Feature

Murray Sutherland and the birth of the super-middleweight division

In 1984, Murray Sutherland, a machinist from Scotland, beat Ernie Singletary to become the first ever 168-pound world champion, writes Elliot Worsell

THE story of Murray Sutherland’s boxing career, as well as that of the super-middleweight division, can be told in seven phone calls, the first of which occurred all the way back in January 1974.

Just 20 years of age, Murray was living in Edinburgh, Scotland at the time, but was keen to follow his brother to Canada and get a job as a machinist.

“My brother put a word in for me,” recalls Sutherland, a qualified machinist long before he was the world’s first ever super-middleweight champion. “So they interviewed me over the phone, offered me the job, and a month later I visited the embassy to get the immigration papers in order. That was it. Goodbye Scotland.”

Sutherland was two weeks shy of his 21st birthday when he left for Canada, and it was there, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to be exact, he began his professional boxing career in August 1977.

One defeat, two defeats, Sutherland’s pro career didn’t exactly get off to the most promising of starts, nor suggest he was going to one day become a world champion. But he moved to America in 1978 and things quickly started to improve.

“Man,” he says, trying not to laugh, “that was a tough time to be around in the sport. That light-heavyweight division was full of animals.  

“During the early part of ’79, I remember a guy called Matt Franklin beating Marvin Johnson for the title and thinking, how the hell can anyone compete with this guy? He’s a savage.

“Little did I know, two years later I’d be stepping into the ring with this Matt Franklin, then known as Matthew Saad Muhammad, and trying to figure out a way to compete with him.”

In April 1981, Sutherland met Saad Muhammad, who was on a thrilling run of 16 straight wins, and attempted to steal his WBC light-heavyweight crown.

“It was a tremendous experience,” Murray continues, “but I was too immature to fight for the title at that time. I hadn’t matured into a seasoned fighter and didn’t have enough confidence. I knew I was tough and would give it a go, but never truly believed I had what it took to get the better of someone like Saad Muhammad.”

Eventually stopped in nine rounds, Sutherland could now relate to stories of other Saad Muhammad opponents who sensed they had the upper hand moments before it all went wrong.

“Boy, for the first five or six rounds I kicked the living s**t out of him,” he says. “Then again, a lot of people did.

“But Matthew was just so tough and so strong – both physically and mentally – and he’d always find a way to win. He knew, even if he was getting his a**e kicked, there would be ways of getting to you later on. So he kept going.”

As did Sutherland. Which is not to say it got any easier for the doughty Scotsman. In fact, a year after battling Saad Muhammad, he was stopped in eight rounds by Michael Spinks, a man he’d previously boxed in 1980, this time for the WBA world light-heavyweight title.

“Spinks was good first time round, but we went 10 rounds and I never felt uncomfortable or out of my league,” he recalls. “What I remember about Spinks, though, was how different he looked in the rematch two years later.

“By this time Spinks was WBA world champion. He was undefeated in 19 fights and had beaten Eddie Mustafa Muhammad over 15 rounds to win the title. No longer a boy, he was now a man beating some very good fighters. And I could sense it, too. He had improved so, so much. He was a totally different fighter.”

Leon Spinks topples Larry Holmes

Phone call number two. This one took place in 1983, the year Murray’s son was born, and required his mother summoning him from the garden of his home to take the call inside. Once on the phone, his manager revealed he had received an offer for him to fight Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns.

“How much?” said Murray.

It was, he says, the first and only question he asked.

“Sixty-five thousand dollars,” was the reply.

“Sign it.”

“It’s in two weeks.”

“I don’t care. Sign it.”

Sutherland, a willing late-replacement, would oppose Hearns, 36-1, just seven months after he had beaten Wilfred Benitez to claim the WBC world super-welterweight title.

“I had sparred Hearns at the Kronk before, which helped,” Murray said. “We’d shoot the s**t in the locker room and got along. So when it came time to fight him in ’83, it wasn’t a big deal. While a lot of people were full of awe and fear when they boxed Hearns, it wasn’t like that for me.”

Phone call number three: Murray’s father was on the other end, concerned about his son’s date with a ‘Hitman’.

“Oh my God, Murray, what are you doing?” he said. “That guy’s a legend!”

Sutherland, having shared a ring with Hearns, and got to know the man behind the monster, simply laughed it off. “Yeah?” he said. “Well, I’m about to hopefully take his legend away from him.”

Tommy Hearns
Sutherland went the distance with the legendary Hearns (Action Images)

He didn’t, of course. Sutherland, instead, was soundly outpointed over 10 rounds. But it was a learning experience all the same and, moreover, having boxed Hearns at a catchweight of 162lbs, two pounds above the middleweight limit, the Scot now fantasised about a weight class between middleweight and light-heavyweight (175lbs).

“My walking around weight was between 178 and 181,” he said. “Five weeks out from the fight, I’d already be below my fighting weight of 175, and would eventually be walking around at 170 or 171 during fight week.

“Basically, I was much too small to be a proper, strong light-heavyweight. The likes of Saad Muhammad and Spinks would walk around anywhere between 195 and 200lbs and would then have to train down to the 175lb limit. They were big, strong animals at that weight.”

