Water Man Spouts

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Boxing's Alphabet Syndrome

Boxing’s Alphabet Syndrome

{1} The Heavyweight Confusion

During Muhammad Ali’s first reign as champion, and especially when that reign was interrupted by the draft, there were circumstances that were similar to the confusion that defines today’s heavyweight division. And, although the issues in the 1960s were primarily political in nature, while today’s are more economic, the strange experience of replacing an unbeatable champion may hold some value for this generation.

After the great Rocky Marciano retired on April27, 1956, Floyd Patterson won the crown by defeating Archie Moore. Patterson was guided by Cus D’Amato, who had the young champion engage in a series of exhibitions, with a few defenses against relatively easy competition. Then, in the 22 months between June, 1959 and March, 1961, he fought the series with Ingemar Johansson.

Ingemar had been disqualified in the 1952 Olympics for refusing to fight, and Americans tended to overlook his achievements as a pro. However, he had won the Scandinavian heavyweight title in his 4th pro fight, and the European title in his 15th. In 1958, Eddie Machen traveled to Gothenburg for what he expected to be an easy fight to show-case his skills before challenging Patterson. Ingo flattened Eddie in the first round. His series with Patterson were exciting, historic fights.

Shortly after this series, Floyd split from D’Amato, and signed to fight Charles "Sonny" Liston. Cus wasn’t the only person concerned about this fight. President John Kennedy had given Floyd a pep talk, because he knew that the Heavyweight Champion was the sports figure that youngsters most looked up to. Though Liston was fighting more of the top contenders than Patterson, his criminal past and reputed ties to mobsters made him, in Howard Cosell’s words, "pugilism’s gift to literacy and culture …. He was a cheap and ugly bully without morality…"

Liston was also one of the most talented heavyweights in boxing’s history, and after easily destroying Patterson twice in one round, it seemed he would have a long and brutal reign as champion. After going on a two-month exhibition tour in Europe, Liston signed for a defense against an undefeated contender named Cassius Clay.

{2} Cassius Clay Becomes Muhammad Ali

Few boxing experts believed that Cassius Clay would last longer with Liston than Floyd Patterson had. But on February 25, 1964, Clay upset Sonny in one of boxing’s greatest upsets. Shortly after the fight, the young champion announced that he belonged to the Nation of Islam, and soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali. His first title defense would be a return match against Liston.

The return match with Liston was delayed when Ali had surgery for a hernia. In the period between his two Liston fights, the WBA would strip him of his title. In explaining the move, the WBA claimed that it was because Ali had signed for a return match with Liston. But most boxing fans knew that return matches were common, and that the WBA had taken the action because Ali was an outspoken member of the "Black Muslims."

On March 5, 1965, the WBA sanctioned a "championship" elimination bout between Eddie Machen and Ernie Terrell. At the time, Ernie had a 12-win streak, and some Chicago interests remembered that he had done well a few years before when sparring Ali. Terrell was 6’6" tall, and weighed 199 pounds. The WBA was confident they had an answer to Ali.

However, Terrell was not an exciting fighter to watch. After he decisioned Machen, AP wrote "the boos rolled out long and loudly… It (was) a miserable show, constantly marred by holding and spinning. Both were on the deck from shoves, pushes and slips but there were no knockdowns and nothing close to one."

The article ("Hollow Crown to Ernie") noted that few boxing fans took the WBA title seriously. The WBA was pushing Terrell to defend against Floyd Patterson, who had recently defeated George Chuvalo. However, Terrell stated, "We’ll fight anybody except Patterson. He’s an out-and-out bum. He’s never given anybody a chance."

Terrell would go on to defend his paper title against contenders Doug Jones and George Chuvalo. Ali, in the mean time, would defend the real title against Liston, Patterson, Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, and Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams. A show-down between Ali and Terrell seemed inevitable, although the Heavyweight Champion’s conflict with Uncle Sam seemed to get in the way.

