The 50s Heavyweights, Part 1: Champions and Challengers

05.01.07 - By Bob Webb: From the retirement of Joe Louis in 1949 to the coming of Cassius Clay in 1964, well I’ll do the math for you, there was a 15 year period known as the fifties. Yeah, yeah, I know, a decade was ten years then but, as with the 60s still alive until 1972 or thereabouts, I think you can cut me some slack here for poetic purposes.

I guess that most fans of Heavyweight boxing are familiar with the World Championship during that time, the Champions and their assorted challengers, but it is not just that with which this story is concerned. It is also with the men who never made it but who were easily good enough, perhaps, given the chance, to win the title during that era and, if not, then certainly more than good enough to do so now in this age of fragmented alphabet belts.

Their names? I’ll leave you, the good reader to ponder the question as, in this Part 1, I flesh out the background to the title challengers and champions of the time, which you will note does not include these four worthy men. Part 2 will dwell full time on those fighters, the ones whose chance at the title either never came or came far too late in the 1960s.

In 1949, when Joe Louis retired after his last defense against the ageing but highly capable Jersey Joe Walcott, in what was Jersey Joe’s second attempt at Louis, there was set a scene which is familiar in boxing: a younger (at 28 years!) contender matched against an older unsuccessful contender from the previous Champion’s reign. Thus, Ezzard Charles, the Cincinnati Cobra versus, yep, 35-year old, Jersey Joe Walcott at Comiskey Park, Chicago, June 1949. Charles easily out boxed Jersey Joe over 15 rounds for the vacant NBA title and that was the end of Jersey Joe Walcott - or not.

Charles was a Middleweight turned Light-Heavyweight turned Heavyweight from Georgia whom, although he never contested the World Light-Heavyweight crown, some regard as the greatest Light-Heavyweight ever. It could be argued that Charles should have had the chance at Joe Louis and the World title having lost only once, controversially, since 1946 when he returned from the war. Whatever, he got his chance 15 months later when the Brown Bomber came out of retirement to challenge Charles for his old title and was soundly out pointed at the Yankee Stadium, New York, in September of 1950.

During his two year reign Ezzard Charles was for the most part busy and packed in defenses against former Word Light-Heavy champ, Gus Lesnevich, the reigning World Light-Heavy champ, Joey Maxim (whom he’d beaten already), tough Freddie Bershore, and three fighters whose names I find hard to remember: Pat Valentino, Nick Barone and Lee Oma. Not their fault but this was for the World Heavyweight title! Oh, and he got in two more defences against even more aged Jersey Joe Walcott for good measure.

The first went to plan; again a fifteen round points win for Charles with Jersey Joe suffering a knock-down for 9 in the 9th. That was March 1951 in Detroit. But, when a guy fights you long enough there will come a time when he’ll get one past you, and 4 months later Ezzard Charles went out to dance one more time as Heavyweight Champion of the World with Jersey Joe Walcott. Sadly for Ezzard, that day in July 1951 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year, Jersey Joe Walcott threw away the script and, despite being behind on a majority of the cards, won the title at his fifth attempt, shockingly knocking out the Cincinnati Cobra in 7 rounds.

Prior to the second coming of George Foreman, at 37 years old Jersey Joe held the record as the oldest man in history to win the World Heavyweight title. Not surprisingly he didn’t hold it for long. Just enough to finally square the series, if you like, with Ezzard Charles a year later, on a close points win over 15 rounds in Philadelphia PA to retain his title. 3 months later at the same venue Jersey Joe Walcott went out with an outstanding performance against the younger, rougher and more resilient all-time great, Rocky Marciano, in what was Ring Magazine’s fight of the year.

After flooring the Rock in round one for a brief count and out boxing Marciano for the best part of 12 rounds, boxing and punching brilliantly on the retreat, the much older Jersey Joe had almost imperceptibly slowed. When his back touched the ropes in the thirteenth, Rocky’s right-hand, his mighty Suzie-Q, finally landed on the old fellow’s jaw and the title had gone.

Rocky Marciano, usually rated amongst the top three greatest Heavyweights of all time, defended the title 6 times and after a reign of almost exactly three years he retired undefeated as a professional, a feat never equaled since. Unfortunately, his string of defenses is often claimed to be against weak opposition and there is more than a hint of truth in it. After defeating Jersey Joe Walcott again, this time by a first round KO, he then took apart the unfortunate Roland LaStarza in 11 rounds. Prior to their first meeting three and a half years earlier which Rocky had won on an SD, Roland LaStarza and Rocky Marciano were considered the up and coming kids.

Rocky went onto the championship and LaStarza was never the same again. Two defenses against Ezzard Charles, the first on points and the second by KO followed. Finally after a labored defense against tubby and brave Don Cockell and a knockout of ageing Archie Moore, the Rock called it a day at the age of 32 years after only 8 years as a pro. He couldn’t push himself through the tremendous training regimen he endured to bring himself into every fight in top condition. He went with his record and his senses secure and, most importantly for the Rock, his cash secure.

Rocky’s last defense took place in September 1955. I was four years old and not in contention. It was another year before the World Heavyweight Championship finally settled itself on the next bright young thing, the 21 year old Floyd Patterson. In the space of 5 years we were to see the crowning of the oldest and the youngest Heavyweight champs in history.

