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 ’40s and ’80s groups in Episodes 5 and 9.
Previously, on What If:
The 1980s group is decided in terms of who the participants will be in the perhaps to-be-aptly-named knockout stages of the tournament to come; Bonecrusher Smith and Larry Holmes are 2-0 against Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon. Meanwhile, Jersey Joe Walcott is 2-0, his ticket punched, only an exhibition with Joey Maxim to come, with Maxim last seen having bled like he’d stepped on a land mine in the Ardennes rather than gone a few rounds with Billy Conn. Speaking of Conn, he’s got Lou Nova in an all-the-marbles match that, along with the seeding match between Smith and Holmes, represent the meat of this week’s action. Onward:
Fight #1: Jersey Joe Walcott (7/18/1951) vs. Joey Maxim (6/25/52)
In the prime timeline, Jersey Joe Walcott and Joey Maxim put on a trilogy of fights that were the Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fights of their day. The first fight was a closely contested referee’s decision that went Maxim’s way; the rematch and rubber match were a majority decision and split decision win, respectively, for Walcott, who had the benefit of three people scoring the fight rather than one. Said United Press of the second fight: “There was (sic) no knockdowns and no bloodshed.”
Oh, history, what a cruel mistress. “No bloodshed”, they say. Well, in 1947, Maxim hadn’t been sewn together like Lady Gaga’s meat dress after being beaten so bloody that it became an open question whether the Red Cross was going to be called in thanks to one Billy Conn pulling a late-night infomercial moment out of his punch; “It slices, it dices, it makes a mountain of julienned boxer-face fries.”
A lot of people at ringside had been overlooking Walcott as a contender, assuming that even if he won the group and therefore the right to face Max Baer rather than Joe Louis in the round of 16, that the fight would be nothing more than a meaningless contest to determine the right to get murdered by the Brown Bomber in the quarterfinal. Walcott, for his part, wanted to make a statement, and painting in crimson was going to be his strategy.
Before the fight, Walcott got the ear of a young Teddy Atlas, who was at ringside giving his still-raw broadcast chops a workout after the sequence of events in his own life that had led to him nearly murdering Donny Lalonde in the same summer of 1988 in which we lay our scene here. Teddy, his Fight Plan skills in evidence, advised Walcott on the best way to get the maximum torque on a jab to work on the barely-healed cut of Maxim come fight time.
The art of turning over a jab is one that even the all-time great fighters in the sport struggle with. A jab, so often used as a rangefinder or a half-hearted means of keeping an opponent at range, can be a powerful weapon, and the advice of a trainer who had spent the bulk of the 1980s building a reputation that would have brought Michael Moorer into this conversation if our time machine went and got fighters from the 1990s was as good as slipping Jersey Joe Walcott a razor blade.
It didn’t take long when the bell rang to start the actual fight. Walcott peppered Maxim with jabs thrown with intentions as bad as Teddy Atlas had when he knocked on the door of Donny Lalonde’s apartment in New York City. The human body is brim-full of raspberry jam just waiting to be liberated from its meatsack prison, and for Joey Maxim, there was only one man who would dare give him the raspberry. After a dozen jabs all found the same spot, scar tissue yielded to the laws of physics and Joey Maxim went from man in a boxing ring to the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
With the obvious in evidence, and nothing for Maxim to fight for, ninety seconds of the bleeding fighter’s face looking all too much like it belonged in an abattoir led the corner to throw in the towel, which immediately got stained red as soon as it landed in the ring. There would be no San Dimas Chainsaw Massacre this day; Walcott had made his point, and took an undefeated record into a contest with Max Baer still to come.
RESULT: WALCOTT TKO (RTD)-1 MAXIM.
Fight #2: Tim Witherspoon (9/23/83) vs. Pinklon Thomas (6/15/85)
In the words of Pat Putnam from Sports Illustrated, writing about Thomas’ majority-decision win over Witherspoon in 1984 that gave Thomas the WBC’s version of the heavyweight championship of the world: “You want to know what the world has come to? Well, we now have a heavyweight champion who wears pink boxing trunks.”
