Welcome to another edition of What If?, as the first round of the heavyweight tournament group stage continues. Read the intro and method here. Then catch up on the first group-stage fights from the Thirties and Seventies at this link.
In the words of the Grateful Dead:
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
A long, strange trip through time is certainly enough to bring the latter part of those lyrics to mind, but focus on the former and you’ll see just how crazy a three-round round robin tournament can be when it comes to matchups. The openers put some fighters in the catbird seat and others behind the 8-ball, and psychology has a funny effect on a man when he’s down to his last chance. Some realize how overmatched they are and board the train to Bad Poker Hand City, while others reach deep inside like a fighter in an ’80s sports movie summoning an extra gear for the feel-good film climax.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are riding high; George Foreman is battered but still controls his destiny. Ken Norton, already a fight down, is being talked about as yesterday’s news, but one must always remember the oldest bit in boxing. Styles make fights.
Meanwhile in the 1930s, Joe Louis looks like the favorite to go all the way to the grand final out of the old-time divisions before the Korean War, but he does still have a pair of opponents to fight his way through first. The game is, without question, very much afoot. With that in mind:
Fight #1: Joe Louis (6/22/38) vs. Max Baer (6/14/34)
It’s a funny thing about history sometimes. Take a bunch of guys on their best night and you begin to see just how deterministic history can be when it wants to be.
On September 24, 1935, Joe Louis smashed Max Baer in four rounds, making the man who a year previous had knocked out Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship of the world before he had surrendered that distinction to Jim Braddock in his first defense look utterly ordinary and like his stoppage of the big Italian had been a fluke.
The kicker is that the “fluke” was the night that Max Baer got himself hustled into a phone booth, his confidence brimming as he believed he was on the cusp of greatness.
Well, in Greek myth, hubris crashes against the rocks of nemesis, and “nemesis” hardly seems sporting to describe Joe Louis pulled forward in time after one of the single greatest demolitions in the long and illustrious history of the sport.
A Joe Louis whose occasional laziness in training would be exposed by Max Schmeling in 1936 required four rounds to defeat Max Baer. A Joe Louis in the best shape of his and possibly anyone’s life fighting a guy whose confidence was out of proportion to his abilities against the man in front of him? That’s a different story, one that ended in forty-seven seconds when Louis landed a right cross with such force that Baer went down as if he’d been hit by a car. Two fights, 84 seconds. That’s all it took for Joe Louis to guarantee himself a spot in the next round.
RESULT: LOUIS KO1 BAER
Fight #2: George Foreman (1/22/73) vs. Joe Frazier (3/8/71)
On a conceptual level, the idea of something “going chalk” is something we’ve seen quite a bit in the course of this bit of historical exploration, and sometimes all the speculative writer’s fanwank in the world doesn’t change the fact that some guys just seem determined to smash whatever is in front of them.
Throw in another guy whose mark on history is known to the audience but unknown to him, a guy who’s going to prepare like he believes he’s got more of a chance than he does, and…
Look. You know damn well how this is going to go. If you don’t, go punch “down goes Frazier” into your favorite search engine. Because those who don’t learn from history are apparently doomed to hear it shouted at them by Howard Cosell. It took two rounds on the night George Foreman got in the time machine; it took two rounds on the night George Foreman got out of the time machine. Down goes Frazier. Foreman evened his record; Frazier went from punching his ticket to the one-and-done stages to needing a win to continue his adventure.
RESULT: FOREMAN KO2 FRAZIER
Fight #3: Max Schmeling (6/19/36) vs. Primo Carnera (6/29/33)
Take a fighter whose confidence had been badly shaken by the events of being brought forward in time and who sought to recover just as he ran into a guy who had beaten the man who administered the beatdown from hell in the previous fight. Throw him in against a man who was at the height of his powers but for whom that had been of absolutely no use at all when he ran into a guy who, mere moments prior on fight night right before the onlooking view of the two combatants in this contest, had shown that first win to be no fluke.
What you’ve got is a great big cosmic reset button. Primo Carnera got a chance to believe that maybe his crushing defeat at the hands of Joe Louis had been less his shortcoming and more the Brown Bomber’s greatness, and Max Schmeling got a rude reminder that perhaps he wasn’t so great as he believed.
The funny thing is, even though both fighters were European and both fighters were contenders and champions at the same point in history, Carnera and Schmeling never fought in the prime timeline. They had some common opponents, however, and it was from that the pundits tried to predict this fight. Primo Carnera had been knocked out by Max Baer; Max Schmeling had been knocked out by Max Baer. Carnera had split two fights with Jack Sharkey; so had Schmeling. Schmeling was starched in one round by 1938 Joe Louis; Carnera, in the debut bout of this tournament, was starched in one round by 1938 Joe Louis. The betting line made this fight even money.
When the action in the ring commenced, the only suckers in the audience were the ones who’d bet this would be a decision. Both men, long on punching power in the old style and occasionally short on the ability to take a punch, having been stopped five times each in their careers, came out with a kill-or-be-killed attitude. Slick boxing, defense, the beautiful parts of the Sweet Science…neither man would have any of it this day. They just stood at the center of the ring and whaled on each other like pissed-off seventh-graders settling accounts on the schoolyard back before the days of “zero tolerance” and school disputes settled by guns rather than fists.
The best part? Both men had a nearly supernatural ability that night to slug it out. Like a pinball machine in the old cartoons, the CompuBox numbers on this fight spun faster and faster before first spitting out a Tex Avery catchphrase (“Violent, ain’t it?”) and finally putting a big neon sign that said “TILT” atop the counting machine.
