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History

Alternate histories: The moments that changed boxing, and how they could have been different

Muhammad Ali boxing
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Jack Hirsch examines the consequences and what ifs of some huge pivotal moments in boxing history

BOXING’S best rivalry of the 1960s was the series of fights between Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti. Within the space of a year they boxed three times, all in New York, with the world middleweight championship on the line each time. All three went the 15-round distance, both were dropped twice.

The legacies and reputations of Griffith and Benvenuti were greatly elevated by those contests. But the rivalry was in danger of never really getting started. Griffith, after rising from the canvas in the second round of their initial contest on April 17, 1967 at Madison Square, delivered a thunderbolt, flooring Benvenuti with a right in the fourth that hurt him badly. Nino floundered around the ring in desperate trouble, but Griffith, by his own account, went right-hand crazy and failed to finish the job. But what if he had? It is fascinating to speculate on that and other close calls that would have altered the course of boxing history…

BENVENUTI ESCAPES

ALTHOUGH Benvenuti was voted the outstanding boxer of the 1960 Olympic Games and held the European title, he was largely unknown in America.

What we do know is that Benvenuti survived the heavy knockdown to lift the middleweight title from Griffith by scores of 10-5 twice and 9-6, to become one of the biggest stars in the sport.

Griffith regained the title by majority decision at Shea Stadium (scored 9-5-1 twice and 7-7-1) the following September. Then on March 4, 1968, they shared headline duties with Joe Frazier-Buster Mathis to open up the new Madison Square Garden arena. Benvenuti floored Griffith in the ninth, then held on for the last three rounds as the Virgin Islander staged a furious rally that closed the gap, but came up just short as Nino regained the title by margins of 8-6-1, 8-6-1, and 7-7-1 (9-8 points). But had Griffith finished off Benvenuti in that fourth round of their first fight, those next two would not have occurred and we would have been deprived of one of the greatest trilogies in boxing history. Benvenuti would have returned to Italy, perceived as yet another overhyped European boxer. For the next two years at least he would have been in rebuilding mold and there is no guarantee he would have even got another crack at the title let alone have won it.

FURY RISES

IT is common to see a referee not complete a count over a boxer who looks like they’re out cold, as Tyson Fury did in his first fight with Deontay Wilder in 2018. Instead, they quickly stop the match and wave the medic into the ring. That easily could have happened in the final round of the first Fury vs Wilder encounter, but referee Jack Reiss showed impeccable judgement in tolling the count in which Fury got up at nine. But what if Reiss had stopped it before then? Fury would have doubtless complained, but even his most ardent backers would have questioned whether he would have been able to survive a follow-up assault or even have gotten up in time. Reiss may have faced some criticism, but the support probably would have outweighed it.

Had Reiss pulled the plug on Fury there is a good chance that Wilder would not have granted him a rematch. But they did box again with Fury stopping Wilder the second time around and going in to win their titanic third tussle. Fury is now widely recognised as the best in the division, and rightly so. But had someone other than Reiss been the referee, that may not have been the case.

Tyson Fury boxing

HAGLER’S CHOICE

Often, a fighter’s camp will quibble about who will be officiating their fight. Such was the case when Marvin Hagler boxed Sugar Ray Leonard. England’s veteran official Harry Gibbs was put forward as one of the judges but the Petronelli brothers, who trained and managed Hagler, rejected him. They accepted Mexican judge Jo Jo Guerra instead. Their logic was that Guerra would prefer Hagler’s come-forward Mexican style over Leonard’s flashy one.

It backfired, as Hagler lost a split decision in which Guerra’s 118-110 scorecard in Leonard’s favour was roundly criticized. Even Sugar Ray admitted that score was hard to justify.

Instead of being a part of the April 6,1987 fight at ringside in Las Vegas, Gibbs viewed it at home in England. Asked his opinion afterward, Gibbs said he thought Hagler had won it. Of course there is no certainty Gibbs would have reached the same conclusion had he viewed it from ringside, but there is certainly a good chance he would. Had that been the case, Hagler would have retained his world middleweight title by a split decision instead of losing it on one.

When Hagler could not get an immediate rematch he retired. But it is hard to fathom them not having one had Marvin received the decision instead of Ray. That is something all boxing fans would have welcomed and probably gotten if Gibbs had been in the judges’ chair instead of Guerra.

ALI – ONE, TWO, THREE

Many call him the greatest of all time but Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, barely escaped defeat for three fights in a row. Had he lost any of them his career, legend, and boxing history would have been greatly affected.

The first of those three calls was on March 13, 1963 when he rallied over the last two rounds of a 10, to win a unanimous decision over Doug Jones [pictured above] by scores of 8-1-1, 5-4-1, and 5-4-1. The last two scores were desperately close and the fans booed loudly when the decision was announced.