Witherspoon, for his part, whined in advance of that fight that he was “only” getting $400,000 to fight Thomas in a fight that was, at the time, for the right of the winner to call himself the best fighter not named Larry Holmes, since Holmes was the recognized actual “champion” in the lineal/press sense of the term, still riding high off his win over Muhammad Ali in 1980.
Having an attitude problem and nothing to fight for is not a winning combination. Witherspoon looked disinterested in the ring, halfheartedly boxing on the outside and completely unwilling to mix it up with Thomas. The man in pink, however, who had beaten a heroin addiction in his teens and credited boxing with saving his life, was not about to disgrace the sport he loved. Pinklon Thomas snapped out jabs, swung hooks, put his legs into the crosses. If he wasn’t going to get his brains bashed in by the likes of George Foreman or Muhammad Ali, he would at least get out of this all-time contest with one victory.
Witherspoon got hit with what probably wasn’t the most spectacular right cross in the fifth round, but it was his opportunity to turn the moment into “screw this, I’m out.” “Terrible” Tim took a knee, showing no interest in the count administered by Richard Steele, as the crowd howled a bunch of insults unprintable in the newspapers before, when the fight was over, cheering Pinklon Thomas with a zeal they’d previously reserved for the Ezzard Charles-Rocky Marciano fight.
In a tournament full of spectacular knockouts and all-time great fights going the distance, it was a man who had become one of boxing’s great feel-good stories on that night in 1984 when he went from down and out in the gutter to wearing a championship belt who reminded everyone in attendance just how sweet the Sweet Science could be. Before he stepped into the phone booth for his return trip to three years prior, Thomas blew a kiss to the crowd; he was no conquering hero but he went out a man who had earned his pride in defeat.
RESULT: THOMAS KO5 WITHERSPOON.
Fight #3: Billy Conn (9/6/40) vs. Lou Nova (4/4/41)
Before this fight, both men were asked about their chances if they won this fight and earned a battle with Joe Louis for their trouble. Conn, who when pulled from his place in history still a year away from fighting Louis in the prime timeline, remarked that given a distance of only 12 rounds, he might just have a shot; his confidence was high and “I’m looking forward to shocking the world.”
Lou Nova was himself still five months from his own fight with Louis, and he was more humble, perhaps aware of just how much Louis had done to distinguish himself clobbering everyone brave or foolish enough to stand in front of him. Nova said “I just hope he left the Bum of the Month club in 1941 and I can catch him.”
The attitudes of the two men toward Louis could not have been far from the forefront of their mentality as they faced off for the right to make that fight. Conn came out determined to prove that not only was he worthy of that battle, but indeed that his loss to Jersey Joe Walcott had been naught but a fluke. From the opening bell, Conn put on a boxing display for the ages, about which Teddy Atlas said “This is what we saw from Pinklon Thomas, except this time we got a fight with something on the line.”
Five rounds into the ten-round contest, it was clear as day that Lou Nova would not be able to turn this into the slugfest he’d baited Joey Maxim into when Nova did the damage that would turn what was the juiciest matchup of the 1940s group into the walkover it became on this night. Billy Conn’s blood would stay in Billy Conn’s body where it belonged.
Unfortunately for Nova, karma is a vicious and cruel mistress, and a jab from Conn opened up a cut over Lou Nova’s left eye that would worsen through the fifth and sixth rounds to a point where, again writing for Sports Illustrated, Pat Putnam would say of the fight that “Much has been said about the dangers of blood donation in this new era of HIV and AIDS that plagues our society; perhaps if the authorities are on the lookout for clean blood, they can get it out of a boxing ring where guys who were around before the virus was seem more than willing to donate blood by the gallon every time they get hit.”
Nova worked up a hell of a sweat, and sweat combined with blood made every punch look as though it were putting a finger over the nozzle of Dracula’s garden hose. In much the same way as fans at the comedy shows of Gallagher at the height of his watermelon-smashing popularity needed plastic screens to keep from getting melon guts all over them, so too should someone have thought to install plastic near the ringside seats.
