Welcome to another episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure, where eight men enter…and four men leave. 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:
There are two rematches on tap in this week’s edition. In the very first fight of the tournament for each man, Ezzard Charles shocked the world with a split decision win over Rocky Marciano, while Muhammad Ali shortened the original Rumble in the Jungle to six rounds rather than the eight that the prime-timeline fight went while achieving the same result, a knockout win over George Foreman.
Meanwhile, Jack Johnson and Jack Sharkey had never seen each other across an actual ring in the prime timeline, and Jersey Joe Walcott was completely blind as far as knowing how to handle a version of Joe Louis who was younger, stronger, and hungrier than the version that Walcott himself was familiar with during the latter’s heyday right at the end of Joe Louis’ career.
With a little mix of the old and the new, the quarterfinals are wide open. The only way the final four will be settled is in the ring.
Fight #1: Jack Johnson (7/4/1910) vs. Jack Sharkey (9/26/29)
Against Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson came in and showed what many observers weren’t sure would be the case when he went to a boxer’s style and countered Dempsey’s aggression with a wonderful selection of body punches and counters that wore Dempsey down over the course of twelve rounds and left Johnson with an easy unanimous decision win.
Meanwhile, Jack Sharkey, against the same opponent, used the body as a stepping stone to land combinations downstairs followed by shots up top, ultimately blowing Dempsey right out of the ring in only a single round as he fought to grab destiny by the throat and get rid of the man in front of him.
Which is by way of saying that Jack Sharkey could have been drawn into fighting Jack Johnson’s fight here, since Dempsey’s push forward was what got him smashed by Johnson in the first place and this fight looked like it had a good shot at going exactly the same way.
Jack Sharkey knew this. He also knew that without pressure, Johnson could sit back on his shots, pick his spots, and connect with the kinds of punches that no man from any era could withstand. The kinds of scribes who write the headline on the way to the ballpark were ready to start hyping up Johnson against Joe Louis as a kill-or-be-killed ultimate old-time fight.
Sharkey decided to go for broke. He’d come in behind his jab, get to the inside, and see if by shortening the shots available to the big-punching legend he might be able to frustrate Johnson into all sorts of trouble, finally making the man wilt and crumple to the ground.
From the very first round, Jack Sharkey showed a brass-balled unwillingness to deviate from his fight plan. He took some shots coming in, but the jab turned out to be very effective indeed at blinding his opponent and closing the range. Once Sharkey was in the pocket, he didn’t waste time. He took a step back when Johnson tried to grapple. He worked tight hooks to the body when Johnson tried to engage. He used his shoulder as a battering ram to keep Johnson on the back foot. In point of fact, Jack Sharkey not only out-boxed the man in front of him, but he did so all while throwing shots with intentions that were clear to all in attendance.
Referee Arthur Donovan said after the fight that “I’ve never seen a fight like this, where a guy came in that close but I never had to break ’em. If I weren’t the third man in the ring, I’d have been the first man at the box office.”
Jack Johnson had never been hit to the body like that in his life. When he got sent back to the prime timeline, he never would be hit to the body like that. Jack Sharkey had done it again. The walking Cinderella story put off midnight for one more fight and made an argument that, spurious though it may be on paper, perhaps he might very well belong in a discussion of the four greatest heavyweights. Somewhere Joe Frazier grumbled that he was born much too late.
In the seventh round, all that body work finally took the ultimate toll. A rising hook to the liver was the coup de grace, folding Jack Johnson in half as he dropped to his knees, pitched forward into a crawl, and took the count of ten from Arthur Donovan. Johnson may, on paper, have had the skill and strength advantages, but those do not do a man any good when he cannot keep his opponent off him.
RESULT: SHARKEY KO7 JOHNSON.
Fight #2: Joe Louis (6/22/1938) vs. Jersey Joe Walcott (7/18/1951)
Against 1947 Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott was the first man to expose the aging that had slowed the Brown Bomber down, putting Louis on the canvas twice in the cause of a close decision loss. Run that fight back ten times and Walcott might well win three of them.
Against 1938 Joe Louis, a version of the man who made one hell of an argument that he fought the single greatest fight of all time from the point of view of everything from diligence in training camp to ability to deliver a punch on fight night, Walcott wasn’t going to be able to trade punches like that, not unless he wanted to get his brains bashed in by a younger and stronger version of the man who, oh by the way, had knocked Walcott out in the rematch.
