From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali – The great ”Fights of the Century” – By Ismail Veli
By Ismail Veli……
Many Boxing matches in the past have been labelled as the ”fight of the century”. The upcoming world welterweight fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao is the latest and most expensive match in Boxing history. it’s expected to gross at least $400 million. No doubt it’s very hard to compare fees with past fights as inflation and above all the massive expansion of satellite broadcasting has increased potential viewers to a level that past great champions of the last century could never dream of.
The fight on 2nd May between the two great boxers is seen as a life line to a sport that is steadily declining in popularity. It’s doubtful however that after the 2nd May the sports revival will continue. In the past a match between great heavyweights often electrified the public like no other sporting event. It was not for nothing that winning the heavyweight championship of the world was considered to be the richest prize in sport. People no longer enjoy watching two humans battling each other in a brutal contest of stamina, endurance, skill and punching power. So how does the present ”fight of the century”, compare to past famous fights. Though there have always been great boxers at lighter weights, most fans in the past would always tell you that it was the heavyweights that had the honour of such ”fight of the century” labels. Great heavyweights of the past like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Cassius Clay, who went on to change his name to Muhammad Ali became legends in their lifetime. They were considered to be the biggest and best fighters of their day.
Jack Johnson v James J Jeffries. 1910
Probably the first great fight titled as ”The fight of the century,” was the epic contest between Jack Johnson and James J Jeffries on the 4th of July 1910. It was an epic contest that was really based on race prejudice. James J Jeffries an unbeaten fighter who won the heavyweight title by knockout in the 11th round in 1899 against the Englishman Bob Fitzsimmons retired unbeaten in 1904. Jack Johnson subsequently beat the champion Tommy Burns on 26 December 1908. The fight took place in Sydney, Australia. The USA would not allow a black man to fight for the title so Jack Johnson pursued and cajoled Tommy Burns until he finally agreed to meet him. Jack Johnson taunted, grinned and battered the outclassed Tommy Burns throughout the fight, and while in the process of knocking him out, the police stopped the camera and stepped in to stop the fight. It was not acceptable that a black fighter should be seen knocking out a white man.
Being the first black person to win the title in history made him a target of hate in the USA. The humiliating manner in which Tommy Burns was beaten by knockout became a blot on white society. A ”great white hope” was needed to reclaim white supremacy. Though retired for over 5 years, overweight and out of shape, James J Jeffries was persuaded to make a comeback and win back the title. The match took place on 4th of July 1910. The fee of $120.000 offered to Jeffries for the comeback was an astronomical sum for those days. Unfortunately for Jeffries, Jack Johnson the supreme model of a skillful boxer, and at the height of his career completely outclassed and pummeled Jeffries and finally beat him after 3 knockdowns in round 15.
The story of Jack Johnson’s treatment by the US authorities until he finally lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915 was a shameful episode in the history of Boxing. Jess Willard a massive hunk of a man was called the Pottawatomie giant. At 6 ft 6 1⁄2 inches, and 235 lb in weight he was seen as another ”great white hope”. In spite of his size he was not really considered to be a great boxer, but J. Johnson having had a rough time and just past 37 years old lost, in what turned out to be one of the most controversial fights in history. The reason being that when Jess Willard knocked down Johnson in the 26th round, Johnson seemed to put his hands over his eyes in what looked like he was shading his eyes from the blistering heat of the Cuban sun. Many people believed he simply stayed down and handed the championship to Willard.
Dempsey v Willard. 1919
The next great event was when Jess Willard himself was pummeled by one of the great legends of boxing history, Jack Dempsey. Nicknamed as the ”Manassa mauler”. Conceding 5 1⁄2 inches, and 58 Ib to Willard made little difference. Dempsey, a ruthless fighter with an aggressive style and punching power, literally pulverized poor Willard into submission. Knocking him down 7 times in round one. Willard could not continue after round 3. The fight was titled as ”Massacre under the sun”. The fight however was again full of controversy. Having suffered a broken jaw, a few broken teeth, some fractures to his facial bones and broken ribs, Willard initially was very complimentary but later accused Dempsey of using Plaster of Paris in his gloves. The manner in which he had been pummeled gave some credence to the suspicion. The controversy was further exacerbated by Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns, who in 1964 made a statement to the magazine Sports Illustrated that he had urged Dempsey to win quickly as he had placed a big bet for him to win in round one, and he stated that he had applied the plaster in Dempsey’s gloves. J.J. Johnston a boxing historian however examined a film of the fight and it showed Willard examining Dempsey’s hands before the fight, in effect calling Kearns a liar. A respected boxing writer and the editor of the ”The Ring’ magazine, Nat Fleischer claimed he had been present when Dempsey’s hand was wrapped before the fight and had seen no plaster of Paris, or anything to make him suspicious. As always with such accusations however the controversy will run on. Dempsey finally lost the title to master boxer Gene Tunney in 1926, but not until he had taken part in some epic fights in the defense of his title.
