10 heavyweight champions who ducked their closest rivals – from John L Sullivan to Riddick Bowe via Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes


Heavyweight dream fights have a history of eluding boxing fans

HEAVYWEIGHT history is immersed in accusations where a top dog in the division was ducked at one time or another. Here are 10 former titleholders who at one time avoided their most deserving opponent, making him wait an unreasonably long time for an opportunity or not boxing him altogether.


The mighty John L.
ruled the heavyweight roost from 1882-1892, his legend perpetuated more on myth
than actual ring accomplishments. Emerging as his most worthy contender at the
time was a sleek black man from Australia, by the name of Peter Jackson. As
much as Sullivan was revered, it was no secret that Jackson represented a
threat to his reign.

Sullivan was, by most
accounts, a racist and a proud one at that. Maybe he feared Jackson to an
extent, maybe not. In any event, Sullivan made it clear from the start that
Jackson would not get a shot at the coveted title. “I draw the colour line,” he

To put it in the
context of the times, we had not been too far removed from slavery. In fact,
Jackson had been one. Hence, Sullivan’s insensitive stance while not endorsed,
was never challenged. As a result, he was able to dodge Jackson without much

Gentleman Jim
Corbett, had no such inhibitions. He and Jackson engaged in a 61-round contest
in 1891, which ended in a draw. Reportedly, the verdict was fair with the
contestants being praised for their extraordinary skill and courage. One year
later Corbett outclassed Sullivan to win the crown.  Jackson would have probably done the same had
he been given the opportunity at any point in Sullivan’s reign.


Tommy Burns was the
smallest heavyweight champion in history, standing only  around 5ft 7ins. Nevertheless, he could more
than hold his own with the big guys, as evidenced by his 11 successful title
defenses. Although Burns was vastly underrated his double-digit championship
reign could be attributed to him avoiding his leading contender Jack Johnson
for as long as he did.

Burns defended his
title in various countries, but wherever he went Johnson followed. The
harassment and a payday of $30,000 considered major money in 1908, forced the
Canadian’s hand and made Burns relent.

When they boxed it
became obvious why Burns had avoided Johnson for so long.  The American was on a different level,
dominating before it was stopped in the 14th round.

LEGEND: But Jack Johnson’s reign didn’t exactly run smoothly


Johnson defeated Langford soundly over 15 rounds when they met in 1906, but because not many witnessed the contest “The Boston Tar Baby’s” manager Joe Woodward was able to concoct a tale that his man dropped Johnson and might have been victimised by a bad decision. The Langford side appealed to Johnson’s pride, figuring that if they got him mad enough he would relent and agree to a rematch.

Two years after
they fought, Johnson won the heavyweight championship, never even entertaining
the thought of boxing Langford again. His contempt for Langford was so great he
did not want to reward him with a shot at the title after all the false
innuendos he had endured. As a result they never met again, but had they it
would have been Johnson all the way. He was a legitimate heavyweight, Langford
a middleweight. All factors equal, bigger is better.


Dempsey held the title from 1919-1926. During that time the consensus number one contender was Harry Wills. Unfortunately, Dempsey never gave him a crack at the crown. The reason primarily was because we were only a decade removed from Johnson’s turbulent reign. Although Wills was the consummate gentleman he was the victim of stereotyping, being black as was Johnson. As unthreatening as Wills really was, the great White Hope era was still too fresh to give ‘The Black Panther’ the clean slate that he deserved. Dempsey’s promoter Tex Rickard used Johnson’s conduct as a reason to avoid a Wills fight, but he doubtless was aware of the threat the challenger posed to his meal ticket. Therefore, Wills never fought for the title.

Dempsey was
probably not afraid of Wills, but he did not show much interest in fighting him
either. Had they met there is a reasonable chance that Wills would have
dethroned Dempsey. He would have enjoyed physical advantages while arguably being
the more skillful of the two.