Finally, on February 6, 1967, the two met in Houston. Although he was otherwise a good and decent man outside the ring, Terrell decided to try to find favor with some segments of America by calling the Champ "Cassius Clay" and by questioning Ali’s stance on the draft. He paid for it in the ring. Ali taunted Terrell by asking, "What’s my name?" before delivering punishing combinations. Cosell wrote, "It was a mean game that Ali played that night. I felt there was a lust in the way he tortured and humiliated Ernie Terrell for 15 rounds. At times he laughed out loud."

Ali would defend the title once more before he appeared before the draft board in Houston on April 29, 1967, and refused to take a step forward. Literally within minutes, New York State’s boxing commissioner Edwin Dooley would announce that he had stripped Ali of both his license to box and of the heavyweight title. Others would follow suit. In time, only The Ring boxing magazine and Howard Cosell would be brave enough to take the correct stance on the political attempts to take Ali’s title.

{3} The Alphabet Syndrome

In the months following Ali’s refusal to be drafted, though he participated in two exhibitions in Detroit, he was stripped of his license to box in the US, and of his passport, which meant he could not defend his title. During this forced exile, the heavyweight division suffered from a confusion not unlike that which has resulted since Lennox Lewis retired.

The WBA decided to hold an elimination tournament to crown a new champion. At first, they considered including their "top ten" contenders. But one of them, an undefeated contender named Joe Frazier, declined to participate in the tournament. His trainer, Yancey Durham, recognized that styles make fights. Joe was a slow starter, and had been decked twice in one round by tough contender Oscar Bonavena on September 23, 1966. Yank’s top assistant at the time was Willie Reddish, who had helped train Liston in the past. Durham wanted to avoid putting Joe in with Sonny Liston until he had some more experience. (For a fascinating look at Durham and Reddish’s efforts in those days, read Anthonu Molock’s "Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia"; Authorhouse; 2006.)

Sonny Liston might have been the best fighter in the division. He had begun a European tour in 1966, and by the time Ali was forced out of competition, he had recorded four straight knockouts. Still, he had not regained the respect of the American public for his loses to Ali, especially the second one. The WBA decided to keep Liston out of the tournament, and to instead limit it to eight men.

The tournament, which was carried live on ABC, would have purses of $50,000 for the first round; $75,000 for each of the four participants in the second round; and $125,000 for the two men in the finals.

The first two fights of the "first round" of the tournament took place in Houston on August 5, 1967. The WBA had matched Terrell with Ali’s former sparring partner, Jimmy Ellis, but Terrell complained that this was an insult to a fighter of his status. Thus, Terrell was matched against Thad Spencer. And Spencer, a smooth fighter who was actually one of the better fighters in the division, upset Terrell in 12 rounds.

Jimmy Ellis fought Leotis Martin, who like Ellis had served as a sparring partner for better known heavyweights. However Martin, one of the two toughest heavyweights from Philadelphia, was considered among the favorites to win the tournament. Ellis had not been an impressive middleweight contender, and his performances as a heavyweight – including some surprising pop in his punch --were unappreciated. Ellis stopped the favored Martin in 9 rounds.

The next fight took place in Frankfurt, Germany on September 15. Karl Mildenberger, who had given Ali his toughest fight in the Champ’s title defenses, was matched with Argentina’s powerful Oscar Bonavena. Oscar decked Karl twice on his way to an upset decision.

Then, on October 28, former two-time champion Floyd Patterson fought Jerry Quarry. The two had fought a disputed draw on June 9, and although many blamed the curious California scoring system for denying Floyd the victory, the re-match was also held in Los Angeles. Though Quarry was the underdog, he was able to deck Patterson twice, and although Floyd appeared stronger in the later rounds, Quarry took the decision.

Thus, the four underdogs from the first round of the WBA tournament were set to advance to the second round of the tournament. And while boxing’s experts might not have considered Spencer, Ellis, Bonavena, and Quarry as the "most likely to succeed" Ali, ABC found that the three cards had been their most-watched sporting events so far in 1967. A real tournament attracted the public’s attention.

