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 1920s and 1960s group stage in Episode 3.
Previously, on What If:
When last we left our fist-throwing heroes from the 1920s and ’60s, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney seemed headed for a meaningful showdown and rematch of the infamous Long Count fight, as Dempsey stopped Luis Firpo and Tunney took care of Jack Sharkey. Meanwhile, up the timeline in the 1960s, Jerry Quarry found that the ’60s weren’t going to be any easier for him than the ’70s had been after he ran into Jimmy Ellis and got the worst of it in a close but ultimately decisive majority decision, while Sonny Liston proved that sometimes it’s not about the setting but about having a guy’s number when he clobbered Floyd Patterson. With the stage set, we bring you the second set of group stage fights:
Fight #1: Jack Dempsey (7/21/1927) vs. Jack Sharkey (9/26/1929)
We’ve seen this before. Bring a guy forward in time from when he’s just beaten the snot out of the very guy in front of him and things tend to get predictable. Dempsey got his ride in a time machine right after a seventh-round stoppage against none other than Jack Sharkey, while Sharkey for his part still had the memory on his mind, pulled from a point beyond his opponent’s victory historically.
The kicker, however, is that Dempsey did not blow out Jack Sharkey on that night in 1927. The younger man had Dempsey in a bit of trouble in the early rounds, staggering the Manassa Mauler but unable to put him down on that particular evening.
The saying that “that was then, this is now” comes to mind, as two years later and fresh off a third-round KO of Tommy Loughran, Sharkey had revenge on his plate and the freezer set to full blast for service of the dish.
The fight itself was yet another old-school Pier Six brawl, as one man came out looking to repeat history; the other man had the stain of history to wash off his hands. Again Sharkey staggered Dempsey in the first round, catching him with a hook flush on the temple that nearly dropped the great champion of the past, but this time, Sharkey didn’t let his man off the hook. Two years older and wiser and with the benefit of being at the apex of his own abilities, Sharkey found an extra gear, started working down to the body, and gave himself an opening that with a rising combination of hook to the body followed immediately by a shot upstairs that crashed home in the same spot less like lightning striking twice and more like Robin Hood cleaving an arrow in twain put an end to the fight with only three seconds to go in the opening stanza.
All the commentary team could think to say was “we got ourselves an upset.” Changing history when the cosmic deck is stacked against you? The historians would have plenty of fodder for the books.
RESULT: SHARKEY KO1 DEMPSEY.
Fight #2: Sonny Liston (7/22/63) vs. Jimmy Ellis (8/5/67)
Riddle me this, Batman. When someone is pulled forward in time from a first-round demolition, does that power carry forward to other opponents? Put another way, if you pulled Mike Tyson out of the arena after the Michael Spinks fight and put him in against any other heavyweight in the history of the sport, would Tyson still have the killer instinct and the eye of the tiger that if nothing else was only further fueled by confident bloodlust?
This was the question the commentators asked before this fight between winners of the opening bouts in the 1960s group. The winner would punch his ticket to the round of 16; the loser would have a hell of a fight on his hands but still ultimately control his own destiny. Sonny Liston had gone chalk with history, knocking out Floyd Patterson for the third time in the opening round; Ellis had a momentous battle with Quarry that was more of a technical exhibition. Something had to give.
The problem for Jimmy Ellis wasn’t just that on the day in history that Sonny Liston hopped in that time machine, Ellis himself was campaigning as a middleweight. No, the problem was one that in our real-world timeline would not be made painfully apparent until June 18, 1973, when Jimmy Ellis fought another guy with a big punch who was of questionable efficacy against the very best fighters of that era; Earnie Shavers knocked Ellis out and only needed 2:39 to do so.
Ellis also got knocked out three other times in his career; twice against Joe Frazier, once against Muhammad Ali. 1967 Ellis didn’t know this, but some things you don’t ask the man in the ring. Some things you ask history.
The fight itself was over in 96 seconds. Sonny Liston’s punch was overwhelming, and the guys from the 1950s, watching while still having something to play for, agreed amongst themselves that without a doubt, nobody wanted to finish second. Ezzard Charles, after the fight, said “this is why I’m gonna whup that Swedish dude. Ain’t no second place.”
