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Peyton Manning, or Ryan Leaf?

The very question sounds too ludicrous for us even to contemplate now, 15 years later. Yet in the weeks leading up to the 1998 draft, that very question was on everybody’s lips in the NFL.

Peyton Manning, of Tennessee and Ryan Leaf of Washington State were considered the two standout talents of a draft that also saw Charles Woodson, Fred Taylor, Takeo Spikes and Randy Moss taken in the first round.

Both Manning and Leaf entered the draft having had excellent final seasons at college. Manning had led the Tennessee Volunteers to an 11-2 record and the SEC championship, then went on to lose to #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Leaf’s Washington State Cougars finished the year 10-2 and lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, after winning the PAC-10.

Both Leaf and Manning threw for almost 4,000 yards in their impressive years. Leaf had 34 touchdowns to his name, Manning 36. Both notched up just 11 interceptions.

They also both finished in the top three of the Heisman voting, Manning pipped Leaf to second spot, both of them behind Woodson.

Teams across the NFL were impressed, Manning was generally considered to be the ‘safe’ bet, but Leaf was thought to have the stronger arm, and the higher ceiling. Of twenty NFL general managers polled prior to the draft, fourteen of them preferred Ryan Leaf. They liked his cannon of an arm, his greater mobility, and interestingly felt he was a “more promising long term prospect as a franchise calibre player”.

The Indianapolis Colts were to be first on the clock, coming off a 3-13 season in 2007. They were in the market for a Quarterback, having just traded Jim Harbaugh to the Baltimore Ravens following their disastrous campaign.

The San Diego chargers were supposed to pick at #3, but were impressed enough with both Leaf and Manning that they traded their first and second round picks in 1998, plus a first rounder the following year, to Arizona. It was a kings ransom, but the Chargers desperately needed a Quarterback having just lost veteran Stan Humphries following a series of concussions. With the #2 pick secured, their choice was simple. If the Colts chose Leaf, the Chargers would get Manning. If Manning went to Indianapolis, San Diego would swoop for Ryan Leaf.

During the players individual workouts, both impressed the Colts with their physical abilities. Manning also performed very well in his interview. Leaf did not. In fact, he didn’t even show up. He later blamed it on a miscommunication, but the Colts (who were already edging toward Manning) saw this as a red flag. According to then President of the Colts, Bill Polian, they were now “99%” behind Manning.

And so it came to be, on April 18th 1998, that the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning with their first pick. Nobody was shocked when Ryan Leaf’s name was called out second, for the San Diego Chargers.

When Leaf picked up a $31 million deal, with 11 million guaranteed, he said “I’m looking forward to a 15 year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego” Manning would collect $45 million in an incentive laden 6 year contract.

Before the 1998 season even started, Leaf was making a name for himself at the Chargers facility, and for all the wrong reasons. He skipped the final day of the mandatory rookie symposium, and the NFL took $10,000 out of his pocket as punishment. Shortly after, a few senior Chargers attempted to ‘welcome’ the rookie to the team in time honoured fashion. They went out for a meal in San Diego, and billed their night out to Leaf’s credit card. It’s not clever, nor particularly adult, but it’s gone on since time immemorial. Leaf took unkindly to the incident though, and complained to Chargers GM Bobby Beathard. The rebuttal didn’t sit well with the veterans, who gave Leaf some knocks in training camp, Junior Seau earning ‘high fives’ all round after delivering a big hit on the young Quarterback.

In Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was having no such troubles, settling smoothly into his new team, and quietly impressing them.

Both rookie quarterbacks started games at home on week 1 of the 1998 season, Manning threw 3 interceptions and a touchdown, in a 24-15 loss to the Dolphins, whilst Leaf came out victorious against the Buffalo Bills, despite fumbling his first snap as a professional and throwing a pair of interceptions in a 16-14 win.

Leaf would win again in week 2, in a 13-7 victory over the Tennessee Oilers. Manning was again on the losing side, in New England, with his team being blown away in a 29-6 loss.

Leaf had won in his first two appearances. Few people could have guessed that he’d only win another two games for the rest of his career.

Manning’s first victory came in week 5 that year, against none other than Ryan Leaf’s chargers, Leaf failed to throw any touchdown passes in a 17-12 loss.

The Chargers won 5 of their games in 1998, with Leaf responsible for 3 of them (10 appearances), not terrible for a rookie quarterback in the NFL, but that only represented half of the story. Leaf was making a name for himself as a notoriously bad PR figure, he was obnoxious to reporters, responded angrily to fan heckling, and was gaining a reputation for having a poor work ethic. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison described Leaf’s rookie year as “a nightmare”

The two young quarterback’s had hugely different sophomore seasons. Leaf injured his shoulder in the Chargers first training camp practice, and wouldn’t play all year. Manning on the other hand was still working hard improving his game, and showing himself to be a team player and media darling.

Manning would lead the Colts to a 13-3 record and the AFC east championship. Manning himself was named to the Pro-Bowl, the first of 12 career appearances in the all star event.

2000 saw the return of Leaf, though it was certainly a less than impressive year for the Charger. Rumours abounded that the team were looking to cut their losses and release him, but he started the first 2 games, which both ended in losses. Leaf threw one touchdown and five interceptions in the two games before being benched for game 3 (though he would play that week as Moses Moreno came out of the game with a shoulder injury). Leaf would again start in week 4, though he injured his wrist in the game and would sit out until the end of November.

Manning hadn’t missed a game yet for the Colts, and though his team were up and down, he was still leading them well and making a mark on those around him.

The Colts again made the playoffs, this time with a 10-6 record, and their choice to pick Manning was starting to pay dividends. The Chargers were heading backwards, and finished 2000 with a 1-15 record, 7 fewer wins than they achieved in 1999, without Ryan Leaf.

