(Re-written August 2010 by MJ Law)
The light heavyweights, eh? The small big men. It’s the division that’s often been overlooked, mainly because it’s sandwiched between the more glamorous middleweight and heavyweight divisions. And a lot of the men who have held the world light heavyweight title have not really been interested in it, preferring to mix it with the bigger guys for bigger purses. But it’s also a division that has been graced by some real legends. Why doesn’t it grab our attention? With the possible exception of bantamweight, it’s the most unobserved of the original eight weight classes. Even the flyweights gain more fascination. If we hear the words “For the world heavyweight championship” we’re usually instantly hooked. But insert the word “light” between “world” and “heavyweight” and some fans disappear into a land of slumber.
Here’s a brief, semi-serious history of the light heavies, and for the sake of our own sanity, we’re only dealing with the lineal light heavyweight title here, and not the countless claimants who actually just hold an alphabet belt. The division was apparently the idea of Lou Houseman, a Chicago journalist who happened to be the manager of Jack Root, who was too big to be a middleweight and too small to be competitive at heavyweight. At the time there were only six divisions and Houseman made the suggestion in a newspaper column. It met with approval and an inaugural bout was arranged.
Root beat Kid McCoy, the former middleweight king, to become the first champ in the new 175 lb class. The title quickly passed to George Gardner and then Bob Fitzsimmons, who probably forgot he had it until he got round to defending it two years later in 1905. Significantly, with his win over Gardner, Fitzsimmons became boxing’s first three-division world champion. I wonder if he knew the significance of this achievement at the time? There should be no doubt about his greatness, though he was past his prime by this stage and lost the crown to Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Now O’Brien was outstanding but he never bothered with his world title, preferring to go after Tommy Burns and heavyweight glory. The light heavyweight division could have fizzled out forever right there.
Philadelphia Jack O’Brien at a boxing gym in 1911 (O’Brien is the boxer to the right of the man in the white shirt and black trousers standing in the centre)
The championship finally resumed in 1912 when Jack Dillon picked it up. Some sources identify his win over Hugo Kelly as a title fight, whereas others recognize him as the champ after he beat Battling Levinsky and Bob Moha in 1914. Dillon was the epitome of toughness and during his peak he fought more times in a year than some modern day fighters do in their entire careers. The crown passed from him to Levinsky, Georges Carpentier, Battling Siki, Mike McTigue, Paul Berlenbach and Jack Delaney. Of this group, Carpentier and Siki are the most colourful characters. Carpentier was a dashing war hero, the idol of France and is best known for being flattened by Jack Dempsey in a shot at the heavyweight title in 1921. His loss to Siki was a big upset and likely reduced a lot of women to tears because he was handsome and they loved him. As for Siki, he was no choirboy. He went through women and alcohol as if his life depended on it. He had a pet lion and lived life in the fast lane but sadly ended up broke and was stabbed to death in a street fight. Delaney relinquished the title in 1927 to pursue heavyweight riches but it did not stay vacant for long. Tommy Loughran was generally recognized as the new champ when he beat former champ Mike McTigue. Loughran may not have had a swashbuckling style, but he certainly talent and scored some impressive wins, including one over future heavyweight champion Jimmy Braddock, one over middleweight champion Mickey Walker and one over Leo Lomski, from which he had to get up from a pair of first-round knockdowns to win on points. As per the norm, Loughran gave up the world title to campaign at heavyweight.
As is often the case when a champion vacates, every man, woman and child in the civilised world scrambled to claim the title. Eventually, Maxie Rosenloom gained universal recognition when he beat Lou Scozza in 1932. With a nickname like “Slapsie Maxie”, he was never going to amaze boxing fans with devastating knockouts. He lost the title to the utterly forgettable Bob Olin, who then lost it to John Henry Lewis, yet another low-key protagonist. None of these guys are afforded much space in the history books, which is a shame, particularly in the case of the talented Lewis, who had a terrific record. Lewis was crushed by the awesome Joe Louis in a shot at the heavyweight crown and subsequently retired due to failing eyesight. Billy Conn was acknowledged as the next champion when he beat Melio Bettina. As is the curse of the light heavyweight division, Conn was a genuinely gifted titleholder but he vacated and became better known for his failed attempt at taking Louis’ heavyweight championship.
