Boxing champions were once household names worthy of frontpage news coverage. Today the sport has devolved to barely a mention, even a network dedicated to sports such as ESPN only notices the biggest of pay-per-view events. Boxing has gone from one recognizable true champion in each weight class to a confusion of four “champions” in every division; WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO. Adding to the befuddlement are additional titles such as “international champion” as compared to “world champion”, “champion in recess”, “interim champion” and the like, this has deluded the very definition of the word “champion.” The word “champion” is defined as one who is “first among all contestants or competitors”. How can one be first when there are so many titleholders? Who is to say, who is the real champion? The only way to know this, in modern boxing, is if the titleholders fight each other and there is a clear winner and a unified champion. But, alas, the titleholders make a lot of money holding onto their precious belts and thus instead of fighting each other they fight lesser opponents while feeding the public overmatched embarrassments. Title unification matches are rare, so when they do happen it’s a big deal. This is so because the top men do not often face each other, nor even fight more than two or three times a year. Due to these factors the value of a fighter is based on his remaining undefeated. To the modern boxing fan, being unbeaten is the be-all-and-end-all, a single loss can destroy a fighter’s record in the public perception. This was not the case in boxing’s illustrious past.
In boxing’s heyday before big money hit the sport, before pay-per-view, cable and TV money, boxers had to make money by actually fighting, and fighting often. They lived off the gate receipts alone. There was one champion, and everyone knew him. To get a title shot at the champion meant having to fight all of the best fighters out there to earn a title shot, because one man held the top spot. One could not go 22-0 or 27-0 fighting tuneups and earn a title shot. Whitey Bimstein, a famous boxing trainer who worked with many world champions, said, “Show me a fighter whose undefeated and I’ll show you a fighter who hasn’t fought anybody.”
Being undefeated against opponents where you are almost always the favorite to win means far less than taking real challenges where there is a good chance you might lose. Coming out victorious in a match where there is considerable risk involved is a far more impressive feat than just remaining unbeaten. Ray Leonard taking a risk against 71-1 Roberto Duran was far more beneficial to his legacy, and to his development as a fighter, than avoiding such a fight and remaining undefeated.
There are two major points here. The first being that boxers had to actually earn a title shot. The second being that accepting challenges was more important in the past than being undefeated. To emphasize these points, I use an example of one Johnny Dundee, a 2-time Jr. Lightweight World Champion and Featherweight World Champion (no alphabet soup required, he was the champion of the world). Dundee received his first title shot in 1913. It is interesting to note than in 1913 there were 89 boxing clubs in the state of New York, including 49 in New York City. There were over 20 boxing shows a week in New York City alone during this period. There are far less than 20 boxing shows a year now in New York City, in one span in 2016 there was no boxing card at all for 5 months. This means there was a massive number of competitors in boxing in this period as compared to today. There were far more cards, more fighters and more competitors meaning more great fighters being produced. Competition breeds excellence, lack of competition does not create an environment that can push a fighter to the next level.
In 1913 Dundee fought the Featherweight Champion of the World Johnny Kilbane to a 20-round draw. In the modern boxing world fans would demand a rematch. Yet, it would be another 8 years and 172 fights later before Dundee received another title shot when he won the Jr. Lightweight world title in 1921. He successfully defended the World Title 3 times, lost it on a decision, won the World Featherweight Championship and then regained the World Jr. Lightweight title before losing it for good in 1926. In the interim, from winning the first title in 1921 and losing it for the final time in 1926, he fought 55 times which is more fights than many modern fighters have in their whole career. He had around 330 professional fights. This brings us to the final point.
Dundee fought so many top fighters it would defy the imagination of most fans. He fought all-time great Lightweight Champion Benny Leonard 8 times. Leonard is generally regarded as one of the top two or three greatest lightweight boxers in history. Dundee’s results were won 2, lost 4 and drew 2. When fighters of this high caliber fight against each other this many times, it is impossible to go undefeated. Dundee also fought former Lightweight World Champions Rocky Kansas, Freddie Welsh and Willie Ritchie, going 2-2-1 in 5 fights against Kansas, while losing a decision to Welsh and drawing with and winning a decision over Ritchie. He lost and drew to Featherweight Champion Johnny Kilbane. He had a 3-3-1 record against star boxer Charley White who fought for titles in 3 weight classes. He was 2-0-1 against top lightweight contender Richie Mitchell. Dundee also beat Enrique Criqui for the Featherweight World Championship in their lone meeting. He dominated the likes of standouts Ever Hammer and Mexican Joe Rivers in two fights each, he beat hard hitting Leach Cross and was 6-0-1 against George KO Chaney.
To put this in perspective imagine Floyd Mayweather Jr. having fought Jose Luis Castillo, against whom he was lucky to get a decision in their first fight, 7 times. Yes, Mayweather has his nice wins over Genaro Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, Arturo Gatti, Diego Corrales, etc. But what if he fought Zab Judah 3 times? What if he fought Kostya Tszyu? What if he also fought Oscar De La Hoya, whom he barely beat when Oscar was 2-2 in his previous 4 fights, during De La Hoya’s prime years between 1999-2002 and fought him 5 times? What if he fought Shane Mosley, who rocked Floyd when Shane was a ghost of his former self, during Mosley’s prime years and fought him 8 times? What if he fought Manny Pacquiao in 2010 instead of 2015 and not only fought him but fought him 6 times between those years? What if he really challenged himself and fought out of his weight class at middleweight with no catch-weight stipulation like Sugar Ray Robinson did when he challenged Jake LaMotta, who outweighed him by 13 pounds? I submit that not only would Floyd not be undefeated had his career went this way, but that his record would be more impressive by fighting these great fighters so many times and still likely coming out with a plus score. If this were the case today there wouldn’t be such a fuss made over big fights when they happened, because they would be common. This is the case of the great fighters of the past. When examining the records of past greats don’t be misled by the lack of a zero at the end. Instead be more impressed by the number of fights they had, how often they fought, while fighting through sickness and injury, and the fact that the best fought the best multiple times.
*Johnny Dundee’s results include newspaper decisions