Boxing’s Great Years – Part I
By Lee Groves from Max Boxing
For the 2007 New England Patriots, this season of triumph and tumult is headed toward heights never experienced in the National Football League. While other teams have amassed undefeated and untied regular seasons, none of them have ever run a table that consisted of 16 games. Should they cap off their run with their fourth Super Bowl title in the last seven years few would argue that at 19-0 they put together the greatest season the league has ever known.
While boxing doesn’t have a "season" like other sports, it has seen more than its share of dominant performances over the course of a calendar year. They are years from which legends are created, years that vaulted others from obscurity to celebrity and years that represented singular peaks in valleys of mediocrity. No matter what the context may have been, these 12-month performances – listed in chronological order – are still worthy of recognition.
This two-part feature will cover two distinct eras. The first part will cover fighters who fought before 1950, when non-title fights and bouts between big names were far more plentiful. Next week’s second installment will relive the career years of more modern fighters that campaigned in a far different financial structure that eliminated the need to fight as often to establish security while also making it more difficult to establish a lasting legacy.
Without further adieu here are – in chronological order – 13 of the best years ever compiled during boxing’s "golden age":
Joe Gans – 1902: 13-0 (12 KO) with two no decisions
This was "The Old Master" at his devastating best as he not only out-boxed his competition but also crushed them to bits. He entered the year riding a six-bout knockout streak and he stretched that to eight with wins over Tom Broderick (KO 6) in Baltimore on January 3 and Eddie Connolly (KO 5) in Philadelphia three days later. The one no-decision came in a six-rounder against George McFadden, but the 1985 Ring Record Book said the newspaper decision went to Gans.
Gans continued to roll on March as he whipped Jack Ryan (KO 3) and Jack Bennett (KO 5), earning him a crack at Frank Erne’s world lightweight title May 12 in Fort Erie, Ontario. Gans avenged an earlier 12th round title fight defeat and won the belt in most definitive fashion – a first round knockout.
Over the next four months, Gans defended his belt four times against McFadden (KO 3), Ruge Turner (KO 15), Gus Gardner (KO 5) and Kid McPartland (KO 5), mixing in a non-title go with Jack Bennett (KO 2) for good measure. Just one day after defending the belt against McPartland in Fort Erie, Gans fought a 10-round no-decision against Dave Holly in Lancaster, Pa., a bout that Ring denoted as a newspaper decision win for Gans. Gans wound up the year with victories over Charley Seiger (KO 14) on November 14, Howard Wilson (KO 3) on December 19 and Charley Seiger (W 10) on New Year’s Eve.
Jimmy Wilde – 1916: 15-0 (14 KO)
"The Ghost with the Hammer in His Hand" was aptly named as he consistently bowled over full-fledged flyweights while often weighing below the modern junior flyweight limit of 108, and never was his power more evident than in 1916. The Welshman, also known as "The Mighty Atom," crushed his first three opponents in seven, 11 and two rounds to set up his Valentine’s Day showdown with world flyweight champion Joe Symonds in London. Wilde ended Symonds’ nearly two-year reign with an 11th round knockout.
Wilde took a pair of non-title fights in March, stopping Sam Keller (KO 8) and Sid Smith (KO 3) in London before successfully retaining his title on April 24 against Johnny Rosner (KO 11) in Liverpool. Five days later, Wilde decisioned Benny Thomas over eight rounds in Cardiff, Wales and blasted out Darkey Saunders (KO 3), Joe Magnus (KO 2) and Tommy Harrison (KO 8) in non-title affairs.
On June 26, Wilde passed a stern test – and avenged a 17th round KO loss in 1915 – by knocking out Tancy Lee in 11 rounds to not only retain the world title but add the British and European flyweight belts. On July 31, Wilde stopped Johnny Hughes in 10 rounds and on November 9, he starched Tommy Noble in the 15th. Wilde concluded his best year as a pro on December 18 by halting Young Zulu Kid in 11 rounds to retain his world title.
Les Darcy – 1916: 10-0 (7 KO)
A pro since his middle-teens, the native of Woodville in Australia’s New South Wales was in the midst of a magnificent run as the holder of the Australian version of the world middleweight title. He won that belt via foul from Jeff Smith in Sydney the previous May and had defended it five times going into 1916.
He started the year with a 20-round non-title victory over George "K.O." Brown on January 15, after which he captured the Australian heavyweight belt by knocking out Harold Hardwick in seven rounds on February 19. Thirty-four days later he retained that title by stopping Les O’Donnell in seven rounds and two weeks after that he repeated his victory over Brown in another non-title 20-rounder.
On May 13, five weeks after the second win over Brown, Darcy stopped Alex Costica in four rounds to keep the middleweight belt. On June 3 he iced Albert Crouse in two rounds to set up a pair of knockout victories over Dave Smith (KO 12, KO 11) in defense of his heavyweight strap on June 24 and August 16. Darcy wound up the year by decisioning Jimmy Clabby over 20 rounds on September 9 and stopping George Chip in nine rounds on September 30 to strengthen his claim to the world middleweight title.
