Welcome to another edition of What If?, where our heavyweight tournament for the ages moves into the first week of group stage match-ups.
We begin with some notes to remember:
Last week, we introduced the combatants and the rules of the game. Over the next 12 episodes, we’ll be moving through the group stage, with each installment featuring one old-time (1910-1940) group and one newer (1950-1980) group round, with four fights total in each week.
“But Fox,” you might be saying, “most of these guys fought each other in their actual careers, sometimes more than once.” That’s true. But remember what we established at the beginning; these are guys plucked from a specific moment in time, the moment of their greatest triumph, put in a time machine, and fast-forwarded to San Dimas in 1988. This isn’t, say, 1971 Joe Frazier fighting 1971 Muhammad Ali. It’s more like the Joe Frazier the world saw on March 8, 1971 fighting the version of Muhammad Ali who stood over a prostrate Sonny Liston in 1964 and pounded his chest in a famous photo-op. Likewise, Rocky Marciano smashed Jersey Joe Walcott in their second fight on May 15, 1953, but what about the version of Walcott who went from Philadelphia club fighter to legitimate contender the night he stunned Jimmy Bivins on February 25, 1946, winning by a split decision that managed to overcome the home cooking that was arranged for Bivins that night in Cleveland? The fix was in and it still wasn’t enough.
With that in mind, I’ll be noting the “version” of the fighter that I’m primarily drawing from in the first round of the tournament.
Plus, if this were predictable, it wouldn’t be any fun. There will be upsets. There will be rage in the comments section on Facebook. If there isn’t, I’m not doing my job as a writer. OK, background lecture over, let’s get to the fights (and note that I’ve moved results to the end of the description, for what should be obvious reasons.)
Fight #1: Jack Johnson (7/4/1910) vs. Jim Jeffries (8/14/1903)
When these two fought in Reno on the best night of Johnson’s career, Jeffries hadn’t fought in six years. Johnson’s 15th-round knockout in the blazing Nevada sun set off a flurry of racial violence in Chicago and New Orleans, and the fight itself, which had originally been rigged in Jeffries’ favor when it was set to occur in San Francisco, caught the coming-out-of-retirement man by a measure of surprise as he had to fight “on the level”. It’s a good old-fashioned turn-of-the-century boxing story.
But this is 1988, both men have had an ’80s movie training montage to be in their best shape, and Johnson’s not fighting 1910 Jim Jeffries here. Nor is this a 45-round war of attrition; these guys get ten rounds and ten rounds only to settle it, 10-point must system, mandatory eight count, modern Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions, and everything else you hear out of Harold Lederman before the main event of a fight on HBO these days.
Jeffries came in at a fighting-trim 208 pounds, looking better than he ever had at the turn of the century when he routinely weighed closer to 220-225; Johnson looked like he could step in and play running back for the Giants, coming in at a chiseled 212. A 1988 training camp did both men plenty of good, and a field trip for inspiration to Muscle Beach had the intended effect.
When the time came to actually fight, it was a brawl. Both men, filled with the racial animus of a bygone age, fought with merciless intentions; the other fighters in the tournament gathered to watch, and Joe Louis remarked that he’d never seen such ferocity in his own life. Louis and Ali were the loudest cheerleaders for the “Colored Heavyweight Champion of the World”, and Johnson fed off of their cheers and the realization that decades into the future, so little in practice would change for the black man in America when put into a fistic combat, the narrative still so remarkably similar.
There is a saying that there are two speeds a man can run; as fast as he can and as fast as he has to. A corollary could apply to how hard a man can punch. The red mist descended over Johnson’s eyes, and while Jeffries could have used his opponent’s aggression against him, controlling distance, trying to box rather than brawl, the caged-animal rage in front of him was overwhelming.
In point of fact, it wasn’t much of a fight. It only took 95 seconds, and the grand contest was off to an explosive start.
WINNER: Jack Johnson, KO1
Fight #2: Archie Moore (8/12/1959) vs. Ingemar Johansson (6/26/1959)
The jewel of Archie Moore’s career was actually for the light heavyweight title, back in an era when the best heavyweights would be cruiserweights today (Rocky Marciano frequently came in around 190 pounds for his title fights.) Meanwhile, despite only weighing 196 pounds on that summer night in 1959, Johansson looked the part for the big beast of a European heavyweight when he demolished Floyd Patterson in a wild third round in which Patterson hit the floor an incredible seven times.
