Welcome to another edition of What If?, as the first round of the heavyweight tournament group stage continues. Read the intro and method here.
Life is like a box of chocolates. You may get some different flavors, but for the most part you know exactly what you’re going to get: chocolate.
Last week, we saw this principle in action. Floyd Patterson couldn’t beat Sonny Liston in 1962; he couldn’t even get out of the first round even given two attempts to do so. When the two men met after having been transported in a time machine, Floyd still couldn’t get past Sonny Liston and still couldn’t get out of the first round.
The fun part is when you’ve got a guy who probably couldn’t beat a guy at one point in his career but handled him just fine at another point. If you put 1994 Bernard Hopkins in against 2014 Sergey Kovalev, you get quite a different result than when fight fans were forced to witness 2014 Hopkins.
With that in mind:
Fight #1: Joe Louis (6/22/38) vs. Primo Carnera (6/29/33)
It is widely known that Joe Louis trained for his first fight with Max Schmeling by taking up golf and not applying himself, believing he could roll over his opponent, and got his first (and, for 14 years afterward, only, until Ezzard Charles upset him in 1950) professional defeat as his reward.
When Louis prepared for the rematch, he got himself into such shape and such fighting mentality that even today, many fight fans believe that no man on any night in any era could ever stand in the same ring with the version of Joe Louis that knocked Schmeling out in a single round to launch a legend.
Meanwhile, Primo Carnera, who couldn’t last six rounds with Louis in 1935, got the biggest, strongest, most beast-mode version of himself for another historical shot. On June 29, 1933, Carnera stomped Jack Sharkey in six rounds to win the heavyweight championship of the world and stamp his name in the ledger of history back when disputes about who the champion was were rare and often resolved in the ring. The titans of the sport, the New York State Athletic Commission and the National Boxing Association (forerunner of the WBA, and owner of a three-letter hold on the public mind when basketball was an obscure game that did not yet even have a proper college tournament), tended to march in lockstep.
There was some speculation in the arena in San Dimas that evening; what effect would the alteration of the timeline have on the way the fighters approached the fight? Would Joe Louis, phone-booth-lifted out of the greatest triumph of his life, approach his battles in this interlude of temporal tampering with the same elan?
If Muhammad Ali had anything to say about it, sure. Ali and Louis became fast friends over a hot dog on a stick at the San Dimas mall in the runup to the fight, each an icon in their own way among the black community, and Ali reportedly told Louis “If I don’t meet you in the final, I’m gonna whup you in the street.”
“Alea iacta est”, Julius Caesar said at the Rubicon river before his march into Rome. “The die is cast.”
And in that ring, the die was cast repeatedly into the face of the big Italian, who was clearly not prepared for the onslaught that came in such a flash that it defies attempts to describe it. Could anyone last even two rounds with 1938 Joe Louis? It would help if someone lasted more than 37 seconds. That’s how long it took for Carnera to go down for the count.
RESULT: LOUIS KO1 CARNERA
Fight #2: Muhammad Ali (5/25/65) vs. George Foreman (1/22/73)
One of the most iconic photos in boxing history is of Muhammad Ali, still only 23 years old, standing over Sonny Liston after felling the once-great champion in a single round blowout in the rematch of the fight in which Ali, in his last fight under the name of Cassius Clay, first gained the heavyweight title. All the same speculation about Louis, if it is countered by one man on one night, is best argued by this version of Ali, not the man in his thirties for whom knockouts were thinner on the ground and tactics more the order of the day.
In much the same way as an older, wiser Jerry Quarry found him slotted in against competition from early in his career, so too would Ali be grouped among his fellow legends. The question became whether those men stood a chance against a man in the flower of youth.
Meanwhile, George Foreman was once known as the biggest, strongest, baddest man on the planet, the only grill in his reputation being repeated fists to the colloquialism by that name of his opponents. Foreman got his turn in the phone booth after he generated an iconic moment of his own courtesy of Howard Cosell yelling “Down goes Frazier!” in his inimitable staccato.
This was no jungle, but the world was getting a rumble. One good monster deserved another, and the gamblers excitedly speculated that we might see a murder on this summer night in a high school auditorium.
From the opening bell, Southern California had an earthquake that shook the Richter scale, but it was not Mother Earth responsible. There was no rope-a-dope this time round. It is perhaps best to switch form here and simply summarize the knockdowns:
Round 1: Foreman drops Ali with a flash left hook at 44 seconds. Ali rises at three, pounds his chest as if to say “that all you got?” long before the eighth round.
Ali returns fire and finishes off a picture-perfect combination with a right cross that rocks Foreman and leaves him trying to beat the count at the end of the round, a 10-8 round having turned into a toss-up as Foreman rises at four before heading back to his corner.
Round 2: Ali presses his advantage, and floors Foreman with a left hook at 34 seconds in. Foreman comes back and for the first time engages in a more tactical fight to recover his strength, finishing the round as Ali tries but can’t quite get the kill.
Round 4: Ali walks into a counter right hand; rising at seven, referee Arthur Mercante Sr., brought forward in time from 1971, gives a long look in the legend’s eyes but ultimately decides to let the action continue. Ali goes down one more time in the fourth, as Foreman looks like he may have the better of the contest.
Round 5: Someone must have shown Ali footage from 1974, or maybe the man was that crafty to begin with, since he uses the ropes to his advantage throughout the first half of the round, recovering his strength before crashing home a left hook that staggers Foreman and swings the initiative back into the camp of the young great. Ali follows it with a barrage, chasing Foreman across the ring before going to the body and folding Big George in half with what the grillmaster insisted to the referee was a low blow, but Mercante was having none of it.
