The 50s Heavyweights, Part 2: The Nearly Men

08.01.07 - By Bob Webb: The 50s was a bad decade for Heavyweight boxing, right? Wrong. The more I researched this series of articles the more I became impressed by not only the depth of talent amongst the contenders but also by the World Champions themselves.

In Rocky Marciano we have one of the top three Heavyweights of all time according to most historians with an unimpeachable 49-0 record. Jersey Joe Walcott: the oldest man in history at that time to win the World Title, at the fifth attempt.

Ezzard Charles: almost universally reckoned to be the greatest Light-Heavyweight of all time – and a Heavyweight World Champ to boot.

Floyd Patterson: youngest man to win the World Heavyweight title before the advent of a certain Mike Tyson and the first man to regain the title.

Sonny Liston: Boasting an almost perfect record on his road to the title having beaten every man he fought, universally recognised as the uncrowned World Champion for at least two years prior to the title shot against Patterson. Listed in most historians’ top tens of all time. Emmanuel Steward said of Liston: in 1958, ’59 and ’60 Liston was the most fearsome, awesome fighter he had ever seen, whilst placing him 5th in his all-time rankings.

Rubbish decade for Heavyweight boxing? Nope. Not on my watch.

So what was wrong with 50s boxing in the premier division? There must be a reason why the decade falls short in most estimations. To me, it is down to the question of the challengers for the most prestigious title in sport. I mean check them out!

In the 6 year period between 1949 and 1955, the World Title was fought over 18 times by a grand total of 13 fighters. As three of them were World Champions, Charles, Walcott and Marciano, that leaves ten other challengers over the 6 year period. Sounds a lot? Not so; this during an era when, for example, Ezzard Charles defended his title 8 times in less than two years and Rocky Marciano 6 times in three years. They were busy times for sure. And people still say they would have been walk-overs for modern ‘Super’ heavyweights (for which read over-weight and out of condition)!!

Take away the three Champions of the early fifties and who else challenged for the title? An aged Brown Bomber; four total unknowns historically speaking in Bershore, Valentino, Oma and Barone; Light-heavyweights Maxim, Moore, Lesvenich; Don Cockell, a Middleweight with glandular problems; and Roland LaStarza – probably the only genuine Heavyweight contender of that era who got a shot at the title apart from the three World Champions, Charles, Walcott and Marciano.

Look ahead to the later fifties when Patterson and Johansson had the title fights scene sewn up with their admittedly exciting trilogy, followed by the dual Patterson-Liston duals, so to speak. Who else had a crack apart from the usual suspects? Professional novice, Pete Rademacher, Brian London (who, amazingly, was a top ten ranked fighter), Roy Harris, Tommy Jackson, and Tom McNeeley! You’ll be forgiven for wondering about the quality of 50s Heavyweights with this kind of contender, and rightly so. Time to dig a little deeper, perhaps.

Cleveland Williams, Eddie Machen, Zora Folley are names that most casual fight fans will know something of. Two of them, Williams and Folley were served up as challengers to Muhammad Ali in 1966/7, providing Ali with two of his greatest ever showcase performances. Eddie Machen, however, never got the chance against Ali, losing instead to Ernie Terrell for the improperly vacant WBA title after Ali was stripped for his taking the Liston return fight in Lewiston. Terrell, of course, was butchered by Ali in Houston in his penultimate 1960s defence, the fight sitting between those with Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley, his last title defence of his 60s career.

But Machen, Williams and Folley were all ranked World Heavyweights in the 1950s, and along with Nino Valdes, the ‘giant’ Cuban, were the top contenders who never got the title shot they almost certainly deserved in the decade called the 1950s.

Nino Valdes

Cuban born and raised, fighting out of Havana, Nino stood some 6’ 4” tall and weighed up to 218 pounds. Although a big puncher, he was somewhat slow and had a reputation for a dodgy chin. He either KOd you or you got a chance to do the same! Sound familiar? Ernie Shavers comes to mind?

Turning pro at age 17 in 1941 and weighing barely over the Light-Heavyweight upper limit, he had a lot of learning and growing to do in the paid ranks. Through his first 13 fights he scored 10 wins by KO against 3 losses (2 by KO). In his 14th fight he again lost by KO, in 4 rounds, for the Cuban Heavyweight title against champion Frederico Malibran. He reversed that loss with an 8th round KO three months later.

Nino then went 14 more fights only suffering a points loss to Archie McBride meanwhile until he stepped up a class in his 30th fight and his 28th year against the legendary Harold Johnson, losing overwhelmingly on points to the great Light-Heavyweight in Brooklyn, 1952. This was the start of a 4 four fight losing streak by Valdes, the next loss being to the great Archie Moore, again on points as were the next two to Billy Gilliam and Bob Baker. That all changed in his 30th year.