The second near miss was on June 18, 1963 in England, when a Henry Cooper left hook floored Ali heavily as the fourth round was coming to a close. Ali got up in a daze, but the bell rang before Cooper could throw another punch. There was a small delay coming out for the fifth when it was revealed that one of Ali’s gloves had a slight tear, but was inconsequential to the ultimate outcome. The real sliding doors moment is the point at which Cooper launched his famed left hook; had it come 10 or 15 seconds earlier, would Ali have survived?

The third and closest he came to defeat was when Ali challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964. Whether there was foul play from the Liston corner or not we’ll never know, but a burning solution found its way into Ali’s eyes making it hard for him to see. In a panic, he told his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Instead Dundee lifted Ali up and sent him out for the fifth round with the instructions to keep away from Liston. Ali’s eyes gradually cleared and, as they say, the rest is history.

Had there been another trainer in the corner instead of Dundee he might have acquiesced to Ali’s wishes or delayed sending him out for the fifth round, in which case referee Barney Felix would have probably stopped it. Felix later said he was considering doing just that when Ali did not come out for the round fast enough.

Would Ali have gotten another chance at the title? Would he have gone into the military? Would the Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier have taken place? Because of the quick thinking and professionalism of Dundee we’ll never know. For that we should all be thankful.

Muhammad Ali

LAMOTTA SAYS NO

Jake LaMotta was a crowd favorite having defeated many quality boxers, Sugar Ray Robinson among them. But because he constantly rejected doing business with mobsters essentially controlling the sport at the time, a title shot was not forthcoming. Eventually he relented and agreed to throw a contest against Billy Fox on November 14, 1947 at MSG. That opened the door to Jake being matched with world middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan two years later, who he defeated for the crown.

It is fascinating to think what would have happened to LaMotta had he stuck to his guns, and not given in and thrown the fight against Fox. The best comparison might be welterweight Billy Graham, who boxed in the same era as LaMotta, and was equally as popular at the time. Graham was told it would be in his best interests to get rid of his manager if he ever wanted to become champion. He refused. It did not prevent him from getting a shot at welterweight champ Kid Gavilan, who by all accounts Graham defeated clearly over the 15 round distance. However, Gavilan was given the decision, one of the worst in boxing history. For the rest of his life Graham would be referred to as the uncrowned champion. Later it was reported that one of the judges admitted the fix was in. Although no one can condone throwing a fight, had LaMotta not done so, his career might have turned out to be vastly different. Instead of being remembered as one of the most charismatic champions of all time, LaMotta probably would have been no more than a popular contender in the mold of a George Chuvalo. There would not have been the 1981 movie Raging Bull that resulted in Robert De Niro winning the Academy Award for best actor and boosting LaMotta’s profile until his dying day.

A ROCKY VICTORY

Rocky Marciano was a rising star, when he took on Roland LaStarza who had been perfect through 37. That March 24, 1950 contest in New York was the equivalent of what we saw in 2020 when Daniel Dubois did battle with Joe Joyce. Except, unlike that fight, this 10-rounder ended desperately close when Marciano escaped with a split decision by the narrowest of margins. Scored on the rounds system, each garnered a 5-4-1 score from the judges with referee Jack Watson having them level at 5-5. Under New York’s rules, Watson’s scorecard then tallied up the points to break the stalemate. Marciano, by virtue of a big fourth round in which he dropped LaStarza, had more points, hence the victory.

Two-and-a-half years later Marciano won the world heavyweight championship, and probably would have been in a position to do so even had the LaStarza decision not gone his way, but Rocky’s legacy of being an unbeaten champion would never have gotten off the ground. The Marciano legend hinged on a single round on one scorecard. Too close for comfort even though he did stop LaStarza in a rematch after he won the title.

ROBINSON BEATS THE CLOCK

In the summer of 1951, world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson went on a world tour to Europe. He boxed seven times in seven weeks; the first six were non-title matches where he dominated as expected. However, in that seventh fight, with his title on the line, he suffered a shock defeat, being outpointed by Britisher Randy Turpin at Earls Court in Kensington.

The result sent reverberations throughout the boxing world and jolted Robinson back into reality. He trained hard for the rematch a mere two months later at New York’s Polo Grounds, but as the rounds went by it became apparent that Turpin’s victory in the first fight was not a fluke. Robinson raced to a lead, but Turpin came on, winning both the eighth and ninth rounds to pull even on one scorecard, and was barely behind on the other two. But of much greater urgency to Robinson was getting cut over the left eye early in the 10th. The cut was so severe that referee Ruby Goldstein informed Robinson that he would not allow the fight to continue beyond the round. The message was clear, either knock Turpin out in that round or lose the fight. Considering that Sugar Ray had not even hurt Turpin in either fight at that point, it was a monumental task.

