Tag Archives: Joe Gans

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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Stars & Stripes, An Independence Day Centennial Review, July, 4, 1910

It’s coming up on the centennial anniversary of the Jack Johnson/Jim Jeffries Fight of the Century, July 4th, 1910.

Raise the Flag

The importance of the order of their names cannot be understated since the aftermath of the fight has seen the reputation of Jack Johnson spike beyond the standard ring legend just as assuredly as Jeffries’ own formidable reputation was left as battered and bruised as he was on the ring apron after 15 rounds of being slowly skewered over the slow roasting fire that Johnson brought to the ring that fateful Independence day.

Look for the usual crusted suspects dating back from the Jurassic era of boxing to be trotted out for the usual stock quotations and tales mixed in with liberal doses of Howard Sackler’s broadway hit, The Great White Hope, the defacto biography of Jack Johnson by way of the larger lazy media.

Slow Dance

Since most accept that the fight itself was a dud, Jeffries was quickly out of clues and out of steam after just a few rounds, how did this fight become so big that spontaneous rioting broke across the American landscape for over a week afterwards?

Much of the dubious credit belongs to Jack London and the prevailing white supremist press of the day who so willingly hyped this ring encounter into a morality play between the battle of the races.

London was the bastard son of the western US frontier, born in San Francisco in the era of John L Sullivan, and raised in a hard scrabble, self educated, itinerant fashion to become a prolific author of books and magazine articles. He famously issued the clarion call that ultimately roused Jeffries from his alfalfa farm to “wipe the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”

Jack London & Charmian

Jack London & Charmian

London was part of the prevailing progressive “socialist labor” movement of the day, and was not shy about examining racial profiles in print, having previously alerted the public to the 1904 menace of “the yellow peril,” a theme that later became the subject of an ambitious science fiction piece he wrote in 1910 called The Unparalleled Invasion, taking place in the futuristic 1975.

Hmmm, might have to review that forgotten work at a later date.

That Jeffries was the overwhelming favorite in spite of being some 6 years removed from boxing and having to shed some 100lbs speaks to the power of the white supremacy movement. John L Sullivan covered the bout for the New York Times was not suckered however, nor was Jeffries himself who could sense John L’s less than enthusiastic assessment of his chances against Johnson and accused him of being in cahoots with Johnson.

Golden Jack

Golden Jack

How Johnson arrived at the point of his biggest fight ever against a ring legend is the stuff of his own self promotional guile where he willingly embraced terrible insults so as to deflect them with the greatest possible humor in the ring for all to see. That persona became the myth promoted by Nat Fleischer, and later that of the other previously mentioned author, Howard Sackler. Johnson became this unbeatable fighter, the likes whom has never been equaled in the ring, only brought down by the legal apparatus of the white establishment.

Yet it was the rusting hulk of Jeffries who was widely considered invincible when he entered the ring that fateful July 4th, 1910. Contrary to modern revisionism, Jeffries was more than willing to fight the prevailing black contenders of the day, with almost a quarter of his record against black contenders. When he affixed the gaze of his formidable bulk on Johnson from across the ring before the bell, it must have been a chilling, “MAN or a mouse” moment for Johnson in spite of his outward sunny confidence.

Jeff was the forgone KO bludgeoner of his day. Nobody could stand against him for the duration.

Ironman Jeff

Ironman Jeff

Thirteen unlucky years previous, sunny James J. Corbett had been dethroned by a single devastating punch by the scowling Bob Fitzsimmons in Reno in the the first ever “Fight of the Century.” Boxing remains the only sport where one single scouring action, THE KNOCKOUT, can wipe out a scoring shutout in a nanosecond, nothing for sunny dispositions to be trifling with.

This sunny day in Nevada, however, proved to be the sunny day that smiled upon the sunny disposition of Jack Johnson, forever altering boxing history, and indeed, the modern interpretation of US history. The Johnson victory is acclaimed as a seminal moment in black boxing history in spite of there being previously acclaimed black boxing champions, George Dixon, Barbados Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, and Joe Gans, all Hall of Famers.

Johnson netted the lion’s share to the winner, a staggering $115,000 with Jeffries allotted some $90,000, near as much as his entire career earnings as champion, thus proving the real impetus for his return to the ring. Both can thank the hyperbole of Jack London, who to his credit, showered Johnson with all just due praises in his victory, as did Jeffries who proved to be a gracious loser.

Alas, poor Jack Johnson, we had only barely gotten to know him before he ran afoul of the Mann Act, fled the country, and eventually was dethroned and receded into the background like so many great champions before him.

Today, run Jack Johnson through the internet search engines and you’ll more likely end up with Jack Johnson, the modern day Hawaiian musician, not the boxer, but such are the slings and arrows of modern internet memory. Jim Jeffries has been morphed into a modern comedian, the barest shadow of what used to be the truest grit of a man’s character, mano a mano in the ring with no quarter asked, just a fair referee and a handshake on the purse.

It wasn’t the greatest of fights, but thank you Lord for the fighting souls of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries this 4th of July, 2010.

We should be so lucky to be remembered 100 yrs hence.

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