In an 11 fight winning streak he scored a points win over Ezzard Charles, a revenge points win over Archie McBride, and a two round stoppage of Tommy Jackson, scoring three knockdowns in the final round. At the end of both 1954 and 1955, The Ring rated him number one contender for the Heavyweight crown held then by Rocky Marciano. Too little, too late. In his very next fight he was once more matched against the Old Mongoose himself, Ancient Archie Moore, losing on a points decision given by the referee, James Braddock, in Las Vegas, Nevada, May of 1955. Four months later, Archie went on to his meeting with The Rock, and Nino Valdes went onto another losing-most-winning-some streak. He was 31 years old and been fighting professionally for 14 years.

In his next seven outings he lost to Eddie Machen (twice, once by KO); Bob Satterfield and Zora Folley on points; Bob Baker, again, on points, but scored KO wins over Don Cockell and Ken Hammer.

Amazingly he fought on until 1959, going out on a win by stoppage of the incredibly fortunate and inept, Brian London. But, in his penultimate fight against one, Charles Liston, he was KOd in three rounds. No disgrace that.

In all he fought 70 professional fights and lost 19 of them. In those days, given his relative experience, that’s no worse than, say, Tommy Farr’s career. If he’d been a little younger he might well have made it onto Muhammad Ali’s resume, but he was gone before the young Cassius had even got that Gold medal around his neck.

Nino Valdes wasn’t the greatest fighter in the 1950s and probably has the weakest record of the nearly men, but for a time in 1954 and 1955, he almost had the chance. If Rocky Marciano hadn’t retired then perhaps he would have done, but that’s history.

Cleveland Williams

Rated as probably the hardest punching Heavyweight of his era, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams was born in Georgia in 1933 and was still fighting - and winning some - up to his retirement in 1972, aged 39 years old! He fought a total of 92 fights, losing 13 times (drawn 1), with 58 of 78 victories coming by way of KO – as Jimmy Lennon Jnr might have said had he been around at the time. A tall fighter for his time and weighing around 200 to 215 in his prime, he was an athletic looking fighter, long and lithe with an impressively developed upper body and an 80 inch reach. He could box and he could punch hard.

In his first 45 straight fights over a 7 year period, he lost just twice, including coming in as a substitute opponent against, and suffering a third round KO loss to, Bob Satterfield. The other loss was a points defeat to the least known Sylvester (Sonny) Jones, avenged 9 months later by KO in round 7. And that was his record going in to a meeting with Sonny Liston at Miami Beach, Florida. in April of 1959.

However, the record flatters to deceive. The only ‘name’ on his resume was Bob Satterfield to whom he’d lost by KO.

In all, Cleveland Williams fought Sonny Liston twice in the space of a year. Considering that he lost badly to Sonny in their first meeting by a third round stoppage after being knocked down twice, anyone now would wonder why he got another shot. The answer was that, for the first two rounds and including Williams opening up on Liston, The Big Cat was doing fine, boxing well on the retreat, with his customary wide-legged stance, jabbing and hooking at Liston’s bobbing head and managing to quell most of Liston’s aggression. When he opened up on Sonny, most observers felt that his power punching combinations were the prelude to a big win for Williams. That was right in practice.

However, although Williams could be reckoned the harder puncher of the two, Liston was by far the stronger fighter and carried a better set of whiskers than Cleve. He simply weathered the awesome assault including a rumoured broken nose and then destroyed Williams with some brutal punches of his own. And so was set the scene for a return. In the intervening 11 months Williams cemented his claim to a rematch with KO wins over two journeymen and then stepped into the ring once more with Sonny Liston in Houston, Texas, at the spring equinox of 1960. This time, it would be different? Lightening doesn’t strike twice apparently.

Well, yes it does in actuality. If the electrons find a path, they’ll find it again. So it was that Cleveland Williams and Sonny Liston went down the same track as before. It has often puzzled me why a fighter, apparently full of fight and scoring well, maybe even winning a contest on paper, suddenly throws caution to the wind and ends up on his tail on the canvas. Twice!

Cleveland Williams was doing just fine with there being no concrete hint of things to come, when after a good and even first round, the Big Cat pounced on Liston, as before in their first meeting, and proceeded to rain heavy blows on the advancing Liston’s head. Different time, same result. Liston waited until the snap had gone for a second from Williams’ punches and returned fire, more effectively and more concussively. Williams’ punch resistance drained from him and he was decked for an 8 count and then stopped from further punishment by a benevolent referee. What the?? Why?

