THE Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier contest in 1971 provided the inspiration to me, as a 13-year old, to become a lifelong follower of the Noble Art. Rightly called the ‘Fight of the Century’, this bout transcended the sport and was followed the world over by fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps the only other fight in the 20th century that could be ranked alongside it was the 1910 bout between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries. The pre-fight publicity for this match also labelled it the ‘Fight of the Century’ and the term has been much used ever since. If Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury ever do meet, then this label could legitimately be applied again.
The first instance that I can find for the use of the phrase pertaining to a British contest occurred in 1911, when Bermondsey’s Jim Sullivan met the American, Billy Papke, at the London Palladium. At the time, Papke was only 24 years old and yet he had won and lost the world middleweight title three years previously. He beat the all-time great Stanley Ketchel in a brutal fight in 1908 to claim the title, before losing it in an equally savage return bout two months later. It is claimed that Papke was unrecognisable, even to his wife, after his losing battle with Ketchel, such was the hammering that he took.
Sullivan was the British middleweight champion at the time of his bout with Papke. He had dethroned the tragic Welshman, Tom Thomas, the previous year and the match against Papke was his first major test on the world stage. The contest was a clash of the two styles then prevalent in the game – the English style and the American style. The latter came to predominate the sport as the century wore on, but in 1911 the jury was still very much out on which was the more effective of the two. The Sporting Life, then an important newspaper for boxing, summed up Sullivan’s style as “essentially English, standing up well, having a delightfully fine straight left and a most telling uppercut.” By contrast, Papke’s style was referred to in just a few words – “American in every way.”
As was typical at the time, the fight was billed for the world title, even though there was no justification for doing so. Sullivan was the champion of Britain, and Papke was the last middleweight to beat the now-dead champion, Ketchel. The outstanding claimant was probably Frank Klaus, but that made no difference to the promoter, Hugh D. McIntosh, whose ‘Fight of the Century’ needed world title status in order to sell the tickets.
The fight itself was typical of so many other contests between men from opposite sides of the Atlantic at this time. Sullivan boxed the American to a standstill virtually from the start, and a reporter stated that “Papke knew little or nothing of the real art of boxing and appeared to have no idea whatever how to use his left.” The American was extremely adept at using foul tactics and he used his head with good effect. Sullivan’s point-scoring failed to weaken the American, however, and this became more of a problem as the bout wore on. Papke was boxing like a novice, and his lunging right swings missed with great frequency. The question remained as to whether Sullivan could avoid these vicious swings for the full 20 rounds. Round nine provided the answer. A “dreadful right up-swing” reached Sullivan in the pit of the stomach, causing him to fall like a log, out to the world.
The British ‘Fight of the Century’ had ended with the Englishman being flattened by one punch, despite being miles ahead, and another nail had been hammered into the coffin of the English style. By 1971, and the time of the real ‘Fight of the Century’, this argument had long been settled.