by Fox Doucette
Tonight, for episode 2 of Historical Fight Night, we’ve got a doozy of a main event, as a man renowned for being able to fight any style anywhere any time, the man regarded by many boxing historians as the greatest lightweight ever to lace up the gloves, Tony Canzoneri takes on the guy who best exemplifies the old-school Mexican slugger’s approach to the Sweet Science, Julio Cesar Chavez.
Our co-featured event tonight pits a couple of guys who had a cup of coffee at heavyweight in their best natural weight class, 175 pounds. Billy Conn, who gave Joe Louis all he wanted and then some in 1941, takes on Michael Spinks, who held the lineal heavyweight title in a keep-the-seat-warm way until Mike Tyson got through with him in 1988.
As always, we’re using the Unified Rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Fights are 12 rounds, and fighters are put in a time machine on the date where they had their best fight at the weight at which our historical battle will be contested—there’s a difference, for example, between a young Bernard Hopkins at middleweight and the older, craftier man who found success as he approached age fifty as a light heavyweight. Everyone gets an eight-week training camp using 2015 conditioning and sports nutrition to make the playing field across eras level.
Billy Conn (8/14/1939) vs. Michael Spinks (7/18/1981)
Billy Conn turned pro in 1934 at lightweight. Five years later, he was tearing through Gus Dorazio and beating him into a bloody mess over the course of eight rounds despite having put on 40 pounds in five years. Mind you, Billy Conn was a scrawny 16-year-old still growing into his 6’1 frame, a stringbean if ever there was one when he came into the professional boxing ranks during the extra-nasty part of the Great Depression before the New Deal started putting people to work building public works projects and generally staying busy. Conn became a man, forged in the heat of battle, in a way that many of his generational cohort would have to wait for World War II in order to do.
Meanwhile, Michael Spinks took a more traditional path to boxing greatness. Spinks won gold at the 1974 National Golden Gloves as a junior middleweight before winning both the 1976 Golden Gloves and the Montreal Olympics as a middleweight. Spinks turned pro at 175, however, fighting as high as heavyweight in only his second pro fight before returning to the light heavyweight ranks to make his fortune. By the time he utterly destroyed Eddie Mustafa Muhammad over the course of 15 rounds to win the WBA 175-pound title in 1981, Spinks had made a name for himself as one of the hardest-punching fighters in the sport, showing what his left hook was capable of when he crashed it onto the face of Marvin Johnson in the fourth round of the fight before his title shot.
The point was that Spinks had the natural size advantage, even coming in an inch taller than Conn and with a full four inches (76 to 72 for Conn) advantage in reach. On paper, this was a mismatch of styles.
But boxing matches are not fought on paper unless you’re reading them in book form. Billy Conn was still the guy who’d nearly stopped Joe Louis and who, if that fight with Louis had been 12 rounds and not 15, would likely have carted off the decision rather than emerged a KO victim in the 13th.
Will the power and size of Spinks be too much for the skill and guile of Conn? Pundits asked just that very question and seemed to find Conn’s chances lacking; Spinks opened up as a 6-to-1 favorite in Vegas.
Spinks’ strategy was to fight on the outside, frustrate his opponent, counter punch, and never give Conn a chance to fight at the only range where he could realistically hope to seize control of the action and do damage.
Conn tried to come in behind his jab, but there simply wasn’t enough pop on it, and the natural reach problem meant that he could never stick it crisply in the face of Spinks without lunging a little, leaving himself open to a better-balanced hook coming back at him. Conn knew that Spinks would look for that big punch and try to close the show, and for the first few rounds, his strategy would be to try to work angles to get inside and try to take the starch out of Spinks’ punches by working him to the body.
For the first two rounds, it was like World War One—any offensive maneuvers were blunted by a seemingly impregnable defense that caused more damage to the attacker than was inflicted upon the guy on what was supposed to be the receiving end of the charge. Spinks led easily, 20-18 on all three cards, as the third round began.
An old saying holds that “shooting a bear with a .22 squirrel gun will only piss it off.” Such was Michael Spinks’ reaction when Conn was finally able to slip the jab and do some work inside. A couple of body shots landed, but Spinks was able to tie up, allowing referee Steve Smoger to step in and force Conn back to the outside.