Sonny Liston had fought only three minutes and forty-four seconds of boxing in two fights. For Jimmy Ellis, it was a very illuminating reminder of just how dangerous a suspect chin can be, and with Floyd Patterson still to come, he knew he’d have to get back to basics and box in that third fight.
RESULT: LISTON KO1 ELLIS.
Fight #3: Luis Firpo (7/12/23) vs. Gene Tunney (9/23/26)
A favorite tactic of boxing fans when arguing the comparative merits of two guys who meet in the ring is to look at their common opponents and argue that if one guy beat the third party handily while the other one did not, that speaks to the relative merits of the two guys in the ring on that particular night.
If going by that particular metric, things did not look good for Luis Firpo. Gene Tunney twice defeated Jack Dempsey, once by a clean ten-round unanimous decision on the night the time machine showed up, the other time in the infamous Long Count fight. Meanwhile, Firpo didn’t last two rounds against Dempsey, falling at that distance after getting knocked down an insane ten times.
Even when getting his ass handed to him, however, Firpo managed to knock Dempsey through the ropes in the second round. Already down seven times, Firpo’s power did not abandon him and he still had enough game-changing power to nearly steal the fight. This was no conqueror vs. prey fight, and Gene Tunney was not Dempsey’s equal as a pure puncher. If ever the idea of a puncher’s chance was in play, it would be here tonight.
Early on, however, this was not in evidence. Firpo was a bit of a plodder, and Tunney knew it. The New York native kept his Argentine foe on the end of his jab like a displaced Klitschko brother, following the jabs with enough power shots with the trailing hand to frustrate Firpo and keep him constantly on the back foot.
Watch the first six rounds of Micky Ward’s fight with Alfonso Sanchez sometime, and you’ll see what happens when the favorite goes chalk for six rounds. Unlike that fight, however, there would be no hook to the liver to bail Firpo out. As the tenth round began, Tunney was up on every card by a decisive margin and needed only to last three minutes before victory, and not coincidentally a spot in the next round of the tournament, would be his.
Deprived of the opportunity to win by game-changing punch cleanly, however, Firpo resorted to the Dick Dastardly approach. Referee Matt Hinkel, who’d been brought from Tunney’s fight with Harry Greb in 1924, got distracted by Firpo’s cornermen beginning to ascend the apron as if to throw in the towel, and Firpo seized the opportunity to first throw a vicious low blow right to the family jewels of Gene Tunney, then when Tunney turned to shout protest to the referee, Firpo got him with a straight rabbit punch that threw Tunney for a hell of a loop.
Order was restored, but rather than disqualify Firpo for the shenanigans, Hinkel chose instead to allow action to continue. The crowd howled. The commentators screamed for the blood of Firpo and his conspirators. None of it mattered. Firpo finished off a concussed and dazed Tunney with a barrage of shots that sent him down before he had a chance to recover from the rabbit punch, closing the fight on a count of ten with only fifteen seconds left. A monumental screwjob had been completed, and the 1920s bracket of the Excellent Heavyweight Adventure had four fighters all with a win and a loss with a fight each yet to be had.
On the bright side, any good story deserves a villain, and Jack Sharkey, watching the travesty unfold, took the opportunity to endear himself to the crowd, vowing to “knock that cheating savage bastard’s head off” in their fight.
Tunney, for his part, was surprisingly calm and confident: “I shoulda won that fight, but all I gotta do is beat a guy I beat up good before. It’s fightin’.” Indeed, it’s fighting, and if Tunney was guilty of anything, it was forgetting that one of the most basic rules of boxing is “protect yourself at all times.”
RESULT: FIRPO KO10 TUNNEY
Fight #4: Floyd Patterson (6/20/60) vs. Jerry Quarry (12/14/73)
This turned into a great case of a crafty veteran against a guy who may have peaked too early in his career to make the impact on history for which his name is occasionally credited. At the time these guys were yanked out of their timeline and dropped into a gladiatorial contest of the ages, Quarry was 28 years old and had the benefit of watching Patterson’s entire career arc in real time, including the fight in 1972 in which Muhammad Ali ended Patterson’s run as a fighter.