{4} The Second Round

Oscar Bonavena was scheduled to fight Jimmy Ellis on December 2, 1967 in Louisville, Kentucky. The 25 year old Buenos Aires powerhouse had won nine in a row since his close loss to Frazier, including 7 by knockout. He confidently predicted that he would kayo Ellis within two rounds. But it was not to be.

This was not the skinny kid who lost to middleweights like Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in 1964. Jimmy Ellis had matured into a strong, fast heavyweight, and he decked Oscar twice – once in the 3rd, and again in the 10th – on his way to a unanimous upset decision. Although the fans saw a close grueling fight, referee Herman Duttreix had it 59-53, judge Sid Baer scored it 55-54, and judge Hector Chaumont of Buenos Aries had it 59-53.

Ellis told reporters that even he was surprised when he decked Oscar with a left hand in the 10th. "I thought it was all over when he went down," Jimmy said. "I tried to get back to finish it, but there was only about 5 seconds left."

At this point, the "winners" were ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and the boxing fans watching a very entertaining tournament. The fights were exciting enough to draw the attention of sports fans beyond the normal fight fans, too. The WBA was letting cities bid on holding the fights, and the interest was reaching far beyond the Madison Square Garden and Houston Forum. Those being shut out by the WBA tournament decided to fight back.

Ed Dooley decided to take another bold move. In order to draw attention to the new Madison Square Garden, promoters were putting on a double-header: In the first 15 rounder, Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti would have a "rubber match" for Emile’s Middleweight crown. The match would have been a "main event’ in and of itself. But to top the card off, Joe Frazier was scheduled to meet Buster Mathis in another 15-rounder. Dooley announced that the winner would be recognized as the Heavyweight Champion of New York. More, Dooley got Massachusetts boxing commissioner Eddie Urbec to agree to recognize the winner as "interim" champion, until Ali’s status was resolved.

Buster Mathis is often remembered as the amateur who beat Frazier in the Olympic trials, but who pulled out with a broken hand. Frazier replaced him, and won the Gold with a broken thumb. But Buster Mathis deserves to be remembered as far more than a footnote in heavyweight history. He was an enormous young man, who was a gifted athlete. But he also was a gentle giant with a sometimes fragile ego. In a Sports Illustrated article before the fight, Mark Kram wrote about Mathis’ previous relationship with Cus D’Amato.

The Old Master had tried to instill a discipline that would have allowed Mathis to reach his potential. But Buster refused to accept the level of self-control D’Amato demanded. He had defeated Frazier twice in the amateurs, and was confident he would beat him in the professional ranks as well. Cus’ assistant Jimmy Iselin split with D’Amato to train Mathis.

The Garden match-makers had at first tried to put Frazier, then Mathis, against Floyd Patterson, but the ex-champ turned both fights down. Then the Frazier vs Mathis match was set for March 4, 1968.Kram noted that although it was for a "phony heavyweight title," it was the most interesting match – at least on paper – since the first Liston vs Clay match.

Meanwhile, Thad Spencer was scheduled to fight Jerry Quarry on February 3 in Oakland. Spencer was favored to beat the younger Irishman, who had a reputation for finding excuses for the fights he had failed to win. But Thad, who had separated from his wife after the Terrell fight, was seen out late , entertaining the ladies at nightclubs. And Quarry was training harder than he ever had before.

There was tremendous interest in this fight. Jimmy Ellis sat at ringside. Angelo Dundee was interested in not only who Ellis would fight in the finals, but – like Yank Durham – he recognized the loser would likely be a future opponent for his fighter.

Spencer was prepared to pressure Quarry, who was known to tire out in the middle rounds. Thad, who entered the ring a 7-5 favorite, had told reporters that he would knock Jerry out around the 4th. But at the end of that round, when he went after Quarry, he was decked by an overhand left. By the time Thad arose at the count of three, the round had ended.

