“They said I was only a glove fighter and I was afraid of the bare knuckles. For that reason, I consented to fight Ryan as I did. I think I have proved that I can fight with my knuckles, and now anyone who wants to tackle me will have to do it in my fashion. I will not fight again with the bare knuckles because I do not wish to put myself in a position amenable to the law. Fist-fighting days are over with me. I have introduced the new rules of fighting to this country and I intend to stand by them.”
That statement was issued by John Lawrence Sullivan in 1882 after knocking out Paddy Ryan within nine-rounds. The ‘Boston Strong Boy’ is the first recognized lineal heavyweight champion in the gloved-era and the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion, universally known as “The Man who Beat the Man”.
Although, the Marquis Queensberry rules were not introduced until 1885 – a code of generally accepted rules in the sport of boxing – Sullivan did in fact participate in the last bare-knuckle heavyweight title fight which lasted 75-rounds against Jake Kilrain in 1889.
Officially, the Cyber Boxing Zone (CBZ) acknowledge John L. Sullivan as the first Heavyweight Champion under the Queensberry Rules after his victory against Dominick McCaffery in 1885. Sully was eventually dethroned by a 21st round knockout upset by James J. Corbett at the Olympic Club, New Orleans in 1892.
The new champion made just one defense of the title in a 5-year period – boxing was outlawed in most states during that time – he was stopped with a “solar plexus” punch in the 14th round by British boxing legend Bob Fitzsimmons.
Fitzsimmons become the lightest heavyweight champion in history but lost his title in 1899 to James J. Jeffries who will later be budded America’s ‘Great White Hope’, in the Jack Johnson era.
Jeffries held his title until retiring in 1905 after defeating Corbet twice and Fitzsimmons for a second time in a brutal fight were the Brit was in complete control until he was knocked out with a left-hand in the 8th round.
After six years of dominance Jeffries stepped aside leaving the Heavyweight title vacant for the first time since its existence. It was decided that after a victory over Jack Johnson in 1905 that Marvin Hart deserved a shot against top-ranked Jack Root who had already beaten Hart 3-years prior. With Jefferies officiating the fight in Reno, Nevada, ‘The Louisville Plumber’ knocked out Root in the 12th round.
Hart’s reign was short lived as underdog Tommy Burns who was (2-1) at the time won a 20-round decision and went on to defend his title eleven times, although some reports suggest thirteen, if the rumor of two defenses in one night were true?
In December 1908, Burns became the first heavyweight champion to agree a fight with an African American, and that opponent was none other than Jack Johnson. The fight was held in Sydney, Australia and it was stopped in the 14th round by the police. Referee Hugh McIntosh awarded the decision to Jack Johnson who became the first African American heavyweight champion, 6-years after lightweight Joe Gans became the first African American boxing champion.
The ‘Galveston Giant’ defended his title 10-times from 1908-1915 defeating significant opponents like Stanley Ketchel who had his front teeth knocked out and former champion labelled the ‘Great White Hope’ James J. Jefferies, who came of retirement to save the championship. Johnson dominated in a one-sided beat down before Jeffries was saved from further punishment by his corner when they threw in the towel.
Like in today’s era, some fighters are not given an opportunity to challenge for a world title. Sam Langford was the world colored heavyweight champion in 1913 and should have been given his shot but instead Johnson fought Battling Jim Johnson. In 1915, Johnson’s domination was brought to a shuttering end when he was knocked out in the 26th round by Jess Willard.
Although Willard fought several times, he only ever defended his title once against Frank Moran before Jack Dempsey became the first man to knock Willard down, in fact he knocked him down seven-times in round one before Willard retired on his stool in 1919.
Dempsey was a cultural icon in the 1920’s with many of his fights setting financial and attendance records, including the first million-dollar gate. Dempsey defended his title six-times with notable victories over Frenchmen Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons before losing a 10-round decision over Gene Tunney in 1926.
Tunney was only ever defeated once in his career by Harry Grebb before winning the world heavyweight title against Dempsey. He went on to defend against Dempsey a year later in the famous ‘Long Count Fight’ and stop Tom Heeney in 1928 before retiring as champion.
Like in 1905 when Jeffries retired as world heavyweight champion the title became vacant, but this time Tunney never came out of retirement to lose his title which created the first break in the heavyweight lineal timeline.
Check out the next installment of The Lineal Heavyweight Championship Timeline from 1928-1956. Don’t forget to listen-in to the Talkin Boxing with Billy C Show and follow me on Twitter@JohnnoSE23