Dempsey v Firpo. 1923
One in particular against Luis Angel Firpo ”Wild Bull of the Pampas”, in 1923 saw Dempsey being knocked out of the ring and unceremoniously helped by the ringside spectators back into the ring he went on to knock out Firpo in round 2, in what was more of a street fight than a boxing match. Dempsey’s massive crowd attraction and charisma helped him break many records in history in some ”one million dollar gates”, promoted by the legendary promoter Tex Rickard.
Louis v Schmeling 1938
The 1930’s started pretty dull and saw the championship change hands a few times to boxers of limited ability. That was until Joe Louis ”The brown bomber,” swept the boxing scene like a tidal wave with his power punching but very humble manner. He seemed unstoppable on his way to the championship until he fought Max Schmeling, for what was considered his last step before a world championship shot. With 24 wins (20 by knockout) and no defeats. Schmeling was not really considered to be a threat. The fight took place on June 19, 1936. Schmeling was a tactical and methodical boxer however who noticed a weakness in Louis’s style. When Louis punched with his left, he had a tendency to lower his hand, this gave the German boxer an opportunity to dart in with lightning right hand punches. Louis kept getting caught and in round 12 Schmeling delivered some powerful punches that finally knocked out Louis.
Adolf Hitler the German Chancellor at the time found the opportunity to send flowers and congratulations to the wonderful victory that belonged to the German people. The brown bomber however recovered and went on to win the world championship in 1937 by knocking out James J Braddock (ignominiously called the ”Cinderella man” due to his gentle demeanour) in round 8.
The stage was set for what was to become one of the most politicized matches in boxing history. Joe Louis wanting revenge for his single defeat offered a rematch to Max Schmeling. Sadly Adolf Hitler began a campaign of presenting the confrontation as a battle between the super Aryan race represented by Schmeling, against the ”inferior Black race”. to Schmeling’s dismay who had no part in this game of political propaganda the American media jumped on the band wagon. Forgetting that segregation and the past brutal treatment of the first black heavyweight champion J. Johnson was also part of the American scene in the early 1900’s. Even the American President Roosevelt felt obliged to urge Louis in their meeting a few weeks before the fight “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” The Nazi propaganda went in to overdrive and whipped up hatred and the virtues of Aryan supremacy. Many seemed to overlook the fact that Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs was in fact Jewish. Schmeling was never a member of the Nazi party and his statement that he was just a boxer not superman or a politician made little difference in the war of words swimming around him. Despite pressure he refused to sack his Jewish manager, even his friend, the former champion Jack Dempsey urged Max to renounce his German citizenship and become an American citizen. Though he did not do this, Schmeling refused the “Dagger of Honour”, award offered by Adolf Hitler.
The rematch finally took place on the 22 June 1938. Louis determined to redeem his honour and wipe the blot of his only defeat waded into Schmeling from the first seconds of round one. Louis unleashed a barrage of heavy punching that left the German boxer gasping. It was one of the most ruthless displays of punching power not seen since Dempsey pummeled Willard in 1919. The most damaging were 5 left hooks and a body punch that punctured Schmeling’s kidney, this drew a cry of pain uncommon in the boxing ring. The onslaught had also cracked a few vertebrae in the hapless boxers back. The German camp wanted to lodge a complaint about an illegal kidney punch by Louis, but Schmeling refused as he felt he had been beaten by a superior boxer on the night. It was one of the most decisive victories in boxing history and Joe Louis went on to become a legend by defending his title a total of 25 times. He still holds that record including the record of being champion for 11 years and 3 days.
Marciano v Walcott. 1952
The next great champion was Rocky Marciano. Winning the title in September of 1952 against a capable Jersey Joe Walcott, but not before finding himself on the floor in the first round and trailing on points. By the 13th round however Marciano caught Walcott with a powerful right that he called his “Suzie Q”. Despite Marciano defending his title 6 times and having the most impeccable record of any heavyweight champion of 49 wins, 43 by knockout and no defeats, he did not take part in any fight that was labelled as ”The fight of the century”. He decided to retire after the Archie Moore fight in 1955, and sensibly declined all efforts to make a comeback. No doubt he is one of the legends of boxing history, and it’s unlikely anyone will ever break his record of 49 wins in a row.