Meanwhile, Patterson himself was 25 and coming off the knockout of Ingemar Johansson that would make him the first man ever to lose and regain the heavyweight championship of the world. The trials by fire that Quarry would be so familiar with were still in Patterson’s future; in June 1960, Floyd was on top of the world.
The unpleasant fact remained, however, that Joey Maxim and Ingemar Johansson had already exposed Patterson’s most significant weaknesses even at this point in his career, and in this very tournament, Sonny Liston had done more than enough damage to show Quarry what he needed to do in order to win this fight.
Still, Patterson had knocked out all but one of his defeated foes at a distance of ten rounds or greater at this point in his career. You can have a blueprint, but to quote Mike Tyson paraphrasing Clausewitz, “everyone has a plan against me until they get hit.”
There is also the greater issue at hand here; Jerry Quarry beat Floyd Patterson once, a rematch in 1967 after the two men fought to a draw in their first fight earlier that year; the rematch was part of the great tournament that the WBA held to crown a new champion after Muhammad Ali had his run-in with the draft board. Both of those fights were skin-tight majority decisions.
The kicker, though, was that those fights were scored on the rounds system. This tournament is ten-point must, and Patterson had been dropped more than once in those fights. Throw in a 10-8 round or two and history is quite different, and Quarry knew it. The stage was set for Jerry Quarry to be incentivized to work the chin of his opponent and test Patterson’s ability to survive a man who was six years older and wiser than he had been when the record was first written upon the normally immutable stone tablets of history.
Which is all a long setup for a short fight. Three times in history, twice in the first fight and once in the return engagement, Jerry Quarry had put Patterson on the floor in the second round.
It didn’t take a master prognosticator to figure out the meaning in that particular omen, and after spending the first round feeling out his opponent and measuring him with jabs to find his range, Quarry came out looking for a demolition that came with no particular difficulty when it was all said and done.
Three knockdowns and a cutthroat gesture directed at Sonny Liston, who would be Quarry’s next opponent, later, and the deal was done. Floyd Patterson was on the floor, not to rise; Jerry Quarry was still alive in the tournament.
RESULT: QUARRY KO2 PATTERSON.
So with one batch of fights left to go, all four competitors in the 1920s division are 1-1; in the third set of fights, it is win or go home for everyone. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney get a historical oddity to turn a two-part rivalry into a trilogy. Jack Sharkey gets to play the babyface to Luis Firpo’s clearly-established wrestling heel. The time machine gets cranked up to go back and find a better referee, and the conspiracy theories about whether Matt Hinkel was in on a fix start to fly around among the assembled throngs in attendance.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Sonny Liston is 2-0 and in the catbird seat, with Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis both 1-1 and, should Quarry beat Liston and Ellis beat the 0-2 Patterson, nobody holding a clear tiebreaker. By the same token, if Liston beats Quarry and Patterson beats Ellis, the newsmen will have a nasty choice of which of the three to include at 1-2 as a sacrificial lamb for whoever wins the 1950s division. That group is wide open, and controversy is all but guaranteed to follow it. Tune in four weeks from now to find out how it all shakes out, because if it goes chalk, this is much ado about nothing.
PROGRAM NOTE: The behind-the-scenes piece got scrapped; it simply wasn’t very good on its own and I’m going to revisit it if and when this series gets re-edited and compiled into a book; as a column it simply didn’t work, and no amount of screwing with it and trying to copy-edit it into something readable worked outside the context of the fights themselves. It’s going to have to wait for its proper place, so for now, stuff like the training camps and where this all fits into a broader 1988 timeline will have to wait.
Which is probably for the best, isn’t it? Gotta give you guys reason to buy the book even when you know how it turns out, like getting the enhanced-edition Blu-Ray of a movie you’ve seen in the theater.
NEXT WEEK: We return to the glory years, as the 1930s and 1970s get another turn in the spotlight. Whether it becomes as clear-cut as the groups we covered last week or as clear as mud like this week…well, you’ll just have to tune in, won’t you?
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.