The History of the Heavyweight Championship of the World – Part 2

Posted: March 19, 2013 in The History of the Heavyweight Championship
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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.


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