Gus Lesnevich, yet another light heavyweight kingpin who was hardly a household name, was awarded acceptance as the next champion after he beat either Anton Christoforidis or Tami Mauriello, depending on which historian you wish to follow. With Joe Louis reigning above him and the fantastic Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano trilogy unfolding below him at middleweight, it is not a shock to see why poor Lesnevich was lost in the middle. Freddie Mills beat Lesnevich, and Mills’ less-than-earth-shattering reign ended when he was beaten by Joey Maxim. And now we have a full-blown classic fight: Maxim’s defence against Sugar Ray Robinson. This one is always talked about, but think about it; how many of the greatest fights of all time have been at light heavyweight? When we bring up the subject of a classic, we immediately consider Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I and III (heavyweight), Ali-George Foreman (heavyweight), Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns (middleweight), Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo (heavyweight), Joe Gans-Battling Nelson (lightweight), Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I (welterweight), Robinson-Jake LaMotta VI (middleweight), and so on. Classics are somewhat scarce at 175 lbs. Think also of the great rivalries, such as Zale-Graziano (middleweight), Ali-Ken Norton (heavyweight), Barney Ross-Jimmy McLarnin (welterweight), Sandy Saddler-Willie Pep (featherweight) etc. Where are they at light heavyweight? The legendary Archie Moore beat Maxim three times, but this does not qualify as a timeless rivalry.
In facing Maxim, Robinson was aiming to join the most elite of elite clubs and become a genuine three-division world champion (he had already been world welterweight champion and was the reigning world middleweight champion when he challenged Maxim on 25th June 1952). Only the aforementioned Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong had gained universal recognition in three of the original eight weight divisions. Robinson came oh-so-close to joining them but exhaustion overwhelmed him when battling in heat that topped 104 degrees. He was forced to retire after the 13th round and Maxim should be highly praised for having the stamina to outlast him.
Joey Maxim stepping out of his flashy car
Ancient Archie was nearing the pipe and slippers stage of his life when he became the next world champion but he totally dominated the division. He defeated all the top contenders around and engaged in another light heavyweight classic: his first fight with Yvon Durelle on 10th December 1958 in Quebec, Canada. Archie climbed off the floor four times to win. He kept on defending the title until he became too ancient to do so, and there is no denying his excellence. Harold Johnson was universally recognized as Moore’s successor when he beat Doug Jones in 1962. Johnson lost to Willie Pastrano, who lost to Jose Torres, who lost to Dick Tiger, who lost to Bob Foster. It was Foster who made a division-record fourteen successful defences. Devotees of Virgil Hill, and there could be some out there somewhere, may dispute this, but we are talking about the true lineal world title here, not alphabet belts which are as common as toys in cereal boxes (and nearly as easy to get). Foster was another who craved heavyweight stardom but came up short, losing to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. When Foster retired in 1974, who became the next world champion is questionable. Some sources, including “The Ring” magazine endorsed Matthew Saad Muhammad when he beat Marvin Johnson in 1979. Muhammad was a thrill-a-minute slugger who specialized in come-from-behind victories. His run came to an end when he was beaten by Dwight Muhammad Qawi. But other sources do not recognize either of these guys as a true champ. Instead, they distinguish Qawi’s 1983 showdown with Michael Spinks as being for the vacant world championship, which Spinks won. There is certainly no question over Spinks's status and he was never beaten as a light heavyweight. He was also one of the sports’ authentic nice guys.
The murderous-punching Foster made more successful defences than any other light heavyweight champion
In 1985, Spinks achieved what no light heavyweight champion had done before; he won the world heavyweight title (and it was the lineal title too) with a brilliant win over grumpy old Larry Holmes. Naturally, with heavyweight fame beckoning, he abdicated his light heavyweight throne and, predictably, there was mass confusion with the alphabet groups frantically filling vacancies like pigs at a trough. Thereafter, there was no clear-cut lineage, and “Boxing Illustrated” magazine, which was naming one rightful world champion per division, had their light heavyweight title vacant in the immediate aftermath.
