(Re-written July 2010 by MJ Law)
One of the most appealing aspects of boxing is its glorious history. I’m sure there are plenty of fans out there who, like me, love to read the record books and watch those old black-and-white films of Benny Leonard, Jimmy Wilde, Jack Dempsey and all the other legends. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to travel back in time and get a ringside seat for Harry Greb against Mickey Walker in 1923, or pay a visit to Grossingers gym in 1952 and watch Rocky Marciano in training. We can only imagine what it was like to have been there. But what if we could take it one step further? What if we could not only go back in time to witness some of the greatest events in boxing’s past, but we could also actually change something? Or unravel a mystery? Consider this; what if we were able to travel back to Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1980, and beg Muhammad Ali to forget about his comeback against Larry Holmes? We could have avoided one of the saddest spectacles the sport has endured. Or how about taking a trip to Havana, Cuba, in 1915? We could socialize with Jack Johnson, gain his trust and find out if he really did throw his fight with Jess Willard, as he claimed. With this flight of the imagination in mind (and use of the Delorean from the “Back To The Future” movies), here are three of the trips I would make into the past:-
Lewiston, Maine, 1965
The location and the year should give this one away. Yup, that’s right; I’m here for the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. This is one of the most controversial bouts in history, with a totally inconclusive ending by anyone’s standards. I have watched this fight many times, and no matter how closely I analyse it, no matter how often I view it in slow motion, it just does not seem right.
Sonny in training
I have serious doubts that it was an outright fix, because if it was then it would likely have involved Muhammad and his entourage, Sonny and his entourage, the referee and numerous boxing officials, or if not all of this cast, then at least most of them. That is quite a large number of people who would have been in on it, and as everybody knows, it’s not easy keeping a secret. It is more plausible that Sonny took a dive, and with the possible exception of his cornermen, no one else had any knowledge of it or reason to expect it. Though interestingly, I do recall reading that trainer Johnny Tocco later admitted that he heard something strange was going to happen, and writer Dave Anderson has said that Sonny had looked dreadful in training.
Muhammad was never classed as a power puncher. How many one-punch knockouts did he ever score? A lack of real solid clout in his blows was one of his few weaknesses, if it could actually be labelled a weakness. As for Sonny, this guy was built like a brick outhouse and seemed immune to pain. He had absorbed the best shots from the likes of Cleveland Williams and Eddie Machen, and prior to facing Muhammad, he had never come close to being stopped. So how the hell was Muhammad going to flatten him? Common sense says it wouldn’t happen. If Muhammad was going to win inside the distance, it would be more plausible if Sonny quit on his stool through exhaustion or suffered a terrible cut.
What was going through Sonny’s mind at this moment?
The first fight ended suspiciously (though that’s another story), but the rematch was just a farce, and during the pre-fight introductions, Sonny gave the impression that he was somewhat bored and uninterested. There were rumours that the Black Muslims had threatened Sonny and maybe he wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. He basically went down the first time he got hit, but the problem was that he got hit with a blow that barely seemed to land. What followed next was Sonny rolling around on the floor and he was never going to get an Oscar nomination for this dismal acting. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott then bungled the count by failing to coax Muhammad to a neutral corner and “The Ring” magazine editor Nat Fleischer was calling from his ringside seat that the fight should be stopped because Sonny had been down for more than ten seconds. There is a famous photograph of Muhammad standing over Sonny, snarling and looking like he is yelling something at him (see above). Could it be that the champ was shouting, “Come on you fool! What you doing down there? I hardly touched you!” There is a cloud of mystery hanging over this fight and whichever way I look at it the KO is just not credible. If I could travel back in time I could confront Sonny and find out what really happened. I can ask him, “What went on in there Sonny? Who got to you? Tell me the truth!” As a bonus, famous fighters at ringside included Rocky Marciano, Jimmy Braddock, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler and Joe Louis, and not only would I get to meet them but I could also find out what they thought of this so-called ‘fight’.
Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1988
I am here for the superfight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks, but not to be a spectator. I am a huge fan of Spinks and my natural instinct would be to persuade him not to go through with this fight (or slaughter as it turned out). But no, my purpose for travelling back here would not be to do that, partly because I would be denying him a $13.5 million payday. I would be here to persuade him to change his tactics, which were insane. Tyson was at his awesome best during this period and my money would be on him against the Hulk, the Thing or any other superhero the size of a house. Remember Will Smith’s song, “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”? How many fighters have such an incredible reputation that a big star releases a song about them? At the time of the Spinks fight, he was still being trained by Kevin Rooney and was still married to Robin Givens (lucky guy - she may have been rightly or wrongly labelled a gold-digger but she was more stunning than the result of Tyson-Spinks!). Consider his potential at the time; who could have predicted the downward spiral his life would take in the future?
Why did Spinks not jab-and-run against Tyson?
