Lines of success: a heavyweight history
Photos: Top Rank / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In a confused heavyweight picture, Andy Ruiz Jr and Deontay Wilder hold titles while Tyson Fury is the lineal champion. As Colin Harris reminds us, though, conflicting claims among boxing’s big men are nothing new...
“True lovers of boxing try to ignore the clowning of the alphabet boys. For us there is a sacred belt that had been passed down from champion to champion ever since the days of John L. Sullivan." - Gerald Suster, Champions of the Ring, 1994
In the mixed-up world of sanctioning bodies, legalities, mandatories, TV network deals and the like, boxing politics often prevent us from having a single champion in any given weight division.
As of early 2019, three heavyweights could lay claim to being undefeated champion of the world. Th ere is Deontay Wilder (WBC, 40-0-1), Anthony Joshua (WBA Super/IBF/WBO, 22-0) and Tyson Fury, the lineal champion — that is, the champion in direct line of succession — with a 27-0-1 record.
First, an explanation of the lineal championship. This is based on the simple premise of the “man who beat the man”. So, James J. Corbett defeated John L. Sullivan, Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Corbett, James J. Jeffries knocked out Fitzsimmons, and so on. It hasn’t always been that simple, though.
As far back as 1905, just 13 years after Sullivan and Corbett inaugurated the transition from the bare-knuckle era, the title split for the first time. Reigning champion James J. Jeffries retired undefeated after his seventh defence and took his unbeaten record to his alfalfa farm in California, although he did referee a July 1905 bout between Jack Root and Marvin Hart for
the vacant title. Hart won in the 12th round and Jeffries proclaimed him to be his successor.
A tradition of the day was that upon a champion retiring, the title reverted back to the previous owner. On this basis, Bob Fitzsimmons, who had lost the title to Jeffries in 1899 but moved down in weight to win the light heavyweight crown, reclaimed the championship. However, in his next contest, a December 1905 light-heavyweight title defence, Fitzsimmons lost to Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, a fighter he had beaten 17 months earlier.
O’Brien never defended the light heavyweight title and immediately chased a showdown with Hart’s successor, Tommy Burns. They fought a draw in 1906, with Burns then winning their rematch the following year. The title duly passed to Jack Johnson in 1908 but at a time when the “colour line” was drawn — white heavyweight champions electing not to meet black challengers — the first black heavyweight champion unsettled the social structure. Thus a series of so-called “White Hopes” came forth, all defeated by Johnson.
Eventually, the financial offers and public pressure became so great that Jeffries was talked out of his five-year retirement, having to lose over 100lbs in the process, to settle things in a July 1910 bout billed as e Fight of Century, with Johnson easily winning in the 15th round.
The division continued with one champion at a time for the next 40 years, even surviving the retirement of Gene Tunney without
confusion. But the retirement of the great Joe Louis in 1949 briefly left the division without a clear champion. Ezzard Charles beat Jersey Joe Walcott in a fight recognised by the National Boxing Association (NBA), the forerunner of the World Boxing Association (WBA), as a championship bout. However, Minnesota heavyweight Lee Savold received the British Boxing Board’s recognition with his win over Bruce Woodcock in London in 1950, when the British champion suffered a severe cut over the left eye and was retired by his corner at the end of the fourth.
When a crippling tax burden brought Louis out of retirement to face Charles in 1950, the bout was generally accepted as being for the heavyweight championship. The powerful New York commission joined the NBA in recognising Charles as champion after he outpointed the faded Louis, who, of course, had never lost the title in the ring. So Charles was now the lineal champion. (Britain came into line with the rest of the world after Louis, continuing in his comeback, stopped Savold in six rounds in 1951.)
For the next 13 years, the title remained intact, passing through the hands of Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano — the only
heavyweight champion to remained undefeated — Floyd Patterson (twice), Ingemar Johansson and Sonny Liston. But in 1964,
the WBA declared its title vacant when Muhammad Ali signed for a rematch with Liston instead of facing the organisation’s
number one contender Ernie Terrell, although the World Boxing Council (WBC) and boxing public in general continued to recognise Ali.
The lofty, 6ft 6ins Terrell, who insisted on referring to Ali by his birth name of Cassius Clay, won the WBA version of the title and
made two successful defences before Ali, the WBC champion, proved beyond doubt who was the real champion by outclassing Terrell in the infamous “What’s My Name?” fight in 1967.
In the weeks after the one-sided fight, with the Vietnam conflict raging, Ali was stripped of his titles for refusing induction into the US Army. So, once again we had two heavyweight champions, with Joe Frazier capturing the WBC title while Jimmy Ellis won an eight-man knockout tournament for the WBA version.
The two rival champions met in February 1970, with Frazier winning in four rounds. When Ali returned to the ring after an enforced absence of three and a half years, his classic March 1971 meeting with Frazier was the first occasion that two unbeaten heavyweight champions had fought. (The term “lineal champion” was not then in vogue, but Ali was popularly portrayed as the “People’s Champion”.)
Frazier’s victory, on points over 15 rounds, made Smokin’ Joe the undisputed champion. The title was solid for five years, going
from Frazier to George Foreman and then back to Ali. Then, in 1977, Ali was stripped of the WBC version for agreeing to meet Leon Spinks instead of facing the WBC’s mandatory challenger, Ken Norton. The WBA title became vacant when Ali retired after beating Spinks in their rematch in September 1978 to become the first three-time heavyweight champion.