Round 6: There will be no recovery for George Foreman. Ali drops him a total of four times before Mercante gets wise and waves the fight off. At the same distance Ali stopped Liston in the two men’s first fight in Lewiston, Maine, the man who was once Cassius Clay got his knockout victory, and the world got to argue for days about whether we’d seen our two grand finalists in consecutive bouts on this night.
Meanwhile, Joe Frazier, himself grabbed from an earlier night, was heard to crack “I beat Ali, and this Foreman doesn’t look so tough.” One presumes there is no such thing as last words that are not famous.
RESULT: ALI KO6 FOREMAN
Fight #3: Max Schmeling (6/19/36) vs. Max Baer (6/14/34)
The benefit of hindsight is an interesting thing. Max Baer came into this tournament grabbed at the height of his powers, the last of a three-fight run, all by knockout, and in two cases by decisive victory over other men in this very tournament. In 1933, in the Ring Magazine Fight of the Year, Baer stopped Schmeling in 10 action-packed rounds in front of 53,000 onlookers at Yankee Stadium, rising to the challenge in the biggest fight of his life, then Baer followed up that rise-to-fame-level fight by knocking Primo Carnera down an astonishing ten times (according to Nat Fleischer’s contemporary account in Ring Magazine) en route to an 11-round knockout victory.
Meanwhile, Schmeling, much like Joe Louis, was spirited away from a night in which he had seen firsthand the value of diligent training and preparation to beat an opponent where he would otherwise be the underdog. Schmeling’s 12th-round stoppage of Louis on that night in 1936 was ultimately to be his last major victory, but perhaps most importantly, Schmeling came in knowing that he’d fallen in defeat to the man in front of him in the past and trained in an effort to overcome that historical handicap and produce a better result than had come in 1933.
The fight itself was chalk…if your name is Max Baer. With the benefit of 1988 sports nutrition, Baer, who had outweighed Schmeling 203 pounds to 189 in 1933, looked like a poor man’s Wladimir Klitschko, coming in at a well-muscled 230 on his 6’3” frame, a man who would be a beast against any modern heavyweight and quite possibly tough enough to peddle his fisticuffs in the NHL.
The “Black Uhlan of the Rhine” (one of the underrated nicknames in boxing history) decided for his part to try and stay lean and quick; he came in at only 205 at his height of 6’1”. Lean may be faster than big and strong, but Max Baer wasn’t muscle bound. He was just muscle, in the old-school mob movie sense of that term, and the game was on.
The next morning’s Boston Globe remarked that the fight “was a battle between old and new, between a man willing to take advantage of his circumstances against a man who looked mired in 1933, unable to learn from the historical edge that was there for the taking. Max Baer was the better man on that day all those years ago; he was the bigger, stronger, bionic man for having made use of half a century of everything we know about athletic performance. Just as Jim Thorpe would undoubtedly need a personal trainer to outrun Carl Lewis in our time, so too did Max Baer demonstrate the value of the modern when combined with your grandfather’s fighter.”
Said Joe Louis: “I’m glad I didn’t have to face that guy without seeing him first.” Louis had knocked Max Baer out in 1935; whether he could do so in 1988 will remain for another day. In the meantime, suffice to say that Max Schmeling, the obsessive tactician, was done in by a left hook from a bigger, stronger man than he had ever seen in his own time. It was over in two rounds, during which time the German hit the deck half a dozen times, reminiscent of the previously-mentioned “Down goes Frazier” fight.
RESULT: BAER KO2 SCHMELING
Fight #4: Joe Frazier (3/8/71) vs. Ken Norton (3/31/73)
Take two big-time fighters from the 1970s, give them a win over Muhammad Ali in common, and bring them forward in time far enough for one to learn that his son had been beaten into paste by Mike Tyson and the other to learn that his namesake offspring was on his way to a promising football career. Add them together in a boxing ring, stir, and cook for 10 rounds. It was a recipe for a fun finale to a night of legends…
…and a sign that one legend had built his boxing legacy on smoke, mirrors, and a fortunate break of Muhammad Ali’s jaw, while the other had won a legitimate victory in one of the greatest fights of all time.
If that sounds like a mismatch to you, then you’re paying attention. Ken Norton was the acknowledged underdog in this sequence of events yet to unfold; he was the only man among the four who never summitted the mountain and who was never a recognized world champion. When he beat Ali, it was for the NABF crown, and when Norton got his shot at the king of the division, George Foreman sent him home on his ass in two rounds in 1974 immediately ahead of the Rumble in the Jungle.
The fight itself was something of a snoozer, as Norton’s unorthodox defense was no match for Frazier’s decision on that day to box, to strategize, to use the underdog’s own quirks against him the same way Ali did in the second and third contests in his trilogy with Norton and the way even journeyman Scott LeDoux was able to en route to a draw in 1978. Norton always had his difficulties with strategists, one reason he was never able to make the ultimate mark on history of fistic competition.
For ten rounds Joe Frazier boxed circles around Ken Norton, never engaging on his opponent’s terms, never letting the fight descend into a brawl. It was just jab, stick and move, counter with a power shot and make his opponent respect his ability to keep him at a safe distance. It was sweet and scientific, violent but never brutal, and not all the fans in attendance understood quite what they were seeing, as chants of “knock him out!” came all too often from the peanut gallery.
As three word phrases go, “knock him out” is nice, but “by unanimous decision”, as in 99-91, 98-92 (twice), is every bit as effective. Knockouts may determine tiebreakers, but you have to win the fight first, and Joe Frazier won the fight.
RESULT: FRAZIER UD10 NORTON
NEXT WEEK: The postwar would-be heroes get their shot, the pretenders to the crown of a man notably absent get theirs, and a masked man arrives in the crowd. The 1940s and 1980s are in the spotlight next time…as What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure continues.
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 email@example.com. Follow Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.