It was the final straw for the Chargers, and they released Leaf. During his time with the team he had thrown 33 interceptions against 13 touchdowns, had appeared in only 21 games (Manning had suited up 50 times for the Colts in the same period). Leaf’s completion percentage was hovering around 50%, and regularly dropping lower.

2001 saw Leaf get picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who kicked the tyres on the young triggerman, but having not been impressed, told him that he’d have to take a pay cut and accept demotion to 4th Quarterback status. Leaf refused and was released prior to the season starting. A few weeks later he found himself facing a medical at the Dallas Cowboys, but he failed the test and was again released. A month later the Cowboys did sign him, after their starter, Quincy Carter got injured. Leaf would play just 4 times for the Cowboys, throwing three interceptions, just one touchdown, and still completing only half of his passes.

2001 was the year that Peyton Manning became the Quarterback that we recognise today. The Colts unveiled the no-huddle offense that was almost solely under Manning’s control. The promising talent had become the teams undeniable leader. The team only won six games, but Manning’s offense was the second highest scoring outfit in the league. The Colts missed out on the playoffs, but things were looking very bright in Indianapolis.

Amazingly, the Seattle Seahawks offered Ryan Leaf a one year deal in May 2002. They planned to allow his wrist to fully heal and bring him along slowly. Leaf was initially excited and eagerly attended the ‘Hawks Spring mini-camps, before bizarrely retiring just prior to the start of training camp. Leaf was just 26 years old, and his NFL playing career was over.

Manning had by this time led his team to two playoff berths, been to Pro-Bowls, set franchise records, and shown himself as a true leader on and off the field. Ryan leaf had played half the games Manning had, thrown far fewer touchdowns, far more interceptions, had been cut by 3 teams, had shown himself to be anything other than a team player, and consistently angered his team-mates, bosses, the media and fans.

Fast forwarding over the next decade, Manning has since gone on to win 4 league MVP awards, a Super Bowl win and Super Bowl MVP (XLI), 6 times AFC player of the year, become the fastest man ever to reach 50,000 passing yards, the fastest ever to 400 touchdowns, and fastest ever to 4,000 completions. He made the NFL 2000’s all decade team, and is considered a locked in first ballot Hall of Famer when he finally hangs up his cleats.

Leaf went on to a brief career as a financial consultant in San Diego, before returning to Washington to study again. He then went on to join Texas A&M as a volunteer Quarterbacks coach in 2006. He would be put on indefinite leave a few days before resigning his post in 2008 following an incident where he allegedly asked a player for some pills to help with his wrist pains.

In 2009, Leaf was arrested on burglary and controlled substance charges whilst he was on a drug rehabilitation programme and was later sentenced to 10 years probation on drug related charges.

In March 2012, 10 days after Peyton Manning signed a $96 million contract with the Denver Broncos, Ryan Leaf was again arrested on charges of burglary, theft and drug related incidents. He would later be sentenced to seven years in a correctional facility, with two years suspended if he abided by the rules set out for him.

In January of 2013, as Manning again took to the field in the NFL postseason, Leaf was remanded in Montana state prison, after being found guilty of behaviour that breached the conditions of his drug rehabilitation programme, it is said that threatening a staff member was among his list of violations.

Ryan Leaf has been singled out as the biggest bust in NFL draft history. It’s not hard to see why, the Chargers paid a princely sum for his athletic abilities and high ceiling, but his character issues and terrible work ethic were his (and the teams) undoing.

So as we approach April’s draft once again, it’s a timely reminder for teams to do their homework, regardless of how good a prospect looks on the field. Ryan Leaf is living proof of the pitfalls that can lie out there for the unsuspecting GM or head coach.

Yet of course, they might always find themselves drafting the next Peyton Manning.

Joe-Louis

Following the retirement of Gene Tunney in 1928, the Heavyweight Championship of the World would lay vacant for almost two years.

Coinciding with Tunney’s departure from boxing, was the arrival in America of a young heavyweight from Germany. He had won the German and European championships, but came to the USA in search of bigger purses, and a brighter future.

Maximilian Adolf Otto Siegfried “Max” Schmeling was considered by pundits in America to be a typical stiff, uninspiring European fighter. He certainly wasn’t regarded as a big draw for the New York crowds, though the legendary manager Joe Jacobs managed to get him some fights against increasingly big names in the heavyweight scene, culminating in a bout against Johnny Risko.

Risko was a tough guy from Cleveland who had never been knocked out, yet Schmeling floored him four times in a 9 round demolition. That loss would be the only knockout he’d suffer for over a decade, when he was well past his prime.

The Ring magazine called the fight their ‘fight of the year’ and it propelled Schmeling to the upper echelon of the heavyweight rankings, and on June 12th 1930 he met ‘The Boston Gob’ Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium.

Schmeling was trailing after a slow start, but as the end of the 4th round approached, he tried to cut off the ring and back Sharkey into the corner, when the American let a body punch stray below the belt-line. Schmeling slumped to the canvas clutching his groin, and Joe Jacobs ignited pandemonium by entering the ring howling in protest at the low blow.

The referee disqualified Sharkey, and for the first time, the heavyweight championship was officially awarded to a fighter by means other than knockout or a points decision.

Some pundits (and public) in America felt that Schmeling wasn’t a worthy champion, having won the title in such fashion, though as the first European born champion of the world in over three decades, this may have been simple xenophobia. America had come to think of the title as something of their own, and didn’t take kindly to losing it.

In the months that followed Schmeling refused a rematch with Sharkey, and in January 1931 the NYSAC (New York State Athletic Commission) stripped him of their recognition as champion. The IBU (International Boxing Union) and WBA (World Boxing Association) still regarded him as the champion, as did The Ring magazine, appointing him their new title holder.

A rematch with Sharkey did eventually materialise, on June 21st 1932, just over two years after winning the strap. This time there was no disqualification, though still controversy as Sharkey won a 15th round split decision. Many felt that Schmeling deserved the win, and had been robbed. Ironically the big German earned more public respect in the championship loss than he had when he took the title two years earlier.