For a while, there were two champions again. Larry Holmes, who had narrowly defeated Norton for the vacant WBC title, was considered the world’s leading heavyweight. Tennessee’s Big John Tate won the vacant WBA title before underdog Mike Weaver, a boxer Holmes had stopped in 12 rounds, took it from Tate with a dramatic 15th-round knockout. Weaver’s win over Tate gave a clear indication of Holmes’ superior status, which he cemented by easily stopping lineal champ Ali, who gave a
sad, pitiful display on his return to the ring in October 1980.
Now the real confusion was about to set in. Holmes couldn’t agree terms to meet the WBC’s leading challenger, Greg Page, but accepted recognition from a new player, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), after relinquishing the WBC title. The WBC and WBA continued with a revolving door of champions while in 1985 Holmes lost the IBF — and lineal — title to Michael Spinks, the light-heavyweight champion who was moving up in weight.
The IBF declared its title vacant when Spinks declined to face mandatory challenger Tony Tucker, preferring instead to take a more lucrative fight with Gerry Cooney, whom he stopped in five rounds.
Enter Don King, who was promoting a heavyweight championship unification tournament, with HBO televising the fights. The then seemingly unstoppable 20-year-old knockout sensation Mike Tyson was the main attraction. Tyson became the youngest
heavyweight champion in history when he knocked out Trevor Berbick in two rounds to become WBC champion in November 1986 and he went on to defeat WBA champion Bonecrusher Smith in March 1987 and IBF champion Tony Tucker in August 1987.
For only the third time in history, undefeated heavyweight champions met when Tyson crushed Spinks in 91 seconds in June 1988. For the first time in a decade, there was a single champion.
But not for long.
The World Boxing Organisation (WBO) had sprung up in 1988 and the following year laughably ignored Tyson to proclaim Italy’s unbeaten Francesco Damiani its inaugural champion after the 1984 Olympic silver medallist knocked out South African Johnny Du Plooy in the third round.
Since then, the title has always been disputed. We have had occasions when there was a triple-title champion with the fourth version vacant, but it has never taken long for the final piece of the jigsaw to mess things up again.
Gradually, the unified title achievements of Tyson, who lost the championships to James “Buster” Douglas in a shocking upset in Tokyo in 1990, were splintered. Unified champion Riddick Bowe vacated the WBC title in 1992 rather than face Lennox Lewis, his mandatory challenger, with George Foreman being stripped separately of the WBA and IBF titles three years later.
By the end of 1995, the champions as recognised by the four governing bodies, as well as the lineal title, were fragmented. Ironically, it was a comebacking Tyson who briefly reunified two of the titles in 1996, winning the WBC championship from
Frank Bruno in a rematch of their 1989 fight and the WBA version from Bruce Seldon, whom he fought without the
WBC belt on the line. However, Tyson soon vacated the WBC title.
Over the next couple of years, an unofficial knockout tournament unfolded. Lennox Lewis regained the vacant WBC title in early 1997 when old rival Oliver McCall broke down emotionally in the fifth round, and then won by disqualification against former
WBO champ Henry Akinwande, who had vacated the title for the opportunity to make a bigger purse against Lewis.
In the other half of the clean-up, former undisputed champion Evander Holyfield had regained the WBA belt from Tyson in 1996 and then unified against IBF champ Michael Moorer, who’d seen off the controversy-laced claims of both Axel Schulz and Frans
Botha. It all culminated in 1999 when, after a highly controversial draw, Lewis defeated Holyfield on points in a rematch
to establish division supremacy. Yet while the WBC, WBA and IBF titles were now all in Lewis’ possession, the WBO still recognised Vitali Klitschko. Lewis, though, was the lineal champion.
An uninterrupted 53-year direct lineage dating all the way back to Ezzard Charles came to an end when Lewis retired in 2004. Confusion soon set in, and not just because Lewis had already vacated the WBA (2000) and IBF (2002) titles.
Vitali Klitschko had the strongest claim to the lineal title as he’d been ahead on points against Lewis (in Lewis’ final fight) before being stopped in the sixth round due to a bad cut over the left eye. Klitschko’s claim was strengthened further when WBO champ Corrie Sanders gave up the belt he’d won against Wladimir Klitschko a year earlier to contest the vacant WBC title, losing to Vitali Klitschko in eight rounds.
When injury obliged Vitali to retire in 2005, the WBC belt passed from Hasim Rahman to Oleg Maskaev and then to Samuel Peter, only for Vitali to reappear in late 2008 and dethrone Peter in his comeback bout.
During this period, the other only valid claim was that of a rejuvenated Wladimir Klitschko, who had taken both the IBF and WBO titles while beginning an almost decade-long reign.
When Vitali finally retired for good in December 2013, the brothers had been holding all the belts for over two years, since Wladimir unified against then-WBA champ David Haye in 2011. For the first five months of 2014, with the WBC belt vacant, Wladimir — still holding his three titles — was the only heavyweight champion.
By the time Tyson Fury dethroned Wladimir in November 2015, the vacant WBC title had been won by Bermane Stiverne and then passed on to Deontay Wilder, but a 30-month exile from the ring due to drink, drugs and mental issues saw Fury gradually vacate the three belts and maintain only his lineal status.
Anthony Joshua reunified Fury’s sanctioning-body titles by winning the IBF belt from Charles Martin in April 2016 and the vacant WBA Super title a year later, when he stopped Wladimir Klitschko in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium. Joshua then
outpointed WBO champ Joseph Parker in another unification bout in March 2018.
Later in the year, Fury returned before a showdown with WBC champ Wilder in December ended in a controversial draw. While in June 2019, Andy Ruiz Jr sensationally relieved Joshua of his three titles. The heavyweight picture remains somewhat unclear although perhaps we will at some time in the not-too-distant future see the 20th champion vs champion heavyweight title fight.
We can only hope.