Welcome to another episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure, where the time has finally arrived—every fight from here on out is win or it’s into the time machine with you for a trip back to your own era. From here out, I’m assuming you’re familiar with the series; if not, punch “What If” into the Tribune’s search function—the archive’s all there.
Previously, on What If:
The group stages are done. Jack Johnson won the 1910s group; Jess Willard placed second. Jack Sharkey and Jack Dempsey gave that part of the bracket a bit of a surprise, finishing one-two and eliminating the favorite from the 1920s as Gene Tunney got sent home.
Meanwhile, in the land of fights broadcast in color, Ezzard Charles rampaged through the 1950s group, riding an upset win over Rocky Marciano to a three-fight winning streak and a first-place finish. The Brockton Blockbuster redeemed himself, however, knocking out Archie Moore in the decisive fight of the group stage to take second place. Sonny Liston knocked out three guys in a matter of minutes, hardly breaking a sweat in any of the fights, including a low blow on Jerry Quarry that made the latter man’s entire family tree cringe in sympathy pain, while Jimmy Ellis emerged from the wreckage of the rest of the group to earn a trip to the ring against Charles.
So let’s to it. Fights in this stage are 12 rounds, no three knockdown rule, no standing eight count, only the referee can stop the fight, and the fighter cannot be saved by the bell in any round. Keep it clean, obey my commands at all times, touch ’em up.
Fight #1: Jack Johnson (7/4/1910) vs. Jack Dempsey (7/21/27)
Sometimes there is overlap between decades; guys who fought at different points in their careers in the prime timeline get a chance to answer questions that were by their nature unanswerable when by the time a guy got a chance to fight another guy, age played a role in the outcome that it would not have played had the fighters fought in their primes. Larry Holmes got in a time machine after a big win over Muhammad Ali, but Ali was completely washed up in that fight. The Ali in this tournament is still the brash young big talker who endeared himself to Howard Cosell in the 1960s.
That said, Johnson didn’t hang around long enough to be able to fight Dempsey. The Manassa Mauler won the world title in 1919, but Jack Johnson was effectively finished as a contender when Jess Willard stopped him in 1915; Johnson fought on for over a decade but never fought an opponent worth his salt in the ring for the rest of his career.
When this fight opened, Johnson tried to learn some lessons from Dempsey’s three fights that he’d seen with his own eyes from a ringside perch. Dempsey had shown himself to be both vulnerable to a big shot (in the Sharkey fight) and himself able to dish one out (against Firpo both in this tournament and in the prime timeline.) He’d shown some ability to actually box as well, frustrating Gene Tunney into the low blow that would put Tunney back into the Roaring Twenties perhaps a bit earlier than pundits expected.
It was with that game plan in mind that Johnson came out firing like World War I was back on and he was in charge of the artillery. Dempsey tried to work his jab, but the big old-time champion was having none of it, unafraid of the flicking fist in front of him, slipping it and working the hook to the body, nearly dispossessing Jack Dempsey of his lunch.
The saying among the old-time fight commentators is that working the body is putting money in the bank; it pays off with interest down the road. Indeed, that was on display in this fight. Johnson took all the starch out of not only Dempsey’s jab, but soon enough his hook, his straight right, and his uppercut, and by round eight, leading seven rounds to none on the cards and landing solid shots that set the crowd ablaze with excitement, it was apparent to all in attendance how this was going to go. Jack Dempsey needed a knockout, but his torso had been battered so badly that there was nothing that would arm the weapons required to get that outcome.
A continual attack from Johnson became a case of an overgrown boy playing rough with his toys, and while there may have been a point in the fight where Jack Johnson had a knockout on his mind, he was content to simply test the limits of his opponent’s endurance without needlessly opening himself up to a counter shot. Through the last four rounds, what would be the “championship distance” today but in Johnson’s time was “we’re just getting started”, it was more of the same. When the decision came down, it was the furthest thing from “close” a fight can be without one guy getting stopped. 120-108, all three cards, didn’t matter if the judges were Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and a rhesus macaque, any fool could see it. Jack Johnson was up to four wins in four fights, and it would be either a rematch with Jess Willard or a shot at Jack Sharkey in the quarterfinal.
RESULT: JOHNSON UD12 DEMPSEY.
