(Re-written June 2010 by MJ Law)
Fantasy match-ups: they’re always a fun, tireless topic of conversation among boxing fans. Legend against legend from different eras. Who would beat who? So many possibilities with so many outcomes. Another topic that crops up from time to time is how boxing “isn’t what it used to be”, how it no longer compares to the “good old days”. I remember back in the mid-to-late 1990’s there were a few writers and fans grumbling about the state of the heavyweight division. Looking back now, that seems incomprehensible! In the ‘90’s, we had Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, Razor Ruddock and Tommy Morrison. That was a hell of a deep division if you fast forwward ten years and compare it to the mid-to-late 2000’s.
Talking of this era, do we have grounds to complain? For example, how does 2007 compare with boxing 100 years ago? Did 2007's champs measure up? In 1907, the sport sure appeared a lot simpler; there were no alphabet groups to cause confusion and complications (oh how lucky they were!) and there were only seven weight divisions! Furthermore, world title fights were generally held over 20 rounds and Nat Fleischer, founder of “The Ring” magazine, rated many of the champions from this age as among the best ever. Was he right? Let’s see……
(All bouts are scheduled for the traditional championship distance of 15 rounds)
The world heavyweight champion in 1907 was Tommy Burns, who was from Canada. He was small for a heavyweight, standing only 5’ 7" and usually weighed in at around 185 lbs. He gained general recognition as the champ when he beat Marvin Hart in February 1906 and lost the crown in December 1908 when he was pummelled for 14 rounds by the superb Jack Johnson. In between, he made eleven successful defences and beat the likes of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and Jim Flynn.
There was no universally-recognized heavyweight champ in 2007 and the division was as weak as milky tea, but Wladimir Klitschko was regarded as the best based on his wins over Samuel Peter, Chris Byrd and Calvin Brock (he could claim to be the true champ after his win over Sultan Ibragimov the following year, which is covered elsewhere on this website). As Klitschko measured 6’ 6", and weighed 241 lbs for the Brock fight, he would literally tower over Burns and it’s kind of comical to imagine them in the ring together. Even under the conditions of Burns’ era, with a scheduled distance of 20 rounds, it’s difficult to see how Burns could win this one. Just how could he pull out a victory? Bigger is not automatically better, but in this case his only hope would be if Klitschko constantly fouls and gets disqualified or suffers a fight-ending cut, but that’s as likely as Cameron Diaz being ignored on a topless beach. Anyway, this is a fantasy match-up and so it’s a clean contest with no terrible injuries. Notably, Burns lacked the great equalizer; crushing power. Having said that, it would not necessarily be a one-sided blow-out. Let's face it, Klitschko is not a great fighter. In fact, he has not developed much from his amateur days. He has a predictable style and only really throws two punches; a jab and a right cross, and he's annoyingly sparing with the right cross. If he's feeling adventurous, he may throw a left hook, but he's useless at fighting on the inside and never goes to the body. On top of that, he has a brittle chin, he's gunshy and far too cautious, even against limited opposition. There's more chance of a reconciliation between Mike Tyson and Robin Givens than there is of Klitschko taking chances in a boxing ring.
I don’t want to take anything away from Burns. He did the best he could and made the most of his opportunities, being sandwiched between the reigns of Jim Jeffries and Johnson. But it’s hard to imagine Burns being as successful at any other stage in heavyweight history. He was essentially a man of his time (though the same could be said of Klitschko). But given Klitschko's safety-first approach, this fight would drag on into the late rounds, with punches landed per round barely reaching double figures. Burns would bound around (he was a bundle of energy) and make himself a difficult target but he would find it impossible to land anything. Klitschko has two assets; his height and his reach, and he knows how to use them. After 12 rounds, with 80% of the crowd already snoozing peacefully, Klitschko finally ends it with a right cross. But he wouldn't go looking for a KO, he would just happen to score with a big shot which would probably surprise him as much as it does Burns.