Carnera’s chin cracked first, in the third round, as a left hook from Schmeling dropped the big Italian. This only served to make Carnera angry, however, as he rose at the count of four and damn near pulled out a cartoon bit of his own, the part where someone who has just been hit in the head by a comically oversized mallet or an anvil that has fallen from apparently nowhere at all rises, turns red, and has steam come out his ears. Outside the gym, by seeming intervention of the gods, a train went by, blowing its whistle just as referee Arthur Donovan prepared to wave a resumption to the battle.
Schmeling went down once in the fourth and once in the fifth before finding his footing in between the fifth and sixth rounds. Any lesser man would have been at best knocked out and at worst murdered by blunt-force trauma to the head, but the two men in the ring continued to escalate matters, pulling progressive HULK SMASH punches out of their arsenal, each refusing to yield. As spectacle, it was as good as it gets, and as test of human endurance in the face of horrifying violence, it was enough to turn the stomach of all but the most bloodthirsty…or the most appreciative of the true brutal simplicity of fistic combat.
Finally, in the ninth round, after each man had thrown a downright ridiculous 1,100 punches and connected on easily 400 apiece, shattering every conceptual understanding of how much damage a man can dish out and take before he breaks, Max Schmeling broke. He tried valiantly to rise ahead of the ten count only to have his legs fail him the same way Zab Judah’s legs failed him in the Kostya Tszyu fight. Donovan allowed Schmeling the full ten seconds (unlike Jay Nady in that just-mentioned contest), but it didn’t matter; the German’s legs would not solidify in the time allotted, and Primo Carnera had his win.
For Schmeling, all that remained was to take his 0-2 record and guarantee of a losing finish and try to regroup against a guy who had every incentive to want to rip his head off in the group stage’s final stanza. For Carnera, it was life begun afresh, with a 1-1 record and a showdown with Max Baer for the right to stay alive in this wondrous tournament of champions.
RESULT: CARNERA KO9 SCHMELING
Fight #4: Muhammad Ali (5/25/65) vs. Ken Norton (3/31/73)
Take a man still too young to have developed his later reputation as a crafty veteran able to deal with any style. Throw him in a ring against a guy who had just defeated an older version of that guy and given him the impetus to become a crafty veteran. What you have is a matchup that ought to be used forevermore as the example of one of boxing’s basic truisms: “Styles make fights”.
A young, brash Muhammad Ali, plucked out of time after beating the ever-loving crap out of Sonny Liston, was not truly equipped to handle a man whose unorthodox defensive style and tendency to use the “crab” defensive posture to create strange angles for his counter shots made him one of the strangest fighters ever to see success in the ring.
Ali landed plenty of punches in this fight…but he landed them on the arms and gloves of Ken Norton. There have been plenty of fights where a fighter’s work rate was enough to net him a decision, especially when the machinations of the promoter or the simple incompetence of the commission was the point at issue.
There was neither of that on this night. The judges were selected on nights when they themselves were scoring fights so sharply that none could argue with a single round of their cards. The promoters were 700 years in the future and ruling over a utopian ideal that just happened to take place at the point of divergence in their own history where the world began to change permanently for the better. This was no mob show.
For ten rounds Norton infuriated Ali, never letting the legend engage on his own terms, forcing a break with a clinch whenever the heat in the ring rose on him. Ali began to lose his form and composure, and after four rounds, found himself repeatedly getting a face full of jab whenever he tried to open up or use a combination to crack Norton’s defense.
This was less a pair of heavyweights engaged in a slugfest like Schmeling and Carnera had just put on and more a case of “what if Pernell Whitaker fought Floyd Mayweather?” There’s a reason that column hasn’t shown up yet, and that’s because writing a blow-by-blow where both fighters wait for a counter opportunity that never comes is a boxing writer’s nightmare.
The crowd turned on Ken Norton. They booed him for making the fight ugly; they booed him for being unwilling to engage. After the fight they’d just witnessed between the old-timers, they might have just booed him for not being Primo Carnera.
But damn, was it effective. In 1973 the result was a split decision win for Norton in the first battle between the two men, but in 1988, with Ali the victim of his own youthful zeal being used perfectly against him, the decision was unanimous, 98-92, 97-93 (twice), all for your winner, a man who ensured that all four fighters in the 1970s bracket were 1-1 and therefore both fights in the climax would be win or go home…Ken Norton.
RESULT: NORTON UD10 ALI.
So, to recap:
In the 1930s division, Joe Louis is in; Max Schmeling is out. The two men fight in the third bout, and Louis has not only clinched a spot in the playoff, but thanks to holding the head-to-head tiebreak against both of the other guys who could get to 2-1, even if Louis loses, he is guaranteed to win the group. Meanwhile, Primo Carnera and Max Baer are both 1-1; it’s win-and-you’re-in, and in case of a draw, it’ll go to the newsmen to decide.
The 1970s division is wide-open; every fighter is 1-1, and Muhammad Ali fights Joe Frazier while George Foreman gets a crack at Ken Norton. Foreman is to rights in the best position; styles make fights, but where Norton frustrated Muhammad Ali, Big George had no problem with the defense of Norton and blew him out in two rounds in 1974, immediately before the Rumble in the Jungle.
Meanwhile, one of the greatest rivalries boxing has ever seen is a Loser Leaves Town match. Brace yourselves. You’ve heard of the Fight of the Century. You’ve heard of the Thrilla in Manila. Get ready for what the pundits and the media are already calling the Out Of Time Fight.
NEXT WEEK: Jack Johnson and Ezzard Charles continue their march toward greatness, Rocky Marciano fights for his life, and Ingemar Johansson eats a sandwich, all on the next episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure. 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 email@example.com. Follow Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/MysteryShipRadio.