At the time of his sad, premature death, Jimmy Young had not made the news for some time. Yet, at the time of his passing at the age of just 56, the slick, he’d-fight-anyone Philadelphia cutie who made a career out of making even the great ones look bad, was given the obituary tributes from the scribes who had every reason to remember him. Jimmy, who passed away from a heart attack after a six-day stay in a hospital in Philly, had fallen on hard times leading up to his final days.
Born in Philadelphia on November 14, 1948, Young would begin trying his hand at boxing at the tender age of 14, this primarily in an effort to be able to defend himself. A short amateur career saw Jimmy win the New Jersey Golden Gloves, but Young was in the mood to go pro. When he did begin punching for pay, Jimmy was matched tough from the start. Often sparring the great Joe Frazier at his gym in Philly, Young was then thrown in with, in just his sixth pro bout, Roy “Tiger” Williams, with Young losing a four-round decision at The Blue Horizon.
Five fights later, 24 year old Young was matched with a 42-2 Earnie Shavers! Young was taken out in three rounds. But then, thanks to some more realistic match making and the maturity and experience Young had, Jimmy went on a 12 fight lossless streak, with him going 10-0-2. One of these draws came against Shavers in a rematch; Jimmy being hard done by. In his next fight after being robbed, Young beat Ron Lyle by unanimous decision, and he was a top contender. A little over a year later, Young challenged Muhammad Ali for the crown, this being Jimmy’s most famous fight.
Young gave the 230 pound Ali fits, his bag of tricks too much for a listless, seemingly uninterested Ali. But Young’s odd habit of ducking his head out of the ropes when under fire, this forcing the ref to temporarily halt the action, seemed to be the big thing the Ali writers focused on after the 15 round decision “The Greatest” was gifted with.
And, for the remainder of his days, Young hated being asked about his, shall we say, unique choice of tactics. Young moved on from the disappointment – into a return with Lyle, Jimmy repeating his win, and then to Puerto Rico and a fight with former champ George Forman. If the Ali fights is the one Young is best known for, the Foreman fight runs it a close second.
Young survived a brutal seventh round barrage from “Big George,” before getting back to his slick boxing. Jimmy had an exhausted Foreman out on his feet in the 12th and final session, with a knockdown punctuating his upset points win. Once again, Young’s overall performance did not prove to be the big talking point afterwards; Foreman’s well-documented life-changing religious experience in his dressing room did.
Young had one more big fight, this a November 1977 meeting with Ken Norton. After 15 rounds, Young seemed to have done enough. Instead, the split decision went Norton’s way and Jimmy had lost the last chance he would ever have of becoming world champion. Stories say Norton, years after the fight, told Jimmy he had deserved the decision.
Young soon slipped into trial-horse mode. After dropping back-to-back decisions to fellow cutie Ossie Ocasio, Young lost to Michael Dokes, he defeated John L. Gardner, and he was stopped on one of the more horrific cuts ever seen by a young Gerry Cooney. It’s been said that Jimmy lost heart after this fight (a win may well have earned him a shot at Larry Holmes), and he fought only for pay, having barely trained.
That said, Jimmy strung together a five-fight win streak in 1981, before he lost a decision to Greg Page in May of 1982. Somewhere around here, Jimmy got into drugs and alcohol in a big way and he would eventually, for some period of time, be homeless. There is another story, of how Mike Tyson, then at the peak of his powers, spotted a down on his luck Young in his gym, whereupon Tyson saw to it that Jimmy was handed a bundle of cash.
Young fought on until 1990, his last 14 fights seeing him go 5-7-1 with 1 no-contest. Jimmy retired with a record of 35-18-3(11) – 1 no-contest. Four of these defeats came when Young was way too green and inexperienced, while ten of them came when Jimmy was way past his best.
Young at his best was a superb boxer, a man blessed with a high ring IQ, a subtle defence and no shortage of heart and guts. The big knock on Young was his lack of firepower, while his chances of reaching the top of the mountain were not helped by the fact that he was competing during what was a golden era for the heavyweight division.
Jimmy managed wins over some giants nonetheless. His should have been a happier, far more dignified ending. Today, Jimmy would have been 74, the same age as George Foreman.