The defeat of Schmeling had earned Sharkey the backing of the NYSAC and once again the boxing authorities were united in recognising the champion.

Sharkey’s reign would be a brief one, however. He took his first defence against Primo Carnera , the 6’5” ‘Ambling Alp’ from Italy.

With only 4 losses in 49 bouts (the vast majority by knockout), the Giant Italian seemed a formidable foe indeed, and 40,000 people inside Madison Square Garden witnessed a 6 round demolition of the champion. The Heavyweight title was again lost to Europe, and again there was controversy as some believed the uppercut which ended the fight hadn’t actually made contact with Sharkey.. Rumours of Mafia control and match fixing swirled (the Mafia were thought to have had at least some control throughout Carnera’s career) but the decision was upheld. The Ambling Alp left the ring clutching the championship belt.

Two quick defences proved successful for the Italian, but he met his match against adopted Californian Max Baer on June 14 1934.

It’s not officially known how many times Baer floored Carnera, different reports tell us that there were seven, ten, or even twelve counts in the eleven rounds before the referee stopped the bout. Nat Fleisher wrote in the August 1934 issue of The Ring that Carnera had been down three times in the first round, three times in the second, once in the third, three times in the tenth, and twice in the eleventh, when the referee brought proceedings to an end to save Carnera from further damage.

Whichever report is correct, it was clearly a mismatch of huge proportions, and Baer took his place at the top of the heavyweight ladder.

Baer held the title for 364 days, and would lose it in his first defence, against the Cinderella Man, James J Braddock. (His middle name was actually Walter, but he fought under the ‘James J’ pseudonym following the previous heavyweight champions Corbett and Jeffries) It would go down as one of the greatest upsets in heavyweight championship history.

Baer, rumoured to have hardly trained for the fight, underestimated the heart and desire of the older, journeyman-like opponent. Braddock worked hard, and believed in himself. He was quoted as saying “Whether it goes three rounds, or ten rounds, it will be a fight and a fight all the way. When you’ve been through what I’ve had to face in the last two years, a Max Baer or a Bengal tiger looks like a house pet”

The fight went all the way to a points decision, and Braddock, the 8-1 underdog was given the decision by 8 rounds to 6.

Braddock had been scheduled to defend the championship in 1936 against former champion Max Schmeling, but withdrew when he was offered $300,000 to fight Joe Louis of Detroit instead.

Louis was younger than Braddock, and had only one loss in 32 bouts.(the loss having come to Max Schmeling himself).

The fight took place on 22nd June 1937, in Chicago. Braddock stunned Louis early in the first round, dropping him with a sharp right, but ‘The Brown Bomber’ was quickly on his feet, and went on to dominate the rest of the fight.

Braddock did well to hold on until the eight round, having taken a severe beating, but a clean combination to the chin knocked him out cold, and he suffered the only knockout of his 12 year career.

Joe Louis had become the sixth Heavyweight Champion of the World in a seven year span, but he would be the only holder of the crown for the next twelve years, right up to his retirement in 1949.

Louis could be described as the first of the really great heavyweight champions, though that may be doing something of a disservice to Jack Dempsey. In 2005 the International Boxing Research Organisation rated Louis as the best heavyweight of all time, and The Ring magazine have ranked him top of their ‘Greatest 100 punchers’ list.

The defeat of Braddock had huge social ramifications, among the African-American population it was a joyous time, their Champion, Louis, was a clean cut, handsome young man who had never courted controversy like the previous black champion, Jack Johnson had. Louis was never seen in the company of a white woman, never gloated over fallen foes (even helping them to their feet following a knockout), never engaged in fixed fights (a rarity in the increasingly mob-ruled sport of the era) and lived a wholesome, godly life. Consequently he was embraced by the white media more willingly than any other African-American athlete had been previously.

In June of 1938 Louis was to face former champion Max Schmeling, who finally had been given his second shot at the championship that he felt was rightfully his. The big German fighter had already beaten Louis in 1936 (the only defeat on his record at the time). The Brown Bomber was eager to avenge the loss, stating “I don’t want to be called champ until I whip Max Schmeling”

In the tumultuous world of the late 1930’s, Schmeling’s earlier victory over Louis had been hailed by the Nazi propaganda machine as proof of Arian superiority. Though Schmeling tried to distance himself from the politics of the Nazi regime, this rematch was seen by some as a huge potential public relations coup for Hitler’s Germany.

A few weeks prior to the bout, Louis had been told by President Roosevelt “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany” The pressure on Louis was immense, and he trained accordingly.

Two years and three days after their first bout, Louis demolished Schmeling in front of 70,000 rabid American fans in Yankee stadium. From the opening bell to the challenger’s corner throwing in the towel to end the contest was just 2 minutes and 4 seconds. During those 124 frantic seconds, Louis had his opponent on the canvas three times, and Schmeling threw only two punches.

Between January of 1939 and the Summer of 1941, Louis embarked upon and incredible, still unmatched run of title defences. There were fourteen in total, in a thirty month period.

The opposition were unkindly referred to by the media as the ‘Bum of the Month Club’, though that is unfair to both Louis and the combatants who faced him. Most of them were top ten ranked contenders according to both the boxing authorities and to The Ring magazine.

The final defence in this incredible run came against the Light Heavyweight champion, Billy Conn, on June 18, 1941.

Louis seemed to underestimate Conn’s speed and mobility and the two pugilists fought one of the all time heavyweight classic bouts, culminating in a 13th round knockout by Louis, with Conn ahead on all the cards at the end.

The inevitable rematch was pencilled in for late 1942, but cancelled when Conn broke his hand. By the time they eventually met again in the ring it was the Summer of 1946, after Louis had returned home from World War 2.

