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Heavyweight Title Unification: A History

Heavyweight title unification fights are seen mostly as a phenomenon of the most recent eras of pro boxing. And for the most part they are.

There exists a whole generation of fans that have no sense of the precision and logic manifest in a single world heavyweight champion. But splintering of the world title is not as recent as one might think; it occurred for the first time in the modern era at the hands of a sanctioning body 42 years ago. As governing bodies proliferated and grew in influence over the years, so too did the existence of multiple heavyweight "champions," to the point that one must acknowledge finally that for as long as there are several, there really are none. What follows is a history of the sport's several attempts to restore the dignity of the heavyweight title by identifying one man as its keeper.

Muhammad Ali W 15 Ernie Terrell
Date: February 6, 1967
Site: The Astrodome, Houston Texas

Before: Though virtually everyone recognizes Ali as the world champion, technically the title has been splintered since September of 1965, when the WBA stripped Ali for granting an immediate rematch to Sonny Liston, whom Ali had defeated the year before to win the championship. When Terrell beat Eddie Machen, he won the WBA heavyweight title, which he defended twice in two years. During that same stretch, Ali defended the world title seven times. Terrell elicits Ali's ire by repeatedly referring him to as "Cassius Clay."

During: Terrell's three-inch height advantage and monstrous 82-inch reach do him no good against Ali's lightning speed and mobility. He does well enough over the first four rounds but by the fifth Ali's blinding speed has taken him out of the fight. Ali wins the next 10 rounds on every card, battering Terrell relentlessly, closing and cutting both of his eyes and repeatedly taunting him with the question, "What's my name?" He wins a lopsided decision by the scores of 148-133 and 148-137 (twice).

After: Many excoriate Ali for punishing Terrell and appearing unnecessarily cruel. Ali responds by saying, "The only thing I regret is that I didn't knock him out." Terrell would have been better off; three days later he undergoes surgery to repair a broken bone around his left eye. He never wins another major fight and retires in 1973. Ali defends the championship once more, against Zora Folley in New York, before being stripped of the title and losing his license for refusing induction in the United States Army.

Joe Frazier KO 4 Jimmy Ellis
Date: February 16, 1970
Site: Madison Square Garden, New York

Before: When Ali's license was revoked, the WBA mandated a tournament to determine its new champion. Ellis beat Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry to claim the title and then retained it with an unpopular decision over former champ Floyd Patterson. The New York Commission, along with several other states, opted out of the WBA plan and ordered a match between one-time amateur rivals Buster Mathis and Frazier. Frazier stopped Mathis in 11 rounds in March 1968, and defended his share of the title four times.

During: Frazier, 6-1 favorite, starts slowly as always, losing the first round and almost the second. He starts landing the hook in the third and Ellis quickly unravels. He pummels Ellis throughout the third and walks through Ellis' meek counters. In the fourth a series of ripping combinations topped off by a left hook drop Ellis in the center of the ring. Another booming hook drops him again moments later. Ellis is all but dragged to his corner by trainer Angelo Dundee, who, after a few moments, tells the referee to stop the fight.

After: "He wanted to continue," says Dundee, "but he wasn't responding to my questions. He was fighting the other guy's fight, so I stopped the fight." Frazier, seeming to acknowledge that he won't be the true champion until he beats Muhammad Ali, says, "I'm going to sing rock and roll until that Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay, or whatever his name is, can fight me."

Joe Frazier W 15 Muhammad Ali
Date: March 8, 1971
Site: Madison Square Garden, New York

Before: In the strictest terms this is not a unification match; Ali's forced "retirement" had resulted in a series of fights that produced a single champion in Frazier. Ali's supporters (and of course, Ali himself) argue correctly that he never was beaten in the ring and had been wrongly banned. So in a figurative sense, and certainly in the fighters' minds, this is every bit a fight to determine the "real" heavyweight champion. At any rate, after unifying the title, technically, against Ellis, Frazier defended against Bob Foster, whom he stopped in two rounds. In the meantime, Ali had been granted a license by the state of Georgia, and, in his first fight in three and a half years, stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds. Two months later he stopped Oscar Bonavena in 15 rounds in New York, thus setting up the biggest fight since the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rematch 33 years earlier.

During: In one of the great heavyweight battles, Ali takes the early rounds by peppering the onrushing Frazier with blazing combinations. He's not as sleek or as fast as he used to be, but early on he's good enough and takes an early lead. Frazier's relentless pressure wears on him though, and by the middle rounds he spends long periods resting on the ropes, where he is hammered by Frazier's left hooks. Frazier almost floors him with a left hook in the 11th, and then succeeds in dropping him with a hook to the jaw in the 15th. Ali rises quickly and lasts the round but loses a unanimous decision by scores of 8-6-1, 9-6, and 11-4.