With 1988 sports nutrition and a proper training camp, both men came in at what would otherwise have been a heavier weight than they were used to in their respective primes, with Moore a well-muscled 205 and Ingo packing 210 pounds onto his six-foot frame. The effect was somewhere along the lines of an NFL defensive back doing battle with a Swedish hockey goon.
How Ingemar Johansson was ever the heavyweight champion of the world is one of those oddball mysteries of boxing. He’d fought his entire career in Sweden, coming to the United States for the first time on that night in 1959 when he caught Floyd Patterson off guard and stopped him in three. The only other two fights Ingo had stateside were the rematch and the rubber match, both of which Patterson won by knockout, albeit after the big-punching Swede had floored Patterson twice in the first round of that third and final fight. Johansson went back to Sweden after that, beat up four guys they dragged in off the street, and called it a career, his legacy more like a low-rent Joe Calzaghe than an all-time great fighter, his one crowning achievement making him a name remembered by history.
Archie Moore was no fool. By the time the two teenagers in the phone booth showed up to spirit him ahead thirty years, he’d seen that first fight and knew what he was getting himself into. Moore was ready to fight a counter-puncher’s fight, even going so far as to call Ingo a gorilla in the pre-fight interviews.
The fight itself was the least exciting fight of the evening. Johansson tried to get in to land the big shots; Moore kept catching him with counter shots and otherwise refusing to engage. It was an ugly fight, even as it was a defense-loving fan’s wet dream. Somewhere in between Floyd Mayweather, Pernell Whitaker, and Willie Pep, but at a heavier weight by half than any of them, Moore fought like a light heavyweight champion in a heavyweight fight should, and for ten rounds, the song remained the same.
The decision was an easy one; 100-90, 98-92, 99-91, all for your winner by unanimous decision, Archie Moore.
RESULT: MOORE UD10.
Fight #3: Jess Willard (4/5/1915) vs. Frank Moran (10/19/1915)
Willard’s best fight was a 26th round KO of Jack Johnson back when a fight could still go for a scheduled 45 rounds without anyone howling about the fighters’ safety; indeed, in many jurisdictions, a newspaper decision was not recognized as anything but a no-contest. Still, Willard had all but one of his other fights stay inside a 15-round distance; the lone exception was a points loss to Gunboat Smith in 1913 in San Francisco, which allowed for decision wins without getting the press involved as such.
Meanwhile, Frank Moran was a good-not-great fighter in his era, and many handicapping this tournament had him as their No. 32 out of all the fighters involved. Indeed, Moran had challenged for the heavyweight championship of the world exactly twice; once in 1914, when he lost to Jack Johnson, and once in 1916, when he lost to none other than Jess Willard, and Willard claimed at the time that the only reason he hadn’t knocked Moran out then was that he’d broken his hand in the third round of that contest.
Perhaps there was some merit to that defense of his performance, because in a high school gym in San Dimas, Jess Willard had the benefit of modern hand wraps and 1988 boxing gloves, and his knuckles survived the four and a half minutes required to beat Frank Moran into utter submission. Moran was down twice in the first and, after getting hit by at best a glancing blow midway through the second, watched Mills Lane count to ten before the universal symbol of the demoralized fighter, the rise at “ten and a half” that shows nothing but a fighter’s own lack of heart.
RESULT: Willard KO2.
Fight #4: Rocky Marciano (5/15/1953) vs. Ezzard Charles (9/27/1950)
On May 15, 1953, Rocky Marciano annihilated Jersey Joe Walcott in a single round to send Walcott into retirement; in a career defined by stone-fisted punching power (Marciano’s 43 knockouts in 49 wins still stands as one of the greatest knockout percentages in the history of the sport), that fight in particular stood out.
Meanwhile, in 1950, Ezzard Charles, who had spent the bulk of the 1940s distinguishing himself as a light heavyweight, became only the second man, and the first since Max Schmeling fully fourteen years prior, to hand a loss to the legendary Joe Louis. Over 15 rounds, Charles put on a display of pure boxing artistry that remains one of the greatest upsets of all time.
Which sets up this bout; a slick boxer at the height of his powers against a monster of a power puncher at a level second only to the Ivy Mike thermonuclear bomb in terms of things that went boom in the early 1950s. Would Charles, who had tried in 1954 to outbox the legend before getting drawn into a brawl and ultimately defeated trying to fight his opponent’s fight, fare better given a time-travel-aided four-year boost to youth?