Louis had enlisted voluntarily as a Private, and spent the war years fighting many exhibition bouts and touring barracks around the European and Pacific theatres of war on morale raising appearances for troops. He was often accompanied by legendary welterweight (and later middleweight) ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson.

The war years were not kind to Louis, and he emerged deeply in debt. He won a disappointingly one sided rematch against a fading Conn, followed by two bouts against the veteran Jersey Joe Walcott. Winning a much disputed points decision in the first bout (in December 1947) and knocking Walcott out in the 11th round of their June 1948 rematch.

It was by now apparent that Louis’ skills were waning, Walcott had been a 10-1 underdog when they first met, and many felt that he was robbed of the judges decision. Louis had been floored three times in the two meetings, and realised that it would be only a matter of time before he was dethroned. He chose instead to retire as champion on March 1, 1949, thus relinquishing the title that he’d held for over a decade. This longest reign in heavyweight championship history had included twenty five successful defences, records that both stand to this day. Louis would come out of retirement to participate in revenue creating exhibitions, and even challenged for the title again in 1950.

A year after the second loss to Louis, on June 22nd 1949, Walcott was again challenging for a championship, this time it was only recognised by the NBA, and his opponent would be former light heavyweight contender Ezzard Charles.

Again Walcott was on the wrong end of a decision, though it wasn’t dubious, Charles clearly outpointing Jersey Joe en-route to the vacant title.

The EBU (European Boxing Union, former IBU) however didn’t recognise Charles as their champion, preferring instead to support the winner of the 1950 bout between Lee Savold of the USA, and the British Bruce Woodcock.

Savold won the bout following a 4th round stoppage on cuts, Woodcock suffered a hideous gash over his left eye and could not continue. Savold hoisted the EBU belt, and for the first time in heavyweight history, there were two fighters with a claim to the world championship.

The British Boxing Board of Control and the NYSAC had originally agreed to follow the EBU in backing the winner of the bout, which had been planed for 1949. However following a year long delay to the fight following a car crash suffered by Woodcock, the NYSAC had since chosen instead to recognise the winner of a bout on September 27th 1950 between Ezzard Charles and his idol, Joe Louis, returning from retirement.

Charles won the bout, hosted at Yankee Stadium, by a unanimous points decision. Louis had weighed in at the heaviest of his career and clearly was nothing like the Joe Louis that had sat atop the boxing world just a few years prior. The NBA, NYSAC and The Ring all recognised Charles as Champion of the World, and by topping Louis, he had also become the new lineal champion. Only the EBU maintained that Lee Savold had any claim to the throne.

That claim disappeared on the 15th June 1951 when Joe Louis, in his final year as a fighter, knocked out Savold in the 6th round of their non-title contest. Though it wasn’t a championship fight, the loss was enough for the EBU, who withdrew their recognition of Savold.

After twenty seven months of the authorities being divided, there was now once again an undisputed Champion of the World, and his name was ‘The Cincinnati Cobra’ Ezzard Charles.

Image

The Heavyweight championship of the World stands among few other sporting achievements. It transcends sport, it exists in the conscience of people who otherwise care nothing about the events on the back pages of the tabloid news. The men’s Olympic 100 metres final, the Kentucky Derby, The Masters, The Monaco Grand Prix. All exist on a plane that rises above mere sporting excellence, but none quite so much as the glamour division in boxing.

Children in Sub-Saharan Africa have heard of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ageing British men still recall with glassy eyes the night that ‘our ‘Enry’, Henry Cooper took on Ali in Highbury, London for the heavyweight title, only losing after sustaining a horrific cut when he was ahead on the scorecards.

At the height of the heavyweight ‘golden era’ George Foreman stood in Kingston, Jamaica about to face the undefeated, undisputed champion, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier. George was struck by the surreality of the occasion. He later described it as if he’d been watching a TV show called ‘The Heavyweight Championship of the World’ for years, and in the humidity and heat of Jamaica, the star of the show was standing, snarling, pacing opposite him across the ring. It wasn’t quite real. It was bigger than George, bigger than Frazier. It was utterly indescribable. Gene Tunney, champion from 1923 to his retirement in 1928 once said that upon waking on the morning after his defeat of then champion Jack Dempsey, he ‘wondered if the proceedings of the night before had been a dream, it was hard to believe that I was the world’s heavyweight champion’

Champions of the modern era hold no less fascination for the general public. Kids in the Bronx today know of Mike Tyson, despite his first championship reign taking place 20 years before they were born. The people of the Ukraine obsess over their legendary Klitschko brothers, who hold the current day division solely in the grasp of one family. Germany’s citizens are no less enthusiastic in the support of the brothers, having made Hamburg their home in the 1990’s.

But all champions should be aware that their reign is temporary, they’re only custodians to the throne, temporary holders to a title that is greater than any individual. The Heavyweight Championship of the World was here before them, and it will still be with us long after their name has faded from the neon lights outside the arenas of Vegas or New York.

The first widely recognised heavyweight champion was known as ‘The Boston Strong boy’, John L Sullivan. His reign spanned the end of the bare knuckle era (under the rules of the London Prize Ring) and the start of the gloved Marquess of Queensberry rules. Sullivan knocked out Paddy Ryan, the American Heavyweight champion, in the ninth round of their 1882 bout and was proclaimed as the Champion of the World. His championship stayed with him for a decade, though he never took on all-comers, and played a role in enforcing boxing’s colour line, stating ‘I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall’

In 1892 Sullivan reluctantly agreed to fight James J Corbett, also known as ‘Gentleman Jim’ in New Orleans. It was to be the first championship bout held under the Queensberry Rules. The fight took place on 7th September, and Corbett’s ‘new’ style of fighting, which involved using the ‘jab’ and feints to keep an opponents ‘rushes’ at bay proved successful as Gentleman Jim knocked Sullivan out in the 21st round.

Corbett was immensely proud of his title and defended it only once, preferring to use it as a self promotional tool for his acting and boxing exhibitions. He returned to his families homeland, Ireland for a successful tour of exhibition matches.

