By Joe Torcello.
Someone once said the hype leading up to a big fight is like sex. The build-up occurs in the mind, but the event itself usually doesn’t live up to the hype. There are exceptions of course. In some cases, the buildup can occur over such a great length of time, it’s almost a given the event itself will be anticlimactic. Of course, take away the buildup and you automatically neutralize the drama that we’ve become so accustomed to over the years.
This principle can apply to any big sporting event. In many ways, all sports symbolize combat on one level or another. This is much more apparent, however, in the sport of professional boxing. No sport symbolizes one-on-one combat as does the Sweet Science.
Let’s take a look at some of boxing’s – BIG FIGHT BUILDUPS!
Big Fight Buildup – The “OLD DAYS”
Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries (July 4, 1910)
The Buildup: Promoter Tex Rickard created what you might call the original “Fight of the Century.” Jim Jeffries was the former, undefeated, champion of the world. In his prime, he was a monster who could withstand inhuman amounts of punishment while grinding his opponents down to eventual knockout defeats. Across the ring from him stood the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and the first black man to hold the title, Jack Johnson. It some quarters, this fight symbolized the white race against the black race. In others, good versus evil. By the time the bell sounded for the opening round, the entire country was on the edge of their seats. News of the round by round action was transmitted via wire around the USA and beyond.
The Fight: The fight itself was one-sided from the opening bell. The 35 year old Jeffries hadn’t fought in 5 years and looked every part the washed up fighter. Jeffries hit the canvas for the first time in his career in the 15th round and was stopped moments later. He told a reporter after the bout, “I could never have whipped Jack Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him.”
Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey (September 22, 1927)
The Buildup: “The Battle of the Long Count” was the much anticipated rematch between Jack Dempsey and his former conqueror, Gene Tunney. Dempsey was one of the most popular champions in history and Tex Rickard used his promotional magic to create the first $2-million dollar gate. Over 100,000 people were in attendance. Many people assumed Tunney had caught Dempsey at just the right time during their fight bout. The Manassa Mauler had been out of the ring for 3 years when he lost his title by 10-round decision to Tunney a year earlier. This time, many people believed Dempsey would be better prepared.
The Fight: Tunney dominated the fight with his jab until the 7th round when a right hand staggered Tunney. Dempsey swarmed Tunney and finally sent him to the canvas. Instead of moving across the ring to a neutral corner (a new rule instituted in the event of a knockdown), Dempsey stood near Tunney and held onto the top strand of rope. By the time referee Dave Barry moved Dempsey to a neutral corner, Tunney had additional time to clear his head and recover. He arose at the official count of 9, but had actually been on the canvas for 14-seconds. Tunney backpedaled out of danger for the rest of the round and boxed his way to victory through the final three rounds. The “long count” aside, the fight was clearly dominated by Tunney who retained his title by unanimous decision.
After the fight, Dempsey also stated that he could have “never beaten Tunney,” even in his prime.
Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling (June 21, 1938)
The Buildup: The year was 1938. Adolph Hitler was on the move in Germany, building the war machine that would ignite WWII. Hitler’s propaganda machine quickly jumped on the Max Schmeling bandwagon promoting Schmeling as being a proud representative of “The Master Aryan Race.” Schmeling also owned a knockout victory over Louis, derailing his initial run at the Heavyweight crown a few years earlier. It was Louis, however, who got the first shot at reigning Heavyweight champion, Jim Braddock. Louis, however, didn’t want to be called champion until he avenged his loss against Schmeling.
The Fight: The fight never made it past the opening round. Louis jumped all over Schmeling from the opening bell and dropped Schmeling three times, fracturing two vertebrae in the process. It couldn’t have been any more one-sided had it been scripted. German TV blacked out the match after it was evident poor Max was no match for the 1938 version of the Brown Bomber.
Big Fight Buildup – “MODERN TIMES”
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier (See accompanying article in this month’s magazine)
Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns (September 16, 1981)
The Buildup: The Ultimate Boxer vs. The Ultimate Slugger. The fight was billed as “The Showdown” and it generated every bit the intensity as its name intended. Leonard, a gold medal winner at the 1976 Olympic Games, was already a media favorite had claimed a portion of the Jr. Middleweight title with an exciting knockout victory over Ayub Kalule. Leonard held the WBC portion of the Welterweight title. Hearns, on the other hand, had brutalized Mexican bomber – Pipino Cuevas, for the WBA belt and had run off 3 consecutive title defenses. Leonard’s record stood at 30-1 (21). He’d avenged his only loss (a decision) against Roberto Duran a year earlier. Hearns was undefeated at 32-0 (30).
Fans and experts alike were split down the middle on their predictions of the outcome. While I predicted a Leonard victory from the onset, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen once Leonard got hit by Hearn’s booming right hand!
The Fight: By the time the opening bell rang, over 300 million people were watching worldwide. In a rare instance, the fight lived up to and possible exceeded the hype. In the end, Sugar Ray Leonard – behind on the scorecards, roared back to stop Hearns in the 14th round. “The Showdown” won the Fight of the Year award – going away.
Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney (June 11, 1982)
The Buildup: Although time seems to have lessened its significance… Holmes vs. Cooney was one of the most anticipated Heavyweight title fights in modern history. When two fighters appear on covers of national magazines across the country, you know it’s a big fight. Don King masterfully woven the white vs. black angle into the story and by the time fight night had arrived, it was no longer just a fight… it was an event. Cooney had been crowned the “Great White Hope” of the modern era. His left hook had pounded out a path of wreckage leading up to his highly anticipated fight with Larry Holmes.
Both fighters were undefeated. Holmes entered the bout with a record of 39-0 (27 KOs). Cooney record stood at 25-0 (20 KOs).
The fight produced an all-time record gate over 7-million dollars.
The Fight: In the 2nd round, Cooney was dropped by right hand. He arose and fought well until finally tiring around the 10th round. He was rescued by Mills Lane in the 13th round with Holmes pouring it on. He would never be the same fighter again.