD HAVE WON? The McGuigan who defeated Eusebio Pedroza would have been in with a shout, but a peak Nelson looked like a bridge too far. It would have been a harder fight for Nelson than most people think, but by the later rounds his superior firepower would likely have prevailed.

4. JACK DEMPSEY VS HARRY WILLS, 1919-1926

Wills was Dempsey’s most prominent challenger during his title reign yet the champion failed to fight him. In that era (1920’s) champions were not stripped of their titles as they are today. Titles were strictly won and lost inside of the ring, though the New York State Athletic Commission ordered the bout in 1924.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Wills without question. Being a black heavyweight so soon after the Jack Johnson era made it difficult for Harry to obtain fights that paid him what he was worth.

WHOSE FAULT WAS IT THEY NEVER FOUGHT? A combination of Dempsey’s and Tex Rickard’s. Although Wills was humble and soft spoken, the promoter feared a public backlash of having a black man hold the heavyweight crown so soon after the Jack Johnson era. History has not been as harsh on Dempsey as it should be for avoiding his most worthy challenger.

WHO WOULD HAVE WON? Dempsey was one of the most exciting fighters in boxing history, but he could be outboxed. Wills, tall and rangy had superb skills that might have resulted in him outpointing the version of Dempsey who Gene Tunney outscored.

5. ALEXIS ARGUELLO vs ROBERTO DURAN, 1978-1980

It would likely have been a fight to remember, a potential classic we would have been talking about today had it occurred. Unfortunately, history will refer to the proposed matchup as what if instead of what was. The window of opportunity was slim, though, with Arguello ruling at super-featherweight during Duran’s final years as lightweight king.

WHO NEEDED THE FIGHT MORE? Arguello, slightly. Duran’s status was marginally greater and he was a weight class above. Duran’s savage image would remain intact with or without the “Explosive Thin Man.”

WHOSE FAULT WAS IT THEY NEVER FOUGHT? For a change let’s blame the public. Although they salivated at the thought of the matchup they never demanded it to the point where the men felt pressured to do so.

WHO WOULD HAVE WON? There was no finer ring technician than Arguello, but Duran was slightly bigger and better. In a great fight with many ebbs and flows he might have prevailed, in much the same way that Aaron Pryor did against Arguello in their first contest – late on and in thrilling style.

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