SINCE the day over a hundred years ago, when Tex Rickard guaranteed Jack Johnson and James J Jeffries $101,000 each and two-thirds of the movie rights, plus $10,000 each as a signing-on fee, there has been nothing in boxing to rival the anticipation of a heavyweight championship fight.
That day in Meyer’s Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey, when Rickard outbid ‘Tuxedo’ Eddie Graney and ‘Sunny’ Jim Coffroth from San Francisco, ‘Uncle’ Tom McCarey of Los Angeles and the Australian, Hugh McIntosh, took heavyweight boxing into the modern era.
Johnson, the son of an illiterate slave, had won the title against the Canadian, Tommy Burns, on Boxing Day 1908. Almost from the moment Burns was rescued in the 14th round, ‘white America’ had clamoured for the old, undefeated champion, Jeffries, to come out of retirement in California and put matters straight.
It took 18 months, six of which Jeffries needed to drill himself into shape at the age of 35, but on Independence Day, 1910, the two fighters walked through the capacity 15,760 crowd in Rickard’s especially built wooden arena in Reno, Nevada, to meet in what was then the biggest prize-fight the world had ever seen. Outside, another 15,000, unable to get tickets, milled around, waiting for news.
Johnson ignored, as he always did, the attempts to intimidate him and seemed completely at ease as he strolled around the ring and systematically chopped Jeffries to pieces. In the 15th round the old man went down three times and the fight was stopped.
The next day riots broke out. A total of 19 people died and 251 were seriously injured. “Most of the casualties were negroes,” reported one London newspaper.
Eleven years later Rickard was entering his Golden Era, when he made boxing respectable among the well-to-do citizens of New York, thanks largely to his support for the milk fund charity run by the wife of newspaper baron Randolph Hearst.
On July 2, 1921, Rickard’s heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey defended his title against the glamorous French war-hero, Georges Carpentier, before 80,183 people in a purpose-built stadium on a site known as Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, just across the Hudson from Manhattan.
Rickard played on the contrast between Carpentier’s heroics in the French air force in World War I and Dempsey’s reputation as a slacker who avoided the responsibility of serving his country.
Rickard knew it was a mismatch, Dempsey was way too heavy, too hard-hitting and too tough for the Frenchman, whose official weight was 172lbs, but who could probably have made middleweight. The promoter pushed the attractive personality of the “Orchid Man”, ensured the interest of the society crowd, and subtly avoided having Carpentier train in public.
When the fight materialised, Carpentier landed several lashing punches but broke his thumb on Dempsey’s skull, which rendered useless his best weapon, his fast, accurate right hand. Dempsey walked through his defences and knocked him out in the fourth.
That fight reaped an astonishing total in gate receipts of $1,789,238 – and Dempsey was suddenly one of the biggest attractions in the America that F Scott Fitzgerald labelled The Jazz Age.
After his wild two-round knockout of Luis Angel Firpo at the New York Polo Grounds in 1923, Dempsey went off to Hollywood to make films and married an actress, Estelle Taylor. He was out of the ring for three years. When he announced that he would box again, the clamour for tickets was astonishing. Rickard had another sure-fire seller.
Dempsey had gone to seed, but in his absence the one-time villain had become a national icon, the common man grown great. His opponent, in Philadelphia, in September 1926, was Gene Tunney, who was skilful, talented but under-valued in his own time because of his comparatively remote personality.
Tunney was almost a peripheral figure until, on that rainy night in the Sesquicentennial Stadium, he astonished most in the incredible crowd of 120,757 by outboxing Dempsey to take the 10-round decision.
Roll the clock forward again, to June 1938, and you have the notorious rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, who had knocked him out in the 12th round two years before. Louis, not Schmeling, had got the title shot against the old champion James J Braddock and had climbed off the floor to win in eight.
By the time of the rematch the world was so much closer to war again, and Schmeling, inevitably, was seen by Americans as a representative of Nazi Germany.