Robinson’s sense of urgency was evident by his all-out attack. Turpin just had to survive, kill time and the fight was his. Robinson rocked Turpin a couple of times and finally broke through with a big right that sent the champion to the canvas. Turpin got up at nine, hurt, but still had his faculties about him. Robinson forced Turpin to the ropes and threw a barrage of blows, some getting through and some not. Turpin remained on his feet, but the fury of the attack forced him to slump forward, head lowered. Goldstein stopped it with eight seconds remaining in the round. Naturally Turpin disputed the stoppage, but to most objective observers it seemed justified.

Turpin’s argument was that there was so little time left that he could have made it out of the round and then been fully recovered before the next. And had that been the case, the lofty status that Robinson enjoys today as the consensus greatest fighter of all time might be occupied by someone else. Two consecutive defeats to Turpin in title matches, while in his prime, certainly would have been reason to reevaluate Robinson’s standing among the legends of the sport.

Randolph Turpin vs Sugar Ray Robinson

JUDGING CANELO

We complain about bad decisions yet tend to readily accept the official verdicts. A case in point would be Canelo Álvarez’ two matches against Gennady Golovkin. The first one was called a split draw even though the overwhelming consensus had Golovkin a worthy winner.

The second fight was closer, with the majority feeling that this time around a draw would have been the fairest result, but Álvarez was awarded a majority decision. Golovkin closed the rematch strongly and looked to have won the final round, but Steve Weisfeld, a normally excellent judge scored the session for Canelo. Had he scored it for Golovkin the outcome would have been yet another draw. And had that happened, or if Golovkin had got the victory he deserved the first time, it’s a stretch to imagine Canelo where he is today.

DEMPSEY’S FALL

The portrait by artist George Bellows of Jack Dempsey being knocked out of the ring by Luis Ángel Firpo is a classic. That wild fight on September 14, 1923 at New York’s Polo Grounds, saw Dempsey knocked down seconds into the fight, before sending Firpo to the canvas seven times. On the brink of defeat, Firpo lashed out with a desperation attack that sent Dempsey sailing out of the ring. Jack landed hard on his back having crashed into a typewriter. He also sustained a gash on the back of his head. With a few helping hands Dempsey beat the count. The bell rang soon after. Dempsey recovered and dropped Firpo twice more in the second round to win by a knockout.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Dempsey might not have beaten the count had he not been aided. You can also make an argument that a disqualification may have been in order since he did not completely beat the count of his own doing.

Had Dempsey not recovered to win, the Firpo contest would have gone down as the greatest knockout in boxing history. It would have probably resulted in Dempsey being the first man to regain the heavyweight crown as well. Without a doubt, promoter Tex Rickard would have set up an immediate rematch. Regardless, the passage of time would have been altered.

A CONN JOB ON LOUIS

On June 18, 1941 at the Polo Grounds, Billy Conn challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown. Louis was an overwhelming favourite, but as the fight unfolded was steadily falling behind. The Brown Bomber was befuddled by his smaller and quicker opponent, who was putting on a masterful boxing display.

Conn’s confidence was growing by the minute. In the 12th round he completely disregarded Louis’ vaunted power and tore into him with a volley of blows, staggering the bigger man. When he got back to his corner, Conn’s team pleaded with him not to take any chances, that he only had to play it safe the rest of the way, and he would be the new heavyweight champion of the world. But Conn, who had relinquished his world light heavyweight title to box for the heavyweight championship would have none of that, he would knock Louis out or so he thought.

Continuing where he left off in the 12th, Conn stood in front of Louis and exchanged punches in the 13th. Louis suddenly came alive late in the round hurting Conn. One punch landed after the next. Conn could not hold or move out of danger. The only thing he could do was crumple. Down he went, gamely regaining his feet just as referee Eddie Joseph counted to 10 at 2-58 of the round.

The myth perpetuated over the tears was that all Conn had to do was finish on his feet to win. That is factually incorrect. At the time of the stoppage he led 7-4-1 and 7-5 on two scorecards, the other being 6-6. But it’s hard to believe that Conn would not have at least won one of the three remaining rounds had he boxed carefully.

Had Conn played it safe it is questionable whether Louis could have caught up with him. Or had he beaten the count, Conn most certainly would have made it out of the round with only two seconds remaining. With the minute to recover, Conn might have won at least one of the remaining rounds.

They boxed again five years later, both past their best. Louis won in eight rounds. But it’s the first fight that went down in boxing history as a classic. Had Conn stuck to his boxing, he would have been the first light-heavyweight champion to have won the heavyweight crown and Louis’ record of 25 consecutive title defences, and his near 12-year reign as king would both have taken a substantial dent.

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