Thursday, June 08, 2023  |


The real heavyweight championship of the world and its history – Part 1

Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) never met for real, but both were part of the true heavyweight championship lineage. Photo by THE RING Archive
Fighters Network

For nearly three decades, the heavyweight division has existed in a state of flux where up to four men have simultaneously claimed ownership of what long has been the greatest prize in sports. In earlier eras, identifying “the man who beat the man” was a simple task since there was a single and direct line of succession. But the combination of retirements and multiple “world” titles have permanently destroyed the concept of a champion whose line can be directly traced back to John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion of the gloved era. Instead, one must either use fights between the top two recognized contenders to determine the next recipient or honor the results of head-to-head meetings between the formerly-retired owner of the line and his still-active successor. As is usually the case with boxing, opinions are split.

In my eyes, the last event which resulted in one man being able to call himself “the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world” occurred June 27, 1988 in Atlantic City when WBA/WBC/IBF champion Mike Tyson destroyed Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, more than 10 months before the fledgling WBO staged its first heavyweight title fight in Italy between Italian Francesco Damiani and South African Johnny Du Plooy.

While Tyson owned all the available heavyweight hardware coming into the Spinks bout, many observers honored Spinks’ claim for two reasons. First, his twin victories over longtime champion Larry Holmes, who, thanks to his overwhelming win over previous line-holder Muhammad Ali in October 1980, was considered the genuine champion by most at the time Spinks first beat him. Second, the fact that Spinks lost his belt by administrative fiat rather than by being beaten inside the ring (the IBF stripped him for choosing to fight Gerry Cooney instead of mandatory challenger Tony Tucker). Once the bell sounded for Tyson vs. Spinks, however, all doubts about “Iron Mike’s” claim were vaporized. (Editor’s Note: Spinks was THE RING heavyweight champion at the time he fought Tyson.)

Since then, the division has been muddled. Thirteen men have held the WBC title after Tyson-Spinks while 19 have held various versions of the WBA belt, 13 the IBF strap and 18 the WBO bauble since its creation. However, a light at the end of this deepest, darkest tunnel emerged.

Barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, the boxing world will experience the equivalent of March Madness’ Final Four, for on March 3, WBC titlist Deontay Wilder will meet Luis Ortiz at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn while WBA/IBF titlist Anthony Joshua will fight the WBO’s Joseph Parker March 31 at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. The winners of those two fights then will meet to create the first undivided heavyweight champion of the four-belt era as well as becoming the latest owner of the heavyweight championship line of succession.
The following will detail how boxing resolved its past heavyweight title disputes, and if history is any indicator the route the upcoming “Final Four” will take will produce more than its share of interesting story lines — and more than its share of surprises.



Since the dawning of boxing’s modern era, the heavyweight division, from time to time, has been required to restore order following the retirement of its standard bearer, and the methods by which it was achieved have varied in terms of complexity and/or expense. The scenarios have ranged from one-and-done contests to elaborate tournaments staged over many months.

Jack Johnson. Photo by THE RING Archive

The first fight to fill a vacancy occurred when James J. Jeffries retired in May 1905 after having reigned for nearly six years and more than eight months after his last title defense, a second-round knockout of Jack Munroe. A fight to determine Jeffries’ successor was arranged with lightning speed for the times: A “fight-to-the-finish” contest on July 3, 1905 between reigning light heavyweight champion Jack Root and Kentuckian Marvin Hart, who, two fights earlier, outpointed Jack Johnson over 20 rounds. Not only did Jeffries choose the combatants, he also served as the bout’s referee.

Because Root had defeated Hart by six-round decision nearly three years earlier, he was installed as the 3-to-1 favorite. Root justified those odds by dropping Hart with a right to the point of the chin at the end of round seven, but even so, he was the one who struggled more with Reno’s 4,500-foot altitude as well as Hart’s 19-pound weight advantage (190 vs. 171). Though Root continued to strike Hart with all his strength, the blows lacked sufficient impact to hurt the southerner. The end came in the 12th when Hart ducked under Root’s left to the head and drilled a right to the pit of the stomach that produced a 10-count knockout. Though Hart was deemed the new champion, Jeffries, just four days later, injected a cloud of doubt over Hart’s status.

“I do not wish the public to get the idea that I am trying to make Marvin Hart the champion,” he said. “I am doing nothing of the sort. It is not for me to say who shall be champion. It might be well, however, for the public to consider Hart, say, as the champion pro tem. Put him on probation. This would stir up the now-slumbering army of heavyweights and result in a number of hard-fought battles which would eventually establish the right of Hart or some other man to championship honors beyond the question of a doubt.”