It was a sporting event that outgrew itself, became a political tool. Louis found himself the hero of his country, not for his boxing ability, but as an American involved in a symbolic fight against totalitarian oppression.
According to those who were there in the build-up, the atmosphere was incredibly tense – and on that hot summer’s night, all that exploded inside Louis, who smashed Schmeling to the canvas three times in 124 seconds. As the German half turned away under the onslaught, a punch caught him in the back and his piercing scream was heard over the din of the 70,043 paying customers in Yankee Stadium.
Back in Germany, the radio broadcast lasted just long enough for the commentary to convey the news of the defeat, then was replaced by music: the Nazi anthem, the Horst-Wessel-Lied, and then Deutschland Uber Alles.
In Harlem half a million people had a party.
Patriotism had a whole new meaning by the time Muhammad Ali challenged “Smokin” Joe Frazier for his old world crown at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
Ali had been stripped of the title because he had refused to be conscripted into the US Armed Forces in the war in Vietnam.
Ali, then Cassius Clay, had won gold at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Frazier had done the same in Tokyo in 1964. Frazier had won recognition as world champion from the New York Commission by defeating Buster Mathis, and then earned full recognition by destroying Ali’s old sparring partner Jimmy Ellis.
Since Ali’s return to the ring in Atlanta, Georgia, against Jerry Quarry, in October 1970 the fight with Frazier was inevitable..
They called this meeting of unbeaten heavyweights The Fight of the Century – and the boxers split a $5 million guarantee equally. Frank Sinatra took photographs at ringside for Life magazine. Burt Lancaster did a little commentary for the closed-circuit broadcast. Everybody who was anybody was there.
Frazier took punishment without flinching, but kept on backing Ali up and landing that left hook. It seemed close going into the last, but then one left hook too many exploded against Ali’s jaw and he went down, his face swelling even as he clawed his way back on to his feet. He lasted to the final bell, but this was the night Smokin’ Joe touched greatness and Ali, for the first time in his professional life, tasted defeat.
Ali, of course, was far from done. Frazier could never recapture the magic of that night and when he lost the title in two brutal rounds to George Foreman, who had won gold at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, it seemed as if the torch had passed on again.
Foreman destroyed Ken Norton in two rounds in March 1974 and immediately Ali announced he was next. Few gave him a chance, some even feared for his safety. He had won a return with Frazier, but it had gone 12 rounds. Norton had broken Ali’s jaw in a first fight and lost a tight decision in the return. Foreman was undefeated, a ruinous puncher without, it seemed, an ounce of compassion.
They took the fight to the Twentieth of May Stadium in Kinshasa, capital of Zaire, a country most Americans would still have trouble pin-pointing on a map. Ali, as outrageous as ever, declared he was back among his kin-folk in Africa and settled down to have fun. The world watched on the night of October 30, 1974, to witness what looked like ritual slaughter.
Instead they saw a sporting miracle.
Ali bossed Foreman mentally from the first bell, soaked up and blocked his heavy swings, laying on the ropes for what seemed an eternity until he cut loose in the eighth round and knocked him out.
By September 1985 Ali’s successor, the truculent, sometimes bitter but immensely talented Larry Holmes, was one fight away from equalling the 49-fight unbeaten run of the great Rocky Marciano. Holmes was not what he had been. He was 35, slower, easier to hit.
He had been offended by the lack of credit he received, coming as he did in the wake of Ali, and then he took the comparison with Marciano, not as a compliment, but an insult. Marciano, he declared, to the horror of publicists, was not fit to carry his jock-strap.
His opponent for his 49th fight, at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, was the light-heavyweight champion and 1976 Olympic middleweight gold medallist Michael Spinks, brother of Leon.