Corbett retired from boxing in 1895, and announced his successor as Australia’s Steve O’Donnell, though tradition dictated that the championship had to be won in the ring. O’Donnell was beaten by Peter Maher of Ireland in a contest billed as being for ‘The World’s Heavyweight Championship’ Maher was in turn beaten by Cornishman Bob Fitzsimmons the following year, who went on to lose a bout (by disqualification) against Tom Sharkey in a bout refereed by the infamous law-man Wyatt Earp! In 1896, James Corbett returned to the ring, and these four ‘interim champions’ are commonly ignored by most championship records.

On March 17 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, Bob Fitzsimmons won the championship indisputably, knocking out Corbett in the 14th round of their championship contest. Corbett was 14lbs heavier and considered the more skilled of the two combatants, and indeed out-boxed Fitzsimmons for much of the fight, knocking him down in the 6th round. Corbett tired however, and the Cornishman took advantage, winning with a punch to the solar plexus. Fitzsimmons was regarded as a very heavy hitter, and Corbett slumped in agony at the impact of the shot.

The entire bout was captured on film, and shown in cinemas, entitled The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. It was at the time the longest recording ever placed on film, and the first ever to be shot in wide-screen.

Fitzsimmons held the title until June 9 1899, when he met James J Jeffries in Brooklyn, New York. The Cornishman was favoured, despite height, weight and youth being on the side of the challenger. Jeffries dropped Fitzsimmons three times before finally knocking him out in the 11th round.

Jeffries defended his title seven times before he retired on May 13 1905. (though he would return for one last fight in 1910, at the age of 35, to face Jack Johnson)

For the first time since the inception of the Heavyweight championship, the champion had relinquished the title.

Two months later Jeffries was back in the ring in Reno, Nevada. This time his job was to referee the bout for the vacant championship between Jack Root and Marvin Hart. Root was far more experienced and three years prior had already beaten Hart. Surprisingly Hart knocked Root out in the twelfth round to take his place as the champion.

Hart dropped the title in his first defence in February 1906, to ‘The little Giant of Hanover’ Tommy Burns. As his nickname suggested, he gave up a large height advantage to Hart (as indeed to most opponents – he stood just 5’7” tall). The fight was decided on a points decision after twenty rounds, the first time the title had changed hands by means other than knockout.

Burns was often unfavoured in fights, due to his small stature, but went on to defend the championship successfully twelve times before eventually losing it on Boxing day, 1908.

‘The Galveston Giant’, Jack Johnson was the man who finally wrenched the title from Burns’ hands, in Sydney, Australia. Until Burns accepted the bout, no black fighter had ever challenged for the Heavyweight Championship. Many opponents hadn’t even allowed the possibility. After all, they had their own championship. (On Feb 3rd, 1903 Johnson had won the World ‘Coloured’ Heavyweight Championship) Burns had no such prejudices. He would defend his title against any man, anywhere in the world. Johnson was undoubtedly the number one contender, having knocked out former champion, Fitzsimmons, in 2 rounds in the summer of 1907

The Police stopped the fight in the 14th round, though it went down as a referee’s decision knockout.

Racial prejudices among the public went into overdrive following the result. There were open calls for a ‘Great white hope’ to come along and beat Johnson, and return the Heavyweight championship to it’s ‘rightful place’ among white athletes.

Back in Reno, James J Jeffries put himself forward as that great white hope, coming out of retirement in 1910 to challenge Johnson. “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro” Jeffries was quoted as saying before the fight.

It took place on 4th July 1910, offers to referee had been telegrammed to writer Arthur Conan Doyle and even to President Taft, both were declined and Tex Rickard was given the job. Independence day would have been a fitting occasion for The President of the United States to referee a championship contest!

20,000 people filled the purpose built stadium, the majority whites hoping to see the champion dethroned, but they were not in luck. The younger, stronger champion dominated proceedings from the start, and Jeffries was dropped twice (for the first time in his career) en route to a 15th round finale when his corner threw in the towel to avoid a knockout being placed on his otherwise unblemished record.

The result caused racial tensions to overflow across the country. Riots were reported in 25 states, and around 13 people died (mainly black citizens), with hundreds more injured.

Jack Johnson’s championship reign ended in Havana, Cuba on April 5th 1915. The bout took place in front of 25,000 people.

Jess Willard, of Kansas was the opponent. He seemed outmatched for much of the fight, with Johnson clearly winning the majority of the rounds until the 20th, when he seemed to tire. Willard started to gain an upper hand, and eventually knocked Johnson out midway through the 26th round. Johnson later claimed to have taken a dive though it’s widely disputed, and the footage (though not of great quality) seems to suggest he was genuinely beaten by Willard, who later told the press “If Johnson throwed [sic] it, I wish he throwed it sooner. It was hotter than hell down there.”

Willard made several appearances in the ring over the next few years, though only officially defended the championship once, defeating Frank Moran in March 1916.

On 4th July 1919 Willard defended the title for the second time, in Ohio, against The ‘Manassa Mauler’, Jack Dempsey.

Dempsey was far shorter than Willard (most fighters were!) at 6’1” and was giving up a weight advantage, but administered a sound and severe beating. Dempsey put Willard on the canvas seven times in the first round alone, and broke his jaw in the process, as well as causing many cuts and contusions. Willard bravely fought on, making it through the third round before his corner retired him. It remains one of the most savage beatings in heavyweight boxing history.

There was talk for many years about Dempsey wearing plaster of Paris wraps during the fight, though these really hold no substance, tests confirmed that plaster of Paris quickly disintegrates when hitting the heavy bag, and Willard checked Dempsey’s wraps prior to the fight and was happy that they were legal. The logical conclusion is simply that a fired up Dempsey served up a high calibre performance that Willard just couldn’t handle.

