Archive for the ‘The History of the Heavyweight Championship’ Category


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.



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