Phone call number four. It was now 1984 and Murray Sutherland was all but resigned to never becoming a world champion. Training for a non-title 10-rounder against Ernie Singletary, a decent journeyman cut from similar cloth, he was content to graft in mountainous West Virginia and feel the perks of elevation. But then one day his manager got in touch.

“Murray,” he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you. I just got a call from (IBF founding president) Bobby Lee at the IBF and you’re going to be fighting for the first ever super-middleweight championship of the world.”

Two weeks from fight night, Sutherland was shocked. He was familiar with the term ‘championship of the world’ but had no idea what the letters IBF represented.

“What the hell is that?” he said.

“It’s the IBF’s new title.”

“Sure. But what the hell is the IBF?”

A new term in boxing, the International Boxing Federation (IBF) had emerged from the ashes of the United States Boxing Association (USBA), which first materialised in September 1976, and acted as a springboard for boxers looking to climb the rankings of the World Boxing Association (WBA). Then, during an annual convention in April 1983, members of the USBA voted to expand the organisation and create an international division, later resulting in the formation of the United States Boxing Association-International (USBA-I).

The plan was for the USBA-I to recognise and rank distinguished world champions who might one day fight under its banner. For example, Marvin Hagler, the WBC and WBA middleweight king, found his way on to the USBA-I’s first list of rankings, and when he and Wilford Scypion, his next opponent, entered into a dispute with the sanctioning bodies regarding the duration of their May 1983 bout, the USBA-I were able to swoop in and offer exactly what the pair wanted – 15 rounds and a belt. Out went the WBC and WBA, who now preferred 12-rounders, and in stepped the USBA-1.

It wasn’t until 1984, however, that a vote was passed to change the name of the organisation from the USBA-I to the International Boxing Federation (IBF), after which Sutherland and Singletary fought for the right to become boxing’s first super-middleweight champion.

“Ernie Singletary wasn’t a Hearns, Spinks or a Saad Muhammad,” says Murray. “Ernie was the sort of guy who’d give those guys a good fight, but lose on points. And that was okay because I was that sort of guy, too.

“So it was a strange kind of world title fight. It was a match-up between two guys who give world champions a good fight but ultimately come up short. We had now been given this shot to finally fulfil a dream – to win a version of the world title – and I knew this was as good a chance as I was ever going to get.”

His friend, Tommy Hearns, realised this as well. Hence phone call number five.

“When news broke that this Singletary fight would be for a title, I got a great call from Tommy,” Sutherland says. “He had fought Singletary and warned me against trying to knock him out. He said, “Whatever you do, Murray, don’t try and knock this cat out. He’s like a fireplug. Just box his head off. I hit him with some great shots, but he just shook his head and kept on coming.’”

On the night of March 28, 1984, inside Harrah’s Marina Hotel Casino, Atlantic City, Sutherland adhered Tommy’s advice and chipped away at Singletary for 15 rounds, eventually winning by unanimous decision.

“I’ve always said I owe that world title to the altitude training I did in West Virginia,” says Sutherland, whose Scottish accent has stayed loyal but is intermittently nudged aside by an American twang. “Without it, the 15-round distance would have been a damn sight harder. But I felt like a machine on the night and knew this was probably my final shot at ever being able to call myself a world champion.

“I remember during the later rounds I was sitting on the stool, perfectly content, and my trainer said, ‘Murray, you can get this guy out of there if you just keep on him. He’s ready to go.’ But I shook my head and said, calmly, ‘Look, I’m doing what I’ve got to do to win this title. I’m not taking any chances.’”

And yet, upon securing the world championship, Sutherland felt nothing. No power, no stardom, nothing. It wasn’t exactly how he imagined it.

“With it being a new title, nobody knew how long it would stick around,” he explains. “We already had the WBC, the WBA, and a few others on the periphery. Already it was starting to get ridiculous. So this new title I’d won, my world title, was just another. None of us knew whether it would be a paper title or a respected title. In many ways, I wouldn’t realise I had become a proper world champion until years later.”

James DeGale
James DeGale would later hold Sutherland’s old IBF title (Action Images/Andrew Couldridge)

Phone call number six. With a world title to his name, Murray Sutherland became a man in demand and was soon offered an enticing $75,000 to defend it in South Korea against Chong-Pal Park. “Get on the phone,” he told his manager, “and tell them we’ll sign.”

Alas, four months after winning the belt, Sutherland was knocked down by Park in rounds two, eight and eleven, stopped in the penultimate round, and lost his champion status as a result. Yet it’s tough to miss something you never really understood.

“That was a money fight, plain and simple,” says Sutherland. “It was a big purse and it made sense. Nobody knew what would come of this super-middleweight division, or the title, so I figured it was best to cash in while the going was reasonably good.”

Phone call number seven. Mine. Now 63, Murray Sutherland’s surprised. Doesn’t get many calls these days, he admits, and certainly not from folk wanting to speak to him about his 47-14-1 (39) boxing career.

“You’ll never find me announce myself as the former super-middleweight champion of the world,” he says, chuckling inside his home in Midland, Michigan. “I’ll never bring it up and I try my damnedest to gloss over the fact I was ever even a boxer.

“But sometimes a friend will mention it to someone – you know, ‘Murray used to be a world champion boxer’ – and that’s how the conversation gets initiated. Of course, when people hear this, they don’t believe it’s true. They say, ‘How could that old guy ever be a world champion boxer?’”

A lot of fights and a few important phone calls. That’s how.

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