By George D. Blair
The former champ lunged at his young opponent. He threw a looping right which once had been straight as an arrow and just as true as a hit on a center target. He near-stumbled as he missed the punch slipped by his nimble-footed adversary who was now behind him. The ex-King of the 160-pounders world-wide took a big sigh and regrouped his feeble weaponry, now facing the youngster. He took a couple of stinging left jabs to the face now showing a trickle of blood from scarred-tissue above the left eye. He threw a wide left hook tot he mid-section just grazing the belly but was clobbered with a right uppercut coming in. The former champion who once went undefeated in 33 fights was now a derelict of the ring. His once agile body was disoriented. He knew what he wanted to do.
He had ring smarts. His brain gave the orders but his body would not obey. He had the guns but was out of ammunition.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “champion’ as one that is acknowledged to be better than all others, while “opponent” is defined as one that opposes: adversary. To see all time great champions slip into that opponent category is not a pleasant thing to witness.
One of the saddest sights in all of professional boxing is to see a one-time great champion who is well past his best years still trying to compete with younger, stronger and faster boxers – to see these one-time titleholders taking beatings from kids who wouldn’t be allowed to spar with the same champs in their crown wearing days. It’s truly a sad sight, but it’s happened many times before, and will happen again.
What drives a man to climb into the ring when in his own heart he knows he no longer belongs there and is risking permanent injury? Of course, in most cases the championship money is all gone and he has become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and he needs cash to continue to live that way as long as possible, or just to survive.
Then there’s ego, a pride that he is trying to feed. Most of these one-time champions will not admit defeat, saying that they need only a few fights like this to regain their title form, and then they’ll be back challenging for the crown. So as not to hurt their feelings, the trainers and promoters and hangers-on in the gym agree with them, and this only feeds the flame which merely flickers now, and will soon burn no more.
Former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, who recently passed away, fought many years past his prime, and was, for a while, successful. Charles lost his title to Joe Walcott by a seventh-round knockout in 1951, but did not give up the ship until 1959. Ezzard’s last top performance came on June 17, 1954, when he dropped a 15-round decision to Rocky Marciano. Three months later Rocky gave Charles another title shot, and KO’d Ezzard in the eighth round.
From that point on it was all downhill for the once great, vastly-underrated Ezzard Charles. Charles turned into an opponent for the younger up-and-coming heavyweights. In 1955 Ezzard lost to the likes of Johnny Holman, being stopped in nine. He also lost to Tommy Jackson twice, Toxie Hall, and closed out the year being KO’d by Young Jack Johnson; 1956 saw him lose to Wayne Bethel, Pat McMurty, Harry Matthews, and Dick Richardson.
Charles announced his retirement in 1956, but a little over a year and a half later he was back hitting the tank towns like Fairmont, W.Va., Juarez, Boise, and so on, and losing to nobodies. On September 1, 1959 even Ezzard Charles knew it was over when he lost a ten-round decision to one Alvin Green.
Ezzard Charles should be remembered as a truly great heavyweight champion, and not the pathetic opponent he became at the end of a career that spanned over nineteen years.
Joe Louis, one of the all-time greats, stayed past the time he should have quit for good, but in Joe’s case he was there for the money. Whether Joe had illusions of wearing the crown again only he really knows. When Joe Louis announced his retirement on March 1, 1949, he should have struck with it. Only the rock hard fists of a young Rocky Marciano was able to retire Joe Louis for good. To see the one-time great Brown Bomber ending a brilliant career being counted out on a ring canvas was a sight nobody really wanted to see.
Like Ezzard Charles, Joe Louis should be remembered as a champion who defended the heavyweight title a record 25 times, and lost only three of seventy-one bouts. I, for one, would like to remember Joe Louis as the devastating puncher who demolished the likes of Max Schmeling, Tony Galento, Billy Conn, Tami Mauriello, and so on. Not the Louis of 1951 who had problems outpointing Cesar Brion and Omello Agramonte.
Mike McTigue, former light heavyweight champion lost the title in 1925 on a fifteen-round decision to Paul Berlenbach in New York. McTigue competed in 38 matches after losing the title. He lost 17 of those fights, most of which came near the end of his career of twenty-one years.
Near the end McTigue was KO’d by the likes of Jerry Griffiths, George Hoffman, Jack Gagnon, Isidro Gastanaga, and one Garfield Johnson, which ended a long and sometimes glorious career. It’s doubtful the Mike McTigue of the early twenties would have been knocked out by any of the above, none of which are in boxing’s Hall of Fame.
After Joey Maxim lost his last bid for the light heavyweight crown on a fifteen-round decision to Archie Moore in January 27, 1954 in Miami, Maxim started the slide to the opponent class. Maxim finally announced his retirement in 1959, he had won only one of his last nine fights.
Maxim was a superb boxer and KO’d only once in 115 fights, and that back in 1943 to the “Hatchetman”, Curtis Sheppard. But losing decisions to the likes of Ulli Ritter, Mino Bozzano, and Heinz Neuhaus in 1959, must have convinced Maxim that he was not the same fighter who had defeated Ray Robinson, Bob Murphy, Freddie Mills, Gus Lesnevich, and so on.
