Catch 22–A History of Boxing Catchweight Fights

To the Sporting Editor of the Enquirer:
I am prepared to make a match
To fight any man breathing for any
sum from $1000 to $10,000 at catch weights
This challenge is specially
directed at Paddy Ryan.

John L. Sullivan

Catchweight” or “contract weight” fights of course began long before Sully penned his challenges to his peers of the day, but to hear today’s typical boxing fan on a rant, catchweights are killing boxing when extra title belts and promoters ain’t killing boxing.

“If we could just get back to one belt and only the best fighting the best when men were men and on and on, over and over,” and so it goes on life’s wonderful merry-go-round.

Well, to be clear, the average fight fan is a rather unstudied lot, but then boxing as a business does little to educate the public as to the history of the sport, so in context, it is as it always was and forever shall be.

Promoters of course love catchweights for expanding the pool of prospective matchups that can be made and fighters themselves often jump when a lucrative opportunity presents itself, so let’s take a look at some of the bigger “catchweight” fights.

Kid Lavigne@131.5 vs Joe Walcott@131.5

Staged December 2nd, 1895 in Queens, New York, Barbados Joe Walcott was a squat, blocky welterweight in need of a big fight, so enter the manager of undefeated The Saginaw Kid Lavigne with a catchweight offer at 15 rounds, won by Lavigne by way of another stipulation of lasting the distance. Walcott’s manager put all his money in Walcott knocking out Lavigne. Keep in mind that the welter and lightweight limits were less by a few pounds than they are today and Walcott was coming off an open bout needing no weight limit and was at 138 lbs for that bout. They staged the rematch 2 yrs later with the Kid doing the honors, knocking out Barbados Joe who weighed 135 lbs for this bout.

Joe Gans@131 vs Battling Nelson@131lbs

Nelson vs Gans

Nelson vs Gans

This was Tex Rickard’s first big fight that established him as one of the greatest promoters ever, and what a dandy it was. Staged September 3rd, 1906 in the Nevada gold mining town of Goldfield, Rickard showcased the $33,000 purse as gold coins in the local bank’s store window, attracting the sporting crowds from all corners of the country.

Joe Gans was incrementally the bigger man, so Battling Nelson wouldn’t fight him without a weight stipulation of 131 lbs, being such a stickler that his camp insisted on weighing Gans at ringside just before the first bell. After 42 rounds of give and take action, Nelson had taken enough of a beating, delivering a blow so low and obvious that he was disqualified. Now I see Boxrec has “edited” the weights again along with the purse, so now the account of the fight is in disagreement with their record, but such are the always moving goalposts of boxing history. The point remains, Gans/Nelson fight is always reported as a catchweight fight.

Harry Lewis@149 vs Johnny Summers@141

Lewis vs Summers

Lewis vs Summers

Harry Lewis is an undersung fighter who held a portion of the welterweight title after the turn of the century. Staged January 25th, 1911 in London, England, the contracted weight was 144 lbs. Lewis was well over and paid a forfeit before knocking out Summers in the 4th round. He then announced he was moving up to middleweight where he finished his career. Fight conditions were very similar to the Mayweather/Marquez bout.

Henry Armstrong@142 vs Ceferino Garcia@153½

The Battle

Staged March 1st, 1940, this is a storied bout touted as Armstrong’s attempt to claim his 4th belt, but the truth of the matter is that only the state of California appeared to recognize the title, which, surprise, was split to smithereens! I see no indication it was reported as a catchweight fight, but I included it because in essence the conditions were near mirror image of the Pacquiao/Margarito fight.

Armstrong was well below the welter limit as was Pacquiao, and lifelong welterweight Garcia well below the middle limit, as was the Margarito career and weight. Some important differences are that Garcia did actually hold a portion of the middle title as recognized by the NYASC by beating Fred Apostoli, but the California fight was only for 10 rds, Another difference is the era with fighters like Margarito enhanced by modern weigh-in rules that give them as much as 36 hours to replenish fluids and nutrients before the fight. Margarito weighed a reported 167lbs in the ring, dwarfing Armstrong, Pacquiao, Garcia and most pre 90s middleweights in size.

Sugar Ray Leonard@165 vs  Donny Lalonde@167

Staged at Ceasars PalaceNovember 7th in Las Vegas, Nevada, this fight had all the media hype of a typical Leonard fight plus much more thanks to creative manipulations by the WBC that allowed Leonard to challenge for both the supermiddleweight and LaLonde’s lightheavy title simultaneously in spite of neither making the LH limit. The well drained LaLonde was coming on strong, on the verge of knocking out Leonard before visibly running out of steam and being flattened in the 9th round. It was a good scrap, but emblematic of the extremes of what “catchweight” fights can go to. LaLonde was never the same after this, campaigning at cruiserweight to finish out his career.

Oscar De La Hoya@155 vs  Bernard Hopkins@156

Staged September 18th, 2004 at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, the catchweight was actually at 158lbs, but Hopkins, having given up near every concession to the Goldenboy of boxing, got in his first shot early on by scaling in 2lbs below the contracted weight. He got in the last shot as well, flooring the surprisingly competitive De La Hoya with a left hook to the liver that kept him down for the 10 count in the 9th round.

Pretty much similar to the history of the thousands of catchweight fights in that there was seldom any controversy over the catchweight. That is until that modern subspecies, The Shiny Crusted Homo Petardis, started streaming(screaming) into cyberspace.

So now with promoters aware that even a minor controversy sells, it looks like catchweights will be proliferating for better or worse into the foreseeable future of boxing.

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