Darcy, still just 21 years old, was eager to fight Al McCoy for the undisputed title and had traveled by boat to America to finalize the bout. Tragically, Darcy developed pneumonia and died in Memphis on May 24, 1917.
Benny Leonard – 1917: 16-0 (16 KO) with 12 no-decisions
Just 21 years old, Leonard was already a veteran of six years and 99 fights when he started the year. From January 23 to March 12, Leonard bounced between Philadelphia and New York City to fight five no-decision affairs – all of which he won according to the newspapers. He then turned up the power against Packey Hommey (KO 9), Richie Mitchell (KO 7), Charlie Thomas (KO 6) and Eddie Shannon (KO 6) to set up his first world title shot against lightweight king Freddie Welsh in New York on May 28. Nine rounds later, Leonard became the new champion but he didn’t let his new status keep him on the sidelines.
Just one week after capturing the belt, Leonard fought Joe Welsh to a six-round no-decision (another newspaper victory), then stopped Johnny Nelson (KO 3), reigning featherweight king Johnny Kilbane (KO 3) in a non-title go, and Young Rector (KO 5). Leonard notched five wins in September (with four knockouts), added two knockouts and three no-decision newspaper wins in October, slowed to two knockout wins in November and wound up the year with two no-decision newspaper victories and a five-round KO. In 28 fights that year, Leonard emerged with a championship belt and the best statistical stretch of his 211-fight career.
Jack Delaney – 1926: 14-0 (8 KO)
A French-Canadian born Oliva Chapdelaine, Delaney entered 1926 off a decision loss to light heavyweight champion Paul Berlenbach on December 11. But Delaney picked himself up quickly by decisioning Bob Fitzsimmons Jr. over 10 rounds on January 15 and following up with a 12th round KO over Tom Roper 10 days later. Three victories over Johnny Risko (W 10), Quinton Rojas (KO 4) and Joe Lohman (KO 10) followed, but his status as a real threat to Berlenbach was bolstered with back-to-back wins over former champions Mike McTigue (KO 4) and Maxie Rosenbloom (W 10). What makes those two wins even more noteworthy is that he defeated McTigue and Rosenbloom in an eight-day stretch in March.
Delaney continued his surge by decisioning King Soloman over 12 and stopping Martin O’Grady (KO 7) and Tommy Burns (KO 2). Following a 10-round victory over Bob Sage in Detroit, Delaney got his rematch with Berlenbach in Brooklyn on July 16. This time, Delaney got the 15-round nod to win the championship, and he ended the year with a pair of non-title knockout wins over Jamaica Kid and Bud Gorman in December.
Jack "Kid" Berg – 1930: 11-0 (2 KO)
"The Whitechapel Whirlwind" blew through every one of his opponents in 1930, a year that saw win and defend not one, but two championships. Berg kicked off the year in fine style as he decisioned Tony Canzoneri in 10 rounds on January 16 and he captured his first belt on February 18 when he stopped junior welterweight champion Mushy Callihan in 10 rounds. On April 4, Berg registered his first title defense with a 10-round nod over Joe Glick in New York and three days later in Toronto he decisioned Jackie Phillips over 10 rounds.
Berg racked up two more defenses on May 29 and June 11 when he knocked out Al Delmont in four and earned a 10-round verdict over Herman Perlick. Just 28 days after winning a 10-rounder over Henry Perlick, Berg secured his biggest victory of the year by outpointing Kid Chocolate over 10 rounds. The win broke "The Havana Bon Bon’s" 53-fight unbeaten streak from the start of his career – a string that included just one draw.
Berg concluded his sterling year with three title defenses between September 3 and October 10 – Buster Brown (W 10), Joe Glick (W 10) and Billy Petrolle (W 10). Heavyweight champion Max Schmeling won Ring’s award, which was instituted in 1928 with Gene Tunney as the first honoree.
Barney Ross – 1933: 8-0 (2 KO)
Ross, known as "The Pride of the Ghetto," entered 1933 on a 21-fight winning streak that extended back to March 1931, when Roger Bernard grabbed an eight-round decision from Ross in Chicago. As a result, Ross was rising up the lightweight ranks and he consolidated his standing with victories over Johnny Datto (KO 2), Tommy Grogan (W 10), Billy Petrolle (W 10) and Joe Ghnouly (W 10).
On June 23 Ross fought Tony Canzoneri, who owned both the lightweight and junior welterweight titles. Ten rounds later, Ross was declared the newest dual-title champion as he earned the decision. Ross successfully defended the 140-pound bauble by knocking out Johnny Farr in six and maintained both titles by repeating his victory over Canzoneri on September 12, this time over the 15 round distance. Ross, who relinquished the lightweight belt soon thereafter, finished up his highly successful campaign with a 10-round nod over Sammy Fuller to retain his world junior welterweight belt. No award was given by Ring in 1933, but Ross’ year would have made him a deserving candidate.
