Heavyweight Champions of The World-Almost

By Kent Appel: Ever since the Marquess of Queensberry Rules that modern boxing is based on came into existence in the 1800s the gold standard or the brass ring of professional boxing has been for a fighter to become heavyweight champion of the world.

It was John L Sullivan, considered to be the first heavyweight champion, who legend has it used to famously bellow, “I can lick any SOB in the house” wherever he went and over the years the image of the champ being ‘the man’ hasn’t diminished.
Some of the more illustrious belt holders have included the self proclaimed greatest Muhammad Ali who could back up all of his brashness with skills that were never seen before and haven’t been seen since, Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber who defended the title more times than any other man in history, Rocky Mariciano who is the only heavyweight champion to ever retire undefeated for his entire career, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis, and fighters from bygone eras such as Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson. Current standard bearers, the brother tandem of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, could also before they are done be recognized with the best there has ever been.

But what of fighters who have come close to winning this coveted title but for one reason of another fell just short of obtaining their goal? I am focusing here on four of these fighters, two fighters from one of the best eras of heavyweight talent, the 1960s and 1970s, and two from very recent boxing history. And even though currently the title has been watered down because of multiple champions, it is still a prestigious event in a fighter’s career.

‘Irish’ Jerry Quarry of the United States began his professional boxing career in 1965 after distinguishing himself by winning the national Golden Gloves heavyweight title in 1964 when he knocked out all five of his opponents in the tournament and he showed a lot of potential to become the world heavyweight champion as he worked his way up the ranks and In 1967, after Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing induction into the United States armed forces, Quarry was invited to participate in an eight man elimination tournament put on by the WBA to find a successor to Ali. Quarry entered the tournament with only one professional loss in twenty-seven fights, dropping a decision to long time contender Eddie Machen in his twentieth fight, but he was considered an underdog in the opening round when he drew former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson as his opponent. Quarry and Patterson fought twice, as their first fight was ruled a draw, but in their second fight Quarry emerged victorious by a split decision. He was also the underdog going into the semi final round of the tournament when he met Thad Spencer who had upset number one contender Ernie Terrell. But Quarry again beat the odds with an impressive twelfth round TKO victory over Spencer to gain his first shot at a heavyweight title in 1968.

Quarry’s opponent in the tournament final was Jimmy Ellis and although this time he was favored to win, he ended up dropping a fifteen round split decision to Ellis. Quarry put on a somewhat sluggish performance in this bout but even so he had a good chance of winning going into the later rounds especially when he had Ellis hurt in round thirteen but he failed to follow up on his advantage by letting Ellis off of the hook. Reportedly he fought that night with an injured back so that might have accounted for his lack luster performance. But we also can’t discount Ellis’ use of the left jab to control the distance between the two fighters and that it was his right hand leads as well that pulled off the close victory. But either way Jerry Quarry would get only one more shot at the title.
In 1969 Quarry, after defeating contender Buster Mathis, was matched up with ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier who had opted out of the WBA tournament in favor of fighting Mathis, who he beat for the heavyweight title recognized by the New York State Athletic Commission, several other states, and some other countries as well. In this fight Quarry showed the fire that was lacking in the Ellis fight by going toe to toe with Frazier for seven rounds only to be worn down and badly cut leading to a TKO loss. Still in defeat Quarry’s stock went up as he battled hard to take what belonged to ‘Smokin’ Joe. Round one, which Quarry won on the judges’ scorecards, was named round of the year by Ring Magazine and it is still one of the greatest rounds in heavyweight championship history.

Jerry Quarry would go on to fight Ali twice, after Ali’s reinstatement, losing both times by TKO, as well as having a second loss to Frazier and a loss to Ken Norton that effectively ended his status as a heavyweight contender. But sandwiched in between those tough losses were some successes as well when he scored victories over highly ranked contenders Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers.

Jerry Quarry very well could have been heavyweight champion if he had fought in a different era and he has been called the best heavyweight who never won a title by none other than George Foreman who said he purposely avoided fighting Quarry during his first championship reign. But he still had a good career despite his lack of winning a championship belt.

Andrew Golota, a native of Poland who has been infamously nicknamed the ‘Foul Pole’ because for his propensity to commit fouls during fights, especially in his two fights against former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe in 1996, is an enigma because he had a lot of the tools needed to become a champion but who at times seemed to come up just short because of his volatile temperament. Golota, with his 6’4” inch frame that when he was in shape was in the 235-245 pound range, had a fine jab, good power in both hands, and he moved well for a man his size. But sometimes even when things were going his way in the ring he would self destruct. Two examples come to mind, his fights with Bowe when both times he was ahead on all of the judges’ scorecards late in the fights but for some unexplained reason that, maybe even he can’t explain, he ended up being disqualified for low blows. The other prominent example is his fight with contender Michael Grant in 1999 when he again was leading on all the judges’ scorecards late in the fight but after he was knocked down by Grant in round number ten, he refused to continue, resulting in a TKO loss.

Of course Golota also quit in his 2000 bout with Mike Tyson when, after taking a pounding and being knocked down in round number two, he refused to come out for round number three resulting in a third round TKO loss that was later changed to a no decision after Tyson tested positive for marijuana in a post fight drug test. But Golota can be cut some slack for the Tyson fight as reportedly he suffered a broken jaw so at least, unlike the Grant fight and the Bowe fights, I can see a reason why the Golota chose not to continue.