Eddie “Babe” Risko lost his middleweight crown to Freddie Steele in 1936 and it was all downhill for Risko from then on as he lost eleven of his last seventeen bouts. Risko was knocked out five times in a row before calling it quits in 1939. Risko had become an instant “opponent.”
One has to wonder what was the driving force that made Eddie Risko climb into the ring to be KO’d by larry lane, Ben Brown, Billy Soose, Walter Franklin, and Lloyd Marshall, all in a row. It must have been apparent that Risko didn’t have it back in 1937 when George Black KO’d him in five at Milwaukee. When made him do it?
Sugar Ray Robinson, recognized as one of the greatest fighters to ever set foot in the ring, stayed past the time he should have exited. The greatness of Robinson carried him to victory, sometimes close wins, over younger, eager fighters who wanted a victory over Robinson to push themselves toward a title shot even in his later ring years.
Robinson retired for good on December 10, 1965, nearly twenty-five years after he had turned pro. But the Ray Robinson of the forties and fifties would not have had to suffer defeats to such as Stan Harrington, Memo Ayon, Ferd Hernandez, Mike Leahy, and others that he lost to in the sixties.
After picking himself off the canvas and losing a decision to Joey Archer in Pittsburgh on November 10, 1965, it was all over for Sugar Ray Robinson, I remember the Sugarman of 1951 battering Jake LaMotta into KO defeat in thirteen rounds. The Robinson who knocked out Gene Fullmer with one left hook in 1957. The Sugar Ray of 1958 who beat Carmen Basilio on a decision in one of the roughest fights of this century. That’s the Sugar Ray Robinson I recall, not the one who had a two-round no contest in 1965 with one Bill Henderson at Norfolk. Henderson really had no right to even carry Sugar’s gloves.
Kid Gavilan, the former welterweight champion, was in his day one of the smoothest fighting machines modern-day boxing has seen, nearly rivaling Ray Robinson. Gavilan won the crown in 1951 and held onto it until 1954, defending it six times before losing on a bad decision to Johnny Sexton.
Although Gavilan’s asking price was high he slipped into the opponent class fast. The promoters would pay Gavilan good money even though he was no longer a winner, but a win for the local boy over Gavilan was good for the young fighter’s record. After losing the crown the Kid went on to fight 26 more times, winning only on nine occasions, until Yama Bahama ended it all, beating Gavilan on a decision in Miami Beach in 1958. In 143 bouts though, nobody, but nobody was ever able to put the Cuban Hawk down for the count.
It must have been a sad sight on the night of March 16, 1966 in Richmond, Va. for the fans who were present to see an all-time great boxer like the “Will o’ the Wisp” Willie Pep, lose a six-round decision to one Calvin Woodland, and to see a career that spanned 26 years come to an end. Although Pep lost only eleven times in 241 bouts, the loss to Woodland should have never happened.
Pep had retired in 1959 after losing to Sonny Leon in Caracas. Money needs forced Pep back into action in 1965 and he managed to defeat nine preliminary fighters, and then came Woodland. Even the great Willie Pep knew that he could no longer go on. Those fans who sat in on the Pep finale that night in Richmond did not see a Willie Pep who at 20 years of age breezed to win the world featherweight crown in 1942. It must have been a sad night to remember.
Scotland’s Jackie Paterson, who held the world bantamweight crown from 1943 until losing it to Rinty Monaghan at Belfast on March 23, 1948 on a seventh-round KO, continued on until 1951 competing in twelve contests of which he managed only three wins.
Randy Turpin was never the same after he lost his middleweight crown in a rematch with Ray Robinson in 1951, when Turpin finished flat on his back in the tenth round. England’s Turpin did not retire until 1964, and managed to win the British and Empire light heavyweight titles as well as losing a decision to Bobo Olson for the vacant world middleweight crown in 1953.
Turpin would have been far better off had he retired after the Olson fight. He would have been remembered as a worthy champion, but Randy continued until he was KO’d by Yolande Pompey in two rounds in 1958. Turpin slipped into obscurity turning to wrestling and working as a welder in a junk yard.
Turpin received $207,075 for his losing title effort with Robinson, but that was long gone on the lifestyle a champion can become accustomed to. Randy tried a comeback to nowhere in 1963, scoring a knockout. His career ended for good on August 22, 1964 when he KO’d one Charles Seguna on Malta. He went out a winner, but Randy Turpin definitely became just another opponent. A year and a half later Randy Turpin was dead – just another penniless former champion of the world.
Yes, it’s a sad sight to see a proud former world champion going through the motions, only the reflexes are no longer there, no chance of winning or of regaining a lost throne. He may visit the tank towns and maybe once in a while flashes of former brilliance returns and he beats the local kid. It’s the sad story of boxing because no one can stop them but themselves, or a rock hard right to the jaw which sends them into oblivion forever, the forgotten opponent with a name.