Prediction: Klitschko KO 12 Burns
The world light heavyweight champion in 1907 was Philadelphia Jack O’Brien who, though not a big puncher, was speedy and elusive. He fought anyone and everyone, and historian Tracy Callis (he’s a guy by the way), rated him as the 5th greatest light heavyweight of all-time. The quality of his opposition is eye-catching: Joe Walcott, Joe Choynski, Marvin Hart, Jack Johnson, Kid McCoy, Hugo Kelly, Tommy Burns, Stanley Ketchel, Jim Flynn, Sam Langford, Jack Blackburn. That’s some list! He won the 175 lb crown in 1905 with a win over Bob Fitzsimmons but never defended it. Actually, it’s not easy to figure out exactly when O’Brien relinquished it, with some sources indicating that he never gave up recognition until Jack Dillon claimed the crown in 1914. He appeared to fear no one and regularly mixed it up with heavyweights.
In 2007, Bernard Hopkins was the light heavyweight champion of the world and there’s no disputing Hopkins’ place in history. He is a legend. However, this fantasy O’Brien-Hopkins clash is taking place at light heavyweight and Hopkins had only limited experience in this division. His pro debut was as a light heavyweight and he dropped a 4-round decision to Clinton Mitchell, and he gave a masterful performance in outpointing a lethargic Antonio Tarver to win the world championship. Although in some of his early contests he weighed over 160 lbs, essentially he was a middleweight throughout most of his career up to 2007.
With both these guys being defensive-minded technicians, this fight could be as dull as dishwater. It could be 15 rounds of feinting, with the crowd nodding off long before the final bell. With O’Brien’s speed, jab and greater experience in the 175 lb class, he’d likely have the edge here, but it’d be close.
Prediction: O’Brien W15 Hopkins
Philadelphia Jack O’Brien was (shockingly!) born in Philadelphia
The world championship at middleweight was vacant at the beginning of 1907. The previous champ, Tommy Ryan, had retired in 1906. But at this stage the awesome Stanley Ketchel was bursting onto the scene. Some historians regard Ketchel as the new champ after he beat Joe Thomas in September 1907, but others don’t award him this status until he beat Mike Sullivan in February 1908. But for the purpose of these fantasy match-ups, Ketchel was certainly the best at 160 lbs in 1907. Known as the “Michigan Assassin”, Nat Fleischer rated him as the greatest middleweight ever. He was an aggressive pressure fighter and a hell of a puncher who beat the best of his era, including Thomas, Mike Sullivan, Jack Sullivan, Hugo Kelly, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and he won three out of four against Billy Papke. So how would 2007’s universally-recognized middleweight champion, Jermain Taylor, handle him? Quite simply, I don’t think Taylor would be able to. Taylor was a decent boxer-puncher with pretty good conditioning and bundles of enthusiasm. Plus, I liked his attitude: he was willing to take on anyone. However, during his reign he barely managed to cling onto the championship; his two points wins over Hopkins were debatable decisions, he was lucky to get a draw with Winky Wright and he didn't really deserve the verdict in his snore-fest with the crafty Cory Spinks. If he couldn’t get a grip on an aging Hopkins, or Wright, or Spinks, how can he survive the super-strong Ketchel’s onslaught? He can’t.
Prediction: Ketchel KO 5 Taylor
In April 1907, Mike Sullivan won the welterweight title from Honey Mellody (whose name sounds like a “Looney Tunes” character). Sullivan was known as a spirited brawler but not much of a puncher. He scored a newspaper decision over Dixie Kid but suffered losses to Joe Gans and Stanley Ketchel, though there’s no shame in that because those guys are legends. It’s possible that he made three successful defences of the welterweight crown, though historians differ as to which of his bouts actually had the title at stake. However, in October 1908 he had vacated and moved up to middleweight. His record at welterweight is not exactly mesmerizing and although he doesn’t get mentioned alongside Sugar Ray Robinson or Jose Napoles but it certainly appears he was the best of his time.
In 2007, the true welterweight champion was Floyd Mayweather. His skills are as stunning as Halle Berry, and that’s saying something. Mayweather has the speed, reflexes, fitness and jab to cruise to victory against a past champion like Sullivan. Despite Mayweather's egotistical claims about being the greatest fighter of all time pound-for-pound (which he isn't), he's not even the greatest welterweight of all time. Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Henry Armstrong, Ted "Kid" Lewis, Jack Britton, Barney Ross, Jimmy McLarnin and Kid Gavilan all have better records as a 147 lb-er. Of course, Mayweather could eventually surpass them in time (though that's unlikely given his preference for carefully selecting opponents he knows he can beat). Regardless of that, he would be too talented and wily for Sullivan, though the bout would go the distance. Mayweather has a safe and steady approach and is reluctant to go for a KO unless his opponent is utterly inept and barely breathing.