What I think merits mentioning Andrew Golota in a list of almost champions is his two fights with former champion Bowe when he was boxing brilliantly before defeating himself with his fouls but also when he didn’t defeat himself with his antics in other fights he could put on good performances. His title bout challenge against IBF heavyweight champion Chris Byrd in 2004 especially comes to mind in which Golota boxed very well only to come up just short of a title victory when the judges ruled the fight a draw and also in 2004, in another title challenge verses WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz, in a sloppy affair that not surprisingly featured a lot of holding and clinching, when Golota knocked down Ruiz twice but again came up just short in a bout that quite honestly, like the Byrd fight, could have gone either way.

I don’t know, but if we could somehow put the mind of someone with the temperament of a champion into the body of Andrew Golota, then maybe, just maybe, we could have had a heavyweight champion of the world. What makes Andrew Golota tick? I guess only he really knows but then again, maybe even he isn’t sure why he did some of the things he did in the ring.
American heavyweight Jimmy Young who fought in the talent rich 1970s came within an eyelash of becoming heavyweight champion of the world twice. Young, who was a slick boxer who was very hard to hit, appeared to outland defending champion Muhammad Ali in 1976 but lost on the judges’ scorecards by a unanimous decision. Ironically Young may have been a victim of his own caution first style as exemplified at times in this bout when he stuck his head through the ropes to avoid being hit by Ali and the judges may have saw the bout in the champions’ favor because Ali landed stronger punches, even if not in more quantity, than his opponent Young who was a light puncher. Young also lost a very close fight in 1977 against Ken Norton that at first was billed as a WBC title elimination fight but was later upgraded to a title fight when Leon Spinks, who had taken the title from Ali, refused to fight Norton. Again the judges may have felt that Norton landed the more effective punches, even if in lesser numbers, than Young. But it is also possible that Young was a victim of the economics of boxing, particularly in the Ali fight, in which a third fight between Ali and Norton was looming and quite frankly an Ali/Norton fight meant more money than any fight involving Jimmy Young.

But it was his stellar performance against former heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1977 that was the true highlight of Young’s career when Young boxed brilliantly round after round and survived an onslaught by the power punching Foreman in round number seven to even knock down the exhausted former champion in round number twelve to on route to a unanimous decision victory for Young.

Jimmy Young also had two impressive decision victories over long time contender Ron Lyle as well as a draw with the very dangerous puncher Earnie Shavers, considered by some to be the hardest punching heavyweight in history, and if the rules he fought under as a professional were the same as the rules are in amateur boxing where the number of punches landed always, despite how powerful they are, decides the winner. Under those rules he very well would have been heavyweight champion of the world.
For those who think recent champion Chris Byrd is the prototype of the slick defensive boxer, take a look at the footage of Young at his best as he was even better at it than Byrd.

Jameel ‘Big Time’ McCline of the United States had a lot going for him such as heart and size, He was an imposing physical specimen standing 6’6” tall and weighing at his best in the 260 to 270 pound range, but the times when the title was within his grasp he faded and fell just short.

McCline got his first shot at a championship belt in 2002 when he challenged Wladimir Klitschko for the WBO title. McCline entered the fight with only two losses in thirty three professional fights including wins over former cruiserweight champion Al Cole, contenders Lance Whitaker and Michael Grant, as well as former lineal and future WBO heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs and while he hung in there tough against Klitschko, he fell short of his goal of taking the belt from Klitschko when his corner asked the referee to stop the fight after the tenth round.

But this wouldn’t be his only shot at a title and even though there were some more disappointments along the way, such as his third round TKO loss to the Russian Giant Nikolay Valuev for the WBA title 2007 when he was unable to continue after injuring his knee, there were some fine moments as well, even in defeat. In particular was his performance verses IBF king Chris Byrd when he knocked down Byrd in round number two and built up an early lead only to fade in the later rounds in dropping a close split decision to Byrd and also against future WBC champion Samuel Peter in 2007 for the interim title when he knocked Peter down three times but ended up on the short end of a twelve round decision when he again faded down the stretch after taking a big early lead.

Maybe if McCline could have found a way to fight as well in the later rounds when the championship was on the line, he very well would have been a champion and even though it hasn’t been very long since his last fight, a 2009 fourth round knockout loss to contender Chris Arreola, his time to pursue the big prize, the heavyweight title, is undoubtedly past.

Why do some fighters rise to the occasion and go out and win a championship while others fall just short? There are a few factors such as in the case of Jerry Quarry having the bad luck of coming around when the competition was the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and while Quarry was better than some fighters who did win the title, he never could quite grab the brass ring. Another fighter who came close to being a champion was Jimmy Young, who also came around in a talent rich era, but whose style wasn’t a real crowd pleaser and may have been negatively viewed by judges who, maybe even subconsciously, were more impressed by a more aggressive style of fighter and by harder punchers. While still others such as Jameel McCline could get close but would not perform as well as he did in the early rounds of a fight in the later rounds when the title was on the line. Andrew Golota? Well he is one of a kind so I will just leave it at that.

Article posted on 22.01.2011

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