The heavyweight championship of the world is universally regarded as the greatest prize in sport. Even when boxers fought for a tiny fraction of the sums that modern boxers currently command, there was always the glory of the title to spur them on. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to win the crown, and equally extraordinary lengths to hang onto it.
Which fighter do you take as the historical benchmark? And how do you deal with the problem of multiple pretenders to the crown, one which has dogged boxing for so many years?
The answer to the first question is easy: John L. Sullivan. By the mid-19th century, polite society on both sides of the Atlantic frowned on boxing, regarding it as an undesirable, morally corrupting pursuit. Banned in Britain and most American states, prize- fighting was pushed to the margins. John L. Sullivan changed all that. The “Boston Strong Boy” popularised boxing almost single-handedly, and in the process became its first superstar. Crucially, he also gave the sport mainstream respectability. Finally, he ruled the fistic world at a time when bare-knuckle prize-fights gradually gave way to glove contests under Marquis of Queensberry rules. In short, boxing’s modern era began with John L. Sullivan.
The second question, which is all about the integrity of the heavyweight title, is a thorny one. When James J. Jeffries retired undefeated in 1905, he nominated which two boxers should fight for the right to succeed him. Jeffries was an unabashed racist, and it was no surprise that he named two indifferent white fighters, Marvin Hart and Jack Root, overlooking the claims of the crop of brilliant black heavyweights that was around at the time. The greatest of these, Jack Johnson, got a second chance three years later. Others, such as Sam Langford – a boxer thought by some to be on a par with Johnson – weren’t so lucky.
60 years later, a different kind of travesty took place, one sanctioned by the sport’s governing body itself. The World Boxing Association stripped
Muhammad Ali of the title for the heinous crime of agreeing to a rematch with Sonny Liston. The WBA conducted its own tournament and duly installed the winner, Ernie Terrell, as champion. This was the first egregious decision on the part of the boxing authorities; it wasn’t to be the last. Since the 1970s, there have been long periods – farcical periods – in which rival organisations have trumpeted their own champions. Vested interests have made unification fights all too rare a sighting in the sporting calendar.
The underlying principle of this website can be expressed in the words that Riddick Bowe used in 1992, when he became the latest champion to have the title taken from him by a bureaucrat, not an opponent. Bowe said: “Boxing titles are won and lost in the ring. In order to be a champion you must fight a champion and beat a champion. “Wherever a fork in the championship road has occurred, we have sought to apply the Bowe test in determining which path to follow.
Woven into the thread of the heavyweight championship over the past 120 years are some of the greats of the lower divisions. Boxers of the stature up of Georges Carpentier, the glamorous French light-heavyweight who brought women flocking to the ring in the post-World War One era; Sugar Ray Robinson, the welterweight and middleweight champion of the 1940s and 1950s who is still widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time; and Robinson’s namesake, Sugar Ray Leonard, who in the 1980s joined Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns as the only two fighters in history to have held world titles at five different weights.
But the main focal point remains the heavyweight crown, and the circuitous route by which it has passed from John L. Sullivan to Lennox Lewis. Accompanying the detailed commentary are more than 600 stunning photographs from the Daily Mail archives, many reproduced for the first time. Together they describe a 120-year journey, one which is punctuated with triumph and heartbreak. It makes for unremittingly compelling theatre. The dramatis personae are men of enormous courage and skill. The ring is their stage. The stories are of men prepared to risk all for the ultimate sporting prize.