Fight #2: Ezzard Charles (9/27/50) vs. Jimmy Ellis (8/5/67)
Jimmy Ellis crawled out of the burning wreckage of the plane crash that was the 1960s group, where Floyd Patterson’s chin led to three instances of pin the fist of the fighter and Sonny Liston’s power led to three instances of “don’t try this at home, you might get hurt.” The lone contest with real bearing on who would rise and fall came down to Ellis winning a decision over Jerry Quarry that was one of the best fights of the group stage.
Speaking of Fight of the Year candidates to come out of this pugilistic grand contest, Ezzard Charles won an absolute classic against Rocky Marciano by a split decision that included a ninth round that, had this happened in 1953 and not a fictional alternate 1988, would be spoken of by boxing historians as the greatest three rounds of boxing in the history of the Sweet Science.
There exists a critical difference between a guy winning a decision over one of the greatest fighters of all time and one eking out a majority decision against a guy who was to all accounts a second-tier journeyman, and that difference in skill and prestige was on everyone’s mind as the fight began. Charles scowled on his way to the ring, the look of murder in his eyes a calculated move to try and intimidate Jimmy Ellis, make him feel like he was out of his league, maybe even make him feel like he was back in against Sonny Liston, who had damn near killed him in a minute and a half’s worth of beatdown goodness.
Take a guy who’d earned his stripes without a loss and throw him in against a guy with a first-round knockout loss still a little too fresh on his mind and the damage was done before the first punch. Ellis came in looking to counter, perhaps catch Charles trying to knock him out early, but the wily veteran of so many great wars was not so keen to participate in his opponent’s version of events. Charles used the feint so well that Ellis was completely lost, punching at shadows like a baseball hitter flailing the bat against a fastball pitcher who’d mastered a change-up.
With Ellis’s timing so completely thrown off, Charles was able to start working combinations off the feint and to start closing distance off the jab in order to work the body on the inside. A flummoxed Ellis lost faith in his counter by the fifth round and started getting a little tight, covering up when he should have been throwing back, and that’s when Ezzard Charles knew what he had to do…indeed, what he had come to do with his fight plan. Charles started getting more aggressive, loading up his shots against a man who’d lost the inclination to beat him to the punch.
Once that got established as the tone of the fight, the rest was academic. Charles threw a hook to the body of Jimmy Ellis in the seventh that closed the show, a man on the ground folded in half, writhing in so much pain that any thought of eating food must have seemed like crazy talk, knocked out of the fight and the tournament. Whether it was a rematch with Marciano or a duel to the death with Sonny Liston, Ezzard Charles was four up and ready to rock and roll.
RESULT: CHARLES KO7 ELLIS.
Fight #3: Jess Willard (4/5/15) vs. Jack Sharkey (9/26/29)
Jack Sharkey had become something of the darling of the gutter press in this tournament. After Luis Firpo won the San Dimas Screwjob on cheap shots against Gene Tunney, it was Sharkey who vowed to play hero and who delivered on the promise in the group’s final stanza. Sharkey had also shocked Jack Dempsey in the opening bout, turning history on its ear in the very first round.
There did, however, exist a critical difference between knocking out guys who came after the old-school 45-round wars of attrition from which Jess Willard had emerged in 1915 after his win over a Jack Johnson who was singing the swan song of his historic tale in the championship ranks. Willard came prepared to test both his chin and his opponent’s, while Sharkey was prepared for twelve rounds and not one minute more.
Which, in turn, illustrates the difference between running to the finish line and running through the finish line. If the fight went twelve, Sharkey would be at the end of his trained endurance; Willard would be just getting started.
The thing is, there’s not much point in saving something in reserve when your opponent is leaving everything on the table, and that much was evident from the first round onward. Defense was abandoned to the cause of attempted murder, as Jack Sharkey tried to take a lesson from his win over Dempsey and win this one quick. He threw with the same murderous intent that Johnson had when he got his shot at Willard unencumbered by the boxing politics of 1910 or 1915, and once again Willard wilted under the pressure. It was over in three, Sharkey throwing so many hooks that they were ready to cast him in Julia Roberts’ place next to Richard Gere. He may not have been a pretty woman…but what he was was a hooker supreme. One right to the temple of Willard proved the hook that caught the big fish and the spot in the quarters.
RESULT: SHARKEY KO3 WILLARD.
