A Hike Through Light Heavyweight History

03.08.06 - By Mark Law: The light heavyweights, eh? The small big men. It’s that division that’s often been overlooked, mainly because it’s sandwiched between the more glamorous middleweight and heavyweight divisions. And a lot of the men who have held the world light heavyweight title have not really been interested in it, preferring to mix it with the bigger guys for bigger purses. But it’s also a division that has been graced by some real legends.

Why doesn’t it grab our attention? With the possible exception of bantamweight, it’s the most unobserved of the original eight weight classes. Even the flyweights gain more fascination. If we hear the words “For the world heavyweight championship” we’re usually instantly hooked. But insert the word “light” between “world” and “heavyweight” and some fans nod off immediately. Here’s a brief, semi-serious history, and for the sake of our own sanity, we’re only dealing with the linear light heavyweight title here, and not the countless claimants who actually just hold an alphabet belt.

The division was apparently the idea of Lou Houseman, a Chicago journalist who happened to be the manager of Jack Root, who was too big to be a middleweight and too small for a heavyweight. Imagine that, having a whole weight division created just for you! I’m surprised it’s a trend that never caught on! Don King could have created a whole bunch of new weight classes so everyone in his stable could be a champ. More titles! More sanctioning fees! Hurrah!

But of course, at the beginning of 1903 there were only six divisions, and light heavyweight made it seven (flyweight would not be established until later).

Root beat Kid McCoy to become the first champ in the new 175 lb class. The title quickly passed to George Gardner and then Bob Fitzsimmons, who probably forgot he had it until he got round to making his first defence two years later in 1905. Significantly, with his win over Gardner, Fitzsimmons became boxing’s first three-division world champion. I wonder if he knew the significance of this achievement at the time? There should be no doubt about his greatness, though he was past his prime by this time and lost the crown to Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Now O’Brien was outstanding but he never bothered with his world title, preferring to go after Tommy Burns and heavyweight glory. The light heavyweight division could have fizzled out forever right there.

The championship finally resumed in 1912 when Jack Dillon picked it up. Some sources identify his win over Hugo Kelly as a title fight, whereas others recognize him as the champ after he beat Battling Levinsky and Bob Moha in 1914. Dillon was the epitome of toughness and during his peak he fought more times in a year than some modern day fighters do in their entire careers. The crown passed from him to Levinsky, Georges Carpentier, Battling Siki, Mike McTigue, Paul Berlenbach and Jack Delaney. Of this group, Carpentier and Siki are the most colourful characters. Carpentier was a dashing war hero, the idol of France and is best known for being flattened by Jack Dempsey in a shot at the heavyweight title. His loss to Siki was a big upset and likely reduced a lot of women to tears because he was handsome and they loved him. As for Siki, he was no choirboy. He went through women and alcohol as if his life depended on it. He had a pet lion and, sadly, ended up broke and was stabbed to death in a street fight.

Delaney relinquished the title in 1927 to pursue heavyweight riches but it did not stay vacant for long. Tommy Loughran was generally recognized as the new champ when he beat former champ Mike McTigue. Loughran may have lacked charisma, but certainly not talent and scored some impressive wins, including one over future heavyweight champion Jimmy Braddock, one over middleweight champion Mickey Walker and one over Leo Lomski, from which he had to get up from a pair of first-round knockdowns to win on points. As per the norm, Loughran gave up the world title to campaign at heavyweight.

As is often the case when a champion vacates, every man, woman and child in the civilised world scrambled to claim the title. Eventually, Maxie Rosenloom gained universal recognition when he beat Lou Scozza in 1932. With a nickname like “Slapsie Maxie”, he was never going to amaze boxing fans with devastating knockouts. He lost the title to the utterly forgettable Bob Olin, who then lost it to John Henry Lewis, yet another low-key protagonist. None of these guys are afforded much space in the history books.

Lewis was crushed by the awesome Joe Louis in a shot at the heavyweight crown and subsequently retired due to failing eyesight. Billy Conn was acknowledged as the next champion when he beat Melio Bettina. As is the curse of the light heavyweight division, Conn was a genuinely gifted titleholder but he vacated and became better known for his failed attempt at taking Louis’ heavyweight championship.

Gus Lesnevich, yet another light heavyweight kingpin who was hardly a household name, was awarded acceptance as the next champion after he beat either Anton Christoforidis or Tami Mauriello, depending on which historian you wish to follow. With Joe Louis reigning above him and the fantastic Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano trilogy unfolding below him, it is not a shock to see why poor Lesnevich was lost in the middle.

Freddie Mills beat Lesnevich, and Mills’ less-than-earth-shattering reign ended when he was beaten by Joey Maxim. And here we have a full-blown classic fight: Maxim’s defence against Sugar Ray Robinson. This one is always talked about, but think about it; how many of the greatest fights of all time have been at light heavyweight? When we bring up the subject of a classic, we immediately consider Ali-Frazier I and III, Ali-Foreman, Hagler-Hearns, Dempsey-Firpo, Gans-Nelson, Leonard-Hearns I, Robinson-LaMotta VI, and so on. Classics are somewhat scarce at 175 lbs. Think also of the great rivalries, such as Zale-Graziano, Ali-Norton, Ross-McLarnin, Saddler-Pep etc. Where are they at light heavyweight? The legendary Archie Moore beat Maxim three times, but this does not qualify as a timeless rivalry.