Dempsey didn’t defend his title until 1920 (Beat Billy Miske in 3 rounds) but certainly wasn’t taking a rest, numerous exhibition matches, public appearances and even a Hollywood movie appearance (Entitled ‘Daredevil Jack’ – with Dempsey in the lead role).

4 more successful defences of the championship followed, including one in 1923, at New York’s Polo Grounds, against Argentine Angel Firpo. Famously Dempsey was knocked out of the ring by Firpo, though he made it back between the ropes to take victory by second round knockout.

After some time off, Dempsey returned in 1926 to defend against ‘The Fighting Marine’ Gene Tunney on September 23rd in Philadelphia.

Tunney was considered the underdog. Despite Dempsey no longer carrying his fearsome power or hand speed. The ex-Marine from New York outboxed Dempsey for 10 rounds and took a clear points decision.

The Ring magazine, which had been in print since 1922 and recognised Dempsey as their undisputed Heavyweight champion, called the result ‘The Upset of the Decade’ and the majority of the 120,557 (At that time a new attendance record in championship boxing) inside the stadium would likely have agreed with them.

Tunney only defended the championship twice, the first time a rematch with Dempsey. This was the famous ‘Long Count Fight’. Under new rules that weren’t yet universal, fighters had to return to a neutral corner upon knocking their opponent to the canvas. When Dempsey knocked Tunney to the ground in the 7th round, he stood and observed the floored Tunney. The referee shooed Dempsey to the corner before starting his count, but the precious seconds lost meant that Tunney was probably given 13-14 seconds to recover from the knockdown. Nonetheless, Tunney got back into the fight, and as in their first meeting, went on to win by a points decision after 10 rounds.

An 11th round technical knockout of Tom Heeney in July 1928 followed, and Tunney announced his retirement from fighting a few days later.

Though he wasn’t the first champion to retire with his crown (that honour belongs to James J Jeffries) Tunney would be the first to stay retired and not be lured back into the ring. He left the sport with just one defeat to his name, and none in the heavyweight division.

The championship would remain vacant for almost two years after ‘The Fighting Marine’ walked away at his peak. During a time when political events in Europe were slowly beginning to align towards a cataclysmic explosion, the next heavyweight to sit atop the world would be a German, Max Schmeling

 

Public enemy #90

Posted: March 17, 2013 in NFL Profiles
Tags: , , ,

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The Bogeyman. Boo Radley. Ndamukong Suh.

Two of those characters are fictional, preying on the fears and over-active imaginations of children, scaring them into good behaviour, paralysing them into submission when they overstep the marks set by well intentioned elders. The third character? He’s real, and according to some, a very genuine bad guy. Except he’s no shadow creeping around after lights out, he’s the Detroit Lions stand-out defensive tackle. Striking terror into the hearts of opponents, a man who will stoop to any level to enforce his dominance in the trenches. A man only too aware of his place in the nations conscience, a man who accepts his role as the bad guy, without giving a care as to whether there’s any truth in the claims. A man at ease with himself and what he brings to the game. And it’s in that most public of domains that he really makes an impression.

The 6’4” 300lb defensive tackle started his collegiate career in 2005, for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, though his true freshman year was short lived, playing just a pair of games before a season ending knee surgery led to him receiving a medical redshirt.

He returned in 2006 and played all 14 games as a backup defensive lineman. He made 19 tackles, including 8 for loss, and 3.5 sacks, despite his bit-part role coming off the bench.

As a Sophomore, he started in11 of 12 appearances and totalled 34 tackles, and blocked an extra point against Texas a&m.

It was in 2008 that Suh’s numbers really began to stack up, and the national media began to take notice of the young lineman. A team high 76 total tackles (19 for loss) and 7.5 sacks in his 13 starts, Suh also made 2 interceptions and returned them both for scores. He also scored one touchdown on offense, lining up as a Fullback and catching a two yard pass against the Kansas Jayhawks.

Suh became the first Cornhusker lineman to lead the team in tackles since 1973, and for the first time he made the All Big-12 First team.

In his senior year, Suh made 85 total tackles (24 for loss) and 12 sacks. Another interception added to his total, and another 3 blocked kicks, which was a Cornhusker season record. He led the defense to the Big-12 championship game against the Texas Longhorns and personally made 12 tackles (7 for loss-a single game record) and was awarded MVP of the game, which ended in a narrow loss. Nebraska’s first ever bowl shutout (and the first shutout in the 32 year history of the Holiday Bowl) against Arizona followed shortly after.

The awards came thick and fast in that senior year, Heisman trophy finalist, AP National player of the year, National defensive player of the year, first team All American, Big-12 defensive player of the year. The young man from Portland had become one of the most decorated stars in college football history.

Coaches and analysts across the NFL were watching Suh’s progress intently, and they liked what they saw. Mel Kiper of ESPN reported him as being ‘Maybe the most dominating defensive tackle I’ve seen in 32 years’

The Detroit Lions pulled the trigger on Suh with the 2nd pick of the 2010 draft in an attempt to shore up a defense that had given up 31 points per game in 2009.

Suh had impressed in the combine, bench pressing 32 reps of 225lbs, and showing off an impressive 35.5” vertical leap, the highest recorded by a defensive tackle in a decade.

The young lineman agreed a 5 year $68 million deal with the Lions on august 3rd. He’d be guaranteed $40 million.

Suh had already accounted for some of that fortune, having donated $2.6 million back to the University of Nebraska, which remains the largest single charitable donation of any former player.

