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:
You ever get the feeling you’re watching a pre-ordained conclusion, and not just in the sense of authorial control over the outcome inherent to all forms of fiction? The 1980s group ended with Larry Holmes and James “Bonecrusher” Smith fighting less for some sort of glory atop a division and more for the right to decide without having to flip a coin which guy would get whupped by which actual heavyweight legend, as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman waited in the wings, both men in the primes of their careers and coming off their most violent, dominant victories.
The intrigue comes in asking whether a first-rank fighter from the 1940s in Jersey Joe Walcott can beat a guy like Max Baer, and whether anyone at all could beat the version of Joe Louis who turned in one of the greatest knockouts in boxing history in 1938. Billy Conn gave 1941 Joe Louis all he wanted for thirteen rounds, and these fights are scheduled for 12…but then again, Louis did win the rematch after the war, in which Conn “earned” the Flop of the Year award from the papers.
Just wait until the end. This week’s episode isn’t really about the fights so much…
Fight #1: Jersey Joe Walcott (7/18/1951) vs. Max Baer (6/14/34)
The talk leading up to this fight was a question of whether the post-World War II landscape was enough of a fight wasteland to more or less render moot the idea of whether there were four worthy fighters or whether in fact the decade was simply to be remembered as Joe Louis and a cast of thousands, with so many of the best fighters of the immediate postwar era campaigning at light heavyweight rather than fighting the champion. Guys like Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore, who would make names for themselves in a time of Eisenhower and interstate highway construction, didn’t venture above 175 when it was Joe Louis waiting for them. Hell, Walcott himself did his best work after 1950, even as he got himself slotted into the 1940s bracket in time to bulldoze his way through three other guys by a variety of styles.
All this is by way of wondering if Max Baer, by virtue of fighting the very best of the prewar bunch, didn’t perhaps have a leg up. After all, as so many fights on the modern showcases of up-and-comers on various cable outlets demonstrate week in and week out, level of opposition matters more than a fighter’s record, and…
…ahh, who the hell are we kidding? Jersey Joe Walcott wasn’t exactly fighting an array of no-hopers and tomato cans. He fought Joey Maxim, he fought Rocky Marciano, he even gave Joe Louis all he wanted, dropping the champ twice in a 15-round classic in 1947 and sending Louis into retirement even in a knockout loss effort a year later.
Which is by way of saying don’t sleep on Jersey Joe Walcott…which is more than Max Baer could say for himself. The same right hand that hurt Louis with such effectiveness on three separate occasions hit like Hiroshima on the chin of Baer. Some of the pundits predicted a night of anti-climactic mismatches, and we were certainly off to the races in the pursuit of that result in the opener. It only took two rounds.
RESULT: WALCOTT KO2 BAER.
Fight #2: James “Bonecrusher” Smith (12/12/86) vs. Muhammad Ali (5/25/65)
A masked man took his seat in the cheap seats before this fight began. By “masked man”, what’s meant here is “a guy wearing an executioner’s hood, surrounded by a bunch of street toughs from the bad part of New York City”, but they all bought tickets and none of them made any trouble with the Southern California surf punk crowd that had otherwise dominated the scene in San Dimas in a “who knew they were fight fans?” kind of way these past few months of real time. The masked man was keenly interested in watching a Muhammad Ali who looked to be about the same age as he was and about as well-muscled take on a guy who gave a distinct “really, this is what you’ve got?” vibe inside the actual ring.
Think about it. You’ve got Muhammad Ali, 23 years old and indeed shuttled into a time machine after only his first fight under the new name after giving up the name of Cassius Clay, fighting some dude who called himself Bonecrusher yet is better known for going the distance with Mike Tyson in a farce of a fight that existed primarily to bestow the WBA’s version of the heavyweight title on the young up-and-comer in 1987, an ominous sign to come of the alphabet soup paper champions that plague the sport thirty years later.
Description? OK. Muhammad Ali threw punches. Bonecrusher Smith got hit in the face a lot. Referee Mills Lane decided that there would be no clutching and grabbing allowed in a tournament intended to be purified spectacle. Smith, relying on that very clutching and grabbing in hopes of going the distance against a guy who could quite possibly beat 1987 Mike Tyson, found himself stymied, twice losing a point on the scorecards—first in the second round then again in the fourth. Finally, Lane warned Smith that unless he stopped wrestling and started boxing, Lane would stop the fight. Smith didn’t get the message. Mills Lane administered the hammer in round six.
Hey, nobody ever said every fight was a classic. The masked man stared, the icy stare of the grim reaper, and his entourage did not cheer but instead looked every bit as stoic. It’s entirely possible that a young white surfer dude in the cheap seats soiled his underwear a little. We’ll come back to this blatantly obvious bit of no-way-to-sugarcoat-it foreshadowing in a bit, after these messages and a word from your local station.
RESULT: ALI W-DQ6 SMITH.
Fight #3: Joe Louis (6/22/38) vs. Billy Conn (9/6/40)
Riddle me this, Batman. What do you get when you take a fighter who gave 1941 Joe Louis all he could handle and then some, put him in a time machine, then plop him down fifty years in the future against a Joe Louis who wasn’t distracted by the celebrity and boredom of having nobody worth a damn to fight for three solid years?