After: His face a swollen mask of bruises and lumps, Frazier says, "I was there to do a job. I was gonna get that job done, and nothing could have stopped me. If he had a couple of nine-millimeters (guns), I would have walked right through them."

Mike Tyson W 12 Tony Tucker
Date: August 1, 1987
Site: Hilton Center, Las Vegas, Nevada

Before: The heavyweight title remained unified until 1978, when the WBC stripped Leon Spinks for agreeing to an immediate rematch with Ali, and Ali vacated the WBA title. For almost a decade, the WBA title passed from one average heavyweight to another, while the excellent Larry Holmes defended the WBC belt. When Holmes accepted the IBF belt in 1983, the title was broken into thirds and remained that way until Tyson, who won the WBC title in 1986, added the WBA belt by beating James Smith. Tucker had claimed the IBF title by stopping Buster Douglas. The undefeated Tyson is an 8-1 favorite going in.

During: Tucker rocks an onrushing Tyson with a left uppercut in the first round. He fractures his right hand in round two and for the rest of the fight he boxes cautiously from the outside and clinches and grabs whenever Tyson gets close. He is successful in spurts and lasts the distance but Tyson's strength and the thudding power punches he lands before Tucker can tie him up lead him to a unanimous decision win by scores of 119-111, 118-113, and 116-112. After: "I wasn't really happy with my performance because I was trying my best to punch inside but I guess it wasn't together today," Tyson says. "He was very intimated and did a great deal of holding." About the significance of having just unified the title, Tyson says, "I knew I was the heavyweight champion when I beat Berbick." Either way, there's a single heavyweight champion again and boxing is better for it.

Lennox Lewis D 12 Evander Holyfield
Date: March 13, 1999
Site: Madison Square Garden, New York

Before: A full 12 years since the last unification fight, the title is split again and has been for a while. Lewis claimed the WBC title by proclamation after Riddick Bowe vacated it. Holyfield claimed the WBA belt by beating Tyson, and added the IBF crown with a stoppage of Michael Moorer. This is a big fight: 21,284 fans (roughly 7,000 of whom traveled from England) pack The Garden to see the heavyweight title unified for the first time in seven years.

During: Lewis appears to dominate from the opening bell, boxing from the outside and keeping Holyfield at arms length with long, thumping left jabs. He occasionally follows with right hands which, while never appearing to seriously hurt Holyfield, make him reluctant to charge inside, where he must be to get work done. At the end Lewis appears the obvious winner, but the judges score the bout 115-113 for Holyfield, 116-113 for Lewis, and 115-115.

After: "It was plain robbery and that is what hurts boxing every time it starts to make a step forward," says Lewis' trainer, Emanuel Steward. "I think they should have a federal investigation. A fight of this magnitude for the undisputed heavyweight championship, in New York City, millions and millions of people paying millions and millions of dollars just to see bull___." The vast majority of boxing media and viewers agree. Holyfield says, "I can't be the judge and fight at the same time. It's real simple: people around the ring are not the judges."

Lennox Lewis W 12 Evander Holyfield
Date: November 13, 1999
Site: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nevada

Before: The presidents of the three major sanctioning bodies order the rematch, which comes eight months after the first bout. Lewis is a clear favorite based on his performance the first time these two met. At fight time Holyfield will be just a few days shy of his 37th birthday. Few believe that at his age he will be able to overcome Lewis' youth and physical advantages. Holyfield is undeterred: he says God told him in the weeks before the bout that he will stop Lewis in the third round.

During: Over the first six rounds it resembles the first fight, with Lewis controlling things with his jab. However, Holyfield is far more active this time, and in the seventh he lands a hard left hook that appears to shake Lewis, who holds on. Holyfield does well enough in the middle rounds and the two engage in several rousing exchanges. Down the stretch Lewis wears Holyfield down by leaning on him inside and scoring with right uppercuts. The decision for Lewis is unanimous by scores of 116-112, 117-111, and 115-113.

After: "I hit him good a couple of times," Holyfield says. "He was able to come back after I hit him with a couple of good shots. The big thing in life is you have to give your all." Recalling the outcome of their first fight, Lewis says, "I'm glad the scoring was like it was. Now there is no doubt." About unifying the heavyweight title, he adds: "With all this on the line coming in, I knew I had to unify the belts. Now I'm going to chill out and enjoy the moment." The title is unified for a painfully short period of time. When Lewis signs to fight rising contender Michael Grant next instead of WBA mandatory John Ruiz, he is stripped of the WBA title. The world heavyweight title has remained splintered - and therefore vacant - ever since.

Two heavyweight boxers fighting

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