Quarry’s counter-punches and his body attack wore Spencer down. In the 10th round, Jerry again floored Spencer, this time with a short right-hand. There were only 3 seconds left in the round. Jerry would continue to out-punch Spencer through the 11th round, and was ahead on all three scorecards going into the last round. Quarry again hurt Spencer, and the referee stopped the fight with 3 seconds left.

Yank Durham told reporters that Quarry reminded him of the former lightheavyweight champion Harold Johnson: he tended to fight the hardest when someone pressed him, and he was dangerous when hurt. But other than that, like Johnson, Quarry was easily lulled into a slow pace.

The finals of the WBA tournament would fight in late April.

{5} The Winner, but not quite "Champion"

1968 is a year that defined an American generation. Boxing, more so than any other sport, reflected the conflicts within our society. Almost as soon as he stopped Thad Spencer, a segment of sports fans identified Jerry Quarry as the new "Great White Hope." And at the same time, a growing number of Americans were making it clear that they were strongly opposed to both the WBA tournament and the Doolry attempt to name a new heavyweight champion.

Jerry Quarry did not welcome attempts to label him as The Great White Hope. His father, Jack, who was his co-manager, had instilled a sense of Irish-identity in his children. Promoters found Jack a stubborn, demanding fellow to deal with. The journalists who found Jerry an attractive figure also noted that both the father and son could be frustrating to deal with. Numerous articles from that time refer to the Irish clan mentality of the Quarry family. Jack was a crafty man, and he figured out a way to help Jerry deal with the "White Hope" business: Jerry would say he planned to be the first Irish-American heavyweight champion since Jimmy Braddock.

A group known as the W.E.B. DuBois Club, headed by Harry Edwards of San Jose State University, led protests of the up-coming Frazier vs Mathis fight. He wrote a message given to both Joe and Buster at their weigh-in, which read, "We are sure you recognize, as much as we do, that Muhammad Ali is still the heavyweight champion of the world – until somebody beats him in the ring."

At a press conference, Edwards stated, "We want anyone to know, who tries to pass himself off as champ, that we will mark this person as a traitor. There will be no black youths running to get autographs …. More like garbage from a fourth-floor window instead."

On March 4, Joe Frazier showed that he was a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division. Though Buster was tough in the early rounds, Frazier wore him down, and flattened Mathis in the 11th round. Many sports writers did not give Frazier the credit that he deserved, in part because Mathis was not considered a worthy opponent for a title elimination bout, and in part because the "title" was –according to Sport’s Illustrated’s Mark Kram, "no better than a Woolworth trinket."

Almost immediately, boxing fans began to look ahead to Frazier fighting the winner of the WBA tournament. Frazier said he wanted to fight Quarry, because "he has a big mouth." Boxing writers recognized that both Quarry and Ellis could prove to be a tough match for Frazier.

There were two other fighters who continued to cast a shadow on the heavyweight division. One was Sonny Liston. Twelve days after Frazier beat Mathis, Liston returned to the ring in the US for the first time since the loss to Ali in Lewiston. Although he was fighting "second tier" contenders, Liston would have a string of 11 knockouts by the end of 1968. But there was little chance that Yank Durham and Willie Reddish were going to put Frazier in with Liston.

The other heavyweight that haunted the division was, of course, Muhammad Ali. The Vietnam war was becoming more controversial, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Had joined in the opposition to the war. It would later be revealed that the FBI had "listened in" to phone conversations between King and Ali. College audiences began to recognize Ali as a folk hero who symbolized their struggle.

A month after Frazier’s victory over Buster, King was shot in Memphis. Muhammad had been scheduled to speak at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, but his appearance was canceled due to unrest on the campus and to honor Martin’s funeral.

On April 27, Jimmy Ellis met Jerry Quarry in Oakland. Angelo Dundee had taken notice of Yank Durham’s earlier comparison of Quarry to Harold Johnson. This was important, because Dundee had prepared Willie Pastrano for his June 1, 1963 win over Johnson. Pastrano won the boring 15-rounder by lulling Johnson into a slow pace, and not taking any chances.