Tyson held a nice collection of alphabet belts, whereas Spinks was the lineal champion and while my heart wanted Spinks to win, my head was reminding me that he faced an almost impossible task. I was unfortunately not able to make it to Atlantic City to mingle among the audience so I had to be satisfied with watching it live on TV. There are two revelations I remember reading about this fight. The first was that Tyson had trained for only two weeks (would this mean that if he had trained for 6-8 weeks it would have been over even quicker?). The second was that members of Spinks’ entourage had been advising him to gain Tyson’s respect and not back away (Spinks’ trainer Eddie Futch verified this). When the opening bell rang I was surprised that Spinks stayed with Tyson. It was a known fact that Tyson was most dangerous during the first two or three rounds (he was always dangerous but he began like a rampaging monster before easing off a little by about the fourth round). Simple logic would suggest that Spinks should have given away at least the first two rounds and done nothing but clinch, backpedal and focus totally on survival until Iron Mike realized he was not going to get a quickie KO and decide to pace himself. Only then should Spinks think about trying to win as opposed to trying to keep his head on his shoulders.
When he went down I was not shocked. He was standing right in front of Tyson and was there to be hit so what did he expect to happen? Nobody stood with Tyson and remained vertical. But I was shocked when he got up and made a pathetic attempt at catching him with a right cross when Iron Mike moved in for the finish. What was going through his mind? When he rose from the first knockdown I wanted to scream at the TV “RUN! FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR HEALTH, RUN!” But he didn’t, and he got demolished. It was a plain dumb move.
Spinks was a true nice guy and deserved all his success. I’m sure all those who heard about him losing his girlfriend, Sandra Massey, in a car crash and then bringing up their daughter, Michelle, alone, would give their sympathy and best wishes. It was sad that he went out like that, being crushed in 91 seconds. If I could go back in time I would tell him, “Don’t think about getting Tyson’s respect! He’s gonna kill you! Jab. Move. Circle away. Cling to him like you love him. Just don’t go toe-to-toe with him!”
Ok, I admit that a change of tactics may not have made any difference. Even if he had ran like Usain Bolt from the first bell, Tyson could still have knocked him out in the second round, or the third, or at any stage during the fight. But we’ll never know for sure. If only Spinks boxed more smartly......
Conway, Missouri, 1910
I would be here because this was when the great Stanley Ketchel was murdered. He was only 24 years old at the time and was the reigning middleweight champion of the world. I have seen footage of him in action and read plenty about him in books, and today we can only marvel at his accomplishments and the impact he would have had during his lifetime. He was known as the “Michigan Assassin” and beat all the best middleweights around, including Joe Thomas three times, Mike Sullivan, Jack Sullivan and won three-out-of-four against Billy Papke. He also beat Hugo Kelly and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. That was some record! His challenge of Jack Johnson for the world heavyweight championship in 1909 is almost mind-boggling! You’ve got to admire the guy’s courage for going in against a superb, naturally bigger opponent. Imagine such a deed being done in any other era. It would be like Tony Zale taking on Joe Louis in the mid-1940’s, or Carlos Monzon tackling Muhammad Ali in the mid-1970’s, or Michael Nunn going up against Mike Tyson in the late 1980’s. It’s not easy to comprehend. But Ketchel had a go. He surely was a tough guy and some historians rate him as the best middleweight ever.
Ketchel (left) in action against Billy Papke
He was in Conway either taking a break or in training (depending on which source you follow) and was staying at a ranch. A labourer at the ranch, named Walter Dipley, became jealous of him, supposedly because Stanley was getting a bit too friendly with a young lady called Goldie Smith, whom Walter also apparently had the hots for. What exactly went on between Stanley and Goldie will probably never be known for sure, but while Stanley was sat eating breakfast (some sources say lunch but does it really matter?), Dipley shot him in the back. It was a terrible, premature end to a still-young life. Predictably, there was a mad stampede from every half-decent pug to claim the vacant world middleweight title and the muddle was not cleared up until 1913 when Frank Klaus gained general recognition as the next lineal champion. Following Ketchel’s death, the top middleweights included Klaus, Cyclone Johnny Thompson and Eddie McGoorty, and surely the “Michigan Assassin” would have been favoured to beat all of them.
Would Ketchel (seen here on the left posing with Joe Thomas) have moved up to heavyweight if he had lived?
It was a terrible shame that Stanley’s life was cut short. Who knows what he could have gone on to achieve? If I could travel back to the year 1910 I could save him (perhaps by whacking Dipley over the head with a frying pan and then persuading Stanley to hightail it out of there). He could have remained middleweight champ for several more years. As he was only 24 when he died, he would almost certainly have grown into a light heavyweight and faced the likes of Jack Dillon and Battling Levinsky. Thinking about it, maybe by the time he reached 30 he would have moved up to heavyweight. He could have met Jack Dempsey in the ring! Imagine that; Stanley Ketchel versus Jack Dempsey. It could have happened around 1918.
So there you are. Three possible trips into the past, and when you consider it further, the possibilities are endless. You could establish quite an in-depth bar room discussion on a Saturday night (assuming you have no date) on this topic. You could go back to 1892 and check out Jim Corbett-John L Sullivan in New Orleans. No photographic evidence exists of this fight, so wouldn’t that be an event worth seeing?