Welcome to another edition of What If?, as the first round of the heavyweight tournament group stage continues. Read the intro and method here.
Previously, on What If:
Last week, we saw a fight between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles that would be the Fight of the Year in 1954, in 1988, or just about any other year in boxing history. Everyone in attendance knew they’d seen something special, and the game is just getting started. This week, we feature the 1920s and 1960s, and once again we highlight the specific date in the fighter’s history from which the style and ceiling of the competitor’s ability is drawn. Without further ado:
Fight #1: Jack Dempsey (7/21/1927) vs. Luis Firpo (7/12/1923)
In 1923, Buenos Aires native Luis Firpo put an end to the career of Jess Willard in the eighth round, with Willard claiming he was handicapped by an arm injury in training. It’s interesting to note that in 1923, an injury in training was not the fight-stopper that it is today; these days, a fighter gets a hangnail when working a speedbag and next thing anyone knows, the fight’s off.
Later in that same year, Firpo and Dempsey fought, a fight in which Firpo sent Dempsey through the ropes…and lost, as the Argentine himself hit the floor seven times in the first round alone. There were a total of eleven knockdowns, nine for the challenger and two for the champion, in a four-minute fight.
That, however, was 1923. Fast-forward 65 years in time and the mandatory eight count all but ensures that there’s no way in hell you’d see that many knockdowns without the fight either being stopped or a simple matter of timing preventing action that furious.
Which, in turn, informed this particular fight. Jack Dempsey came out on the offensive from the get-go and Firpo never found his rhythm. The fight was over in 91 seconds, echoing the contest between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks that came concurrent to this fight tournament’s outset a couple of hundred miles away. Firpo hit the canvas three times, and for referee Mills Lane, three times was enough. Waving off the contest, Lane later said that “if this were 1923, I’d have let it go, but this ain’t 1923.”
RESULT: DEMPSEY KO1 FIRPO
Fight #2: Sonny Liston (7/22/1963) vs. Floyd Patterson (6/20/1960)
Here lies the problem with matching up fighters from the same era in a group stage. When a guy’s two greatest victories were first-round knockouts, and decisive ones at that, over the very opponent he’d be facing fast-forwarded 25 years in a time machine, it’s not hard to see how things are going to turn out. Another severe mismatch predestined by the actual historical record leaves very little to describe in the way of speculative fiction.
As happened in 1962, and as happened on the very night the telephone booth with the teenagers showed up to spirit Sonny Liston from the Las Vegas Convention Center to 1988 San Dimas, Liston came out of the gate swinging and beat the snot out of Floyd Patterson, whose chin betrayed him for a third time against the man who had his number. Even though Patterson himself had been pulled out after the rematch with Ingemar Johansson on the night of his own greatest triumph, he was as deer-in-the-headlights as he’d have been had you pitched this same idea of a fight to him in 1964.
When a man comes into a fight knowing he’s got the other guy’s number, it puts a little extra zip on his shots, and Floyd Patterson had no idea at all what he was up against. A thundering hook to the chin, precisely splitting the difference in length between the two fights in 1962 and 1963, ended it at 2:08 of the very first round. Drama? Not this time.
RESULT: LISTON KO1 PATTERSON
Fight #3: Gene Tunney (9/23/1926) vs. Jack Sharkey (9/26/1929)
Gene Tunney’s greatest win came in his first fight with Jack Dempsey; the “Long Count” fight was actually the rematch, as Dempsey nearly beat Floyd Patterson to the “first man to regain the heavyweight title” honor by three decades but for a referee’s literal interpretation of the neutral corner rule. Watch any fight these days, and on a knockdown, while the referee is directing the standing fighter to a neutral corner, the official timekeeper is the guy who gives the ref the count. Ever wonder why a ref always seems to start the count at four these days? That’s why—rare indeed is a long count in modern boxing, and it’s usually the result of, depending on how conspiratorial your mind is, either incompetence or a blatant fix (Marlon Byrd’s long count in the first fight between Lucian Bute and Librado Andrade comes to mind.)