Dundee told Ellis to keep the fight in the middle of the ring. He said if Quarry backed into the ropes, to "let him talk to himself there." Dundee knew it was better to win a boring decision than to lose a thrilling slugfest. And Jimmy Ellis agreed.

Jack Quarry sensed that his son was going to win the title. Although Jack was the co-manager, he attempted to increase his influence. There are both pros and cons with having a father for a trainer, as Calvin Brock has found. Jerry would have benefited from having someone else come in to help him prepare for Ellis. Instead, he was lulled into a boring 15 round fight. Whenever he attempted to draw Jimmy to the ropes, Dundee would yell for Ellis to stay in the middle of the ring. Quarry, a 7 to 5 favorite, spent much of the fight plodding forward, hoping to engage Ellis in order to counter-punch.

At the end of 15 rounds, Jimmy Lennon announced a split decision: referee Elmer Costa had it 7-6 for Ellis; judge Fred Apostoli had it 10-5 for Ellis; and judge Rudy Ortega scored it a 6-6 draw. Quarry had told Angelo Dundee that he knew Ellis had won the fight. He told reporters that even if the judges had given him the decision, he would have "given it back to Ellis." Ellis was a gracious winner, and Dundee promised boxing fans that Jimmy would be an "active champion."

{6} Unification

Joe Frazier proved to be the more active semi-champion: he had an action-packed two-round fight with Manuel Ramos in June, and a tough 15-rounder with Oscar Bonavena in December. The Ramos fight showed that Frazier was vulnerable to power punches in the early rounds. The Bonavena fight proved that he had great endurance.

During the summer Olympics in Mexico City, at a time when some black athletes were displaying a raised fist that signified Black Power, the winner of the Olympic Heavyweight Title would carry a small American flag around the ring. Behind George Foreman’s charming exterior was an angry young man, who would learn to focus his power in the ring by serving as a sparring partner for Sonny Liston. Boxing fans were confident that Big George would be a force in the heavyweight division’s future, and he did not disappoint.

Ellis would travel to Stockholm to defend against Floyd Patterson on September 15. The ex-champion had only won three of his last six fights since losing to Ali in 1965, but he was a sentimental favorite with many boxing fans. Ellis would decision Patterson in 15 rounds, though many of the American fans watching on ABC were swayed by Howard Cosell’s reporting, and thought Floyd deserved the decision. Cosell had enjoyed a long personal friendship with Floyd, and had difficulty being objective. Ellis had actually won the fight, fair and square.

Neither Ellis nor Patterson would fight again until 1970. While Ellis was inactive, Joe Frazier would make two defenses in 1969: he KOed an overmatched but tough Dave Zyglewicz in 1 round in April; then stop Jerry Quarry in 7 rounds in June.

Sonny Liston won three more fights in ’69, before being flattened by his former sparring partner, Leotis Martin, in 10 rounds. Although Sonny won a last fight the next year, the loss to Martin effectively ended his career. Leotis had been on an unlikely campaign to get Frazier into the ring, and had put together some impressive wins. But he suffered a detached retina against Liston, and was forced to retire.

On February 3, 1970, Muhammad Ali announced his retirement from the ring. On February 16, Joe Frazier met Jimmy Ellis in a bout to decide who the real heavyweight champion of the world would be. Frazier looked as good in that fight as he ever would, and stopped a game Jimmy Ellis in 5 rounds. Finally, there was an undisputed heavyweight champion !

Today, the heavyweight division suffers from the Alphabet Syndrome. There has not been a real champion since Lennox Lewis retired with the title. A number of factors have kept the division in turmoil, because there are forces that capitalize on the confusion. A tournament might not settle every question – it didn’t happen with the WBA elimination tournament in ’67 and ’68. But it brought the division to within one fight of settling who the real champion was. It should happen again.


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