Previously, on What If:
Boxing’s major one-man-and-a-crate-of-puppets eras are often mocked for lacking excitement because the champion is so dominant that nobody can rise above him and all the fighters of the era come off looking like chumps because the top of the mountain is closed to them. In the 1940s, fights happened for the right to be called the best fighter not named Joe Louis, and similar derision accompanied trying to become the next bit of meat for Mike Tyson’s grinder in the late 1980s.
It is with that in mind that the groups go on; Jersey Joe Walcott and Lou Nova have emerged as frontrunners, knocking out Billy Conn and Joey Maxim, while Larry Holmes and James “Bonecrusher” Smith have done their best to remind the crowd that Mike Tyson’s been busy beating the hell out of Michael Spinks both in the prime timeline and in our alternate universe and as such has left them with Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon to starch.
The show must go on, however, even if it’s just knockout-stage grist for the mills of heavyweight’s two most glorious decades, where guys like Louis and Muhammad Ali reside. To that end:
Fight #1: Pinklon Thomas (6/15/85) vs. James “Bonecrusher” Smith (12/12/86)
One of the more interesting footnotes in heavyweight history is how much higher the knockout percentages were once upon a time. These days, you see a lot more fights above 200 pounds not involving a Klitschko brother go the distance, but back in boxing’s glory days, taking a guy the distance was so much an accomplishment in itself that Sylvester Stallone was able to plausibly present a movie premise that wasn’t about winning and expect the audience to buy the character’s motivation (the fact that sequel decay set it wasn’t the point; the first Rocky movie, taken by itself, is a masterpiece precisely because ending up on the wrong end of a decision doesn’t feel like a loss.) Need further proof? James “Quick” Tillis still trades off a reputation he gained from taking Mike Tyson the distance once upon a time, when Tyson was still damn near murdering everybody in front of him.
Pinklon Thomas, in the course of his career, stopped 34 of his 43 victims and was conversely stopped five times in seven defeats. Bonecrusher Smith, in addition to being another guy who took Tyson the distance back when even doing that on Nintendo was an accomplishment, stopped 32 of his 44 victims (including a one-round smashing of Tim Witherspoon on his time-machine moment night) and was himself stopped seven times in 17 pro losses.
One gets the feeling that something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the guy who’d gone the distance with the likes of Tyson, Greg Page, and Michael Moorer over the course of his career. James Smith may have been the Bonecrusher, but his own bones were plenty crush-proof in order to get his own work done.
Meanwhile, Pinklon became the brained as Smith seized the catbird seat for the right to get his butt whipped in the round of 16. Thomas went down from a right hand in round one and the rout was on; Bonecrusher Smith may be something of a historical footnote in his own era, having only briefly held the WBA belt as a human placeholder for Iron Mike, but on this night in San Dimas, he looked like Apollo Creed in there. Three rounds and six knockdowns later, the crowd had its bloodlust whipped up and Bonecrusher had his second win and a guaranteed spot in the Round of 16.
RESULT: SMITH KO4 THOMAS.
Fight #2: Jersey Joe Walcott (7/18/51) vs. Lou Nova (4/4/41)
In one corner, you have a guy who twice got smoked by Joe Louis late in the Brown Bomber’s championship run. In the other corner, you have a guy who was part of the Bum of the Month club in the immediate run-up to World War II. Walcott beat Joey Maxim two out of three in one of boxing’s greatest trilogies, 30 rounds of back-and-forth that led to one split decision, one majority decision, and one referee’s decision in a close fight where a lot of people at ringside thought Walcott got robbed.
Meanwhile, Lou Nova beat the snot out of Maxim in a gym in his own distant future, when he could possibly have met his own 75-year-old self. Nova beat the hell out of a couple of other notable opponents in his fight days as well; much as in the example given in the first fight, this was a case of where knockout percentages were again in play.
Nova’s kill-or-be-killed bona fides came out of 31 KOs in 49 wins and 6 stoppage losses out of a total of nine, while Walcott, for his part, had 32 KO wins in 51 total victories and got stopped six times himself out of the 18 cases where he came up second-best in his fighting days.
