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:
“But Fox, WHERE IS MIKE TYSON?” Oh, you thought I left him out? You seriously thought I left him out? Story-wise, Tyson isn’t in San Dimas on June 27, because he’s off fighting Michael Spinks and destroying him in one round. But don’t worry. I’ll get to him, and in a boxing story series inspired by an ’80s movie, that should clue you in… – from episode one
For all the lament about how the heavyweight division isn’t what it used to be, the simple fact remains that from 1981 to about 1987, the division was a bunch of guys who made the boxing press of the day wonder if we would ever see a competitive golden age of heavyweight boxing again. When Trevor Berbick knocked Muhammad Ali into retirement, when guys like Jimmy Young and Earnie Shavers and Ron Lyle got the tag attached to their careers that “if only they’d been born five or ten years later, they could’ve had the benefit of a division that was ready for them” (the implication being that the top tier of fighter in the ’80s would’ve been a palooka a decade sooner), that was proof as if proof were needed that maybe these guys fighting tonight weren’t exactly tournament favorites.
The 1940s didn’t have this so bad, in part because Joe Louis continued to lord like a Klitschko brother over the division as the undisputed champion. World War II reshuffled the boxing deck as surely as it had stirred up other sports (would Ted Williams have broken Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs if he hadn’t been off killing Nazis, or if he weren’t in Korea from 1950-53? The world will never know…)
As a result, some very good fighters kept finding themselves hitting a ceiling before they ever got to the champion. Joe Louis would not lose the title until 1950. Everyone you see here was fighting for a shot, trying to be Odlanier Solis or Alex Leapai or Kubrat Pulev.
Still, even underdogs make fights worth watching, so without further ado:
Fight #1: Billy Conn (9/6/40) vs. Jersey Joe Walcott (7/18/51)
The funny thing about determining a fighter’s best night to go back in a time machine and grab him is that not all of these guys were always heavyweights. Billy Conn turned pro in 1934 at lightweight despite standing six foot one. If you saw a guy who was six-one and 135 pounds coming at you in the street, your first impulse wouldn’t be to call him a fighter. Your first impulse would be to offer him a sandwich and ask if he was OK and “you look like you’re about to die of starvation!”
To that end, it is probably not overly surprising that Conn won and defended the light heavyweight title five years later. Any guy who can carry 135 on a frame that size must have the power-to-weight ratio of a Japanese motorcycle.
When the time came to step up to the big show, Conn knocked out Bob Pastor in 13 rounds, all in the quest for a title shot that would lead him a year later into the fist of Joe Louis in a strong candidate for 1941’s Fight of the Year.
Meanwhile, Jersey Joe Walcott, once the Nazis were defeated, was always a day late and a dollar short when trying to summit the mountain of the division in the late 1940s. He would beat the beasts of the division but always seemed to come up second best against the champions of the time, whether it was his two losses to Joe Louis in 1947 and ’48 or whether it was Rocky Marciano pummeling him into retirement in a pair of knockouts five years later.
In between, however, Walcott got his man in one lightning-in-a-bottle night on July 18, 1951, when he had a third-time’s-a-charm upset victory over Ezzard Charles, stamping his name on history as the heavyweight champion of the world.
When the fight itself started, the timing of Conn’s phone-booth abduction from the past turned into a surprising factor; pundits, expecting the flower of youth to be an advantage for the Pittsburgh Kid, were taken aback from just how much more comfortable in his larger frame Walcott was, as the man born Arnold Raymond Cream found himself able to push the pace of the fight and impose his will, bullying Conn like a heavyweight shoving around a lightweight.
Conn ate a right hand in round three that dropped him for an eight count and the rout was on. Walcott came out in the fourth, pursuing and peppering his opponent with shots, and the coup de grace came with thirty seconds left in that fourth stanza as a left hook spun the man from the steel capital around and deposited him on his face. The press suggested that perhaps if a similar time travel experiment were attempted at a weight of 175, perhaps Billy Conn would have better luck.
RESULT: WALCOTT KO4 CONN
Fight #2: Larry Holmes (10/2/80) vs. Pinklon Thomas (6/15/85)
What kind of a name is Pinklon anyway? Nomenclatural oddities aside, a lot of effort had to be made to keep these fighters, who were still active in 1988 (indeed, within the previous year, both men had been beaten into a pile of giblets by Mike Tyson), from messing with a still-viable career by meeting younger versions of themselves. Holmes, so dominant in proving to the world (if not to Muhammad Ali) that the Greatest of All Time was washed up in 1980, would perhaps not want to lose heart at the idea that his historically-correct real-world counterpart had been a fringe guy ever since Michael Spinks grabbed the lineal title from him in 1985, the same title that finally legitimized the heavyweight reign of Mike Tyson once and for all on June 27, 1988. Thomas, for his part, was at the beginning of the end by this point in history; already knocked out by Tyson in 1987, he would be a patsy to Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe before finally being forced into a series of fights with bums on the Carolina club circuit after Tommy Morrison got through with him in 1991.
As for this fight, it reminded everyone why Holmes, for all the talk that he never would’ve been such a big shot if he’d been fighting the best of the division in 1973 rather than 1983, did nonetheless reign with a major belt around his waist for seven solid years between when he grabbed the WBC strap from Ken Norton in 1978 and when Spinks got to him.