In 1941, Billy Conn came into the fight with Joe Louis officially weighing 174 pounds to take on the 200-pound Louis, but Boxrec points out that Conn’s actual weight was probably closer to 169 while Louis was more along the lines of 204. Fast-forward to 1988, where both men have the benefit of modern sports nutrition and training, and the weigh-in for this fight was a different story. Conn, still a heavyweight in a super middleweight’s body, ran up against the problem of losing fat as he built muscle (insofar as getting in the best shape of his life was a handicap; many of us would gladly trade problems with him.) Louis, whose problem was never size so much as marshaling the ability to bulk up and get stronger, enjoyed a forty-pound weight advantage when the fight started, 218 to 178.
What’s more, the first fight between the two men in the prime timeline was a case where Joe Louis played to the strengths of his opponent for twelve solid rounds; Conn’s boxing frustrated the Brown Bomber, and it was only getting staggered and nearly dropped in the twelfth that awakened the beast within; Louis’s trainer Jack Blackburn instructed his charge to go for the knockout, and two right hands did the job in the 13th that probably should have been done far earlier.
Now juxtapose that over the confidence of a guy who had not only blown out the opponents in his only two competitive fights so far in this event but even made light of that very power when the time came to fight Max Schmeling, in which the German put on a performance worthy of an Academy Award in the cause of avoiding getting murdered.
You see where this is going. Billy Conn boxing and dictating the pace of a fight against a guy who was willing to let himself get outboxed until he got hurt? That sounds an awful lot like Louis-Schmeling I, doesn’t it? What happened after an opponent woke up Joe Louis by pointing out his weakness for public display? You got an ultra-prepared, motivated, remorseless killing machine.
Right hand, meet face. Forty-six seconds. Ballgame.
RESULT: LOUIS KO1 CONN.
Fight #4: George Foreman (1/22/73) vs. Larry Holmes (10/2/80)
Quick. Name the only three guys to take George Foreman the distance during his original run in the 1970s. If you guessed “Jimmy Young, Gregorio Peralta, and Levi Forte”, give yourself a pat on the back (and bear in mind Peralta got knocked out in the rematch.) Everyone else Foreman fought before 1977 either fell inside of a couple of rounds (Ron Lyle lasting five in 1975 was actually testament to Lyle’s toughness, not that watching the fight would give you that impression) or else was Muhammad Ali, who stopped Big George in eight after letting the grillmaster punch himself out in the searing heat of the African jungle.
Now, just for chuckles, go look at Larry Holmes’s record, paying special attention to the late 1970s. Two wins over Earnie Shavers, one over Ken Norton, then a win over a totally washed up Muhammad Ali in 1980 on the night he got hustled into a time machine. Better fighters than that have stepped into the ring against Ukrainian monster men after the turn of the century.
George Foreman got his time machine moment after beating the ever-loving crap out of Joe Frazier for two rounds. George Foreman was a beast and a killer, a feared figure, the baddest man on the planet in his time.
Meanwhile, up in the cheap seats, the masked man’s group tried to raise the enthusiasm of their associate in the executioner’s hood. The masked man stayed silent, his steely gaze focused upon the ring, and though nobody could see it beneath his fabric shroud, only a stoic expression glazed his face, the look of a man you’d never want to play poker against.
When the bell rang to start round one, the masked man rose, slowly making his way down through the bleachers, disappearing into a tunnel leading to gods-know-where; was he headed to the fighters’ dressing rooms? What madness was this for a spectator to enter the restricted areas of the arena, and why did he go unchallenged? Another man in a shroud, this one looking more ominous still, stood vigil a few feet from ringside. Nobody dared challenge his authority to be there.
Meanwhile, in the ring itself, George Foreman pummeled Larry Holmes into a bloody mess, carrying him as if to send a message to Muhammad Ali that endurance would not be a factor in the rematch and that Ali’s even faster knockout in the opening of the group stage of this engagement was not to be a sign of things to come in the quarterfinal. Poor Larry Holmes, for whom nobody would have objected had he simply crumpled to the ground and begun to cry, stood up gamely to all of it for nine rounds before surrendering at last. What dark force animated him for the time beyond the limits of a man’s endurance? We were about to find out at last…
RESULT: FOREMAN RTD-9 HOLMES.
As the ring announcer called the winner of the match and fans realized that the 1980s would have no further reputation, chants of “We Want Tyson!” went up as people began to wonder if perhaps they hadn’t been swindled out of a barbershop argument that had raged throughout the decade as people pondered the heavyweight division’s decline.
In a flash of pyrotechnics, the ring itself opened, a hidden platform rising to bring the executioner into the center of the ring, flanked by a bony figure in a shroud and by the devil himself—no, not Satan, he had Don King standing on his left. The bony figure was who you think, though. The masked man had taken a most bogus journey through Hell itself to get here, and he flung his hood off, issuing a challenge to the assembled masses:
“The winner of this fight gets me, and he fights for his very soul. He wins, and my friends here go back from whence they came. But if I win, darkness will reign upon the earth. My unholy lord and King will reign over the sport, and my opponent will not go back to his own time but will instead be turned into the Devil’s Champion to terrorize any who oppose his mad reign.”
The Dream Fight was on. A whole bunch of young white surfer dudes in the crowd soiled their underwear a little.
The quarterfinals are on! We’re three weeks away from determining the man who not only stands as the heavyweight division’s greatest champion…but who will fight for the future of all mankind. God gave rock and roll to you, on the next episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune and covers Friday Night Fights for this publication as well. His weekly column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. Fan mail, hate mail, and “OK, you’ve finally gone off the deep end, what the hell, man?” can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.