I occasionally get someone asking me about how I started to write about boxing and although I can’t recall when I first wrote I can recall approximately when I first began to compile records of current boxers and that was in the late 1950’s. That started me thinking about what boxing was like in those days and who were the boxers who were in the twilight of their careers and which future legends were just starting out. As a pretty random choice I chose to look back to 1958.
One of the biggest differences was the absence of the WBC, IBF and WBO. The early forerunner of the WBA was there in the shape of the National Boxing Association but no one paid any attention to them and the New York Commission though it was the major force in boxing so they occasionally had their own “world” champions. If anyone it was Ring Magazine under Nat Fleischer who ruled on who the world champion was and most of the world went along with Ring’s judgement.
There were also only eight recognised divisions heavy. light heavy, middle, welter, light, feather, bantam and fly. There had been some flirting with other weight divisions such as super feather and light welter in the 1920’s and 30’s but generally speaking only the NBA and the New York Commission recognised them and they had died out and were not given any real recognition until revived in the early 1960’s.
With only eight divisions there were a lot less title fights in fact there were only ten world title fights in 1958. These days there are sometimes that many in a week. Some were classic such as Sugar Ray Robinson winning the middleweight title for the fifth time with points decision over Carmen Basilio and the incredible “Old Mongoose” Archie dragging himself off the canvas three times against Yvon Durelle in a dramatic first round and surviving on instinct alone then being down again in the fifth only to floor the tough Canadian four times before scoring a knockout in the eleventh round. There were also two top quality wins for “Old Bones” Joe Brown at lightweight over quality opposition in Ralph Dupas and Kenny Lane and Hogan “Kid” Bassey knocking out the knockout specialist Ricardo “Little Bird” Moreno to retain the featherweight title. Less edifying was the lone heavyweight title fight in which Floyd Patterson stopped Roy Harris a Texan from “Cut and Shoot”. Ticket prices for this event were $30 which would hardly buy you a programme these days, Patterson was wasting times with matches like this and the Pete Rademacher fight the previous year because his manager Cus D’Amato refused to do business with the International Boxing Club (IBC) which would very soon be revealed as being run behind the scenes by Mafia boss Frankie Carbo. There were two title fights at welter with Virgil Atkins beating Vince Martinez for the vacant title but then losing it to Jordan with Carbo’s influence again in the background. Flyweight legend Pascal Perez defended his flyweight title with wins over Ramon Arias in Venezuela, Arias was the first Venezuelan to fight for a world title, and Dommy Ursua in Manila. At the end of 1958 the diminutive 4’11” (150cm) Olympic gold medallist was 50-0-1 with 37 wins by KO/TKO and had made seven defences of his world title. Surely one of the greatest little men in the history of boxing. The bantam title was held by French-Algerian Alphonse Halimi but he made no defences in 1958 having broken Mexican hearts by outpointing the hugely popular Raul “Raton” Macias in November 1957
Heavyweights did not come in such big packages in those days. Guys 6’7” or 6’9” tall would be almost looked upon as freaks. From the time of James Corbett to Patterson only two heavyweight champions were more than 6’3” and they were Jess Willard and Primo Carnera. Weight- wise 11 of the 18 world heavyweight champions in that Corbett to Patterson spread weighed less than 200lbs. Not only were the fighters smaller but so were the purses. From his first pro fight to the Harris fight a total of 34 contests Patterson’s earnings were less than $1 million. A million was a huge chunk of money in those days but even allowing for inflation Mike Tyson was able to take home more from one fight (that’s gross and does not take account of Don King’s cut).
The Robinson vs. Basilio fight was voted “Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine but in the designated “Round of the Year” and “Fighter of the Year” looming on the horizon for Patterson was someone who would figure large in his future. Swedish heavyweight Ingemar Johansson. The Swede’s first round knockout of favoured No 1 contender unbeaten Eddie Machen in front of a record crowd in Gothenburg was voted Round of the Year”. The European champion had victories over European opposition such as Joe Bygraves, Henry Cooper and Joe Erskine but no one gave him a chance against the “Champion in Waiting”. Machen had beaten Nino Valdes, twice, Joey Maxim twice (Maxim was then the only man to have beaten Patterson) Bob Baker and Tony Jackson and drawn with Zora Foley. That shock victory not only garnered the “Round of the Year” award for Johansson but also the Ring “Fighter of the Year”. He was the first non-American to get the award since Max Schmeling in 1930.