Nova’s mandate here was to push the pace, showing that getting a fighter on his best night (in Nova’s case, when he sent Max Baer into retirement, and an argument could be made that there was a fair bit telling about the Maxim fight in the alternate timeline as well) could prove to be a history-changer. Walcott, for his part, just wanted to stay out of trouble and fight his own fight, looking to grab the decision by way of superior actual boxing skills.
So what happens when a boxer meets a puncher? Well, Lou Nova was no Rocky Marciano, and he was no Joe Louis, and in any event Walcott had gone the distance and even dropped the champion twice in a fifteen-rounder he nearly won against the latter. The point was that Nova’s strategy was unsound.
Walcott boxed circles around Nova, making him look like his feet were bolted to the floor and unleashing flurry after flurry before escaping out the side door and putting on an object lesson in the right way to fight. If he’d had fifteen rounds, it was probably inevitable that he’d have gotten the stoppage, as Nova looked out on his feet in the tenth and had been on the floor twice; unlike in the modern game where thoroughly out-boxing an opponent only gets you a special kind of robbed when the other guy’s promoter and manager have rigged the game from the start, this is boxing utopia, and the judges know what they’re doing…or at least the appearance of propriety was maintained in this contest.
The point is that it wasn’t rocket science to give Jersey Joe Walcott a 100-88 score on all three cards. This was a rout, and Walcott was on to what undoubtedly would be a hell of a fight with, if not Joe Louis, then someone who would give him more of a challenge in any event. Nova dropped to 1-1; Walcott ran his record to 2-0.
RESULT: WALCOTT UD10 NOVA
Fight #3: Tim Witherspoon (9/23/83) vs. Larry Holmes (10/2/80)
Watching these fights ringside in order to scout the action, and told of what had happened when a much older version of himself had finally met his end (the less said about the Trevor Berbick fight, the better), Muhammad Ali remarked that “I hope I get this chump so he can find out how lucky he got.”
When your signature win is over a guy who was at the end of the line, that’s probably a bad sign. Meanwhile, Tim Witherspoon was coming into this fight from a time machine moment where he’d ritually slaughtered Quick Tillis in a single round, and this was four months of historical time after he’d lost a split decision to Holmes in an effort to grab the WBC belt.
Holmes was, by virtue of his temporal journey, not aware that he’d won such a fight; he just saw a guy in front of him who’d been starched in one round by the Bonecrusher, who in turn had required four to get rid of Pinklon Thomas.
For his part, the Easton Assassin was quite tired of all the “he’d have been a bum if he had to fight Ali and Frazier and Foreman in their primes” talk, and that had been driving him and motivating him during training camp. To hear “We Want Tyson” from the crowd put a special kind of rage into him, and while his moment with Tyson was coming both in prime-timeline history (when Tyson beat him senseless in January of 1988) and quite possibly in an alternate universe (we’ll get there), for now he had but to focus on the guy in front of him.
Which is all but to set up a fight that was neither competitive nor particularly dramatic. Tim Witherspoon, his confidence turned to trepidation after Bonecrusher’s ring-the-bell-win-a-prize two-minute beatdown in the first of the group stage fights, was easy prey, and it only took three rounds for Larry Holmes to complete the piñata moment and bust Witherspoon like the chump Ali claimed that 1980 Larry Holmes was when compared…well, when compared to 1964 Muhammad Ali.
Point of the matter was that Holmes would be fighting the Bonecrusher for nothing more than the right to settle the question of who was facing whom in the single-elimination portion of the tournament. With two fighters 2-0 and two other fighters 0-2, the entire group was otherwise settled.
RESULT: HOLMES KO3 WITHERSPOON
Fight #4: Joey Maxim (6/25/52) vs. Billy Conn (9/6/40)
One gets the feeling that if this were a tournament of the greatest guys who just couldn’t quite get over the hump, Conn would be destined to face Earnie Shavers in the grand final. A guy who, if fights had been shortened from 15 rounds to 12 long before they in fact were, had Joe Louis dead to rights is a guy who has perhaps had his historical legacy underrated.
Meanwhile, Joey Maxim had been pulled out of time after defeating a guy in Sugar Ray Robinson who is fairly widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter who ever lived, and this fight is a rare example of a case where Maxim having been brought to 1988 as a light heavyweight in a heavyweight tournament was less of a handicap than it otherwise would have been, since Billy Conn himself was an undersized big man even by the standards of the time as well, having once fought at lightweight.
