Welcome to another edition of What If?, as the first round of the heavyweight tournament group stage continues. Read the intro and method here. Catch up with the 1910s and 1950s group stage in Episode 2.
Previously, on What If:
When last we left our friends from the earliest days of gloved boxing, Jack Johnson turned the original Fight of the Century into the Farce Du Jour, beating the living crap out of James Jeffries in a one-round nuclear detonation that caught the ringside attention of guys like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and set the tone for the entire tournament. Jess Willard beat up Frank Moran so badly he might as well have been fighting Bugs Moran in there.
Later in the timeline, Archie Moore smacked around Ingemar Johansson en route to a wide unanimous decision, while Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles put on a contest for the ages that, in addition to being a suitable rehash of their first fight in real-world time, went down as one of the greatest puglisitic contests in the history of the sport, inspiring awe in all who saw it as Ezzard Charles pulled the greatest upset in boxing history and only needed a telephone booth and an alternate universe in order to do it.
So now that you’re caught up on the particulars, onward:
Fight #1: Jack Johnson (7/4/1910) vs. Jess Willard (4/5/15)
The question that keeps coming up in these contests is “what if you pulled a guy in a time machine out of his greatest triumph, and that triumph happened to be against the very guy who would then stand in front of him in this tournament?”
We already saw the effects of that time and again in the first set of group-stage fights, and when Jack Johnson faced a guy he’d just knocked out in 1910 with the benefit of the bright lights and modern training of 1988 (note: we’ll get to this in a special interlude over Thanksgiving weekend, since it’s a slow news week for the sport in real life), all stirred in with knowing a bit of how his future would unfold, Johnson used all of that knowledge and emotion to smash James Jeffries in the rematch.
Along the same lines, we’re pulling Jess Willard from a time when he absolutely pummeled Johnson over 26 rounds, but the October 1956 issue of Ring Magazine featured a confession 40 years after the fact that Johnson in fact threw the fight, a common practice during a time when if you thought boxing was corrupt today, you should’ve seen it when the mob still openly had its hooks in the fight game.
World War I had been traded for the Cold War. 45-round wars of attrition gave way to 10-round contests of leaving it all in the ring. This was not your great-grandfather’s Johnson-Willard fight.
In fact, it was something far more astonishing, for the two men, both with figurative anvils in their gloves, knockout artists both, put on a display of pugilistic ultra-violence that ended up being Hobbesian—the philosopher and perhaps the cartoon tiger both—in that it was nasty, brutish, and short, and a white kid got pounced upon.
Jess Willard scored a flash knockdown on the first punch of the fight. Johnson walked straight into a counter right hand and hit the deck, pounding the canvas as he prepared on the count of seven to get to his feet, angry with himself for thinking he could simply end the fight in twenty seconds.
The problem with a flash knockdown is sometimes that the old maxim applies about “shooting a bear with a .22 will only piss it off.” Johnson came in with a jab, a feint, and an uncorked left hook, and the rout was on. This time it was Willard’s turn to hear the count, except where Johnson had merely been surprised by his trip to the floor, Willard was genuinely hurt, as out of possession of his faculties as he’d been in 1919 when Jack Dempsey beat the snot out of him.
Dempsey, at ringside, simply laughed. There would be no “Get him a body bag…YEAH!” moment from a man who’d seen all of this before, but the smirk, caught by the TV cameras showing the fights, told the story. On special color man duty, Bert Sugar regaled the home audience with a story about that Dempsey-Willard fight, working that angle as surely as Johnson began to work Willard in the ring, dropping the man who’d only a few short weeks before from his own temporal point of view stolen a victory with crooked help in Havana.
The fight finally came to a merciful end in Round 3, as a left hook right on the chin of the battered and beaten legend was for Jack Johnson a case of “set right what once went wrong.” He’d made his quantum leap into the next round of the tournament, becoming the first to punch his ticket with a flourish.
RESULT: JOHNSON KO3 WILLARD.