Holmes, looking the bigger and stronger of the two men this day, and having stepped down even from an old and slow Muhammad Ali to a glorified club fighter, smacked Thomas around for seven rounds before finally delivering a cannon shot at the end of an outstretched right arm. Pinklon Thomas went down as if he’d been shot.
Chants of “We Want Tyson!” went up from the crowd. It was fun to watch guys like Joe Louis and an in-his-prime Muhammad Ali and even guys who weren’t the household names among casual fans from the glory days of the sport like Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott, but watching the guys who were responsible for so much ink being spilled over how heavyweight boxing had entered the dark ages? Where was Don King when you needed him?
RESULT: HOLMES KO7 THOMAS
Fight #3: Joey Maxim (6/25/52) vs. Lou Nova (4/4/41)
Another case of a guy whose best days in the 1940s were in the postwar pecking order against a guy from the old school who made his noise ahead of Pearl Harbor.
Joey Maxim’s legacy in boxing comes down to being good enough to get noticed but not good enough to be a great champion. He pulled the ultimate rabbit out of his hat at light heavyweight, sending Sugar Ray Robinson on a nearly three-year hiatus, coming from behind on all three scorecards to shock the guy for whom the term “pound-for-pound” was coined (by Muhammad Ali) to describe his greatness.
Trouble was, that fight was at light heavyweight. Just what the 175-pound Maxim planned to do in 1988 is something of a mystery, and one wonders if perhaps Maxim himself feared for some sort of response from the gamblers back in his own time…or if perhaps those who grabbed him played on his vanity about all-time greatness, which Maxim had never hitherto achieved, losing to every big name in the sport and never until the Robinson example coming out on top.
Lou Nova had no such identity crisis; he’d just knocked the snot out of Max Baer for the second time and was still five months away from getting his historical-footnote humiliation at the hands of Joe Louis. Nova had knocked out Max Baer twice, put on one hell of a show against Tommy Farr in 1938, and was at the top of his prime.
When the fight began, it quickly degenerated into a brawl as neither man had quite the technical polish so often attributed to fighters from the “glory days” when modern boxing people talk about the decline of skills in the modern fighter. There were plenty of Pier Six palooka battles in 1948 as there were in 1968, 1988, and beyond. This was a Pier Six palooka battle.
The bad news for Joey Maxim was that as club fighters go, he may have been an elite club fighter with a win over Sugar Ray Robinson that came out of nowhere, but not for nothing was that fight such a bolt from the blue in the first place. Everyone from Archie Moore to Ezzard Charles to Jersey Joe Walcott had gotten the better of Maxim over the course of his career, and no amount of modern training to get him hauled up from 175 pounds was going to save Joey Maxim tonight. This one might very well have been over before it started. Nova was too big, too strong, and at a point in his career where while he may not have been invincible, he was a talked-about rising contender. It was done in four, a left hook doing the bulk of the critical damage.
RESULT: NOVA KO4 MAXIM
Fight #4: James “Bonecrusher” Smith (12/12/86) vs. Tim Witherspoon (9/23/83)
This was an “uh-oh” moment for Witherspoon, who was standing in front of a man who’d been given a ride in a time machine on the same night that he stopped the Philadelphia native in two minutes and twelve seconds of three-knockdown-rule catastrophe. Bonecrusher’s right hand landed at will on that night, an absolute slaughter.
The version of Tim Witherspoon who would be facing the Bonecrusher in this fight, however, was not that beaten man but rather the guy who, in 1983, stomped James “Quick” Tillis in Cleveland. On that night, Witherspoon had been sharp, focused, and powerful, proving to the world that his loss to Larry Holmes in 1982 was not the exposure as a fraud that perhaps those in attendance may have believed in that way that boxing writers have of tearing down an undefeated prospect when he loses for the first time. This Witherspoon was still a fight away from winning the WBA heavyweight championship from Greg Page in 1984.
Still, when a man has just demonstrated the game plan for knocking another man out, then he gets to step into a ring with that same man who is oblivious to what his future self has experienced and has no benefit of wisdom or hindsight? That’s not exactly safe.
When the bell rang, Smith followed the formula, and landed right hand after right hand as though he were smacking around a heavy bag or trying to spar with a heckler who’d walked into the gym off the street and started talking the sort of trash usually reserved for Bugs Bunny in the cartoon “Rabbit Punch”.
It was a complete joke, over in two minutes flat. Flat being what Tim Witherspoon was after getting his bell rung by a straight right hand.
RESULT: SMITH KO1 WITHERSPOON
A night of knockouts, a night of mismatches, a night that showed that the sport of boxing can go through periods of time when competitive balance is all out of whack and where titles frequently changing hands can be less about some grand statement of balance and more about “none of these guys are good enough to rise above and stamp their names on history.” The crowd went home from this day’s action feeling like they’d bought a ticket to the wrong show, wishing they’d been in the gym for the real main attractions.
No matter; someone has to set up those knockout-stage fights, and history is what history is.
NEXT WEEK: We return back round to 1910 and 1950 and see if the oldest of old timers can provide some more fireworks. 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 nitpicking me where I’ve flubbed a detail can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.