My theory is simple: Liston scared him witless. And I don’t mean that Williams bottled it. It’s just that he knew Liston’s power; he felt the ram-rod jabs at the end of his 84 inch reach. He knew he wasn’t deterring Liston at that point. He knew he had one option to avoid being gradually steamrollered by the brooding Liston: KO him, and KO him early! Anyone who’s only seen the Sonny of Cassius Clay vintage will not understand the menace and sheer physicality that Liston brought to the ring against orthodox fighters of Cleveland Williams’ stature. He scared me but I was 9 years old and not in shape.

An alternative theory mentions Liston’s corner men knobbling Williams by the application of linament or similar to Liston’s gloves, thereby partially blinding the Big Cat. I don’t buy that. Not enough evidence and no cry of foul play at the time, although Liston’s corner did probably try the trick against Clay in 1964 and against Eddie Machen in 1962, but its hearsay again.

Following his failure to topple Liston from his march to the title, Cleveland Williams racked up several wins over respectable opponents, including Ernie Terrell by stoppage (later avenged on points by Ernie), Sonny Banks, Roger Rischer, Wayne Bethea, Alex Miteff, and Alonzo Johnson, and gained a draw with Eddie Machen, of whom more later. Students of Muhammad Ali’s career will be familiar with Cleveland’s fight with a Texan Police Officer in the tail of 1964 which Williams lost by KO via a bullet in the gut and spent 1965 recuperating as best he could. After 4 tune-up fights Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams allowed Muhammad Ali the opportunity to demonstrate his brilliance with, perhaps, his finest performance of all time, knocking out the under-fit “Big Cat” in three breathtaking rounds at the Houston Astrodome, in November of 1966. So, Cleveland Williams’s chance at the title came at last and, trust his luck, it was against the finest Heavyweight boxer in history on one of his very best nights! At least some of the few shots that Cleve managed to land on the fleet-footed champion actually did hurt Ali. Some. Pfft! I was fifteen years old and confused. But I didn’t have spots.

20 fights later including two KO losses to the hard-hitting Mac Foster it was 1972 and Cleveland Williams finally retired with 19 first round KOs to his credit. His luck ran true to the end, losing his last fight to an automobile accident in 1999.

Eddie Machen

Probably the best of the nearly men of the 50s, and the nearest to a victor over Liston before Clay/Ali got the chance. In fact, if anything at all, Eddie Machen should have been the inspiration for Cassius to face the awesome Liston down.

Turning pro in 1955, he ran up 10 straight early KOs. He followed those with a further 14 wins against opponents including Nino Valdes twice (once by KO), Joey Maxim twice, Bob Baker, and Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson and drew with Zora Folley in San Francisco in April 1958. Surely he was on a roll. You just know he wasn’t, don’t you?

Having fought roughly on average around every two months and so stopping to take breath and keep a certain Swede happy, he travelled to Ingemar Johansson’s home patch, as you do, and happily rolled over in the first round courtesy of Ingo’s Bingo, the famed ‘Toonder’. Ah, well. Unfortunately, neither World Champion, Floyd Patterson, nor the rest of the boxing world was in Sweden at the time and no-one quite believed the ‘Toonder’ bit, much to Floyd’s chagrin a year later. That’s the other story. And that was that for Eddie until 1962 when he had the chance to remove Liston from the number one contender status.

In between, he suffered a points loss over 12 to Zora Folley, and gained points victories over the perennial Willie Besmanoff, Alex Miteff, and Alonzo Johnson. By the time 1960 rolled around, Liston was number one and Eddie was number two contender for Patterson’s title and they met in September of that year at Sick’s Stadium (sic) in Seattle in a final eliminator. Although not a particularly slick boxer nor a heavy puncher, and expected to pose Liston no great problem, Eddie fought a game fight against the much tougher Liston, at times out-boxing Sonny and frustrating him throughout, going down to a unanimous points loss over the 12 rounds. He simply refused to exchange with Liston, but also refused to be intimidated even when, as rumoured, Liston’s corner men attempted their blinding technique in a bid to unsettle Machen. Liston’s simple temper ran short on several occasions when Eddie refused to buckle or seriously engage. It was a hand-bags at dawn affair at times and would serve as a blue-print of sorts for anyone seriously contemplating taking Liston to the cleaners any time in the future. His was a fragile psyche dependant on intimidation and this time it simply didn’t work. And it showed up Liston’s one dimensional game-plan.