Ancient Archie was nearing the pipe and slippers stage of his life when he became world champion but he totally dominated the division. He defeated all the top contenders around and engaged in another light heavyweight classic: his first fight with Yvon Durelle. Archie climbed off the floor four times to win. He kept on defending the title until he became too ancient to do so, and there is no denying his excellence.

Harold Johnson was universally recognized as Moore’s successor when he beat Doug Jones in 1962. Johnson lost to Willie Pastrano, who lost to Jose Torres, who lost to Dick Tiger, who lost to Bob Foster. It was Foster who made a division-record fourteen successful defences. Devotees of Virgil Hill, and there must be some, may dispute this, but we are talking about the true linear title here, not alphabet belts which are as common as toys in cereal boxes (and worth about the same). Foster was another who craved heavyweight stardom but came up short, losing to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

When Foster retired in 1974, who became the next world champion is questionable. Some sources, including “The Ring” magazine endorsed Matthew Saad Muhammad when he beat Marvin Johnson in 1979. Muhammad was a thrill-a-minute slugger who specialized in come-from-behind victories. His run came to an end when he was beaten by Dwight Muhammad Qawi. But other sources do not recognize either of these guys as a true champ. Instead, they distinguish Qawi’s 1983 showdown with Michael Spinks as being for the vacant world championship, which Spinks won. There is certainly no question over Spinks’ status and his herky-jerky style was quite unique. No one knew what to expect from him, least of all his opponents. He was also one of the sports’ authentic nice guys.

In 1985, Spinks achieved what no light heavyweight champion had done before; he won the world heavyweight title (and it was the linear title too). Naturally, with heavyweight fame beckoning, he abdicated his light heavyweight throne and, predictably, there was mass confusion with the alphabet groups frantically filling vacancies like pigs at a trough.

Thereafter, there was no clear-cut lineage, and “Boxing Illustrated” magazine, which was naming one rightful world champion per division, had their light heavyweight title vacant during this period.

Finally, in November 1996, something happened, and this is where things get a little tricky. Actually, make that very tricky. Basically, there are two scenarios, each with a degree of credibility and each going in different directions.

Here’s the first scenario. Virgil Hill and Henry Maske fought each other in Germany and the winner, Hill, was backed as the new world champ. In June 1997, he lost to Dariusz Michalczewski, and Michalczewski embarked on a quest to defend against the most obscure challengers he could find. He fulfilled this quest by finding the likes of Darren Zenner and Muslim Biarslanov to pound on. Who were these guys and what had they done to earn a title shot? Maybe nobody knows. Regardless, Michalczewski cruised along until he was defeated by Julio Gonzalez, who in turn was defeated by Zsolt Erdei, who still reigns.

Therefore, today, Zsolt Erdei is the light heavyweight champion of the world.

Or is he?

Here’s the second scenario. While Hill was facing Maske, during the same month a certain Roy Jones was outpointing Mike McCallum. Hill could not be recognized as world champion with Jones on the scene. We had to hold out for a Hill-Jones showdown. However, going into 1997, Hill lost to Michalczewski and Jones lost to Montell Griffin. Jones beat Griffin in a rematch, so we then had to wait for a Jones- Michalczewski match. But this wasn’t happening. While it could be argued that Michalczewski’s momentum disappeared as he continued to face no-hopers, Jones rose to greater heights with wins over Hill and Lou Del Valle.

Meanwhile, Reggie Johnson penetrated the scene with wins over William Guthrie, Ole Klemetsen and Willie Taylor. Was this enough to overtake Michalczewski? Assuming that it was, we can consider that when Johnson faced Jones in June 1999, this could be viewed as being for the vacant world championship. Jones won and reigned supreme until Antonio Tarver beat him in 2004. Tarver consequently lost and won against Glen Johnson, and then most recently was outpointed by Bernard Hopkins.

Therefore, today, Bernard Hopkins is the light heavyweight champion of the world.

So which scenario is most acceptable? Do we opt for Hopkins or Erdei? “The Ring” magazine recognizes Hopkins as the real world champion, and when Hopkins took the crown from Tarver, the ring announcer had billed Tarver as “the universally recognized light heavyweight champion of the world”. But of course, Erdei has his supporters too. Basically, this is a very subjective issue.

The key is whether or not Jones’ entry into the 175 lb division was relevant. Back in November 1996, could Hill have been regarded as the real world champion with Jones in the picture? It would have been so simple if Hill, after beating Maske, had fought Jones straight away. But when is anything ever simple in boxing?

At the time, in terms of pure talent, Jones was ahead of both Hill and Maske. He was that rare, special kind of fighter that only comes along once in a generation. Maybe anything involving the world light heavyweight championship had to include him. Please feel free to make up your own mind.

So, whether you support Hopkins or Erdei as the current champ, or you don’t really care, the light heavyweight division has an intriguing history. No, it’s never had the glitz or the excitement of heavyweight or middleweight, but it has boasted Hall Of Famers like Moore, Foster, Spinks and Loughran, and memorable battles like Spinks-Qawi, Moore-Durelle I and Johnson-Tarver I. And some titleholders, like Jack Dillon and Joey Maxim, are well worth a second look. Perhaps light heavyweight is one for the connoisseur. If you agree or disagree, it’s ok either way, because boxing wouldn’t be as much fun with nothing to debate about.

Article posted on 04.08.2006

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