Patterson was an Olympic Gold medallist at Middleweight which tells you something of his physical stature. In contrast, Muhammad Ali won his gold medal at Light-Heavy, George Foreman and Joe Frazier theirs at Heavyweight and Lennox Lewis his at Super Heavyweight. Perhaps it was therefore fitting that Floyd should be matched against Light-Heavyweight legend Archie Moore for the title vacated by the Rock’s retirement. What might surprise a few readers is that although Archie Moore was number one contender as ranked by The Ring for the previous year of 1955, Floyd Patterson was the number two Light-Heavyweight (behind Moore!) and only started fighting at Heavyweight in the month that Rocky defended his title, against Moore, for the final time.

Floyd’s KO win over ancient Archie in 1956 took the Heavyweight title away from the direct influence of the shady characters heavily involved in the fight game but, in so doing, reduced it to a bit of a joke. Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s decent-hearted manager, was determined to keep the title and his fighter away from the mob. But he also seemed rather too keen to keep both away from any reasonably threatening opponent. Thus we were witness to Floyd facing such luminaries as Pete Rademacher (the Olympic Gold medallist in his first pro fight!) and Brian London, Tommy Jackson and Roy Harris. Fair enough, Tommy Jackson was ranked around number one at the time in 1956 but that was achieved primarily by two back-to-back points wins over a very faded Ezzard Charles and a split decision loss to Patterson himself the previous year. Second time around and for the title he promptly lost every round to Floyd and was stopped in round ten.

Floyd was a pretty decent fighter who was still campaigning at World level into the 1970s but he had two serious flaws. The first was a serious lack of confidence which lead him to carry a false whiskers and hat in which to escape attention after any eventual defeat. The other, which became more apparent as he defended his title, was a tendency to hit the canvas, even when facing an opponent as inexperienced as a Rademacher or as limited as Roy Harris. Some call it a glass jaw. Others call it a glass jaw. Glass jaw it was. And that was never going to be a great help to him when going in against Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson in 1959 at New York’s Yankee Stadium.

After a quiet two rounds ‘Ingo’s Bingo’ promptly landed at will, it seemed, on Patterson’s jaw, and Floyd was sent to the canvas seven times by Johansson’s right hand before the fight was stopped in the third round. The history books will tell you that Floyd went into intense training and mental preparation for the return ( 12 months later!) and it was a completely different story from the first fight with Floyd reclaiming his title, the first man in history to do so, by knockout in round 5. Johansson was left twitching on the canvas from Patterson’s final leaping left hook and Floyd, as gentlemanly as ever, distressed by the sight. Patterson repeated the feat in March of 1961 in 6 rounds, not before tasting the canvas himself twice in the first.

Floyd’s great qualities were his humanity and his fast hands. His hand speed was at least equal to Ali’s. Sadly his chin wasn’t. But his bravery was beyond question. In September of 1962, following a fairly routine match with Tom McNeeley at the end of 1961, that bravery was severely tested by his next opponent, the indomitable Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston.

Sonny Liston’s tale has been told and retold. A man scared by his early life and having wandered into crime he found some redemption by learning boxing in prison and emerged as a serious contender for the most part of the mid to late nineteen-fifties – when he wasn’t inside again, that is. By 1960 he was number one ranked Heavyweight and by the time he faced Patterson he was 33 – 1, the only loss was on points to Marty Marshall who broke his jaw. Liston returned the compliment, battering Marshall to a TKO loss in round 6 of their return match and a year later out pointed him over 10 rounds, not losing a round. By the time he fought Patterson he had beaten everyone there was out there, including the four fighters that I shall introduce in Part 2.

Sonny Liston, however, had the connections; the wrong connections. He was managed and controlled and sucked dry by several high profile mob boxing connections. Having had his links with them put under close scrutiny by the sports commissions and in order to appear clean enough to contest the title, Liston simply re-assigned his management to yet another mob connection whose dirt few knew of and, there you go, he was in line for the throne. And it belonged to Floyd Patterson whose manager, the fatherly Cus D’Amato wanted nothing to do with neither Liston nor the mob. Cus knew that Liston would make short work of Patterson.

Floyd’s two weaknesses, his chin and his fragile psyche, combined with his talent for bravery, would simply put him in the firing line for Sonny’s fearsome two-fisted barrage. Cus wanted nothing of Liston. Patterson knew he couldn’t call himself World Champion without facing him. Eventually Patterson signed for the fight that he couldn’t avoid. They met in September of 62 in Chicago. I was 11 years old and the Cuban Missile Crisis was about to hit.

Floyd might have preferred the missiles that were shipped from Moscow. They might have helped. As it was, he froze and was pulverized by Liston’s powerful body punches and stopped by a huge left hook to the jaw and counted out in 2.06 minutes of the first round. That’s where his false whiskers, nose and hat helped him out. So ashamed was he, he escaped under cover and simply went into hiding. Preparing for the return, his hope was to at least make a fight of it, but even that was beyond him as he once again was battered to the floor three times and stopped after just over two minutes of the first. It at least went a few seconds longer than the first fight but it was the only consolation that Floyd could draw from it. Floyd withdrew to Sweden where, strangely perhaps, he had a huge fan base, and continued his career, quite respectably through to the early 70s.

And so it was that the last of the fifties Heavyweights, Charles Sonny Liston ascended to the Heavyweight throne – albeit in 1962. But then the 50s went on until 1963 in music until the Beatles, and so until 1964 in Heavyweight boxing until Cassius Clay.

Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali re-wrote Heavyweight boxing history. His story is not for this time. But, as we shall see in Part 2, having told the tale of the Champions and the Challengers in the 1950s, there are four fighters who stand out from the time who never contested the title in their primes. Three of them waited until the mid 1960s for a shot and one never got the chance. Their names?

Nino Valdes, Cleveland Williams, Eddie Machen and Zora Folley. And that’s in Part 2.

Article posted on 06.01.2007

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