Spinks was unbeaten and undoubtedly talented but Holmes, it was thought, would be too big, too strong and ringwise for him. Spinks, in fact, turned out to be a nuisance, competitive, brave and willing to fight every step of the way. Most felt Holmes had done enough at the end of 15 tiring rounds – but not the men who mattered: Harold Lederman and Dave Moretti saw it 143-142 and Larry Wallace 145-142, all for Spinks [see featured image].
Holmes was furious, smelled skull-duggery and revenge for his Marciano remark.
He complained even more bitterly when they met again at the Las Vegas Hilton in April 1986. Again, Holmes seemed to many to have won. Again, the judges voted for Spinks, this time on a split. Joe Cortez scored for Holmes 144-141, but was over-ruled by Frank Brunette (144-141) and Jerry Roth (144-142) for Spinks.
At the start of 1990, the heavyweight fight everyone was talking about was between Mike Tyson and the undefeated former cruiserweight champ Evander Holyfield. Tyson was 23, the rampaging bully of the division, Holyfield altogether quieter, older at 27, a more patient, less exciting but absolutely accomlished man.
Tyson took what amounted to a warm-up in Tokyo against Buster Douglas and was sensationally knocked out. Holyfield saw his huge payday evaporate as he sat at ringside working for British television newcomers Sky.
Douglas then lost to Holyfield and the Tyson fight was resurrected, only to come apart again, first because of an injury and then when Tyson was jailed for rape. By the time he emerged from prison in Indiana in 1995, Holyfield seemed a shot fighter and when Tyson had flourished briefly and regained at least a portion of his old championship, Don King fed him what appeared the ghost of the once-wonderful Holyfield in October 1996.
Very few gave Holyfield a chance, but he was astonishing, peaking once again by beating Tyson to the punch repeatedly and countering. Tyson was down from a left hook and took a pounding before Holyfield stopped him in the 11th to complete one of the great modern heavyweight upsets.
The return, the following June, blew Tyson’s reputation apart and earned him a $3 million fine from the Nevada Commission: he was disqualified, horribly late by Mills Lane, for biting both of Holyfield’s ears in separate incidents in the third round.
By the late 1990s Holyfield and Lewis were the rival ‘world’ champions and for the first time in almost a decade, the match was made that would unify the WBC, WBA and IBF titles. These old rivals, who had both boxed at the Los Angeles Olympics way back in 1984, met at Madison Square Garden in March 1999.
Lewis boxed behind his jab, rode a tough fourth – the round Holyfield had predicted a knockout – and then almost stopped Evander in the fifth. It went on for the full 12, at the end of which Lewis seemed a decisive winner. The judges somehow came up with a draw, which caused such an outcry that the New York State authorities launched an investigation.
Nothing came of that, but they did have a return in Las Vegas in November 1999, and this time Lewis not only outboxed Holyfield, but was given the unanimous decision. The millennia ended with a unified heavyweight champion.
Lewis and Tyson had sparred as teenagers and a fight between them had long seemed inevitable. It should have happened in 1996 when Tyson was WBC champion and Lewis the No. l challenger. However, under the leadership of Don King, Tyson offered Lewis step-aside money. Lewis, feeling that Tyson wanted no part of him, took the substantial amount of money and went his own way.
By 2002 Lewis was in his third spell as world champion, Tyson near the end, but at last the fight was made, in spite of the fact that the fighters were with rival US television companies, HBO and Showtime.
There was a false start when Tyson attacked Lewis and bit his leg at a bizarre press conference to launch the fight, which ensured the fight was kicked out of Las Vegas, but money talks – and Memphis, Tennessee, came to the rescue.
And so in June 2002 Lewis and Tyson fought at last. Once the first round was over, it was obvious Tyson just didn’t have it any more. Lewis was too big, too good, and boxed meticulously before cutting down a demoralised, hurt Tyson with a big right hand in the eighth. Maybe it would have happened had they boxed in 1996, maybe not. We can argue about that but will never know.
After one more defence, against Vitali Klitschko, Lewis retired. Tyson owed millions, so fought on until 2005 when he was almost 40 years old.