Walcott saw the blueprint that Sharkey tried to establish and built a fight plan around doing the same thing, working inside and frustrating his opponent into losing the ability to effectively fight back at close range. He knew that if he were going to make this fight competitive, it would have to be through negating the advantages that a young and hungry Joe Louis enjoyed over him.
Which…ahh, who are we kidding? It’s one thing for a guy seemingly touched by the hands of the gods to flip the script on the betting lines and steal one in a run to the semifinals that even his own mother wouldn’t have seen coming. But this is 1938 Joe Louis here, a guy who hit like a car and moved like a guy who wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bolshoi Ballet.
Joe Louis saw his form hold yet again. Walcott got a little lazy trying to use his jab as a rangefinder in the second round, and Louis put a straight right hand right over the top of the jab, crashing it home on the chin of Jersey Joe Walcott in a way that left absolutely no doubt as to the way this fight had always been destined to go. The sickening crack as Louis broke Walcott’s jaw was enough to put some of the VIPs’ wives and girlfriends off their lunch. Walcott, spitting blood onto the canvas and in a very bad way physically, didn’t get the dignity of a count. The referee, concerned that Louis had done enough that for all the good it did him, he might as well have pulled a Colt M1911 and just shot the guy, called the doctor in and called a halt to the fight.
On the bright side, Jersey Joe Walcott did get better. It just took six weeks of wires and applesauce through a straw in order for him to do so.
It was clear that Jack Sharkey was going to have his work cut out for him…and everyone from the later years, who would otherwise have to face Joe Louis in the grand final, became fans of the darling of the gutter press from the 1920s.
RESULT: LOUIS TKO2 WALCOTT.
Fight #3: Ezzard Charles (9/27/50) vs. Rocky Marciano (5/15/53)
When last we saw these two guys, way back in Part 2 of this series, Charles overcame two attempts by the all-time great unbeaten champion to turn what had been a wide gap in boxing skill into a shocking knockout. Marciano dropped Charles in the sixth and ninth rounds, but he was unable to overcome what had been a masterpiece in the Sweet Science, mustering a win on only one judge’s card en route to a split decision loss.
In this return engagement, Marciano decided that he was going to turn this into a brawl, giving his best effort to use what had been his strength in that first fight and turn it into the means by which he would overcome the only loss he ever saw as a pro boxer, one he’d be able to erase from history merely by returning to 1953, and give the folks from the waning years of the Reagan administration something to talk about for the rest of their lives.
We’ve seen both flavors of how that can turn out already tonight. Jack Sharkey came in too hot and turned it into a blowout win for himself; Jersey Joe Walcott came in too cold, got countered by Joe Louis, and fell flat on his ass. Would this be the Goldilocks fight, falling somewhere in between and turning it into something competitive?
It didn’t look that way early. Charles had some inkling of what was about to happen, and set himself to watch for and counter Marciano’s jab, but Ezzard Charles is not 1938 Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano is not Jersey Joe Walcott, who, incidentally, Marciano had knocked out on the night he got put into the time machine. Hell, Ezzard Charles is not 1950 Joe Louis, speaking of temporal wibbles affecting the history of the action at hand here.
Which is by way of saying that when Charles landed his counter right hand, nobody compared it to working a lobster claw with a nutcracker. Sure, it staggered Marciano. It knocked him back a couple of steps, nearly dropped him. It even set up a combination as Charles pressed his momentary advantage and did some damage to a hurt opponent. What it did not do was end the fight with one punch.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, there is a world where a referee with a quicker hook would have seen what Charles was doing backing up his opponent and stopped the fight far too soon when Marciano was in trouble. Not here. Your referee is Arthur Mercante. Nothing short of a homicide is going to stop this fight.
Marciano put a little more pepper on his jabs in rounds two and three, knowing that if he stayed outside he’d be outboxed and if he didn’t make a commitment to blinding his opponent with the jab, he’d get dropped by a counter. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it blew up in his face, and he absorbed a ton of punishment rather than inflicting any of his own. Charles got the better of more of the exchanges, and the thought entered Rocky Marciano’s mind that perhaps he was in against a guy who just flat-out had his number.