The retirement of Marciano led the way to an elimination contest which saw the championship pass on to the youngest heavyweight champion in history up to that point. Floyd Patterson was an able, fast punching boxer, and though he became the first heavyweight in history to regain his title after losing it to the Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson, Patterson did not strike anyone as being among the real greats. In fact his devastating 2 defeats at the hands of Sonny Liston, both in the 1st rounds showed that he was unable to withstand the power of a real heavyweight.
The power of Sonny Liston who often bludgeoned his opponents made him a terrifying prospect and no boxing expert saw him being beaten. His powerful frame and punching power, added to his steely cold blooded gaze often terrified his opponents before even stepping in the ring with him. That was until a certain young brash fighter called Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) burst onto the scene.
Ali v Liston 1964
Muhammad Ali became what many consider to be the greatest boxer in history. His amazing reflexes, speed of punch, agility and 6 foot 3 inch lean athletic body shocked and bewildered his opponents. But in 1964 he was considered to be just a loud mouthed brash young kid who danced and moved brilliantly, but lacked the power of real heavyweights. With the ”brute” Sonny Liston he stood no chance. When Cassius Clay (as he was called at the time) stepped into the ring against Liston on the 25 February 1964, many feared Clay would be pulverized. As a result he was made an 8 to 1 underdog. The fact that Clay had not been beaten as a professional meant little. Liston was the ultimate power house and Clay’s ”big mouth” would be shut once and for all. Clay did indeed have a reputation for bragging, and attempting to verbally humiliate his opponents. Few saw this as just an attempt to attract attention and raise the stakes. Many expected a Liston knock out in no more than a couple of rounds, while Clay brashly predicted an 8 round knockout in his favour. The first round started with Clay in his usual high speed movements moving his head to and fro by only a fraction which caused Liston’s punches to hit thin air. To everyone’s amazement Clay even waded into Liston with blinding combination punches that was bewildering for a man of his size. His speed seemed to confuse Liston. and to everyone’s surprise Clay seemed supremely confident. Moving ahead on points by round 5 something odd seemed to be taking place. Clay was blinking his eyes, retreating and covering up (he later claimed that Liston had rubbed substance in his eyes to blind him). Liston sensed a kill but Clay survived the round. In round 6 Clay came out with blinding speed, out-boxing and out-punching the brute. Liston’s face was cut and bruised, and Liston was completely bewildered. To the crowds amazement Liston refused to come out for round 7, claiming a dislocated shoulder which was later confirmed. In the meanwhile however boxing fans were not satisfied with the explanation, and the clamour for a rematch was arranged. By the time of the return fight, Clay had become a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The United States of the 1960’s was not in an accepting mood. Civil unrest, segregation and race riots were the norm. America was in turmoil and Muhammad Ali was one of the figures that stood against the established white American way of life.
The return on 25 May 1965 has gone down as one of the greatest controversies in boxing history. While Liston was chasing Ali he was caught with a lightning right that few in the audience even saw. Liston went down and Ali stood over him yelling at him to ”get up and fight”. The dramatic photo of Ali standing over Liston has become one of the most famous in boxing history. As Liston got up and continued the fight, the referee Jersey Joe Walcott, (former world champion himself) after consulting the time keeper, ran over and declared that Liston had been counted out and Ali was declared the winner in round 1. Clamours of fix reverberated around the boxing world.