If you check most sources that feature lineal champions, they will likely highlight the bout between Virgil Hill from the USA (WBA champion) and Henry Maske from Germany (IBF champion) in 1996 as establishing a new lineage. But there was actually a contest before that which makes quite a lot of sense in recognizing a genuine new world champion at light heavyweight, and which renders the Hill-Maske issue moot. This contest was Hill against Thomas Hearns on 3rd June 1991. At the time, Hill was the WBA champion and Hearns had previously fought at welterweight and middleweight. Notably, Hearns had never been beaten when fighting above middleweight; he had won the WBC title from Dennis Andries in 1987 and never lost it in the ring; he had outpointed James Kinchen in 1988, he had drawn with the brilliant Sugar Ray Leonard in 1989 in a bout most people thought he'd won; he had outpointed Michael Olajide in 1990 and then scored quick knockouts over Kemper Morton and Ken Atkins.
Going into 1991, the WBO title was vacant and the IBF title was held by Charles Williams, who had gained it in 1987. But before becoming IBF champion, Williams had been beaten by Marvin Johnson on 8th November 1984. Johnson went on to win the WBA title, which was vacant at the time, by beating Leslie Stewart, and he lost it to Stewart in a rematch in 1987. Therefore, when Williams won the IBF title, the WBA title had the stronger stance because it was in the hands of Stewart, who had beaten Johnson, who in turn had beaten Williams. Stewart subsequently lost the WBA title to Hill (the form line was in place; Hill-Stewart-Johnson-Williams). Meanwhile, at the beginning of 1991, Andries was once again the WBC champion but Hearns had already defeated him, which makes Hearns-Hill a perfectly sensible contest to create a new genuine world champion. Hearns triumphed with a unanimous decision but his reign would be short-lived. On his first defence, he was toppled by Iran Barkley, a glorious brawler from New York City who had previously scored a stunning KO victory over Hearns at middleweight in 1988. But Barkley's reign was short too; he was conquered by former middleweight champion James Toney. Remember, we're only recognizing the original eight weight classes here so it's irrelevant that Toney held the IBF super middleweight title at the time. Anyone boxing between 160 lbs and 175 lbs is a light heavyweight and it doesn't matter what alphabet belt Toney was lumbered with, he was the lineal light heavyweight champion. He was a fiery, excitable hothead from Ann Arbor in Michigan and had the potential for a long reign.
However, the next awe-inspiring legend then entered the scene. Roy Jones, who was from Pensacola in Florida, had won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games and already been a leading middleweight contender before he moved up in weight and scored a fabulous win over Toney in November 1994. Jones was surprisingly disqualified against Montell Griffin in 1997 when he blatantly hit a fallen Griffin after dropping him in the 9th round. But Jones swept Griffin aside in a rematch by blowing him out in the opening round. He continued to reign supreme until Antonio Tarver beat him in 2004 with a shocking KO victory. Prior to this, Jones had looked untouchable. Tarver consequently lost and won against Glen Johnson, and then was outpointed by Bernard Hopkins, the former middleweight champion from Philadelphia.
Hopkins lost a razor-thin decision to Joe Calzaghe in 2008 in an ugly, mauling bout. The decision really could have gone either way, with Calzaghe rising from a 1st round knockdown and then slapping his way to the final bell. Subsequently, he made just one successful defence, an insignificant points win over a terribly faded Roy Jones, and retired, which brings us up to date.
The light heavyweight division certainly has an intriguing history. No, it’s never had the glitz or the excitement of heavyweight or middleweight, but it has boasted Hall Of Famers like Moore, Foster, Spinks and Loughran, and memorable battles like Spinks-Qawi, Moore-Durelle I and Johnson-Tarver I. And some titleholders, like Jack Dillon and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, are well worth a second look. Maybe light heavyweight is one for the connoisseur.