Hart lost the title in his first defense to Tommy Burns seven months later via 20-round decision and the line of succession continued for the next 24 years as Burns yielded to Jack Johnson (who cemented his claim by stopping the comebacking Jeffries), who fell to Jess Willard, who lost to Jack Dempsey, who was defeated by Gene Tunney.

Five days after Tunney stopped Tom Heeney in 11 rounds in July 1928, “The Fighting Marine” announced his retirement due to his perceived lack of sufficient challengers, a desire to leave the sport while on top (he was named THE RING’s 1928 Fighter of the Year) and his engagement to 21-year-old heiress Mary Josephine “Polly” Lauder, which was announced less than a month after the Heeney fight and took place the following Oct. 3. The heavyweight title, however, remained vacant until June 12, 1930 when Jack Sharkey, THE RING’s top-rated heavyweight, and Max Schmeling, the magazine’s No. 2 contender, met for Tunney’s vacant title before a crowd of 79,222 at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Because Tunney retired and never came back, the title lineage tracing back to John L. Sullivan was irreparably severed, but because the top two fighters as determined by THE RING — who published the most respected and trusted rankings — were facing one other, the winner would become the new owner of the line of succession. Each man’s credentials merited their respective rankings.

The 24-year-old Schmeling — whose features reminded many of Dempsey, his hero as a teen — was attempting to join Bob Fitzsimmons and Tommy Burns as the only non-U.S. fighters to capture the heavyweight title. The German built a 42-4-3 (29) thanks to a crippling right cross that scrambled the wires of even the most durable fighters. Schmeling shot to stardom in the U.S. market 16 months before meeting Sharkey when a series of right hands floored the iron-chinned Johnny Risko four times en route to a ninth-round TKO at Madison Square Garden. It was only the second KO loss of Risko’s 81-fight career to date, and the bout was named THE RING’s 1929 Fight of the Year. “The Black Uhlan” consolidated the Risko victory with a 15-round decision win over Paulino Uzcudun four-and-a-half months later at Yankee Stadium, a fight during which Schmeling fractured his dangerous right hand. The injury forced Schmeling to remain on the shelf for almost an entire year, by far the longest layoff of his career thus far. That lengthy hiatus was one reason Schmeling was installed as a 9-to-5 underdog against Sharkey.

Jack Dempsey. Photo by THE RING Archive

The 27-year-old Sharkey, born in Binghamton, N.Y. as Joseph Paul Zukauskas, anglicized his Lithuanian name to gain favor in his Irish-dominated adopted hometown of Boston, but it was his fusion of skillful boxing and hot-headedness that shaped his public image. To date, Sharkey’s most famous fight was a knockout loss to former champion Dempsey nearly three years earlier, a bout that saw Sharkey stagger Dempsey in the opening round and open a gash over the right eye in round two. Dempsey’s dogged body work got him back into the fight but in round seven one of those blows landed below the belt. As Sharkey turned his head to complain to referee Jack O’Sullivan, Dempsey fired a compact hook to the point of the jaw that dropped Sharkey like a shot. Ten seconds later, the fight was over and Dempsey had earned his rematch with Tunney.

When reporters asked Dempsey why he struck the distracted Sharkey, he uttered one of his most famous lines: “What was I supposed to do? Write him a letter?”

Following a 12-round draw to Heeney and a 15-round split decision loss to Risko, Sharkey rebuilt his standing with seven consecutive victories, four by knockout, to earn a crack at Tunney’s vacant title. Sharkey’s most recent bout was a three-round TKO victory over Englishman Phil Scott, whose nickname “Phainting Phil” came from his chronic claims of low blows that resulted in seven victories by DQ. Scott tried to claim win number eight against Sharkey by going down three times in round three, clutching his groin each time. Referee Lou Magnolia wasn’t fooled by Scott’s antics and, following the third knockdown, threatened to declare Scott the DQ loser if he refused to continue. A reluctant Scott opted to fight on, but Sharkey finished the job moments later with a series of legal punches.

The Dempsey and Scott fights that were marred by low blows provided a foreshadowing for what happened to Sharkey against Schmeling. After winning the first three rounds behind his busy jab and thudding crosses and uppercuts, Sharkey pressed his advantage in the fourth with a series of blistering right hands. In the waning seconds of the round, Schmeling moved in behind a left hook to the head just as Sharkey was ducking down to deliver a left to the body. Schmeling’s forearm pushed down on Sharkey’s head, changing the trajectory of the punch so that it struck the protective cup instead of the stomach.

The stricken Schmeling immediately fell to the canvas and repeatedly pointed to his groin to tell his corner and referee Jim Crowley he had just been fouled. Schmeling’s seconds rushed into the ring and carried their charge to his corner, where he remained for several minutes. An anxious Sharkey walked to Schmeling’s corner to see if his opponent was fit enough to continue, but when it became clear he wasn’t, the infuriated American, fearing he was about to be disqualified in the biggest fight of his life so far, yelled at the German and leaped skyward in frustration.