Ndamukung hit the ground running in his rookie year in the paid ranks, starting all 16 games, and making 66 tackles, 10 qb sacks and returning an interception for a touchdown. Those 6 points remain his only contribution to the Lions scoring charts, (A keen soccer player, in 2010 he attempted an extra point attempt in place of injured kicker Jason Hanson, but it hit an upright and bounced right) but his impact elsewhere has been felt ever since. He finished his rookie year with a bundle of Rookie of the Year awards from a variety of sources. Though his numbers in 2011 and 2012 failed to match his impressive first year stats (71 tackles and 12 sacks combined) he has found himself double and even triple teamed week after week by all opponents. Teams have had to gameplan for the impact he can have, even if it leaves other Lions unblocked. Suh himself doesn’t let the perceived drop off bother him, he has said that he is “a better player” than he was in his rookie year, and some careful studying of game film backs up his claims. The awards have kept coming though, despite the shrinking numbers, with pro-bowl appearances in 2010 and 2012, first and second team all-pro votes in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

Now of course, there is another side to the talented tackle, a side that threatens to overshadow all his talent and athleticism. You don’t get voted as the NFL’s most hated player (by fans) and dirtiest player (by fellow professionals) without raising a few eyebrows along the way.

Suh received 9 personal foul penalties during his first two seasons as a pro, more than any other player in the same time frame. He accumulated fines totalling over $40k in the process. At least one of those fines seemed undeserved, a hit on Jay Cutler was called as unnecessary roughness, a forearm to the back of the QB’s head. The replay suggested it was a clean shove, and Cutler was beyond the line of scrimmage and clearly a runner. Suh’s bad boy reputation was already working against him. He’d again find himself in hot water for a hit on Cutler in 2010, following a Greco-Roman style takedown on Monday night football, as the league and sports media world was divided into two camps about the legality of the hit. Ultimately it was ruled clean (and Cutler agreed publicly) but it certainly kept Suh in the headlines.

Live on national television on thanksgiving 2011, came the first of two career defining incidents,. During a home game against the Packers, Suh became embroiled in a tussle with the Pack’s Evan Dietrich-Smith, who had been pushing his buttons all game. Suh snapped, slamming Dietrich-Smith’s head to the ground 3 times, and following up with a stomp to the prone center’s arm.

Suh was ejected from the game and suspended for 2 further contests without pay. Though he appealed, it was rejected. The Lions and in particular head coach Jim Schwartz were quick to accept their players wrongdoing, even before he admitted it himself. The incident, and Suh’s pained attempts at protesting his innocence were prime examples of how he’d gained his reputation.

A year later, Suh again found himself in the centre of a thanksgiving controversy. As he was dragged to the ground during a play, Suh’s foot flailed and caught Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub in the groin.

The media were quick to jump on Suh’s case, but this was one instance where his reputation seemed to have done him no favours at all. No matter how many times you watch the footage, it’s impossible to decide for certain whether the ‘kick’ was intentional or not. Yet he was fined $30,000 for the incident and suffered outrage from virtually all commentators. Matt Schaub himself led the tirade against Suh, claiming that Suh was ‘Not Houston Texan-worthy’. He was wrong. Suh would command a place on any of the other 31 franchises in the NFL, to think otherwise is idiocy.

It’s not only on the field that Suh has courted controversy either, a number of driving offences (one dating back to his Nebraska days) have kept Detroit beat writers in copy throughout his career. Ordinarily it would raise few eyebrows for a wealthy young man to pick up some tickets in a high performance car, but when the young man in question is the NFL’s own Mr Evil, it’s hardly surprising that people pick them up and use them as a stick to beat him with. Ndamukong himself doesn’t let it bother him, as he told the Chicago Tribune. “People are always going to have their opinions, it’s not going to hurt my feelings” the tackle said.

So just who is Ndamukong Suh? A Street thug made good? The innocent victim of a league-wide conspiracy to hold him down?

I guess he’s both of them, in part.

He plays with a toughness, a brutality. Yes, a thuggishness that his position needs. And yet now the league has popped this particular genie out of the bottle, they can’t get him back in, no matter how hard they hit him with fines and try to force some change in his game.

But what we need to remember, is that Ndamukung Suh is still a young man. He’s made mistakes, lots of them. He’ll probably make some more. He’ll take more fines, he’ll upset more officials and analysts. Yet those who know their literature will remind you that in the end, even old Boo Radley turned out to be a good guy.

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On October 25th 2009, a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium, London, witnessed a turning point in Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise history. Josh Freeman took his first meaningful snaps as an NFL quarterback.

I use the word ‘meaningful’ loosely, there were just 9 minutes left in a game that the Bucs trailed 35-7. Both teams had pulled their starters and the 74 thousand fans were beginning to filter through the exits into the cold London air. Those that stayed to the games conclusion could be forgiven for not realising the importance of the events unfolding before them. The 21 year old Freeman completed 2 of his 4 passes for 16 yards and added little to the Bucs performance.

Freeman was certainly flying under the radar. He’d been picked 17th overall in that years draft, behind Matthew Stafford (1st overall – Lions) and Mark Sanchez (5th overall – Jets). Hype and hoopla surrounded both of those picks, of Freeman little was expected, even by some Buccaneer fans who were vocal in questioning his ability.

The 6’5”, 240lb Freeman was certainly an imposing figure, built more like a tight end than a qb, with the footwork and speed to match, rushing for 20TD’s in over 200 attempts in his 35 college appearances

The Bucs then head coach, Raheem Morris defended the selection, telling the media that he would have picked Freeman above both Stafford and Sanchez had the Bucs been first on the clock.(Bucs GM Mark Dominik was rumoured to have wanted Sanchez) and Morris should have known, he was on the coaching staff at Kansas State, Freeman’s alma mater.

Freeman certainly seemed worthy of the high praise in his first Buccaneers start on 9th November 2009, at home to Green Bay.

Decked out in the Buccaneers creamsicle throwback uniform, Josh rallied the Bucs from a 28-17 deficit in the 4th quarter to win the game 38-28. The first of many 4th quarter comebacks orchestrated by the young triggerman. He again led his team back from a 10 point hole at Miami a week later to lead by a point late on, though the Bucs leaky defense conceded a late field goal and lost the game with seconds left on the clock.