Fight #2: Rocky Marciano (5/15/53) vs. Ingemar Johansson (6/26/59)
Rocky Marciano had, during the course of his career, been an underdog a few times too many considering the legend that the man built for himself en route to 49 victories, 43 by knockout, without a single defeat, considered by the sorts of people who also think that Floyd Mayweather’s O is more important than who he fought and the era in which he plied his trade. Rocky Marciano didn’t have to fight guys like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and no shortage of second-tier guys who’d have been legends in a lesser era like, say, Muhammad Ali did. He didn’t have the sustained dominance of a guy like Joe Louis. And after losing that astounding fight in the opener against Ezzard Charles, Marciano had a different problem; he was now a loss away from possibly being shuttled back to his own time not undefeated…but winless.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in this loser’s bracket of sorts, Ingemar Johansson had just been utterly wrecked by Archie Moore, looking nothing like a champion and more like a guy who’d parlayed a fluke win over Floyd Patterson into something that should have been greatness but wasn’t. The blueprint was there; the giant Swede could be out-boxed and out-foxed, and Archie Moore had done exactly that.
Marciano took notice, but he did it with a lot more violent intentions behind every punch. It does not matter what era in which a man fights; there is a difference between knocking out champions and knocking out strip club bouncers. Marciano could box just fine; he just did so with such power that knockouts were inevitable, and men of the era fell one after the other before the assault.
If all of this sounds familiar to a 21st-century fight fan’s ear, you get the gist of what happened in this fight. 50 pounds down the scale and seven inches shorter, Marciano was Wladimir Klitschko Junior, landing jab after jab, straight right after straight right, keeping the plodding European off him while doing damage to the face of a guy who’d clearly be played by Dolph Lundgren if this were 1988 in the prime timeline and this whole thing were a movie.
And like the fight that would be going on here if not for the fact that from the perspective of 1988, “it’s a history report, not a future report”, the result was the same. The punches took their toll, and Ingo went down once in the sixth, twice in the seventh, once in the eighth, and finally for good in the ninth. Rocky Marciano had evened his record and controlled his own destiny going into the last of his three round-robin contests.
RESULT: MARCIANO KO9 JOHANSSON.
Fight #3: James Jeffries (8/14/03) vs. Frank Moran (10/19/15)
There exists a critical divide between wounded pride and just plain being overmatched. When James Jeffries lost his rematch to Jack Johnson, his pride had been hurt but his fundamental place in history had not radically changed. Being a guy who couldn’t beat an all-time great on an all-time night is one thing. Being the throw-in to round out a group is quite another, and Frank Moran was thought by many to be the 32nd-best man in the tournament when the power rankings came out in the magazines.
Likewise, even though Jeffries had been beaten up by Jack Johnson, we just saw what Johnson was capable of, and on some psychological “it’s not just me” level, it warmed the heart of the crafty old fighter to see his conqueror simply steamroll yet another guy.
Frank Moran had no such comfort. When Jess Willard did impromptu plastic surgery via blunt force trauma to his face, the sense of “what the hell am I doing here” was overwhelming. This was a beaten man, a guy who in one crystallized moment knew he was a no-hoper.
You begin to see where this is going, and when the bell rang, it went exactly as you’d expect. Moran was done, his will to fight having been drained and his interest in the whole thing the subject of many a think piece after the fight, as critics of the whole enterprise began to ask whether perhaps 32 was a few too many for a field.
Oh, and James Jeffries landed a monster of a left cross that broke Moran’s nose, cut him badly over his left eye with a punch, and made the ring look like a chainsaw murder had taken place within it. Y’know, because sometimes a fighter losing heart is less about courage and more about damn near bleeding out in there. Moran bled so much, they had to amend the history books when Jeffries went back to 1903 and started calling himself “Bonesaw”, a nickname that would then stick back in his own time.
It was ugly. Best that this is text and not film so we don’t have to put up a disclaimer for the squeamish. Phew, holy crap that was a lot of blood.
RESULT: JEFFRIES TKO (CUTS) 2 MORAN
Fight #4: Ezzard Charles (9/27/50) vs. Archie Moore (8/12/59)
A chance for Ezzard Charles to lock up a spot in the second round of the tournament doubled here as what could have been a grand final in a light-heavyweight version of this tournament, as both Charles and Archie Moore made a good-sized chunk of their Hall of Fame case at 175 pounds.