Fight #4: Rocky Marciano (5/15/53) vs. Sonny Liston (7/22/63)
It seems something of a foolish question to ask whether Rocky Marciano could take a big punch, since the man won 49 fights without reply during his prime timeline fight career, by definition standing up to the very best of all styles to stand in front of him and not only surviving but winning 43 of them by knockout. Sonny Liston was a big puncher; in fact, Liston was a huge puncher with dynamite in his gloves. Even Marciano himself looked on in a combination of awe and somewhat frightened respect when he watched Liston knock three guys out in a little over a round’s worth of actual fight action over three consecutive contests. Liston not only hadn’t been tested; he hadn’t even broken a sweat.
It was against that sort of aggression and power that Marciano had to try and box, and he’d just seen what Ezzard Charles did to Jimmy Ellis when Ellis tried to blunt an aggressive style with a counter-puncher’s mentality. All that got Jimmy Ellis was a knockout loss.
So with the Scylla of Liston’s power and the Charybdis of Charles demonstrating the futility of trying to box a guy like that standing on either side of him, Rocky Marciano made the decision to “dance with the one what brung ya” and fight the way he’d fought for the 44 fights that led up to the night in 1953 when he was shuttled into the time machine after a first-round KO of Jersey Joe Walcott that ended the latter man’s career.
It should also be noted that as of 1953, Marciano had never been on the floor; indeed, he would go down exactly once in his entire career, a flash knockdown in the second round of his final professional fight when Archie Moore dropped him for a count of only two.
Liston came out looking for the big shot, trying to land and catch the Brockton Blockbuster, and he put one on Marciano’s chin in the second round that Rocky was able to laugh off. Marciano kept working the body, trying to bank rounds, indeed trying to blunt the brute force of the man in front of him by any possible means.
You can watch a man known for his knockout power learn to box overnight when the time comes that fighting a knockout artist’s style is only going to leave his chin open. You can watch another man known for his knockout power come in looking for a stoppage come hell or high water, relying on his power and with very little in reserve behind it. You can ask yourself how, in this game of styles making fights, that sort of fight would play out. You could even wonder if the slugger with reckless abandon could bait his opponent into abandoning the attempt at strategic boxing in favor of an old-time brawl.
Or you could watch this fight, in which Rocky Marciano, blooded in a split decision loss that seems forever and an age ago, used the motivation of getting a shot at the guy who’d defeated him in one of the greatest fights of all time to stick to his guns…and by “his guns” that metaphor works if you think of him as Alvin York or Audie Murphy.
Sonny Liston gave it everything he had. The pundits had begun to believe that he was destined for great things, perhaps even a rematch with the same Muhammad Ali who’d been pulled forward in time from one of history’s iconic photo ops in which the Greatest stood over a prone Liston and ran his mouth. There was plenty of speculation about how a Liston-Charles fight would play out, and plenty of reporters were guilty of writing the lede on the way to the ballpark.
That discounted the heart of a lion and the fists of a bear that Rocky Marciano brought to the table, the grim determination that marks every great man on the day he is given a test that he cannot for any reason allow himself to fail. For twelve rounds, Rocky Marciano took that test. He stood up to some booming shots, got backed up a time or two, even looked at times like he’d yield the initiative and fall before the relentless assault of a man hell-bent on removing his name from the ledger of this exercise in cross-temporal boxing speculation, but at the end of the day, it was not to be for Sonny Liston. He’d finally met his match.
The decision went 116-112 (twice), 117-111, all for your winner, by unanimous decision, Rocco Francis Marchegiano. The rematch with Ezzard Charles was on; you’ll see it here in two weeks’ time.
RESULT: MARCIANO UD12 LISTON.
Next week, we turn our attention to the land of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, with questions to be answered about whether the 1940s and 1980s produced any fighters worth half a damn and able to make any kind of headway against two of boxing’s greatest stretches of heavyweight wonder. Will Larry Holmes be able to stand up against Big George Foreman? Will Bonecrusher Smith shock the world? Will Jersey Joe Walcott prove himself the equal of Max Baer? And what of Billy Conn? He was winning that fight with Joe Louis until the bell rang to sound the 13th in 1941—and there is no 13th round here. Could the ultimate upset be afoot? Answers to these and many more questions on the next episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure, next Tuesday 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. Fan mail, hate mail, and Bert Sugar’s fedora can be sent to email@example.com.