When Schmeling
sprung a colossal upset over Joe Louis in 1936 neither was champion at the
time, but it did put Max a former title holder in line to fight for the title.
The champion was “The Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock who had won the title from
Max Baer the year before and had yet to defend it. Braddock’s reign was not
expected to last long and the goal was to cash in.

Schmeling initially
had an agreement to box Braddock, but when Louis’ people offered a bigger purse
and a future slice of his earnings, the champion detoured and signed to defend
against him instead. A livid Schmeling trying to prove a point held a bogus
weigh in that was held during the time of the intended Braddock fight.

Louis knocked out Braddock
in 1937, then Schmeling the following year.

Braddock ducking
Schmeling was based on business considerations and nothing more. Had they boxed
it would have been a toss up as to who would have prevailed.


This might seem a little
harsh considering Patterson did eventually step up and accept the hardest
challenges, but during his first reign as champion (late 1950’s), his title
defences were against mediocre opposition. He clearly ducked top contenders
Folley, Machen, and Liston, to defend against the likes of Pete Radamacher (who
was making his professional debut).  

FALLEN: Sonny Liston stands over a fallen Floyd Patterson

To Patterson’s
credit, after regaining the title from Ingemar Johansson he not only
disregarded his manager Cus D’amato’s wishes, but also those of president John
F. Kennedy who did not want the thuggish Liston to be given a chance at the
crown. History shows us Patterson should have listened being that he was
stopped inside of a round by Liston in both of their fights. But from that
point forward, Patterson took on all comers including a past his prime Machen
who he outpointed. However, it did not exonerate him from avoiding Folley and Machen
while he was champion. With that said, Patterson probably would have beaten
both, but never would have stood a chance against Liston despite eyeing a third
fight with him.


Ali did box Norton
three times in the 1970s, but it was only after their third fight that he wanted
no part of him. After three nip and tuck encounters in which Ali was fortunate
to be up 2-1, he concluded Norton was all wrong for him. Ali even reached out
to George Foreman, promising him a rematch if he would get Norton out of the
way first.

allowed Ali to avoid a fourth meeting, but it was at the expense of validating
that Norton had his number. That is probably what would have played out had
they continued their trilogy. Norton in the prime of his career would have
probably outpointed Ali who was on the backend of his.


The WBC allowed
Ali to defend his title against Spinks in 1978, under the condition that the
winner box mandatory challenger Norton next. When Spinks pulled a shocking
upset he not only became the new world heavyweight champion, but also inherited
Ali’s obligation in the process. But Spinks had a dilemma, a rematch against
Ali would pay him much more than a defense against Norton. That, and the
prevailing feeling that he could not defeat Norton led to the new champion making
his first defense against Ali. The WBC then swiftly turned around, stripped
Spinks, and made Norton their champion.

Spinks had a good
reason for ducking Norton, but the bottom line is that he did.


In the early
1980’s Holmes was focused on passing Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Because of
this he selected his opponents carefully. Holmes’ skills were diminished, but
the feeling was he could still beat any other heavyweight with the possible
exception of Pinklon Thomas who emerged as the top contender.

Holmes showed
absolutely no interest in defending against Thomas who continuously called him
out. Ultimately Holmes’ strategy backfired. In fight number 49, he was
outpointed by world light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Maybe the same
would have happened had he boxed Thomas, but we’ll never know because of
Holmes’ reluctance.

Thomas ultimately
won the WBA heavyweight title, but always resented Holmes for refusing to box


One of the great
matchups in heavyweight history failed to materialise because Bowe’s manager
Rock Newman wanted no part of a fight against Lewis. During the 1990s Lewis
relentlessly challenged Bowe, willing to take less than market value money to
prove he was the best heavyweight in the world. Bowe simmered, upset with
Lewis, but apparently never mad enough to insist his manager make the match.

At the time it
would have been a pick em contest, but subsequent events have shown that Lewis
probably would have won had they met. In any event, it is still hard to fathom
that with all the ballyhoo the two never did fight.

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