Sharkey’s worst fear came true a few minutes later when Schmeling was declared the winner by DQ, making the German the first and only man to win the heavyweight title on a foul.

“I thought I sunk a punch into his body,” Sharkey said. “Maybe it was low, but if it was, it was unintentional. Hell, I’d be out of my skull to purposely foul when I had the title in my hands.”

Thirteen months later Schmeling retained the title by stopping Young Stribling just 14 seconds before the final bell, then, nearly a year after that, he met Sharkey for the second time. Controversy struck once again as Sharkey won a split decision despite being thoroughly out-boxed. The egregiousness of the verdict prompted Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs to declare “we was robbed. We shoulda stood in bed.”

Over the next five years, the line of succession passed through Primo Carnera, Max Baer and James J. Braddock before it was seized by the legendary “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis, who reigned for nearly 12 years and recorded an all-time record 25 title defenses before announcing his retirement on March 1, 1949.

Photo by THE RING Archive

As was the case for Schmeling and Sharkey 19 years earlier, THE RING’s top two contenders were chosen to fill the vacancy: Jersey Joe Walcott, who gave Louis two of his toughest fights, and Ezzard Charles, a brilliant longtime light heavyweight who crafted a 62-5-1 (34) record with a blend of speed, power and ring intelligence and was fresh off a 15-round decision over future light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim. At 27, Charles was at his chronological peak and was riding a 15-fight winning streak, factors that established him as a solid 3 1/2-to-1 favorite.

Walcott was the sentimental choice entering their June 22, 1949 bout at Chicago’s Comiskey Park because he was a 35-year-old father of six who overcame poverty to come within a whisper of beating the fabled Louis in December 1947. Despite out-foxing Louis for long stretches with his shifty upper body movement and footwork as well as scoring knockdowns in the first and fourth rounds, Walcott still lost a split decision. The furor over the verdict spawned a rematch seven-and-a-half months later and once again Walcott was ahead on points entering the 11th, thanks, in part, to a third-round knockdown. The confident Walcott continued to juke and jive in front of Louis but the champ kept his cool, dropped in a beautifully timed right to the jaw that shook Walcott to his core, and put him down for the 10-count with an explosive combination. Though the Louis rematch took place just three days short of one year earlier, Walcott had not fought since.

The Charles-Walcott fight featured none of the pyrotechnics that defined Louis’ reign. Walcott started quickly but by round eight his gas tank was dangerously low. Meanwhile, observers thought Charles had several opportunities to finish the older man but “The Cincinnati Cobra” instead opted to bank rounds with his careful counter-punching.

“The crowd booed both fighters lustily, especially in the late rounds,” wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams. “Walcott was a tired old man then and Charles a timid young one with the result that neither did much fighting. The eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth were horrible to watch. Walcott couldn’t fight and Charles wouldn’t.”

The three officials thought Charles did enough fighting to win a commanding yet tepid unanimous decision. Judges Frank McAdams and Harold Marovitz saw Charles ahead 78-72 while referee Dave Miller turned in a 77-73 score. The night’s only drama occurred moments after the verdict when Charles’ manager Jake Mintz suddenly grabbed the top rope and slumped to the floor. It had been feared Mintz had suffered a heart attack but after being tended to by medical personnel he was able to walk out of the ring under his own power.

“Guess I was nearly a stretcher case,” joked Mintz. “I felt weak and faint when Charles was the winner and passed out, I guess. But everything’s OK now. Old Shadow (one of Charles’ nicknames) will be a great champion and he fought like one.”

Charles was a successful champion as he notched eight defenses, including a rematch victory over Walcott. Although the first victory over Jersey Joe had already established Charles as Louis’ successor, he solidified his claim beyond all doubt in the public’s eye when he outpointed the Bomber over 15 rounds in September 1950. Walcott finally seized the crown in his fifth attempt overall (and his third against Charles) thanks to a crushing left uppercut to Charles’ jaw in round seven that left the soon-to-be-former titlist unconscious. After out-pointing Charles in their fourth and final meeting, Walcott lost the belt to Rocky Marciano, whose explosive right hand in round 13 is still considered one of the hardest punches ever landed.

Marciano announced his retirement on April 27, 1956, a little more than seven months after he scored an off-the-floor ninth round knockout of Archie Moore to retain the belt for the sixth time. As was the case with Tunney and the line to Sullivan, Marciano’s permanent retirement severed the line extending back to Tunney.

PART 2 >

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last seven years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics (available on Amazon) and the co-author of the upcoming book “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.” To contact Groves, use the e-mail [email protected]


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