Ali v Williams 1966
On the 14 November in his 7th defense, Ali faced Cleveland Williams ”the big cat” and many experts to this day declare Ali’s performance as one of the most amazing displays of boxing brilliance that any heavyweight achieved. As usual Ali came out in round 1 with his dancing, feinting and sporadic fast left jabs. In round 2 he turned on a boxing spectacle that even haters of boxing had to admire. With lightning fast combinations, shuffling his feet, he confused Williams not just with speed of foot but powerful accurate combinations from all angles. Williams went down 3 times. He bravely came out for round 3 only to be blasted with more blinding combinations. With Williams face badly cut up, groggy and unable to show any defense against the lightning punches the referee finally stepped in to stop the one sided slaughter. Ali went on to defend his title 9 times. He seemed unbeatable but circumstances outside the ring were to have a profound effect on his boxing career. His refusal to be indicted into the army and fight in the Vietnam War saw the American Supreme court reject his refusal as a conscientious objector and he was stripped of his title in 1967. Ali’s words ”I ain’t got nothing against those Vietcong” but mostly his famous statement that “no Vietcong ever called me nigger,” enraged white America. His argument was based on the fact that while being considered a second class citizen, he was expected to travel thousands of miles to fight for ”Freedom and Democracy” which he himself and millions of blacks were denied in their own country. Never having faced defeat, he became in many people’s eyes the symbol of resistance against a system that was not fit for the 20th century. His courage in the face of so much adversity and his sacrifice of the ”richest prize in sport” made him the people’s champion.
It seemed his career was over however, but as opposition to the Vietnam war grew into active riots on the streets and campuses of the USA, many more people began to see the injustice of Ali’s treatment. In 1970 his boxing licence was re-instated and his comeback on 26 October 1970 in Atlanta, became a worldwide talking point. His 3rd round win against the tough Jerry Quarry was sound. This was followed by a fight against the tough Argentinian bull Oscar Bonavena, who was the only man to have floored the reigning champion Joe Frazier. It was a tough fight and Ali’s fans together with the boxing world noticed that Ali’s former blinding speed was no longer on display. He seemed to have lost the speed that had made him look invincible. In round 15 however he caught Bonavena with a powerful left which knocked down the Argentinian for the first time in his career. After another 2 knockdowns the referee had to stop the fight on the 3 knockdown rule. The stage was now set for what in many people’s eyes was the ”real fight of the century.”
Never had 2 unbeaten heavyweights faced each other. Ali with a record of 29 wins with 23 KOs, and Joe Frazier with 27 wins with 24 KOs. The fight broke all records in nearly every field of boxing. The fight was scheduled to be broadcast in 35 foreign countries which in the world of 1971 was unprecedented. 760 press passes were given and the world was electrified. No other fighting event had been so widely reported or excitedly anticipated.
Frazier v Ali 1971
Ali’s taunting of Frazier became common place. Although many saw this as Ali’s usual hype, the public also sensed a deep anger in Ali for his past stripping of his title, while Frazier, a quiet man by nature trained himself to the limit, for what he knew would be the fight of his life. Frazier taunted and humiliated at every turn had no answer to Ali’s constant jibes, but his determination to prove himself as a real champion rather than the ”pretender,” as he was portrayed was obvious to all. The 2 giants of boxing finally met at Madison Square Garden on the 8th March 1971. The fight turned out to be an epic confrontation between 2 superb Gladiator’s of the ring.
In the early rounds Ali seemed to be toying and when caught with hard left hooks by Frazier simply held on and shook his head to the audience to indicate that he was not hurt. Frazier however simply kept the pressure up. He only knew how to fight one way, going forward, bopping, weaving and ceaseless punches that never slackened. For the first time in his career Ali proved his immense ability to absorb punches. His speed was not what it was, and he was not used to the locomotion that never ceased coming forward. Frazier was fighting the fight of his life and Ali continued with the taunts, jibes, jabbing and combinations he was famous for. Sadly they were not the same as they had once been. In round 9 Ali was beginning to score with some good combinations. It looked as though Frazier was also starting to tire under the barrage, but he never stopped coming forward. He was not named ”Smoking Joe” for nothing. Into the 11th round Ali continued to score with good jabs and some combinations but the last minute of the round he caught Ali with some power house left hooks that actually caused his legs to buckle. Ali started play acting the wobbling, but no one was fooled. This time he really was hurt. Frazier continued to land with massive punches and to Ali’s credit he took it all, but it was clear by then that Smoking Joe was beginning to get the upper hand. The years of non activity had taken its toll on Ali but he was fighting with immense courage.
As both fighters came out for the 15th and last round they looked tired and exhausted, Frazier in particular had lumps and sores on his face from Ali’s constant jabs. If there was any doubt as to the winner, Joe landed a powerful left hook that caught Ali squarely on the jaw. A massive swelling appeared on his jaw even as he was falling. Ali the great fighter that he was rose almost instantly, and began to fight back. The crowd were amazed that he was even standing on his feet. If the points were in doubt, that last round confirmed that on the night Frazier was the winner. He fought the best fight of his life and won. It looked like Ali’s come back and career was at an end. Being the supreme athlete he decided to fight on and try to get himself back into shape.
