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 Episodes 3 and 7.
Previously, on What If:
Well, the 1920s are a fine mess, aren’t they? When last we saw our competitors, Luis Firpo was the beneficiary of the San Dimas Screwjob, landing a cheap shot on Gene Tunney, a rabbit punch that left the great man staggering around before an Earl Hebner-worthy blind eye from the referee. Meanwhile, Jack Sharkey got himself on the board with a shocking upset win over Jack Dempsey, setting the stage for a rematch of a legendary contest in the annals of fight history between Dempsey and Tunney, while Sharkey has vowed to the crowd to knock Luis Firpo’s head off.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Sonny Liston continues to destroy everyone in front of him, while possibilities exist for all manner of interesting confusion if the fights break a certain way. Floyd Patterson fights Jimmy Ellis for the right to add a lot of confusion to the proceedings; he’s still mathematically alive, and it’s possible the newspaper men may trade on his good name to get him into the next round. He just has to win first. With that sorted…
Fight #1: Jack Dempsey (7/21/1927) vs. Gene Tunney (9/23/26)
When Dempsey was pulled out of history for a date with destiny, he’d already lost one fight to Gene Tunney, but the infamous “Long Count” fight, the last of Dempsey’s career, was two months yet to come. History would confer no benefit upon either fighter for either fore- or hindsight. Dempsey had knocked out Jack Sharkey, a feat he would repeat with ease in the first bout of this tournament, but Tunney was a Delphic mystery to him.
Meanwhile, Tunney was on quite a run of his own; except for having been utterly screwed over by a guy he’d knocked out in two rounds in the prime timeline, Tunney was still ultimately the fighter who compiled a 65-1-1 record in an era when fighters routinely lost because they were unafraid or at least forced by economic circumstance to take on all comers. Tunney’s lone loss was to a Hall of Famer—Harry Greb had beaten Tunney once, but that was in five contests that otherwise featured three Tunney wins and a draw.
When the action got to hand in this fight, Tunney established himself as the better boxer. Dempsey was too slow—he might always have been too slow—to counter a man who’d had five fights against one of the greatest fighters of all time and come out the better more than he’d come out even so much as level. For the first four rounds, it looked as though Gene Tunney could do no wrong.
In round five, however, Dempsey was finally able to start cutting the ring down, eliminating Tunney’s advantage on the outside and putting his historical bugbear on the back foot. Dempsey forced the action back to the ropes, working relentlessly to the body, trying to take the steam out of the faster and more skilled man in front of him.
The pace continued through the sixth and seventh, as a continual body attack, with a little help from an uncalled low blow or seven, slowed Tunney down and turned a 4-0 deficit into a close fight, the rounds themselves as decisive in the latter three for the judges as they’d been in the first four.
The crowd started baying for blood; they could see, even if referee Matt Hinkel could not, that Dempsey had crossed the line between body shots straying low and working the speedbag. Tunney, for his part, gritted his teeth, wondering if perhaps the gods themselves, or a cruel trickster writing the book of his life, weren’t out to get him.
It’s a funny thing about destiny. Sometimes you let it get to you, and other times you take destiny into your own hands and wrangle it, forcing it to bend to your will. Tired of the constant low blows, Tunney took matters into his own hands, giving Dempsey a hard shove in the eighth round that set the man onto the back foot, then bull-rushed Dempsey into the corner using the dirtiest of wrestling tactics to do so.
Once there, Tunney uncorked the mother of all uppercuts, the kind of uppercut an angry woman throws when she’s just caught her husband balls deep in her sister. An old saw in boxing commentary is that punches are thrown with bad intentions; this was the kind of punch thrown with intentions of amateur family planning surgery.
Homeward the fist crashed…and that was when the referee finally awoke from his stupor and took a point away from Gene Tunney, giving Jack Dempsey the full five minutes to recover from the assault upon his legacy, and we’re not talking about the legacy in the ring kind.
A furious Dempsey went back on the offensive after the five minutes, throwing to the body and the head, scoring points and doing everything he needed to do to stick to his game plan. Although Dempsey was unable to get rid of the man in front of him, he did leave a lot of questions open as to whether he’d taken the five rounds in the last six he would need.
