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Champions & Guessing Games

One of the harder things a fight game observer can do is accurately predict the nature and duration of a new champion's reign. We are fooled time and again. The powerful knockout artists for whom the masses predict record-shattering reigns are exposed as one-dimensional bullies and sent reeling back into the flotsam. Others, who appeared mediocre contenders on the way up, who maybe stumble into the title picture by the graces of luck and timing and an aged champion's decaying reflexes, bloom into fine, dignified champions themselves long in tenure by the end. Others scrape every bit that they can from their humble skills and talents and emerge by the end respected, which is more than any of them thought they'd get going into it.

Don't let the portrayal of Max Baer in the Hollywood film, "Cinderella Man" fool you: Everybody loved Baer going into his heavyweight title fight with champion Primo Carnera in June 1934. He was Hollywood-handsome, charming, and a constant cut-up whose clowning and media-friendly demeanor made him a national darling. They loved him also because he could punch like hell with the right hand. The 52,268 fans who attended the fight at Long Island City's Madison Square Garden Bowl were there to see him take out Carnera, a giant oaf who was amiable, well connected and almost criminally untalented. Baer didn't disappoint, flooring Carnera 11 times before referee Arthur Donovan stopped it in the 11th round.

Writers called Baer the next Jack Dempsey. Experts tripped all over themselves courting his favor and yammering about how there wasn't a heavyweight who could touch him, and that included a young tiger coming up named Joe Louis. It would be a long and glorious reign and Baer's right hand would make it so. He would reign for years and years. Only he didn't.

In his very first title defense, Jimmy Braddock, a journeyman of meager talents but great ambition, and a 10-1 underdog, took Baer to school over 15 rounds. Baer broke his right thumb along the way and a bone in his left wrist too, but it might not have mattered. The same careless attitude and tendency toward frivolity that made him so much fun to be around and so charismatic made him also an erratic and inconsistent heavyweight whose great and glorious reign was over before it started.

Neither Sonny Liston nor George Foreman was as popular in their primes as Baer was in his, but both brought fear into the hearts of their opponents and predictions from the experts that their title reigns would last 10 years or more. Judging by how the two looked while winning the heavyweight title against Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, respectively, you almost couldn't blame the experts for over-shooting the way they did.

After years spent as Patterson's top challenger, Liston finally got his shot in September 1962 and annihilated the champion in less than a round. "I felt enough of him under my glove on that last hook to know it was a good enough punch to put any man down hard," Liston said afterward. In a rematch 10 months later, Patterson lasted four seconds longer. Foreman was no less impressive 11 years later against the undefeated Frazier, whom he dropped six times before referee Arthur Mercante finally stopped it in the second round. In neither case did it appear there was a heavyweight capable of knocking either slugger off the throne. Who could have guessed then that the same guy would do it to both Liston and Foreman -- 10 years apart?

For his very first defense, Liston chose loudmouth contender Cassius Clay. It seemed a safe move; Clay had beaten no one in Liston's league and figured to be blown out quickly, just as Patterson had been. A 7-1 underdog whom 43 of 46 sportswriters predicted would get stopped, Clay outboxed Liston and embarrassed him into quitting on his stool after the seventh round.

End of reign. Number of successful title defenses: one. Foreman did only marginally better 10 years later. After his blowout of Frazier he stopped no-hoper Joe Roman in a round and then demolished Ken Norton in two in Venezuela. By this time Cassius Clay had grown into Muhammad Ali, and he was too much for Foreman, stopping him in eight rounds in Kinshasa, Zaire. End of reign. Number of successful title defenses: two. Thus, two of the most feared heavyweight champions in modern history could manage just three defenses between them and a combined reign of 37 months. Hardly the decade-long reign that was predicted for them.

No one predicted a long reign for Lupe Pintor -- or any reign for that matter. Going into his title fight with feared, 54-1 (53) bantamweight bomber Carlos Zarate in June 1979, Pintor was a serviceable 38-4 (32) and a prohibitive underdog. He was capable, but not in Zarate's league. Nothing happened during the fight to change that perception; Zarate scored a knockdown in round four and though Pintor stunned him with a hook in the 11th, most observers saw Zarate as the clear winner (the Associated Press had him winning by a score of 147-138). However, two judges scored the bout 143-142 for Pintor, while the third had Zarate up 145-133.