Some people from the 1940s bled out in World War II. Lou Nova bled so much that he was perhaps a bit woozy by the end, and the mere act of remaining upright at the final bell despite Billy Conn fighting the kind of world-class technical fight that he perhaps should have kept holstered in the interest of not awakening a giant in Joe Louis was an act of heroism. The ring itself would need a good cleaning after this night, and it was perhaps for the better that the first fight was stopped lest a stain become a permanent paint job in red.
The scores were easy enough; 100-90 (twice) and 100-89, including a 10-8 round during an 8th round where Nova ate more leather than a party of rubes demanding well-done at a steakhouse. How Nova didn’t go down remains one of the mysteries of the day, but he was pounded utterly silly, bleeding ever worse all the while, and only the bell likely saved him.
RESULT: CONN UD10 NOVA.
Fight #4: James “Bonecrusher” Smith (12/12/86) vs. Larry Holmes (10/2/80)
Before this fight, someone pointed out to Larry Holmes that if he won, he’d be through to the second round with a chance to fight George Foreman, but if he lost, he’d get a chance to fight Muhammad Ali, who he’d beaten on the night he got into the time machine. Holmes reminded the reporter that it wasn’t 1980 Muhammad Ali he’d be fighting, but rather Ali in his prime.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Holmes, he was still four years away from administering a beatdown to Bonecrusher Smith that was very much on Smith’s mind, the fight having gone down in the fall of 1984 for the inaugural heavyweight title fight in the annals of the newly-formed IBF. Holmes got smacked good by a couple of shots from Smith that by rights should have dropped the Easton Assassin, but Holmes easily shook off the shots to the point where trainer Eddie Futch let his man go hunting for the knockout as the championship rounds approached back when the “championship” rounds were not 11 and 12 but the 13th through the 15th rounds of the contest.
This fight would have no such championship rounds, but Holmes’ game plan was to go in there showing no regard for his opponent’s alleged power; the conqueror of Ali would come out trying to send a message to Big George Foreman that he would have plenty to fear in the round of 16.
What’s more, Bonecrusher Smith was no George Foreman in the sense that it took a lot more work and seven rounds’ worth of rope-a-dope before the Greatest of All Time was able to stop the world’s foremost grill purveyor than it would to stop a guy who had such a suspect chin that he’d been knocked out in his pro debut before becoming a champion.
Holmes came out slugging, and even though Smith got a few good shots in, we got our matchup for the elimination rounds, and it was the matchup that pretty well everyone expected. It only took three rounds; Holmes landed a straight right hand that will go undescribed in a nod to a writer’s finite supply of metaphors not wishing to be depleted with so much action still to come. “Save some of that for the sequel”, as an old iced tea commercial put it.
RESULT: HOLMES KO3 SMITH.
Final Results of Groups 4 and 8:
1940s: Jersey Joe Walcott 3-0, Billy Conn 2-1, Lou Nova 1-2, Joey Maxim 0-3.
1980s: Larry Holmes 3-0, James “Bonecrusher” Smith 2-1, Pinklon Thomas 1-2, Tim Witherspoon 0-3.
Round of 16 Matchups:
Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn
Max Baer vs. Jersey Joe Walcott
Muhammad Ali vs. Bonecrusher Smith
George Foreman vs. Larry Holmes
NEXT WEEK: It’s time to get serious up in here. The time has come for fighters to start crossing eras, and for the real What If work to begin. Jack Johnson takes on Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard gets Jack Sharkey, Ezzard Charles is a heavy favorite against Jimmy Ellis, and a What If rematch of sorts goes down between Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston. Twelve weeks’ worth of buildup begins to come to a head—and someone might well lose their head. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure, right here on The Boxing Tribune.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series and covers ESPN Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. He prefers to keep his blood inside his body whenever possible. Fan mail, hate mail, and if you REALLY want the Mike Tyson part spoiled, that question as well, can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.