The decision came down to a split. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a majority draw, two judges giving it 95-95 and the third giving it to Tunney by a 96-94 count. However, in this world of turning the favorite into the world’s chew toy, those even scores became a win for Dempsey—the split decision had to take the point deduction into account, making the final count 95-94 (twice), 94-95 for the winner, by split decision, Jack Dempsey. Tunney was on a time-travel consolation prize trip back home, history’s only solace being that for Dempsey it was redemption insofar as a modern referee would never have screwed him on a long count thanks to the ringside timekeeper.
RESULT: DEMPSEY W-SD10 TUNNEY
Fight #2: Sonny Liston (7/22/63) vs. Jerry Quarry (12/14/73)
When last we saw Jerry Quarry, he was standing over an unconscious Floyd Patterson after having destroyed the once-great champion in two rounds. When last Sonny Liston saw Jerry Quarry, it was in the same context, and Quarry gestured toward the man who’d won his first two fights by knockout and made a throat-slash gesture.
Do not make throat-slash gestures at a man who has been pulled from history at the height of his powers and has just knocked two men out in the first round of a boxing tournament.
No. Seriously. Do not try this at home.
Have you ever seen a boxer with the berserker rage? Quarry had about as much chance of making this a closely-fought contest as one of Floyd Mayweather’s girlfriends. Liston came out swinging, and what’s more, he came out determined to impose his will upon the pace of the fight. The first punch of the contest was a low blow, a where’s-my-lunch shot to the nuts that folded Quarry in half like he was made out of tissue paper. Quarry crawled around on the canvas like a baby, grimacing in the kind of pain that led the commentators to wonder if perhaps Quarry’s cup wasn’t aligned right.
The cup and protector were aligned fine. Liston just hit him so hard that he rang the bell and won a prize.
When Quarry got up, and with five minutes to recover, the punch still had its effect, and a slowed man is a dead man; one flurry and with the official time of the actual fight being only twenty-one seconds after a combination by Liston closed the show, Rocky Marciano, watching ringside knowing he’d probably have to face the beast from St. Louis, summarized his view of his chances in two words:
RESULT: LISTON KO1 QUARRY
Fight #3: Jack Sharkey (9/26/29) vs. Luis Firpo (7/12/23)
Go back and read Episode 7 again. In there, you’ll find this sentence: “Firpo was a bit of a plodder, and Tunney knew it.”
Gene Tunney was not the only one who knew the man in front of him was long on power and short on skill; Jack Sharkey was every bit as aware, having had the historical benefit of knowing how Firpo’s career would go while Sharkey himself was still coming up through the ranks. He also knew, having watched Firpo’s cornermen pulling a Three Stooges act on a distracted referee, that giving a dirty fighter a chance at trickery would be a recipe for Luis Firpo perhaps getting his hands on the coveted “sacrificial lamb for Jack Johnson” spot in the Round of 16.
Sharkey had his own ambitions; a win here would make him the group winner by virtue of a tiebreaker in his head-to-head fight with Jack Dempsey; he would not get Johnson. Sharkey would get Jess Willard, the same man Firpo had beaten up on the night the Argentine was pulled forward in history for a contest of champions. Not that any of that mattered; there was a revenge act to be pulled, and a bloodthirsty crowd cheering wildly when Sharkey was introduced and booing every bit as lustily for the South American.
In a perfect world, Sharkey could stay on the outside and prevent his opponent’s power from coming into play. The problem with this strategy is that when you’re giving up three inches in height to your opponent, keeping him on the outside is a whole heap more difficult; Mike Tyson never kept anyone at the end of his jab, after all. Sharkey was going to have to, in the words of Teddy Atlas, “walk through a bad neighborhood” in order to start chucking leather.
By stroke of good fortune, someone somewhere had taught Jack Sharkey how to jab, and the “Boston Gob” put on a virtuoso performance of, to use another Atlas coinage, “putting bugs on the windshield”, blinding Firpo with quick, snapping shots to the face before splitting the guard with uppercuts and bringing wide hooks right to the liver of his opponent.
Sure, it wasn’t “knock his head off” unless knocking one’s body clean out from under the bowling ball balanced on top of it qualifies. This was less tee ball and more Jenga in that regard.
Finally, in round six, all that work paid off. A rising hook straight to the body of Firpo was enough to send the Argentine down and leave him with a grimace on his mug that, when Firpo out of sheer grit and fighter’s tenacity rose and beat the count, led him at last to utter words made famous by another Latino fighter: “No más.”