"How can there be 12 points difference between two judges watching the same fight?" one of Zarate's handlers asked afterward. It was a question that deserved an answer, but there wasn't time; Zarate was so disgusted with the decision he retired, and Pintor got about the business of defending the title he wasn't supposed to have won and probably wouldn't have had the fight been scored correctly (or honestly). That meant eight title defenses over the next three years. That doesn't make him a record-breaker, but it's more title defenses than Jack Dempsey made, or Gene Tunney or Ezzard Charles. Not that Pintor was as good as any of those legends, or is even close to them. Multiple titles and superfluous weight classes have made it possible for men who wouldn't have been champions 60 years ago to enjoy long reigns today. And for a guy like Pintor, who shouldn't have been there in the first place, it wasn't bad at all.

Writers called Baer the next Jack Dempsey. Experts tripped all over themselves courting his favor and yammering about how there wasn't a heavyweight who could touch him, and that included a young tiger coming up named Joe Louis. It would be a long and glorious reign and Baer's right hand would make it so. He would reign for years and years. Only he didn't.

There are some champions who hold onto their title by the proverbial thread, time after time, and often it has to do with the quality of their challengers. World middleweight champion Jermain Taylor could have begun his reign with a couple of knockouts over the C-level type fighters he flattened while rising through the ranks. Instead he chose a much harder route. After barely outpointing long-reining kingpin Bernard Hopkins to win the title, he retained it by an even slimmer margin in their rematch. Next came a disputed draw against master boxer Winky Wright, one of the best defensive fighters in the game. He beat junior middleweight beltholder Kassim Ouma handily, if not terribly impressively, and then struggled while winning an entirely desultory decision over former welterweight champion Cory Spinks. That's four title defenses, and not one of them an especially impressive performance.

Of course, Taylor isn't the first champion to get off to a rocky start, or even the first middleweight champion to do so. James Toney, who eventually would briefly hold an alphabet strap at heavyweight, and whom most agree is a future hall of fame member, had a mostly feeble middleweight title reign. Even its beginning was unimpressive. IBF titlist Michael Nunn was a 20-1 favorite in their title fight in May 1991 and was giving Toney a boxing lesson through most of the fight. Toney has never lacked for confidence, however, and halfway through the bout told his corner, "He's breathing like a freight train. I got him." He was behind on the cards by scores of 97-93, 99-91 and 98-92 when he finally caught up to Nunn in the 11th round and knocked him out.

Toney's first defense was almost a disaster; he had to rise from a second-round knockdown to score an unimpressive split decision win over challenger Reggie Johnson. More tough nights followed: a draw with the wonderful body puncher Mike McCallum; a highly controversial and unpopular decision win over journeyman Dave Tiberi, which had observers calling for a Congressional inquiry; and three fights later, another close win over McCallum. There were impressive wins over lesser fighters sprinkled in among the nail-biters, but Toney almost never dominated a higher-level challenger until he rose to super middleweight and above.

Taylor and others like him shouldn't fret too much about not under-achieving early in their title reigns. Evander Holyfield is recognized as a legend and for good reason; he is the greatest example of over-achieving that we have in the game today. But like Toney and like Taylor, his distinct reigns as heavyweight titleholder are marked with inconsistency. At cruiserweight, he was as dominant as champion in history. At heavyweight, not so much. The reign that began with a resounding, one-punch kayo of Mike Tyson-conqueror Buster Douglas eventually devolved into a series of disappointing wins and then losses.

Holyfield's first defense came against Foreman, who at 42 years old gave Holyfield, 28 and in the prime of his life, some anxious moments on the way to losing a unanimous decision in a competitive fight. Next came journeyman Bert Cooper, against whom Holyfield won every moment except for a span in the third, when Cooper hurt and floored him. Next came another 42 year-old legend in Larry Holmes, who cut Holyfield and, like Foreman, was competitive with Holyfield the whole way.

"Larry Holmes had more than I thought he had," Holyfield said. "He was able to turn his body when I hit him. He was so slippery." Slippery or not, Holyfield looked awful and the critics showed him no mercy. In his next fight Riddick Bowe dethroned "The Real Deal," but that wasn't the end of Holyfield's story. It was just the end of his first heavyweight championship reign, which had gone nothing like had been predicted. That's the way it goes in this business: fighters get better or worse as champions, contenders become dangerous challengers at the unlikeliest times and we try to make sense out of it. Surely by now we should know better.

I felt enough of him under my glove on that last hook to know it was a good enough punch to put any man down hard," Liston said afterward. In a rematch 10 months later, Patterson lasted four seconds longer.

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