Maxim was an exception to the rule that has otherwise underpinned this week’s installment. Stopped only once in 29 losses and a knockout winner only 21 times in 82 triumphs, Joey Maxim was built to go the distance. Even so, Maxim had stopped Robinson in 13 rounds; if ever a moment were in prime place for a guy to punch above his weight, tonight’s bout would be it.
Conn was another guy for whom the numbers belie the reputation; even though he’d been pulled forward in time after a stoppage victory, the undersized man had only 15 knockouts in 64 wins and had been stopped in only three of his eleven losses, and two of those were against Joe Louis; the third, in Conn’s fourth pro fight and at lightweight, was a bizarre piece of boxing lore in which Conn, who had eaten a large meal before the fight, got caught with a body shot and refused to answer the bell for the fourth round on the grounds that he “felt sick”, this according to the Wheeling Register, the West Virginia paper that delivered the story of record for the fight.
Nobody was stuffing Billy Conn full of food on this night, but then again, Sugar Ray Robinson went down against Maxim not from punches but from heat exhaustion in 104-degree heat, and this gym was air-conditioned. Fists, not vagaries of old-school fight conditions, would rule the day.
When the fight itself started, a weakness far more dangerous than weight got to Maxim. In 1942, against Ezzard Charles, Maxim had bled like a victim in an old-school ’80s slasher flick (this according to an account of the fight, though without the obvious ahead-of-its-time reference, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which noted Maxim’s tenacity as Charles tried unsuccessfully to knock him out.) A guy with scar tissue is a cut waiting to happen, and early in the second round, with a punch above the right eye, the horror show was on.
And oh, how the gore flowed. Conn, ever the skilled tactician, used those tactics less in the cause of, say, keeping Joe Louis off him and more with a surgeon’s knack for wielding a scalpel. Lowering Maxim’s guard with body shots only to come back upstairs with a well-torqued series of straight shots with both hands aimed straight at the cut, commentators at ringside began to wonder if perhaps Joey Maxim’s eye was going to fall right out of the widened socket.
The fight got uglier, images of everything from bringing a knife to a fistfight to the bumpkin’s proclamation about a stuck pig turning the color commentary into something that was colorful in a crimson sort of way. Even though Maxim’s moment in the time machine came at the height of the McCarthy hearings, there was more red in that boxing ring than there had ever been in the testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
To steal a line from Joe Tessitore, “I’ve got blood on my notes, blood on my shirt, this is why my dry cleaner thinks I’m a hit man.” Thankfully, what might have been a great skilled and tactical fight got brought to a merciful conclusion before Maxim bled out. The ringside doctor stopped it in the fifth.
RESULT: CONN TKO5 (CUTS) MAXIM.
So, Where Does This Leave Us?
In the ’80s division, Bonecrusher Smith and Larry Holmes are both 2-0 and fight each other for seeding. Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon are both 0-2 and fight each other for naught but pride.
In the ’40s set, Billy Conn and Lou Nova are both 1-1; they fight for all the marbles and a spot in the next round, where each man will most likely be fighting for the chance to try to pull a rabbit out of history’s hat against their conqueror Joe Louis, while Jersey Joe Walcott picks up a great rivalry from his own time against Joey Maxim, assuming they can stitch him together and trot him out in one piece next time around. One might have to call for Dr. Frankenstein at this point. Even though only four weeks are allotted between fights, the show must go on; there will be serious questions about whether Maxim’s cuts have healed all the way ahead of that fight. It’s going to depend mainly on whether boxing commentators of the day have the stomach to put another bloodbath into words.
NEXT WEEK, AND WE MEAN IT THIS TIME:
Alert readers may notice that I goofed last week and teased the ’10s and ’50s group-stage finale as this week’s column. It’s a funny thing about editors; they can’t look into a writer’s mind and see the future, so that goof got past the otherwise eagle eye of not only your columnist but the approval process here at the Tribune as well. Oh well, same advisory applies about Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, and Swedish fighters eating sandwiches. That’s coming next week…on 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 will be resuming lead writer duties on ESPN Friday Night Fights coverage in January 2015. 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.