It may have been “no más” for Firpo, but for Sharkey, who won the group with the victory, it would be “mucho, mucho más.” The crowd went bananas, and Firpo learned that in the end, crime does not pay.
RESULT: SHARKEY TKO6 FIRPO
Fight #4: Floyd Patterson (6/20/60) vs. Jimmy Ellis (8/5/67)
The vagaries of mathematics can make for some interesting scenarios. Before the fight, the TV commentary team made everything clear as mud for the viewers, reminding people that “if Jimmy Ellis wins this fight, he’s in and gets to face Ezzard Charles in the next round, but if Patterson wins, all three fighters other than Liston will be 1-2 and it will be up to the newspapermen to decide which of the three earns that honor. Sonny Liston is fighting Rocky Marciano. The rest, we don’t know.”
In practice, however, Jimmy Ellis was the only one here with anything to fight for. He’d been knocked out by Sonny Liston, yes, but so had everyone else. Patterson had, however, been beaten like a piñata by not one but two guys, and two bad KO losses weren’t going to impress anyone. Even if Patterson won this fight by decisive victory, nobody would give him the nod over Quarry, who had destroyed him.
The tiebreaker would be Quarry’s decision win over Ellis in their fight. Win, and Ellis would be in at 2-1. Lose, and Quarry was in at 1-2 by newspaper decision. Draw, and Ellis would be in at 1-1-1. For Patterson, there was nothing to fight for except for maybe if he actually killed a guy in the ring and forced the hand of a bunch of guys on press row who witnessed a homicide and gave the nod to a killer.
Did we mention that Floyd Patterson wasn’t a killer? Even against Ingemar Johansson on the night of his greatest triumph, that was less murderous intent and more catching a guy who caught lightning in a historical bottle in order to grab the heavyweight title back. What Patterson was, however, was a skilled guy with a suspect chin, and when a fight is to all purposes win or go home for the other guy, a suspect chin can be a little bit of a problem.
The other thing about getting your ass handed to you twice in an unfamiliar environment is that it tends to work on you mentally. The seed of doubt was not only planted, but had shot up a stalk and borne fruit, which itself seeded the ground for more doubt plants, a whole forest of doubt trees in fact, to grow.
All this is by way of saying that you can jabber all you like about Floyd Patterson, but this just wasn’t his night. A left hook to the temple a minute into round three saw to that. Jerry Quarry, knowing the stakes, screamed “Get up, you washed-up has-been!”…but it was to no avail. Let’s try not to contemplate too much the implications of the term “has-been” as applied to a guy who would fight another decade-plus after being returned to his own time still very much a young man.
RESULT: ELLIS KO3 PATTERSON.
Final Results of Group Stages 2 and 6:
1920s: Sharkey 2-1 (wins on tiebreak due to head-to-head win), Dempsey 2-1, Firpo 1-2 (third place due to beating Tunney), Tunney 1-2.
1960s: Liston 3-0, Ellis 2-1, Quarry 1-2, Patterson 0-3.
Round of 16 Matchups:
Jack Johnson (1910s winner) vs. Jack Dempsey (1920s runner-up)
Jess Willard (1910s runner-up) vs. Jack Sharkey (1920s winner)
Ezzard Charles (1950s winner) vs. Jimmy Ellis (1960s runner-up)
Rocky Marciano (1950s runner-up) vs. Sonny Liston (1960s winner)
NEXT WEEK: When legends clash, you know you’re in for a treat. The exciting conclusion to the 1930s and 1970s group stages features Max Baer and Primo Carnera fighting for a winner-take-all battle, while Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fight for nothing but pride and foregone conclusions and wondering what might have been if World War II had gone differently. Meanwhile, everyone in That ’70s Bracket is 1-1; you want a win-or-go-home fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier? How about George Foreman and Ken Norton? Tune in for the biggest fights on the biggest stage; if next week’s fights were televised, they’d be pay-per-view and draw three million buys.
PROGRAM NOTE: Fan of my work? Fan of ESPN Friday Night Fights, are you? Well, have I got news for you. Starting this Thursday (January 1, 2015), The Southpaw, boxing’s best roundup of news, opinion, and dick jokes, returns to its regular time slot, and next week, the FNF Preview and Recap return to their former glory as the Worldwide Leader brings back its weekly traveling medicine show. Hope to see you there.
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 and will do so again in 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.