If this style looks familiar, it should—it’s Wladimir Klitschko’s playbook. Both guys may have weighed the same, 175 pounds, when they stepped on the scale, but weight is only part of the story, and Spinks was just plain bigger than the guy in front of him, who looked like a middleweight in with a heavyweight.
Still, Conn soldiered on, and his ability to time Spinks trying to jab and keep Conn off him was proving to be a very useful strategic tool for the man from Pittsburgh. He just couldn’t hurt Spinks, not with a lightweight’s punch and a career record that included only 15 KO wins in 76 fights. Spinks, with his record at a healthy 21 KOs of his 31 wins (including knocking out a bunch of heavyweights, not just smaller guys) could leverage the power advantage.
At this point, Spinks had won every round. Spinks switched his defense up, feinting the jab and catching Conn a couple of times with that hook as he tried to get inside, which forced Conn back to the outside looking for another way into that particular castle. Spinks was relentless, but he was never careless; it is said that a guy with the power to stop a fight in one shot can make mistakes; someone without that ability must fight a perfect contest to have any chance to win. At this point, Conn just didn’t have that.
At last, Conn, withering and frustrated, stopped putting any starch on his shots and started coming forward less out of real hope that he could do damage but because he was going to go out on his shield. Spinks had relied more heavily on the jab in the ninth round, which had Conn thinking that he could slip the jab and come back with one of those hook-uppercut hybrid shots to the liver that most modern fight fans know as Micky Ward’s bread and butter. It was his last, best hope at pulling this fight out of the fire.
Too bad it didn’t work.
When Conn loaded up and lunged in to try and land the game changer, Michael Spinks not only saw it coming, but anticipated it perfectly, forcing the action to begin on his terms with just the slightest cock of the fist and gesture as if he were going to throw the jab, which led Conn to over-commit…and he got flattened by a left hook. His momentum carried him forward, and like putting a bat on a fastball, Conn got knocked out of the park.
The official time was 2 minutes, 11 seconds of the tenth round, with your winner by way of knockout, Michael “Jinx” Spinks.
RESULT: SPINKS KO10 CONN.
Tony Canzoneri (5/8/1936) vs. Julio Cesar Chavez (11/21/1987)
For Chavez, he got fished out of his own timeline and whisked away after beating Edwin Rosario absolutely senseless over the course of 11 rounds in 1987, Chavez’s best fight at lightweight. Sure, it wasn’t Chavez’s most famous fight (that would be his junior welterweight war with Meldrick Taylor in 1990) or his most impressive victory (that would be the 12-round beatdown he gave Hector Camacho at 140 in 1992), but it was the fight that showed the world that Chavez could move up from junior lightweight and still keep his power against a world-class championship opponent.
Canzoneri, on the other hand, comes to us from a fight where he came back seemingly from the dead against Jimmy McLarnin, a guy who nearly stopped him in the second round before at last yielding the initiative and losing all eight of the rounds from three through ten to the vastly superior fighter, a guy so good that Boxrec has him not only number one all time as a lightweight but eighth pound for pound. Chavez, in those same rankings, is number 45, nestled in between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, a place Chavez would only have any business being if he’d become a referee of renown sufficient to officiate a title fight.
The cartoonist and Hall of Fame boxing guru Ted Carroll said of Canzoneri-McLarnin that it was the greatest fight he had witnessed in his 50-year career around the sport. Canzoneri showed heart, adaptability, and the ability to erase with a left-right combination all the work of a guy who was determined to blast him out of the ring before the action could turn against him. Canzoneri went on the attack after finally taking the steam out of the initial barrage, in a way that champions always seem to.
Canzoneri opened as a -160 (8/5) favorite; a lot of Mexican money went on Chavez to push the line from where it started at -350 (7/2).
Chavez knew what was up, though. He knew that Canzoneri was vulnerable to the straight right hand, especially if it was thrown off the jab, so that became the crux of his fight plan.
Chavez came out like a whirling dervish, looking to chuck leather with haste and with bad intentions. Canzoneri headed to the ropes and covered up, hoping to blunt the attack and maybe even let Chavez punch himself out before going on the attack.