Through his first three appearances the rookie signal caller had been largely mistake free, though he’d then throw 11 interceptions over his next 4 games, losing them all, and only one of those losses coming by less than 10 points.

In a tough rookie year, there was one more impressive performance to come, at Seattle, where Freeman threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran in himself for a 2 point conversion in a 24-7 victory.

Despite ending the year with a 3-6 record as a starter, Freeman had largely impressed. His mistakes were common to most rookie quarterbacks, staring receivers down, throwing to his primary choice without going through his progressions. His upside was obvious, speed, power and athleticism, and his canny ability to avoid sacks, coupled with the coolness to rally the team late in the game. The vocal minority who didn’t want him in Tampa had slunk away to vent at something else (usually the Bucs porous defense), but they’d be back in due course.

A broken thumb suffered against the Chiefs kept Freeman out for most of the 2010 preseason, though he hit the ground running when the regular season kicked off on September 12th. Trailing in the 4th quarter at home to Cleveland, Freeman completed a 33 yard pass to Michael Spurlock to win the game. Another win a week later at Carolina gave the Bucs their first 2-0 start since 2005.

This year, 2010 was the year that Josh first garnered national media attention, throwing 25 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions (a 1.5% interception ratio) and led the young Buccaneers on 5 game winning drives and to a 10-6 record overall, narrowly missing the final NFC wild card spot when the the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers defeated the Bears at Lambeau field a couple of hours after the Bucs had beaten the Saints in the Superdome.

One thing was certain, when the game was on the line, Freeman seemed to steel himself, and go out on the field and make the final drive to win. Not only had Freeman silenced his critics, he was being touted as a future star of the NFL. After years of fruitless searching, The Buccaneers had finally found their franchise quarterback. He set numerous franchise records during the course of the year, including highest QB rating in a single season (95.9), and fewest interceptions in a single season.

There was no team in the NFL younger than the Buccaneers, all their key offensive pieces were in their twenties, many of them under 25. The lockout that preceded the 2011 season was always likely to affect the inexperienced teams more than some of the older outfits, and that certainly seemed the case in Tampa. With a team built almost entirely through the draft they lacked experienced characters to hold together as a unit during a difficult year. Freeman suffered the regression that many had predicted for the previous year. His arm that had held the accuracy of a sniper rifle in ’10 had become a blunderbuss in ’11, spewing wildly inaccurate projectiles straight into the path of defensive backs across the league. He was picked off 22 times against just 16 touchdowns, including a 4 pick loss against the Bears, back at Wembley stadium, London, where he’d debuted a couple of years previously.

Having started the year 4-2, despite never playing particularly well, the Bucs hit a ten game slide, which ultimately cost coach Morris his job. Rumours that Morris had lost the dressing room flew around the league. Whether that was the case or not, the promising young Bucs suddenly looked a far less attractive outfit. As quick as a flash, the knives were out in Tampa, the doubters and critics swarmed from their hiding places to pour scorn on the Bucs young leader, and with a new head coach coming into town, the future seemed less certain for Freeman.

2011 wasn’t the total disaster that the results suggested though, Josh’s completion rate was up on the previous year (62.8% – a career high) despite being called upon to pass more as the Bucs trailed in so many games. Many of his picks came in the redzone, If some of those had been turned into points the year might have turned out somewhat differently.

Greg Schiano took over as head coach of the Bucs for 2012, having previously guided Rutgers to 6 bowl games (5 wins) and their first top 25 ranking in 30 years.

Schiano seemed impressed by Freeman when he took over, and stood by the young QB. He gave the offense some new weapons in the form of the sensational rookie RB, Doug Martin (Boise St) and veteran free agent Vincent Jackson (from San Diego). He’d be repaid by witnessing the Buccaneers finest offensive season in franchise history. Freeman passed for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career, and 27 TD’s, a career and franchise record. The addition of Carl Nicks in the offensive line was a huge boost as well, and the addition of some veteran presence on the offense certainly bolstered the Buccaneers performances.

The Bucs 7-9 record certainly didn’t tell the whole story, they were in the playoff hunt until quite late on, and injuries took their toll and the team fell of the pace following a single point loss at home to Atlanta in week 12.

Freeman had an inconsistent year, between weeks 8-11 he was leading one of the leagues top 5 offensive units, and had thrown only half a dozen interceptions on the year, the slide that started against Atlanta seemed to ruffle him though, and his old troubles returned, culminating in a 4 pick (and 1 fumble lost) 0-41 disaster in the Superdome against New Orleans.

So as we head towards 2013, where does Josh Freeman stand? The Buccaneers have gone public, saying that they won’t negotiate a contract extension yet (he has one year remaining on his deal) which certainly suggests that they’re not totally sold on him yet. His franchise records and many of his performances certainly warrant them thinking long and hard before letting him go, and the relatively poor draft classes coming up would restrict the Bucs chances of getting a young upgrade. Yet the inconsistencies are undeniably there in his game. Whilst his deep ball has improved immeasurably during his 4 years in the league, he does still struggle with the quick, dink and dunk plays, and some of his decision making is truly baffling at times. His scrambling ability is excellent, yet sometimes this causes him to hold on too long trying to extend plays and taking big sacks.

Josh Freeman, above all else, is an enigma. Undoubted talent, a truly excellent physical specimen. Yet one with numerous flaws. For what it’s worth, I think the Bucs should start negotiationg a new deal for number 5, and let him mature fully, whilst giving him an offensive line that lets him do his job. Freeman’s part of the deal has to be to knuckle down and work on his weaknesses, those 4 and 5 yard passes don’t need to be launched like the famous cannonfire at the Raymond James stadium, a little softness, some touch would go a long way. The organisation are right not to have jumped straight into a new deal, there is still time to evaluate, but they should be wary of letting him go. The people have Tampa have waited a long time for a quarterback like Josh Freeman. Sadly it would be just like that franchise to let him walk out the door in a years time.