Forman v Ali 1974
After beating many contenders he was given another chance by the formidable George Foreman who had wrested the title from the hitherto unbeaten Frazier by knocking him down 6 times in two rounds, even lifting him off his feet with powerhouse punches that reduced Frazier to a wreck. Foreman defended his title against Ken Norton (who had broken Ali’s jaw in 1972) pulverising him, and frankly Ali’s fans were very concerned for his safety. With 40 wins and 37 KOs, Foreman seemed unstoppable. Ali’s fans urged him to retire. But the stage was finally set in another ”fight of the century”. This time it was in Zaire and both fighters received record fees of 5 million dollars, an unprecedented sum for 1974. No one in the sporting world or even his friends gave the 32 year old Ali a chance.
The fight took place in front of 60.000 fans in Kinshasa Zaire on the 30th October 1974. It was televised in 100 countries around the world and 450 closed circuit locations in the USA and Canada. The reason for the location was that Don King the promoter simply did not have the 5 million dollar purse for each boxer but the government of Zaire offered to sponsor the event in the belief the worldwide publicity would raise the prestige of his government and country.
Ali as always came out looking supremely confident. To everyone’s surprise he opened the 1st round with some fast sharp punches that completely confused Foreman. He moved well, punched fast and defended well. If Foreman attacked, Ali covered himself with his amazing reflexes. He looked sharper then he had for a long time. As the fight progressed he began to lay on the ropes covering up and inviting Foreman to punch him. His fans thought he was committing suicide. Foreman enraged at Ali’s mocking, waded in with some massive punches, but Ali’s defence was sound. Foreman’s punches fell on Ali’s arms or into thin air. Surprisingly Ali kept catching his opponent with lightning and accurate punches even while he was on the ropes. Despite Foreman’s power, Ali kept taunting and teasing him. Foreman had never faced an opponent with such audacity or durability. Foreman was to later state that he hit Ali with some of the strongest punches he could, while Ali responded by asking him ”is that the best you can do? my grandmother can hit harder than that” the psychological game had a devastating effect on Foreman. The man had knocked out the best around, was unbeaten and here was a boxer teasing him about his inability to punch hard. Foreman continued to wade in however, but looked like he had punched himself out. By round 8 Ali had absorbed everything Foreman threw at him, he came off the ropes and caught Foreman with some heavy punches that sent him to the floor. He was unable to beat the count, while the world and the boxing experts were in a state of complete shock.
Ali went on to defend his title 11 times in some of the greatest contests in boxing history. Once against Smoking Joe which was billed ”the thriller in Manila.” In this epic 3rd fight, Ali finally stopped Frazier in 14 rounds in what Ali described as ”the closest he had been to death.”. Both fighters gave their all. and the fight took so much out of them that it was clear they were both ready to retire. Ali carried on however only to lose the championship to an unknown Leon Spinks on points on 15 February 1978. At 36 his fans urged him to retire but he wanted to make one supreme effort to win back his title. Training hard he got the opportunity on the 15th September of the same year. He moved, danced and completely outclassed Spinks to clinch a unanimous points victory to win the title an unprecedented 3rd time.
Ali’s legacy has left a massive impact not just in boxing but in the world of sports. At one time he was declared the most recognisable face in the world. But it was not just in sports that he left his mark. His beliefs which led him to lose his hard won, and beloved title, won him fans and friends across the globe. His likable and often childish personality hid a level of determination, strength and courage that many dream off, but few have attained. If I was to choose the ”Fight of the century” I would no doubt choose the first Ali v Frazier and Ali v Foreman fights. For me Ali was the greatest, not just in the ring but outside the ring. He inspired millions around the globe with his wit, skill and personality. He raised the boxing world to standards never before seen or will ever see.
Today at 73 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease Ali is still cherished and loved by the people who know what he stood for. He faces his illness with the same courage and conviction that he faced his opponents A fitting epitaph to what many call as ”The greatest.’‘
1 thought on “From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali – The great ”Fights of the Century” – By Ismail Veli”
Another breathtaking article from you Ismai great work thank you . Great history of boxing that I remembered happening around me as a child when I heard from an auntie that came back to to Cyprus from USA.’n 1962 Cassius Clay was her favorite she talked about that became Muhammad Ali in my teenage years in1970 .What a nostalgic whirlwind those years were with his boxing matches and pop and rock music ! There was a song about him as well .
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