Meanwhile, perhaps the date appended to Charles’ name should be 6/27/88, because he’d become the darling of the gutter press after pulling the Upset of the Ages against Marciano in that first fight, and the legitimacy of the victory was only enhanced by Rocky getting back on the horse in the Johansson fight just witnessed. Would there be a letdown against one of the craftiest fighters of all time in the full flourish of his age and wisdom, since Moore was already 43 years old when he was pulled away from his win over Yvon Durelle?
This fight was a technical fight fan’s dream and a bloodthirsty action fight fan’s nightmare. Imagine Pernell Whitaker fighting Floyd Mayweather, or a prime Willie Pep taking on Guillermo Rigondeaux. Both men danced like artists in the ring, snapping out jabs but never quite moving in to engage, each respectful of the other’s ability to land a counter. For four rounds, the dance continued, orchestrated such that one could easily layer the music of Johann Strauss over it with perfect clarity and synchronization between beauty and violence. The science was sweet indeed.
Trouble was, the science was also Archie Moore’s fight. Letting a 43-year-old man not have to test the well of his endurance is a dangerous game, and Ezzard Charles’ corner knew it. They encouraged their man to take the fight to the enemy, and in the fifth, Charles began to listen to them, mindful of the fact that by 1959, Archie Moore was the kind of guy who may have had the power to pop light heavyweights, but he wasn’t going to bring the pain against a guy who’d had two 1988 training sessions to prepare for this. Charles was, at this point in his life, still on the lean side of thirty, and the shift in his strategy would prove decisive.
Charles did more behind his jab in round five, using it less as a traffic light and more as a rangefinder as he began to put punches together, punishing the body of Archie Moore and doing everything he could to fold the old man in half as crisply as if Moore were made of paper. A rising shot to the liver of Moore with the trailing right hand sent the Old Mongoose down, steadying himself with his hand and looking like he’d be trying to find his lunch if he took another such shot. Breaking open the fight with a 10-8 round, Ezzard Charles had his in.
Archie Moore got old overnight, as the old saying goes, after that shot. Even though at that point the fight was consensus even on the press-row cards, 47-47, three rounds to two for Moore but with the extra point due to the knockdown, the momentum had shifted, and in the sixth round Charles put on a clinic, dishing damage to the body, not stopping to take a picture or to risk getting the worst of it as he got in, did his damage, and escaped out the side door. Moore began to wilt, but Charles was taking no chances, getting to safety for just long enough to reset himself and prepare for another attack.
You don’t need to be Scott Baio to know when you’ve got Charles in charge, and by the ninth, Archie Moore was a beaten man in pure survival mode. While the end never quite came—Charles wasn’t willing to risk enough to go for the knockout—only a very blind or very drunk man would have scored the last six rounds of the fight any different than what occurred.
When the scorecards came from the actual ringside judges, the result was obvious; 97-92 (twice), 98-91, all for your winner, by unanimous decision, Ezzard Charles.
RESULT: CHARLES UD10 MOORE
If you’re keeping track at home, Group 1 has Jack Johnson, at 2-0, in charge of the group and guaranteed a spot in the next stage. Jess Willard and James Jeffries are both 1-1; they fight each other, winner take all, in four weeks. Frank Moran is 0-2 and the only thing left to determine is how prohibitive the odds will be on the prop bet that he doesn’t get out of the first round against Jack Johnson (spoiler alert…I guess…I mean, anything can happen, right? Right?)
Meanwhile, in Group 5, Ezzard Charles is 2-0 and faces the 0-2 Ingemar Johansson in the last fight. His ticket is punched, but Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore fight in a rematch of the great champion’s last professional bout, this time in such a fashion as it will be Marciano’s last bout in a different sense in the event he loses. Both men are 1-1 and to the winner go the spoils when next we revisit the old-time pugilists of this bracket.
NEXT WEEK: Big questions about Floyd Patterson get answers, and Sonny Liston tries his hand against guys he didn’t walk over in actual history. Meanwhile, questions arise about whether the 1920s qualify as a competitive group or whether it’s all just a long count toward the inevitable. Stay tuned!
AND A SPECIAL!: Want to know more about the world of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure? Ever wonder what the guy behind the desk with the keyboard’s thinking? We’ve got a special Thanksgiving weekend Slow News Week behind-the-scenes look at the making of this series and of What If in general, so if you’re a fan of this series, you’re not going to want to miss that.
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.