Chavez kept coming, and a lot of people in attendance, especially the rabid pro-Mexican crowd in the cheap seats, tested the notion that you can influence the judges by making it sound like your fighter’s landing knockout blows when all he’s hitting is forearms and elbows.
The first round was one of those by-default affairs where even when aggression is in no way effective, the mere appearance of actual fighting can sway the cards.
Canzoneri started to look for counter opportunities. Chavez was still coming, still bearing down hard on his opponent going for the knockout, but he still had not landed a single blow that could be said to pose a real threat to Canzoneri’s chin, at least not with the New Orleans native’s defense on perfect form.
An old story, probably apocryphal, claims that Willie Pep once won a round without throwing a punch, just by showing the guy who wanted to dictate the dance that “you can’t get to me, you can’t hurt me, just put your hands down.” Canzoneri did as close to a real, provable job of that as you can in the course of this second round, controlling range, making his opponent miss, and fighting a sort of Fabian delay-tactics war designed entirely to frustrate the hotheaded Mexican fighter who was trying to drag it into a brawl.
You know the saying “be careful what you wish for?” Well, in round 3, Julio Cesar Chavez finally got his wish—Canzoneri, himself one of those guys who could fight a well-planned fight but still let himself get dragged into a brawl, started letting his hands go more freely. Think Arturo Gatti in round 4 of the first Micky Ward fight, where he starts to abandon his efforts to just box and ultimately costs himself the fight.
Chavez, at least at this point in his career, had an iron chin—it would be almost seven years in the prime timeline before Chavez was even so much as knocked down (by Frankie Randall en route to a title-stealing split decision win) in the heat of battle. Canzoneri would have to hit him like a truck.
The problem was that Canzoneri may have been throwing with bad intentions, but he wasn’t throwing the punches that he probably needed to throw in order to get that one-punch knockout. Instead, we got precision body punching, Chavez slowing down every time he got hit, and Canzoneri seizing control of the fight.
With most judges having the fight nearly even thanks still to Chavez winning those first couple of rounds, Canzoneri took out some victory insurance. Showing the versatility that is the first result for anyone researching Canzoneri’s style, he adapted. In a fight that had the potential to be a controversial and incorrect decision, Canzoneri wanted nothing left to chance, and bull-rushed Chavez back to the ropes, working the body even more before finally following a hook to the body with an uppercut right down Broadway between the opened-guard to put Chavez on the floor.
Chavez beat the count, but the 10-8 round meant that this was going to devolve into a slugfest if Chavez was to come back, and it would be the kind of fracas where the guy who was more aggressive would no longer be able to control that aggression.
Which is how Chavez walked right into a straight right hand that had SportsCenter, YouTube, and a “Boxing’s Greatest Knockouts” DVD all at the ready to show the highlight. The Mexican never saw it coming, and he went down like he’d been shot. The referee could’ve counted to sixty.
The official time, 49 seconds of the ninth round, referee Tony Weeks calls a halt to the contest. Your winner, by technical knockout, and still the all-time lightweight champion, Tony Canzoneri.
RESULT: CANZONERI TKO9 CHAVEZ.
We’ve got ourselves a special double feature involving the two greatest fights in the history of the 140-pound division. Arguments rage on whether Alexis Arguello-Aaron Pryor or Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti was the better fight. That argument is best held somewhere else. What we’re getting here next week is a winner vs. winner main event, as Micky Ward and Aaron Pryor throw down in a battle between the victors of those two contests.
The co-feature? You guessed it—Arturo Gatti takes on Alexis Arguello in the loser’s bracket version of that fight. If Historical Fight Night were the movies, then next week’s episode is going to be our Mad Max: Fury Road. Buckle up, kids, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Historical Fight Night airs on The Boxing Tribune every Friday night at 6 PM Eastern/3 PM Pacific, to fill that gnawing hole left behind by the departure of Friday Night Fights. Suggestions for future matchups are always welcome.
Fox Doucette covers assorted fight cards for Boxing Tribune News and writes the What If alt-history series for The Boxing Tribune. Some wondered what he’d do after FNF ended—now you know. Fan mail, hate mail, and suggestions for future editions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.