Madison Square Garden was looked upon as the Mecca of boxing in those days staging 27 shows in New York and another 8 working elsewhere with the IBC. Television was around with the first USA Coast-to-Coast transmission in 1951 but bums on seats was also important. Gross receipts for all boxing in the USA in 1958 were estimated at just $5-6 million.
Today there is an abundance of southpaw champions and rated fighters but up until 1958 there had only been 10 southpaw world champions in the history of boxing. It was jokingly said that all southpaws should be strangled at birth but the chances are that if you were a southpaw your trainer would change you to orthodox and if you did not change then you would be avoided as an opponent. It was sort of Catch 22 situation. There were few southpaws so getting southpaw sparring partners was difficult so people avoided fighting southpaws which meant that southpaws could not get work so there were few southpaws…….,….
Archie Moore was an example of how tough and unfair things had been in the past. In Moore’s early years some Sates did not allow ”mixed-race” matches which meant black fighters would fight each other again and again just to get fights. It took More 17 years and 160 fights before he was able to fight for the world title and he had to take his skills all over the USA and to Australia and Argentina because there were no “mandatory” challengers and the champion picked his own opponents so someone like Moore-too good for his own good-could be ducked, if not for ever then for a very long time. Things had changed as Moore was able to challenge Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight title in 1955 and Floyd Patterson for the same title in 1956. Weights? Marciano was 188 ¼lbs and Moore 188lbs Patterson was 182 ½ lbs and Moore 187 ¾ lbs. For his last fight Wladimir Klitschko was 241 ¼ lbs.
British champions at the end of 1958 were some still well known names with Brian London at heavyweight, the light heavy title was vacant with Randy Turpin having been knocked out by Yolande Pompey in a non-title fight and it would be vacant until Chic Calderwood won it in 1960, Terry Downes was middle champion, Tommy Molloy welter, Dave Charnley light, Charlie Hill feather, Peter Keenan bantam and Frankie Jones flyweight.
These days the ratings are peppered with former champions but with less divisions it was not so much the case in1958, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano had all retired. In the light heavyweights only Joey Maxim was still active but was near the end. Former middleweight champions Randy Turpin, Carl “Bobo” Olson Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio fought during the year. Former welter champion Kid Gavilan had announced his retirement after losing to the wonderfully named Yama Bahama, Tony DeMarco had retired after losing to Virgil Atkins for the title in January. At light Lauro Salas, James Carter and Wallace “Bud” Smith were still fighting but Joe “Old Bones” Brown had brought an end to an unsavoury period in the division’s history when he won the title in 1956. It took Joe 15 years and 100 plus fights to get his title shot. The boxing wizard Willie pep was still fighting at the age of 36. He had 13 fights in 1958 bringing his total to 229 but again there may be gaps. His great nemesis Sandy Sadler had retired in 1957 so Pep was the only former feather champion still active. At bantam there were Raul Macias and Mario D’Agata with the Italian being the only deaf boxer to become a world champion. There were no former champions active at flyweight.