In Round 4, Charles decided to get on the bicycle, taking fewer shots on his arms and watching more of them hit nothing but air, a slam dunk artist entering a three-point contest in basketball accuracy-wise. While on the one hand he probably gave the round away on the cards by engaging less frequently, that wasn’t the point. Charles wanted to let Marciano know that no amount of hunting was going to bag him any actual game, and the idea of regaining some stamina to make another run at the man in front of him was going to be that much nicer of a side effect for all the psychological damage already being done.
Marciano came out in round five on the outside, trying to play matador and wave Charles in to engage. At first, Ezzard Charles wanted no part of the bait being laid out in front of him, wise enough to know that no good would come of it. The longer the round went, however, the more it became worthwhile for Ezzard Charles to take what the defense was giving him; if his opponent really wanted to hand him the advantage fighting on the outside, then so be it. Jab after jab may not have been much fun for the fans, but it further cemented Charles’ uncontested lead on the judges’ scorecards; none but a court jester would have had it any closer than four rounds to two as halftime to the prescribed distance came and went.
In the seventh, Marciano, knowing the fight was slipping away from him, decided to go back to the original fight plan he’d come out trying to push in the first three rounds. He was no more successful in round seven than he’d been in round one, and what’s worse, his jab didn’t have anywhere near the pop it needed to have to keep the man in front of him from being able to tee off. A left hook threw Marciano for one hell of a loop, dropping him for the first knockdown of this fight. Rising at the count of eight, the man from Brockton, Massachusetts got more desperate.
Where the problem came in was that no amount of that kind of reckless abandon would dislodge the guy in front of him, who continued to put on a clinic. What had been a narrow split decision in the opener finally yielded to a much wider unanimous decision when the bell sounded to end the twelfth round, Charles having taken no unnecessary risks, just staying within himself and bolstered by the confidence of knowing he’d been able to do the job before.
The final scores were 117-110 (twice), 116-111, all for your winner, by unanimous decision, Ezzard Charles. It would have been the upset of the century but for the fact that we’d all seen it before.
RESULT: CHARLES W-UD12 MARCIANO.
Fight #4: Muhammad Ali (5/25/65) vs. George Foreman (1/22/73)
In the prime timeline, “Ali used the rope-a-dope, and I was the dope.” George Foreman knew the score in 1974 when delivering that line. In our timeline, a younger Ali relied less on tactics and more on the power of youth at the age of 23 and flat-out overpowered a guy who was otherwise known for being one of the sport’s most feared punchers.
Ali had grown up fast when put in against the guys who would later make his name and his case for him when he fought them in the 1970s. For a kid dropped into a time machine in 1965, he went from a guy who was by all means talented but whose legacy was still in front of rather than behind him to a boxing force ahead of his time. He learned tactics, he learned strategy, he learned where to place a punch for maximum effect.
George Foreman had himself a bit of an identity crisis. If he came in and pressed the action, he’d be knocked out. If he stayed on the outside, he’d be outboxed. What was the man to do?
Foreman decided to dance with the devil, figuring that if he was to be sent back to 1973, he’d at least go out on his shield. Applying relentless pressure, forcing Ali to the ropes, but never quite finding his accuracy once he got there, Foreman did nothing of greater value than punching himself out in the first few rounds of this one.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Whup me three times? That’s just the gods showing off. Ali tied up Foreman in round five, what looked at first to be just another clinch in a fight well-supplied with them, but when Foreman came in to engage once more, he was greeted at the front door by a left hook that knocked him out for what could have been a count of sixty. It didn’t matter the venue, it didn’t matter the referee, it didn’t matter the night.
You put Muhammad Ali in against George Foreman, Muhammad Ali wins. So shall it be written; so shall it be done.
RESULT: ALI KO5 FOREMAN.
Let us wave goodbye to the doorstopper four-fight episode. Let us instead welcome in the ultra-detailed fight recap. Next week, we narrow the focus to laser precision, as Joe Louis takes on Jack Sharkey for the Old-Time title and Ezzard Charles seeks to put a few dents in Muhammad Ali’s oft-repeated claim to be the Greatest of All Time. Will the black-and-white Cinderella story finally make it to midnight? Will two wins over Rocky Marciano be enough to convince the historical record that the 1950s were a better time in the sport than at first it appears? Will youth and new-found experience combine to make Muhammad Ali unstoppable? And what of the arrangements for the Dream Fight?
Answers to these and many other questions next time…on What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure.
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 scratching of the head at how Jack Sharkey got into the final four can be sent to email@example.com.