The Best To Never Win A Title

14.05.07 - By James LB: Last night I was in the mood to watch a good movie, so I settled for a great teleplay. I popped Rod Serling's television version of "Requiem for a Heavyweight" into my VCR and watched one of the finest boxing plays ever written. Former Army Bantamweight Champ Serling gave us a great story about a washed up heavyweight trying to redefine his life. It was near the end of the play when a young prospect is brought to the crusty old trainer, played by the late Keenan Wynn, wanting to be a fighter. When the trainer tries to discourage him and the prospect refuses to be discouraged, the trainer
replies: "Well, then get this straight! There are EIGHT champions! The rest are also-rans!"

I wondered how well that line would play TODAY if the truth were told and Keenan Wynn said, "Get this straight! There are 206 champions! If you can't win a "World" title in seven fights, you ain't worth my time!" I realize just how easy it is to win a "World" championship today. It is one of the many things causing the decline of boxing. I also realized just how difficult it was to even get a title shot many years ago. It took men like Ezzard Charles ten years to get a world title shot, while it took Leon Spinks just ten FIGHTS to get a shot at the undisputed heavyweight championship.

Many excellent fighters, because they didn't have the right connections, their respective divisions were unusually strong at the time, they didn't have the right skin color, or were just TOO good in their time for the champ to risk fighting them, never won a world championship.

In this article I will pay tribute to the finest fighters who NEVER won a world title, division by division. These fighters will come from those wonderful times when there were just eight champions reigning in boxing. I have decided to cover Heavyweight to Lightweight, not because the Feather, Bantam, and Fly divisions are not important, but because I had to keep this article to a smaller size then "War and Peace."


There were many men in this division who never won world titles who were truly championship material. Probably the man who comes most to mind was Sam Langford.

Born in Weymouth Falls, Digby County, Nova Scotia in 1886, Sam Langford ran away from home at the age of 12 and worked his way to Boston. Sam Langford never held a world boxing title, although he fought and defeated many of those who did.

After just three years as a pro, Langford and his manager felt he was ready for the heavyweight big leagues. In 1906, Langford took on Jack Johnson, Negro Heavyweight Champion and contender for the world crown. It took Johnson, (who was in his prime and had both a huge size and weight advantage) 15 rounds to defeat Langford. Thereafter, Johnson never gave Langford a rematch for fear that he might lose his title, and when Johnson won the heavyweight championship two years later, he was even more determined to keep his title, and stayed away from Langford.

Throughout his prime, Sam Langford was in an unusual boxing situation. Although his weight permitted him to fight in weight divisions other than heavyweight, no champion would risk his title against him, and not incidentally, America at the time had no desire to see another black champion.

Between 1902 and 1923, Langford fought nearly 300 recorded bouts in every division from lightweight to heavyweight. He was rarely defeated, but never got the title match he deserved. Langford fought, and beat, many of the top fighters in his time. Men like Harry Wills (an incredible 21 times!), Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, and John Lester Johnson, all men denied their rightful shot at the championship because of their skin color. Langford also fought and defeated several outstanding white fighters who were not fearful of crossing the color line: Ed "Gunboat" Smith (W12, KO3), and former Lightheavy champ "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien (KO 5) in a non-title bout.

By the early 1920's, Langford's advancing blindness began to cause problems, but not before he won the heavyweight championship of Mexico and Spain in 1923. A knockout by a virtual nobody in 1926 finally convinced him to withdraw from the ring.

Sam Langford died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956, a year after his election into The Ring magazine's Boxing Hall of Fame. He was the first non-champion ever to be so honored.

There were other great heavies who never won a title. Sailor Tom Sharkey was a truly great heavy who fought and beat many top heavies in his time, but the division was just too strong for him to become champ. In more recent times, I would have to include men like Cleveland Williams and Jerry Quarry as two men who could have won a title or two today. Williams had an extremely hard punch and was an excellent fighter, but he was so good many fighters ducked him. Quarry was unlucky enough to come along when the heavyweight division was at its strongest. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and Norton all were at or near their peaks when Quarry was fighting, so Jerry could never win the title.


In the olden days of boxing, this was considered the "bastard" division, sort of the way many look at the cruiserweight division today. Most outstanding fighters in this division considered the light heavyweight title a weigh station-they looked to step up to heavyweight, where the REAL money was.

The finest fighter in this division never to win the lightheavy title might well have been the finest fighter EVER in this division-Ezzard Charles. Many of Charles' early fights were against the world's top middleweights and light heavyweights. He defeated the likes Teddy Yarosz, Charley Burley and Joey Maxim, and drew with Ken Overlin. After military service during World
War II, Charles defeated Hall-of-Famer Archie Moore and avenged losses to Lloyd Marshall and Jimmy Bivins to earn a No. 2 ranking at light heavyweight in 1946. He fought five light heavyweight champions, beating four of them, but never challenged for the light heavyweight crown. Yet he became heavyweight champ.

Jimmy Bivins, was another who made a career out of defeating good fighters, being top-rated, and never getting a shot at the Light heavyweight title. This happened in spite of defeating eight world champions, and being in the top ten in one division or another from 1940 until 1953. Incredibly in 1942 he was rated as number one contender in the light-heavyweight and Heavyweight division at the same time!

During a streak from June 22, 1942 until February 25, 1946, Bivins was undefeated with one draw, and the list of men he beat reads like a who's who, of that boxing era. He defeated Joey Maxim, Joe Muscato, Tami Mauriello, Bob Pastor, Lee Savold, Ezzard Charles, Anton Christoforidis, Pat Valentino, Lloyd Marshall, Lee Q. Murray, Melio Bettina (who he also drew with), Curtis "Hatchet Man" Sheppard, Archie Moore (he stopped him), Johnny Flynn and Billy Smith, to name some of them! Prior to his loss on April 17, 1942, to Bob Pastor (he had Pastor down twice in the first round), he had also defeated Billy Soose and the then current light-heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich in a non-title bout.