Prediction: Mayweather PTS 15 Sullivan
Many historians regard Joe Gans as the greatest lightweight ever
Boxing fans of 1907 were fortunate enough to experience the reign of the brilliant Joe Gans, who ruled the roost at 135 lbs from 1902 to 1908. He was known as the “Old Master” and had fast hands, was difficult to hit and possessed a vaunted left hook. He beat all the best lightweights around and came out on top in his 1906 epic with Battling Nelson, triumphing by 42nd round disqualification. Nat Fleischer ranked him as the best there ever was in this division. But being a black champion in this era, it’s likely that on a few occasions he had to box to orders. It is quite ceratin that his losses to Frank Erne and Terry McGovern were fixed fights.
In 2007, Joel Casamayor was the legitimate lightweight champ. Interestingly, he had never been decisively beaten prior to his reign (his losses had been razor-thin decisions to Acelino Freitas, Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo) but remained something of a hot-and-cold performer. Unfortunately for him, even if he was as hot as a furnace, Gans would have too much of everything. Casamayor would struggle to cope with his quick combinations and slick mobility, and would be worn down and outclassed, though it’s no shame losing to a guy like Gans.
Prediction: Gans KO 12 Casamayor
Ketchel and Gans were not the only legends who were in action during 1907, as king of the featherweights was Abe Attell. He gained recognition as the world champ when he beat Harry Forbes in 1904 and strengthened his claim when he beat Jimmy Walsh in 1906. He finally lost the title in 1912 to Johnny Kilbane but took on anyone and everyone during his peak (though he seemingly took advantage of the no-decision era to avoid suffering a defeat, unless he happened to get flattened). It’s noticeable that some of the outstanding opponents he faced, such as Owen Moran and Jim Driscoll, were only in no-decision bouts, and he also wasn’t shy in resorting to an occasional foul if the odds were against him. Despite this, there’s no question that he’s one of the all-time great featherweights.
In 2007, the 126 lb division was about as exciting as an accountants board meeting (or should that be bored meeting?). With the recent departure of Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, all of whom headed up to lightweight, the division had lost much prestige. The top dog was Chris John of Indonesia. He was undefeated and had decisions over Marquez and Derrick Gainer. I’ve seen footage of him and he looks pretty decent, but he’s not in Attell’s league. There’s no surprise about the outcome in this one.
Prediction: Attell PTS 15 John
Would Hozumi Hasegawa have been successful if he had boxed in another era?
In most history books, the bantamweight division gets the equivalent of about one sentence for every page devoted to the heavyweight division. In other words, it doesn’t get much attention. The world champ at 118 lbs in 1907 was Jimmy Walsh, hardly a household name. Historians regard him as skilled and crafty, and he did beat Monte Attell (brother of Abe) and Digger Stanley. Typically, he was incredibly busy, sometimes fighting two or three times a month and he engaged in plenty of no-decision bouts.
The lineal champion at bantamweight in 2007 was Hozumi Hasegawa of Japan. I’ve seen him in action and he was impressive in beating Veerapol Sahaprom the previous year. Maybe if we all lived in Japan we’d be bantamweight fanatics. But we don’t, so we’re not. In the western world, Hasegawa could be compared to Jack The Ripper. And no, I'm not saying that Hozumi is a crazed serial killer. I'm saying that their identities are a mystery - nobody knew who Jack was and in this hemisphere nobody really knows who Hozumi is. But check him out on Youtube.com (he's pretty good). Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any footage of Walsh, but from what I’ve read about him and from viewing his record, I’m guessing Hasegawa would be able to edge him.
Prediction: Hasegawa PTS 15 Walsh
So with the final results, it’s three wins for 2007 and four wins for 1907, which is not bad at all considering 1907 boasted Ketchel, Gans and Attell. Maybe 100 years from now, fans will be comparing the champs of 3007 to the likes of Hopkins and Mayweather.