Eddie Machen fought on into the 1960s, meeting such names as Wayne Bethea, Brian London, Harold Johnson (a loss on points), Doug Jones, Mike DeJohn, Roger Rischer, Cleveland Williams (a draw). Although a loss to Floyd Patterson ensued in 1964 he eventually got his title chance the following year against Ernie Terrell for the vacant WBA title, losing to “The Octopus” on points in one of the dullest fights on record. A fine boxer for his time he retired in 1967 following a KO at the hands of Boone Kirkman, not before handing Jerry Quarry a points loss and then being savagely KOd in 1966 by the young Joe Frazier in 10 rounds, both fights held in Los Angeles at the Olympic Auditorium. He left the ring with 50 wins and 3 draws from his 64 fights, and no title chance to really speak of. I liked him.

Zora Folley

It will be clear by now that most of the fighters I’ve already concentrated on were all busy fighting amongst themselves, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, naturally. In fact, if you ever want to sit down and examine their records as closely as I have, you’ll understand the whole scenario in the 50s very easily. What they still have in common, regardless of their actual talents and achievements, was their omission from the list of World title fights that took place in that decade. Zora Folley was no exception. Turning professional at 21 years old in 1953, he ran up 19 fights without loss (including a draw in his second fight) before being forced to retire from his fight with the decent Johnny Summerlin after 6 rounds having taken a bit of a pounding and suffering a suspected broken jaw. A further retirement loss to Young Jack Johnson in LA six months later seemed to do nothing to dent his progress and he went another 21 fights without a loss through to July 1958.

Zora’s record against Eddie Machen and Nino Valdes was respectable: a points win over Valdes and a draw and a win over Eddie Machen. Cleveland Williams was somehow missed from that mix. Additionally he scored wins over Roger Rischer, Wayne Bethea twice, and a KO win over Pete Rademacher in Rademacher’s second pro fight! Who then popped into the picture but our own ‘Enery Cooper, who managed one of his more impressive performances in out pointing Zora at the legendary Empire Pool, Wembley in October 1958. I was seven years old and never heard of either of them. Regardless of that particular hiccough, Foley then built a further run of 10 straight victories including wins over Machen, Joe Bygraves, and you’ve guessed it, Willie Besmanoff and Alex Miteff. Ah, the perennial old stagers.

As a side note, check how many top fighters of the 50s that Besmanoff, Miteff, et al, fought and lost to before becoming safe stepping stones for the young Cassius Marcellus Clay between 1960 and ’64.

And so to another of Clay’s future victims: the brooding, the fearsome, the indestructible and menacing, the giant stone-faced baddest mutha of them all, Charles “Sonny” Liston, purveyor of nightmares and wet shorts to grown men. And it was thus that Zora Folley was struck from the top echelons of Heavyweight statehood, struck down by Sonny’s massive fists in 3 rounds at Denver, Colorado in 1960. Oh, bugger. Did it bother Zora? He’d lost his chance at the title; he’d have to wait until 1967 to be part of the title fight swansong of the pre-semester Muhammad Ali. So he just got on with the job in hand and hoped that not too many Listons were around.

Getting the job done included wins over some pretty decent fighters of the time: Besmanoff again, Henry Cooper avenged (this time a KO in 2 of the inconsistent Cooper), Doug Jones (but Jones KOd Zora in the return), Bob Cleroux, Mike DeJohn, George Chuvalo, Bob Foster and an experienced Oscar Bonavena. True to form, Folley also suffered a KO loss to Alejandro Lavorante and a points defeat to Ernie Terrell in the summer of ’63 at the age of 31. And he still had 4 years to go before his final date with Heavyweight destiny – his shot at the title against the brilliant Muhammad Ali. Ali was at his awesome best at Madison Square Garden, New York, that spring day in 1967, negating all the research that Zora had put into his preparation. Ali was too fast, hit too hard and accurately, and surprised Zora by standing back to allow Folley in before peppering him with hard shots from all angles. Zora went down in the fourth and survived but was left face down on the canvas in the seventh by the self-same lightening quick right hand shot that dropped Sonny Liston back in Lewiston. Neither was this one a ’phantom’ punch.

At least Zora could gain some consolation and a decent pay-check from having fought the greatest Heavyweight who ever lived – and survived into the 7th round at the age of 35! As Angelo Dundee said, against Cleveland Williams Ali was great but against Zora Folley he was fantastic.

Zora’s final fights were a mixed bag of results as you’d expect by now until he retired in 1970 after suffering a horrendous first round KO to the big-hitting Mac Foster. He was 39 years old.

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Article posted on 08.01.2007

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