In 1942 Jimmy Bivins was rated the number one contender in the light-heavyweight and heavyweight division at the same time. When Bivins' career ended (with four wins in a row) in 1955, he had beaten 86 opponents, most of them champions or top contenders. His biggest payday was $40,000 for his 1951 bout with Joe Louis. He lost on points, and Louis was kayoed by Rocky Marciano in his very next fight.

Bivins was actually a natural 175 pounder, and at 5ft. 9ins, many opponents towered over him.

In most recent times, the best light-heavy never to have won the title was Yaqui Lopez. Lopez fought and beat many of the top contenders of the time, including former champs John Conteh and Mike Rossman. He was robbed of the title via a horrendous decision against Victor Galindez.


In my mind, the best Middleweight never to win a title was Charley Burley of Pittsburgh, who recently had been afforded some due recognition by being voted into a couple of Boxing Halls of Fame. Legendary trainer Eddie Futch has called Charley Burley the greatest all-around fighter he ever saw and that is quite a compliment considering Futch's vast experience. Charley has the praise of many former opponents, even men who beat him. The fabulous Archie Moore rated him near the top of the opponents he most respects.

Charlie's listed 98 bouts show that he was never stopped, while he knocked out 50 men himself. And like Langford, he too wasn't afraid to get into the ring with larger men. Again like Langford, he was also forced to fight many of the best black fighters of the time, while hoping for a title shot---usually held by a white man! He met some real toughies like Holman Williams (seven times). Cocoa Kid, Lloyd Marshall, Oakland Billy Smith, Jimmy Bivins, Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles. And the white fighters he did fight were good ones like Fritzie Zivic (three times), Billy Soose and men of that caliber. After 84 wins he still couldn't get a title shot, although he was ranked near the top of the welterweights in the late 30's and then right through the 40's as a middleweight. Burley was a great, despite never having won a title.

The most recent middleweight who was perhaps the best one never to win the title was British maestro Herol 'Bomber' Graham. Graham easily defeated top-10 contenders such as Lindell Holmes, Ayub Kalule, and Mark Kaylor. The great 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler gave up the World Boxing Association belt rather than face Graham, and he was oh-so unlucky when he finally did get
his chances in losing a disputed decision to the great Mike McCallum and being victim of one of the best one-punch kayos in living memory at the hands of Julian Jackson, the Jackson fight he was winning hands down and on the verge of stoppage.


Black fighters weren't the only victims of title lockout in the 40's and 50's. Another hard luck great was Billy Graham. He was often called the uncrowned Welterweight champion. Like the others he was a victim of being too good for his own good, and he was also a victim of a cruel streak of bad luck and some strange decisions. Like Burley, Billy was unstoppable. In 126 pro bouts, he was never counted out or stopped for any reason! And he was fighting all the best welterweights and middleweights.

Unlike Burley, Billy did manage to land a title shot, twice against the great Cuban Kid Gavilan. He lost both times by decision in very close bouts in 1951, in New York first and then in Havana in 1952. The bout in Cuba was said to be one of the all-time greatest robberies, but what could he expect fighting local hero Gavilan in his homeland?

Although the Gavilan bout was controversial, Billy had one other bout that topped that for drama. On 19 December 1952, Billy lost a ten-rounder to Joey Giardello in New York City. But right after the verdict was awarded to Giardello, the Commissioners, Christenberry and Powell, changed judge Joe Agnello's card to enable Graham to be awarded the split-decision win.

Giardello took the matter to the US Supreme Court and sometime later the decision was again reversed and given to Giardello! Maybe this is why we don't see decisions disputed as much today. They have already been upheld by our Nation's highest court.

When Billy Graham retired in 1955, he left behind an outstanding record of 102 wins, nine draws and only fifteen losses. He, too was another example of a man who surely would be a champion today if he were fighting.


One can look through boxing history and pick out many more would-be lightweight champions who never got close. There were others who made a living out of fighting greats and near-greats like The Fargo Express, Billy Petrolle, who is highly-thought-of by former champion Jimmy McLarnin. From 1922 until 1934 Petrolle's record is filled with wins over greats like McLarnin, Tony Canzoneri, Jack Kid Berg, Bat Battalino and other top fighters.

There was also "Lefty" Lew Tendler, a great southpaw lightweight who came along when that division was perhaps at its strongest. Considered by Nat Fleischer to be the ninth greatest lightweight of all time despite never having won a title, Tendler had two bouts with great lightweight champ Benny Leonard that were acknowledged to be classics. The first bout took place in 1922 at Boyle's thirty acres in Jersey City and attracted over 40,000 fans and a gate of $400,000.00, both records up to that time for a non-heavyweight title bout. Tendler had the great Benny Leonard in trouble early on but Leonard's style and courage won him a decision. The rematch, in front of over 40,000 people in Yankee Stadium, had Leonard winning another decision.

Tendler was a fast, hard puncher who was durable, too. He would have won two or three titles today.

Well, those are my picks. There are probably others I missed that I'm gonna catch hell for. I guess there is an upside of so many titles in today's boxing world, and that is that it is impossible to shut anyone out of a title today. People tend to think the "real" champ is whoever is the better fighter, and maybe its fitting that way, as opposed to believing that a corrupt organization's belt makes a champ.

Still, I really miss the days when there was just ONE champion per division.

Article posted on 14.05.2007

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