Meanwhile, Jack Sharkey’s best work may have come in the Thirties, as he decisively defeated Primo Carnera on the cards and won a far more controversial decision over Max Schmeling to win the world heavyweight title in 1932, but for sheer “he beat that guy senseless” violence, his best knockout was a three-round smackdown of Tommy Loughran a month before the world economy collapsed.
Neither of these guys were big punchers. Sharkey knocked out only 13 of his 53 career opponents, and even if the discussion is limited to his 37 wins rather than his 13 losses and three draws, that’s still a knockout percentage south of forty. Tunney’s record was littered with fallen tomato cans, but when he stepped in against a guy with even a modicum of a chin, it went either to the judges or to the newspapers to decide a victor. Jack Dempsey and Harry Greb proved that once you got a real opponent in front of Gene Tunney, that nearly 75% KO percentage (48 knockouts in 65 wins) evaporated.
So it was left to decide whether Gene Tunney, given ten rounds with which to work, would expose Sharkey as a two-bit freight train bouncer or whether in fact Sharkey’s chin, which fell in defeat four times by way of knockout, three times against some of the big punchers of boxing history (Dempsey, Carnera, and Joe Louis), would hold firm.
For ten rounds, Gene Tunney put on a boxing clinic. His strategy from the word go was to leverage his superior skill, dancing circles around Sharkey, confusing a guy who spent so much of his career in the Twenties as a Boston club fighter, jabbing the holy hell out of him with a little help from some modern boxing footage and training techniques.
Sharkey looked lost out there. In 1929, he might have been able to get in close and maul and foul his way to a cheap win, but that option was not on the table with Mills Lane as the third man in the ring. This fight was going to be clean no matter what, and a clean fight favored the better fighter.
The decision wasn’t close. You didn’t have to be Damon Runyon or even Teddy Atlas to tell the viewers what they’d seen; one guy boxed like a champion, the other guy got peppered with shots like the club fighter he’d always ultimately been. All three judges scored the bout 100-90 for your winner, by unanimous decision, Gene Tunney. So far, the 1920s were going strictly according to Hoyle.
RESULT: TUNNEY UD10 SHARKEY
Fight #4: Jerry Quarry (12/14/1973) vs. Jimmy Ellis (8/5/1967)
When Jerry Quarry, who’d been spirited away after beating Earnie Shavers into a pile of giblets in a single round, got the word that he’d be slotted into the 1960s by virtue of his only two world title shots coming in that decade (first against Ellis in 1968—more on this in a minute—and then a year later against Joe Frazier), he looked skyward and thanked God he’d duck the Group of Death that came along in the 1970s. This was a man who must’ve felt like he’d been given another crack at his own glory days.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Ellis was pulled from a point in his own career where he was still on the rise, having clobbered the fear of God into Leotis Martin in the first round of the WBA’s grand contest for the title that had just been vacated by the United States Armed Forces having their tiff with Muhammad Ali over the applicability of the Selective Service Act to radical members of the Nation of Islam claiming conscientious objector status. This version of Jimmy Ellis was still a few months away from enjoying his brief reign as the man atop the mountain of world boxing at the apex of the Vietnam War.
When these two men met in the ring in 1968, the culmination of the previously-mentioned WBA big man jamboree, Ellis came away with a close-fought majority decision win over the course of fifteen rounds. Given years of temporal distance and only ten rounds to settle accounts, with only one man carrying the memory as the other had a different point of timey-wimey reference, the old saw in the finance industry was on the minds of the commentators: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” (well, except when it does; see the first two fights in this week’s installment and never mind that.)
Jimmy Ellis was, without question, the better boxer of the two men. Quarry, however, wasn’t going to let himself get drawn into a chess match. His strategy was simple: swarm Ellis, apply pressure, and force the action on the ropes where his opponent would have no room to operate.