The fight itself turned out to be every bit as good as that 1954 contest. Charles came out absolutely determined to stick to his game plan, tying up Marciano and trying to frustrate him whenever the pride of Brockton, Massachusetts tried to turn it into a street fight. For five rounds, Charles was as slick and as skilled as he’d been against Joe Louis, and it looked like Marciano would taste defeat for the first time in his life. Many observers at ringside had it a shutout on their cards, and Charles went to his corner at the end of round five and smiled as his trainer told him “keep it up, you’ve got this guy, keep fighting your fight!”
All that changed in round six. A brilliant feint by Marciano caused Charles to lean in, expecting to be able to grab his opponent and convince referee Arthur Mercante Sr. (who had himself been brought forward in time from the night of the first Ali-Frazier fight) to separate the two men. As soon as Charles moved, Marciano took a half step back and let loose with a monster uppercut that put Charles on the floor.
How Ezzard Charles rose from the floor at six and stepped forward on the referee’s instructions after the count of eight remains a mystery. Nothing short of divine intervention could have made any mortal man survive the shot from the great champion. Whether the work of gods or simply that of a man whose heart got a boost from watching the caliber of event in which he found himself after the opening bout, Ezzard Charles survived the sixth round and sat on his stool with a far more dour expression than had graced his visage in the previous intermission.
Charles was on his bicycle in round seven; clearly hurt, he knew he could not grant his opponent the opportunity to deliver the coup de grace. Marciano chased Charles, tried to cut the ring off, but could not land the shot that would end the fight. His flash of inspiration in round six was just that—a flash. Smelling blood, he got too aggressive and allowed himself to be tied up. The consensus was that the score had become 67-65 in favor of the still-ahead Ezzard Charles, but no longer was there to be any chance of coasting.
Ezzard Charles found his legs in round eight and resumed his boxing exhibition; it seemed that the window had passed for Marciano, and the great champion’s frustration was clear as day. He couldn’t find his opponent, and every effort to throw bombs was met either with the raised arms of his would-be target or with a jab stuck right in his face on the counter. The seemingly lesser man had acquired a three-point lead with two rounds to go. Rocky Marciano needed a knockout.
What followed when the bell next sounded to begin the ninth round was a slugfest. Remembering how he had seized the initiative in the sixth, Marciano began once again to feint, to show what appeared outwardly to be his own frustration but which had become far more of a cat and mouse game, and forty seconds into the round, Marciano caught Charles with a left hook that caused another flash knockdown. Charles pounded the floor with his fist as he rose to his feet, angry at himself for getting caught, and the effect had been achieved; Ezzard Charles was ready to fight.
Trading punches in the center of the ring, both men tried to end the show, one man seeming to punch himself out and the other taking his turn to lay out some punishment of his own. Charles, still reeling from the knockdown blow, got the worst of it, and by the end of the round he looked nearly out on his feet. Mercante, however, a product of his time, chose to let the men fight it out; short of a fighter failing to rise at ten, this fight was not to be stopped. When the final bell rang, all in attendance rose to their feet to give a standing ovation to both fighters.
The tenth round featured Marciano again going in for the kill, but Charles, given the benefit of a minute’s rest and put despite his consensus position on the cards in the position of merely trying to survive, displayed enough ring generalship to keep his opponent from winning so easily.
Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced the results:
“Ladies and gentlemen, after ten rounds of boxing, we go to the judges’ scorecards. Judge Harold Lederman scores the bout 95 to 93, Charles. Judge Mike Bernstein scores the bout 95 to 93, Marciano. And judge Art Lurie scores the bout 95 to 93 for your winner, by split decision…
RESULT: CHARLES SD10
NEXT WEEK: The 1920s and 1960s get their time in the spotlight, as their group-stage battles begin. Will we get another Fight of the Decades candidate? Is the 1960s division as top-heavy as it looks? Is Jack Sharkey going to wish they’d just left him in a speakeasy when he gets a look at the other three guys he has to fight? Answers to these and other questions on the next exciting episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune and contributes occasional features in the “prime” timeline as well. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights for this publication from 2011-13. Fan mail, hate mail, and questions about just how the hell these guys are supposed to be returned to their own time at the end without screwing up boxing history can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.