Four of the most tumultuous boxing matches in historyby Paul Thomas
Early contests for the world heavyweight boxing crown were full of drama and controversy.
Jack Johnson vs Jess Willard, Oriental Park Racetrack, Havana, 1915
Before Muhammad Ali, there was Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson became the first African-American world heavyweight champion. In the eyes of White America, he compounded that offence by displaying a partiality for the company of white women, who enthusiastically reciprocated. The double provocation set off a frantic search for a “Great White Hope” who could restore the rightful order.
Former champion James J Jeffries emerged from a six-year retirement in a lucrative but unsuccessful bid to “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race”. The mission was eventually carried out by Willard, a Kansas cowboy who didn’t take up boxing until he was 27. Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round of a scheduled 45; a photo of him lying on his back shielding his eyes from the sun prompted claims the fight was fixed. “If he was going to throw the fight,” scoffed Willard, “I wish he’d done it earlier – it was hotter than hell out there.”
At 1.99m and 107kg, Willard was the second-largest heavyweight champion of the 20th century, surpassed only by the 120kg Italian Primo Carnera, aka “the Ambling Alp”. In a contest that pitted an ex-cowboy against an ex-hobo, Willard lost the title to Jack Dempsey in 1919. In 1946, Johnson was killed in a car crash as he drove angrily away from a North Carolina diner where he’d been refused service.
Jack Dempsey vs Luis Ángel Firpo, Polo Grounds, New York, 1923
It lasted less than four minutes but boxing historian Bert Sugar reckoned it was the greatest fight of all time. Firpo, “the Wild Bull of the Pampas”, was knocked down seven times in the first round. At that time, boxers didn’t have to go to a neutral corner after flooring an opponent, so Dempsey was able to stand over Firpo and resume throwing leather the instant both the Argentinian’s knees were off the canvas.
Firpo returned the favour twice, the second time sending Dempsey through the ropes onto the ringside press bench. A boxer knocked out of the ring had 20 seconds to get back in; Dempsey narrowly made it, although some observers doubted he would’ve done so if it hadn’t been for ringside reporters shoving him off their typewriters. A rare instance, perhaps, of journalists genuinely influencing the outcome of a sporting event. The fight ended a minute into the second round when Firpo went down for the ninth and final time.
Gene Tunney vs Jack Dempsey, Soldier Field, Chicago, 1927
Dempsey had lost the title a year earlier to Tunney, a literature-loving ex-Marine whose good looks rivalled Ali’s. The rematch, at the scene of the All Blacks’ loss to Ireland in 2016, went down in boxing lore as the “Battle of the Long Count”. Understandably, perhaps, given his ruthless exploitation of the old rule, Dempsey forgot he was now required to retire to a neutral corner after a knockdown. He felled Tunney in the seventh, but the count was delayed while he was escorted to a neutral corner, thereby giving the champion a few extra seconds to recover. Tunney went on to win a unanimous points decision.
Tunney retired undefeated after one more fight, against Gisborne-born Tom Heeney, whom celebrated writer Damon Runyon dubbed “the Hard Rock from Down Under”. When his fighting days were done, Heeney settled in the US, opening a bar in Miami and becoming a fishing buddy of Ernest Hemingway. Tunney married an heiress: one of their sons became a US senator; their only daughter was committed to a mental hospital after murdering her husband.
Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling, Yankee Stadium, New York, 1938
In 1936, Schmeling, a German, had pulled off a huge upset by knocking Louis out. Louis was the next big thing; Schmeling, briefly world champion earlier in the decade after winning – on a disqualification – an elimination bout for the title Tunney had vacated, was regarded by American fans as a bit of an impostor. That victory didn’t earn Schmeling a shot at the title, however: champion James J Braddock – portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 2005 movie Cinderella Man – opted for the more popular, and therefore more lucrative, option of taking on fellow American, Louis. Louis duly won and Schmeling, by virtue of having defeated the reigning world champion, an African American, became a poster boy for the Nazi regime.
The Louis-Schmeling rematch was one of the most eagerly anticipated and politically charged bouts in boxing history. Schmeling was pelted with garbage as he entered the ring, a foretaste of things to come. Whether he was thirsting for revenge or galvanised by the nationalistic fervour surrounding the fight, Louis started with rare intensity. The referee stopped the fight two minutes into the first round with Schmeling on the canvas for the third time and clearly in no state to continue.
“Looking back,” said Schmeling in 1975, “I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I had come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis but they would have given me a medal. After the war, I might have been considered a war criminal.” Although there were suggestions that Schmeling was a fellow traveller, if not an active Nazi, it emerged that he’d sheltered two Jewish girls in his Berlin apartment during the Kristallnacht purge in November 1938.
Through a combination of generosity and naivety, Louis fell on hard times in later life, and resorted to becoming a professional wrestler and Las Vegas greeter. Schmeling went to work for Coca-Cola in Germany after the war, ending up a wealthy man. He was a pall-bearer at Louis’s funeral, which he partly funded, and lived to the ripe old age of 99.
This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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