Whatever was in the water for Quarry in 1973 was on display in this fight. At a point in his career where he was on a four-fight streak of early knockouts, 28 years old and in the prime of his life, Jerry Quarry took the fight to the enemy and, while Ellis did a strong job of winning a few of the exchanges where he was able to neutralize Quarry as he came in with good counter shots, the rounds that were decisive were the ones Jerry Quarry won.
After four rounds, the consensus at ringside was that Quarry was up three rounds to one, with the third round having gone the way of Ellis on account of those counter shots. However, as is so often the case in the sweet science, a guy who’s going for landing big shots has a limited time before his opponent adjusts and begins to take the best of his offense away from him, and that limited time usually expires at the end of the fourth round (see David Lemieux vs. Marco Antonio Rubio for a master class in this principle or, if you want something with a bit higher caliber, try Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas.)
Ellis began to break down Quarry, winning the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds easily and staggering Quarry in the sixth with a vicious counter right hook that on any other night in any other place would probably have felled even the legends at their best. Quarry, however, stood up to it, even though it looked to all like the momentum had turned for good. Ellis moved in for what he hoped would be the kill, but he may well have temporarily punched himself out, as he gave his opponent a bit too much of a chance to recover throughout that seventh round.
Still, with the fight having gone back to a consensus 4-3 in favor of Jimmy Ellis, the contest entered its third act.
Quarry’s corner men emphasized that he’d need a knockout in order to get the job done, since in their reckoning, they didn’t want to trust the judges to score the fight as close as it no doubt was. Memories forged in fires of times past were untamed by time that had passed instantly rather than over the course of years, and Quarry, recovered from the shot he had taken in the sixth, once again took the fight to the enemy, coming in behind his jab and laying lumber on his foe. The chin of Jimmy Ellis held, however, and against a mighty barrage for six minutes interrupted only by a couple of commercials the balance of the action was a wide-open question as the bell rang to begin round ten.
Ellis re-established control in the tenth. For three minutes, every counter seemed to crash home, every feint pushed his prey out of position just enough to disrupt attempts to deal damage, and every incoming shot seemed to find forearm or elbow rather than head or abdomen. For the first time since round seven, Jimmy Ellis had without question won a round of boxing on every card.
When it was all said and done, the judges scored it 96-94 (twice), 95-95, and history would repeat itself as a majority decision came down in favor of none other than Jimmy Ellis. Grabbing position second in the table (with a tiebreaker coming down to knockouts; more on this in a minute) was a satisfactory result with Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston still to come on the docket for the man who had once been champion.
RESULT: ELLIS MD10 QUARRY.
And now, a quick word on the scoring:
As you’ve probably gathered, a knockout is going to be worth more in a tiebreaker than a decision, and this leads us into a key point. What are the actual tiebreaker procedures here? Glad you asked:
If two fighters finish tied in the standings:
1. Head-to-head result.
2. If fighters fought to a draw, results against the other two fighters, with a KO win worth three points, a decision win worth two, a draw worth one, and a loss worth zero.
3. If still tied, decision will be made by a “newspaper decision” by the press covering the tournament, in the same style as the old-school newspaper decisions of yore.
If three fighters finish tied:
1. Points system as above, limited to the three fighters under discussion.
2. If a clear winner or loser emerges and the other two guys are tied, head-to-head determines either the winner and runner-up of the group or, alternately, second and third place.
3. If the previous two tiebreakers do not resolve the issue, newspaper decision applies.
If all four fighters finish tied:
2. Seriously, just no. Writer’s honor.
NEXT WEEK: The heavyweights of heavyweights get a turn at bat, as the two toughest groups in the whole damn shindig get started. You’ll get to see guys like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, and what more could you possibly want? You’re not gonna want to miss it. Pop some popcorn, call your friends, and get ready for the best episode yet of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure. See you next week!
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 nitpicking me where I’ve flubbed a detail can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.