Uncrowned Champions

By Tom Donelson, BASN boxing writer
Updated: October 12, 2011

IOWA CITY, IOWA, (BASN)–-Uncrowned Champions by Don Cogswell and JJ Johnston reflected upon great boxers who never got the opportunity to fight for a crown for various reason, mostly based on the color of their skin, lack of connection with the right promoters or they were simply too good.

Mr. Cogswell and Johnston do make one point about boxing that often ignored, boxing often was ahead of the curve when it came to giving minorities and immigrants a shot at the glory, money and championship belts long before society as a whole accepted African-Americans into the mainstream. Some forty years before Jackie Robinson was allowed to play baseball and Blacks were integrated in the armed forces, there were black champions and many black fighters were in the same ring as their white counterpart.

Mr. Cogswell and Johnston also note the nuances in race relations and that adhering to the color line was not as simple or easy as many thought. The first case study was the Peter Jackson, a man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee long before Muhammad Ali was even born. Born in the West Indies, Jackson migrated to Australia where he first made his mark. After wiping out opponents in Australia, Jackson moved to the United States where the champion John L Sullivan ignored Jackson’s appeal for a title shot. There was one man who wanted a shot at Sullivan and that was James Corbett, who chose to fight Jackson in a classic 61 round fight that neither men were declared the winner. Corbett got his title shot in which he defeated an aging Sullivan, who suffered from a life of living in too many bars and lack of activity.

Jackson viewed this his opportunity but negotiations bogged down with Corbett willing to keep the color line plus his own insistence that the fight be held in the South whereas Jackson wanted it held overseas. Jackson viewed a fight in the segregated South as a losing proposition where he felt he could never get a fair shake. Jackson moved on to fight for the British Commonwealth title and then he drifted away from the boxing scene to be involved in the theater. (Cogswell and Johnston observed that many fighters involved themselves in theater, including Corbett and Sullivan.) Jackson starred in Uncle Tom Cabin and during the show; Jackson held a boxing exhibition to remind audience of his boxing origin.

Jackson went back to the boxing but lost to future champion Jim Jefferies after a six year absence and his career was over. Another victim of the racial line was Harry Will, a solid boxer who was in line to challenge Jack Dempsey in the early 20’s. After the era of Jack Johnson was over, another color line was drawn. Sam Langford and Harry Wills wanted their shot at Jess Willard, the conqueror of Jack Johnson, but Jack Dempsey got the shot and ended the Willard’s era and the Dempsey era began. Tex Rickard, boxing most powerful promoter, made it clear he was not interested in another black heavyweight championship, much of it due to racism but also due to economic concern that black heavyweights were bad for business. Any attempt to get Dempsey to fight Wills was thwarted by Rickard.

However as the authors noted, not everyone in boxing felt the same way as Rickard as the state of New York told Dempsey that unless he fought Wills, there would be no license to fight in New York. Another factoid that I found interesting was that Wills actually got more money than Jack Sharkey for their fight, something that rarely happened as Blacks often were paid less than their white counterparts. The authors felt that the Will-Dempsey fight would have been an exciting fight but we will never know who would have won. Harry Wills was one of boxing great fighters but he never got a chance to prove his mettle. Another interesting aspect was that the color line was not just drawn by white fighters as Jack Johnson never gave the leading black fighters a shot at his title and Sam Langford was one of those fighters who was not just denied a shot at the title by not just White fighters and promoters but by Jack Johnson. Johnson had two reasons for this; one was economic since he felt he could make more money beating white fighters. The second reason was that Johnson wasn’t about to risk his title for low pay against fighters who could actually beat him. Langford was not just black but he was just too skillful.

Charlie Burley was another fighter too good for his own good as many champions simply said no thanks and one fighter, Fritzie Zivic and his team bought Burley contract to keep Burley from fighting their guy. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson wanted nothing to do with Burley.

As the century progressed, racism was replaced by other factors keeping talented black fighters from championship contention and one important item was knowing the right promoters. With mob controlling boxing from the 30’s to the 50’s, many fighters were denied their fair shot if their team was not well connected.

Fighters like Jimmy Bevins, Holman Williams, and Lloyd Marshall were denied championship shots not due to the skills but to a variety of reasons which included racism, not being well enough connected and just being too good as they were avoided. Boxing promoters controlled the sport and could deny who they wanted and mob influence ensured that only the right fighter could or would get shot. Fighters like George Godfrey, a great heavyweight who fought shortly before Joe Louis era, found sometimes it was more profitable to take dives than to fight.

The authors often interspersed historical moment to put the fighters’ career into perspective and the last chapter was as good of explanation of how boxing moved into the present era of multiple champions and expansion of the various sanctioning body. One big moment that changed boxing was the WBA decision to strip Ali of his title in which many of the leaders of the organization kept setting up fights between fighters who often just lost a fight. The WBA decision to strip Ali of his title after his victory over Liston was hardly recognized and Ernie Terrell was simply ignored by the sporting public. (Ali beat Terrell in a “unification” bout in 1967 in one of Ali’s more sadistic movement in the ring.) The WBC, a boxing organization originating in South and Central America, became a force in its own right when it continued to recognize the lineal champion Muhammad Ali and many boxing fans simply ignored the WBA edict. From there, boxing simply slipped down the slippery slope where everyone and their uncle set up their boxing organization and decided to charge fighters for sanctioning fees to fatten up their wallets while promoters used the sanctioning bodies to promote their fighters at the expense of other and often more deserving fighters.

There is one good thing concerning these bodies; talented fighters rarely are denied a championship shots. Fighters like Charlie Burley would have flock of titles and the idea of a great fighters sitting on the sideline would be almost impossible. So while boxing have inflated their titles and making it less worthwhile; fighters like Burley would have been allowed to fight for at least one title.

The authors included some excellent art work by the late Robert Carson while providing an excellent history on some of boxing greats, great fighters denied their chance of boxing immortality as champions but given their due in this book.