From Sullivan to Fury - long lineal title lay-offs

Luke G. Williams
06/06/2018 1:33pm

As Tyson Fury prepares to defend his 'lineal' heavyweight title for the first time since winning it in November 2015, Luke G. Williams looks at previous instances where lineal heavyweight champions took two-year or more lay-offs inbetween fights...

Although the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and even The Ring magazine have long since stripped Tyson Fury of his 'alphabet' titles, and the 'Gypsy King' has not set foot in a professional boxing ring since the November 2015 night he dethroned Wladimir Klitschko, the man himself is in no doubt that he remains the heavyweight champion of the world.

"I have the best belt you can get – the lineal belt of the division dating back to John L Sullivan," he told the Daily Telegraph recently. "I’ve had all the alphabet titles. Titles are unimportant to me. I see myself as the lineal world heavyweight champion and I don’t need any belts."

When Fury faces Sefer Seferi on Saturday, it will have been just over two-and-a-half years since he outfoxed and outboxed Klitschko.

Although such a gap between heavyweight title fights has exhausted the patience of the 21st century sanctioning bodies, a glance back through the history of the lineal heavyweight championship reveals numerous occasions when title holders went more than two years without defending their crown - the majority of them during the first 50 or so years of the heavyweight division, when winning the title was often the precursor to the champion engaging in a low risk and cash-spinning routine of exhibition bouts and sparring tours.

For example, when champion James J. Corbett was dethroned by Bob Fitzsimmons in March 1897, it was 'Gentleman Jim''s first title fight since January 1894 when he made his sole successful defence against Charlie Mitchell  - a gap of three years and nearly two months. One newspaper writer at the time pinpointed the fact that Corbett had only submitted to "light tasks" since winning the title as a contributory factor in his defeat to the 'Freckled Wonder' via a paralysing solar plexus punch in the 14th round.

On winning the title against John L. Sullivan back in September 1892, Corbett had immediately made it clear that he would not be the most active of champions, declaring that he would not return to the ring for at least a year, but would instead "act for a year in my own play".

Funnily enough, Corbett's predecessor as champion, the aforementioned Sullivan, had a similar gap between his final successful defence of the heavyweight crown against Jake Kilrain in July 1889 (the last title fight fought under London Prize Ring rules) and his famous loss against Corbett in 1892. Such was the 34-year-old Sullivan's despair at the loss of his title that he reportedly commented in the fight's aftermath: "Yesterday I had a million friends, today I haven't one."

Corbett's conqueror Fitzsimmons was similarly slow to risk the heavyweight crown, engaging in lucrative public and stage appearances instead and waiting two years and nearly three months before facing James J. Jeffries in June 1899 in his first - and only -defence.

'The Boilermaker' promptly wrenched the title from 'Ruby Robert's grasp via eleventh-round KO, leaving British fight fans with a near 100-year wait before another UK-born lineal champion was crowned (Lennox Lewis, when he defeated Shannon Briggs in 1998, prior to his 'alphabet' unification matches with Evander Holyfield the following year).

The rugged Jeffries assumed the title with a sly dig at Corbett and Fitzsimmons, declaring: "I won't desert the prize ring for the stage", and emphasising that he was prepared to defend his title against "any man in whom the American public has confidence".

Jeffries proved as good as his word, defending the title an impressive seven times in all, his final defence coming against Jack Munroe in August 1904, before he announced his retirement the following year.

"I realised how Alexander felt when he sighed for more worlds to conquer," Jeffries later reflected of calling it a day at the age of 29. "There were no more heavyweights left for me to meet, and I found no pleasure in the idea of going around and knocking out a lot of young fellows with more courage than skill or strength."

In Jeffries' absence, Marvin Hart then Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson won recognition as lineal heavyweight champion. Johnson's ascension to the crown so dismayed 'white America' that there were a series of vocal calls for Jeffries to return to the ring - entreaties the former champion reluctantly ceded to in July 1910 - a month shy of six years since his previous heavyweight title fight.

Despite forcing his 35-year-old frame into impressive enough shape to cause one journalist to gush that "Jeffries has renewed his youth!", the former champion's reflexes and ringcraft had eroded irreparably. A rampant Johnson humiliated him in a one-sided bout, forcing the referee to stop proceedings in the 15th round (of a scheduled 45).

After vanquishing Jeffries, Johnson's reign featured a longueur of exactly two years until he defended his title on 4 July 1912 against Jim Flynn. Johnson spent some of the time in the gap between these fights in England, where a mooted 1911 contest with 'Bombardier' Billy Wells was nixed by magistrates after the intervention of, among others, then Home Secretary Winston Churchill.

Johnson's conqueror Jess Willard was even more inactive, leaving it three years and nearly four months between his sole successful defence against Frank Moran in March 1916 and his July 1919 match-up against Jack Dempsey, which saw him demolished in four savage rounds.

Despite his warrior reputation, Dempsey's reign as heavyweight champion was characterised by two periods of long inactivity - two years and two days separated his 1921 defence against Georges Carpentier from his 1923 showdown with Tommy Gibbons, while he took a break of three years and nine days between his wild shootout with Luis Angel Firpo in September 1923 and his humbling boxing lesson at the hands of Gene Tunney in September 1926.

We have to advance until the mid-1930s for the next instance of a heavyweight titlist taking more than two years between defences - in this case the two years and nine days that separated Jim Braddock's fairytale upset victory against Max Baer in June 1935 from the 'Cinderella Man's predictable June 1937 defeat against Joe Louis.

'The Brown Bomber' himself was one of the most active heavyweight champions of all, defending his title on no less than 25 occasions (not including a 1944 four-round showdown with the anonymous Johnny Davis, which most do not consider a genuine title contest).

However, World War 2 forced Louis - and the heavyweight title - to take a competitive hiatus of four years and nearly three months - a gap that stretched between Louis' 1942 victory against Abe Simon and his 1946 rematch with Billy Conn.

Louis won both these contests handily and then, like Jeffries, vacated the crown before making an ill-advised comeback. In his case a break of two years and a little over three months divided his KO of Jersey Joe Walcott in June 1948 and his reverse on points against Ezzard Charles in September 1950.

During the second half of the 20th century, the lineal crown was kept far more active than it had been in the first half of the century, with the notable exception of during Muhammad Ali's long and meritorious career, during which there were two prolonged periods of inactivity.

The first was the three years and seven months that Ali was kept out of the ring due to his opposition to being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. After knocking out Zora Folley in March 1967, 'The Greatest' did not fight again until he stopped Jerry Quarry in October 1970, although in the interim recognition as world champion had pretty much universally passed to Joe Frazier, who removed all doubt about his legitimacy when he defeated Ali on points in March 1971.

At the end of his career, Ali had another long absence from the ring, just over two years elapsing between the 1978 rematch with Leon Spinks that saw him crowned lineal champion for an unprecedented third time and his embarrassing 1980 loss against his successor Larry Holmes.

The case of George Foreman also warrants a mention in any discussion of long lay-offs by heavyweight champions. Although Big George had long since been deposed as lineal champion when he lost on points to Jimmy Young in March 1977, it remains one of the most astonishing feats in sports history that he successfully returned to the ring almost ten years later.

Foreman was subsequently crowned lineal heavyweight champion for the second time in November 1994 in the 30th fight of his 'second coming', just over 20 years since losing the same crown to Ali in Zaire.