As for the individual divisions at heavyweight in addition to Ingmar Johansson also waiting in the wings was a certain Charles “Sonny” Liston. Liston had served two years for armed robbery and had taken up boxing when inside. When released in 1952 he fought as an amateur and the turned pro in 1953. Liston had been getting noticed as a potential challenger but in 1956 he was jailed again for assaulting a police officer and banned from boxing for a year. In 1958 he had won eight fights and everyone could see this man was going to tear up the heavyweight division. There were plenty of other good fighters in the division such as Zora Folley perhaps one of the best heavyweights not to have won a title, Canadians Geroge Chuvalo who was just emerging then and would go on to have 93 fights, lose to Ernie Terrell and Muhammad Ali in title fights and only failing to go the distance twice in his career against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He still looks great when he pays his annual visit to the Hall of Fame, and fellow-countryman Bob Cleroux who would come out 2-1 ahead in three fights with Chuvalo for the Canadian title, Mike De John, Pat McMurty the pride of Tacoma, Alex Mitef who fought most of the top fighters but who had the dubious honour in 1957 of being knocked out in the fastest time for a show on TV when Mike DeJohn flattened him in 67 seconds. He had rebounded to beat Nino Valdes and draw with Chuvalo in 1958, The big punching Cuban Nino Valdes was very much in the picture. Although losing to Mitef he had beaten Mike DeJohn twice and outpointed McMurty. A danger to all was the thunderous punching “ Big Cat” Cleveland Williams who would go on to break Liston’s nose and later to fight with a bullet inside him. I still remember to this day the uppercut with which he flattened Curly Lee but also of course the spectacular knockout he suffered at the hands of Ali. You had to feel a little sorry for Eddie Machen. Before the Johansson fight he was unbeaten in 25 fights, was rated No 1 and there were many who though he would beat Patterson. After the Johansson fight he carried on boxing but lost the big fights and never got the title shot. Pete Radamacher had just one fight in 1958 being knocked out by Zora Folley. In 1957 the Olympic gold medallist set a record that still stands and will probably never be beaten when he fought for the heavyweight title in his first pro fight, A farce, and of course Roy Harris who had won 23 fights on the Texas circuit but did not belong in with Patterson.A sign of the problems facing some fighters with so few divisions is that future light heavy champion Willie Pastrano was also fighting at heavyweight in 1958 and went 2-1 in fights in Britain winning and losing against Brian London and beating Joe Bygraves.
In Britain it was the battle of the five with Henry Cooper, Joe Erskine, Brian London, Dick Richardson and to a lesser extent Joe Bygraves fighting it out. Cooper had a terrible 1957 being knocked out by Bygraves and Johansson and losing on points to Erskine although he did a salvage job at the end as he outpointed Hans Kalbfell in Germany in November. A long way yet from being “Our ‘Enry”. He made a stuttering start to 1958 going back to Germany to draw with Heinz Neuhaus but losing on a disqualification to Erich Schoppner. He then turned the corner in a big way by stopping Richardson and decisioning Zora Folley. The brilliant Welsh boxer Erskine was 32-0-1 going into 1958 and had already beaten Cooper twice, Bygraves and Richardson but 58 was a disastrous year as he was halted inside a round by Johansson and was knocked out by London. The Blackpool heavyweight had a mixed year as he lost on points to Pastrano but then rebounded with the knockout of Erskine and a stoppage of Pastrano in a return fight. Richardson’s fight with Erskine in Cardiff in 1956 had drawn a crowd of 35,000 but 1958 was a mixed year for the fighter from Newport as he won five fights beating experienced fighters Hans Friedrich and Bob Baker but lost on a disqualification against Cleveland Williams and was stopped in five rounds by Cooper. Richardson’s family and fans would let him down badly in 1960 as consecutive fights against Mike DeJohn and London both ending in riots Jamaican Bygraves had a poor year with losses to Pastrano and Foley. Cooper, Erskine, London, Richardson and Bygraves formed an incestuous circle fighting each other regularly with Cooper fighting Erskine 5 times, London three times, and Richardson and Bygraves twice. Apart from a dominant Johansson there were not too many good quality heavyweight in the rest of Europe with Germans Gerard Hecht, Hans Kalbfell, Heinz Neuhaus, Albert Westphal, and Willi Hoepner active but not setting the world on fire and Karl Mildenberger in his first year as a pro. Italy had some nearing the end of their careers such as Franco Cavicchi and Uber Bacilieri and some not yet moving up to heavy such as Rocco Mazzola and Sante Amonti but there was no one capable of threatening Ingmar Johansson and his “Toonder and Lightning” as he named his right hand punch which was to make him world champion in 1959.