Henry Armstrong – 1938: 14-0 (11 KO)
"Hammerin’ Hank" was coming off an even better statistical year in 1937 that saw him go 27-0 with 26 knockouts (picking up the featherweight title and Ring’s Fighter of the Year award along the way), but 1938 was more meaningful in terms of quality of opposition and accomplishment.
Armstrong began the year four fights removed from his annexing the 126-pound belt from Petey Sarron and riding a 20-bout knockout streak. Armstrong stretched the string to 27 between January 12 and February 28, including a third round stoppage of future featherweight champion Chalky Wright (KO 3) on February 1. A 10-round victory over old foe Baby Arizmendi snapped the run, but he got back on the KO track 10 days later with a fourth round KO of Eddie Zivic (a member of the fighting Zivic brothers) and Lew Feldman five days after that.
Imagine WBC featherweight champion Jorge Linares not only meeting, but beating WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather, then dropping down to annex Juan Diaz’s belt less than three months later. That was the scope of what Armstrong achieved when he decisioned Barney Ross on May 31 and outpointed Lou Ambers on August 17 – and those victories enabled Armstrong (at least for a time) to hold three of the eight available titles simultaneously. Still, Armstrong wasn’t done.
On November 25, he defeated future middleweight champ Ceferino Garcia over 15 rounds to retain the 147-pound belt and capped off the year with a three-round KO over Al Manfredo 11 days later. As good as Armstrong’s year had been, Ring saw Louis’ campaign as an even better one and bestowed the award upon him.
Billy Conn – 1939: 7-0 (1 KO)
Power was never part of "The Pittsburgh Kid’s" game; he was a slick, shifty boxer with terrific hand speed armed with a streak of ruggedness. Although he only scored one knockout in 1939, the quality of his victims couldn't be ignored.
Conn began the year with a 10-round decision over reigning middleweight champion Fred Apostoli on January 6 and repeated the deed over 15 rounds just 35 days later. On May 12, he furthered his credentials for a light heavyweight title shot by outpointing Solly Kreiger over 12 rounds, a result that netted Conn a crack at newly crowned champion Melio Bettina.
Bettina was an oddity for the time – a southpaw world champion – and he was accustomed to using his natural advantage to his advantage. But Conn’s speed and skill proved to be too much for Bettina, who dropped the belt via unanimous decision. Conn quickly returned to the ring with an eighth round KO of heavyweight Gus Dorazio on August 14, after which he scored a second decision victory over Bettina to defend his new belt. Conn ended his terrific year with a decision victory over future 175-pound king Gus Lesnevich.
Joe Louis – 1941: 7-0 (6 KO)
Few heavyweight champions were ever as active as "The Brown Bomber" was in 1941 – and this was the genesis of the infamous "Bum of the Month Club." Granted, the men Louis defeated during the stretch between January 31 and May 23 had little chance of defeating Louis, but that could be said of anyone who dared to challenge him. Louis played the role of prohibitive favorite to perfection as he bombed out Red Burman (KO 5), Gus Dorazio (KO 2), Abe Simon (KO 13) and Tony Musto (KO 9) while winning via seventh round disqualification over Buddy Baer.
Louis was also a heavy favorite over Billy Conn when they met in New York on June 18, but the underdog turned another "event" into the fight of both men’s lives. Conn used his speed to build a lead on the scorecards in the middle rounds, but a jolting hook in the 12th convinced Conn he could seize the richest title in sports by way of earth-shaking knockout. Ignoring the pleadings of his corner, Conn gunned for the KO in round 13 but Louis nailed him with a series of devastatingly precise power shots that led to a knockdown – and a knockout – with just two seconds remaining in the round. It was Louis’ most severe test as champion and his performance under pressure further cemented his place among the immortals.
Louis wound up his campaign with a title defense against Lou Nova, who said before the fight that his "cosmic punch" would finish the job Conn started. No such luck – Nova fell in round six. For his efforts, Louis was named Ring’s Fighter of the Year for the third time in the last four years.
Sugar Ray Robinson – 1942: 14-0 (9 KO)
Though Robinson was highly touted when he entered the professional ranks in 1940, this was the year that he established his championship credentials, and after reading this is it any wonder that Ring Magazine named Robinson its Fighter of the Year – as a contender no less? Robinson began 1942 with a bang as he blasted out tough-as-nails former welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic in 10 rounds on January 16. The Sugar Man followed up strongly with knockouts over Maxie Berger (KO 2), Norman Rubio (KO 7), Harvey Dubs (KO 6) and Dick Banner (KO 2) to set up a match with future welterweight champion Marty Servo on May 28 in New York.
Robinson decisioned Servo over 10 rounds to further cement his status as a title threat, and he added the head of reigning lightweight king Sammy Angott (W 10) two months later. Following a pair of knockouts of Ruben Shank (KO 2) and Tony Motisi (KO 1) that took place six days apart in August, Robinson tested his mettle against dangerous middleweight Jake La Motta on October 2. Robinson outscored the "Raging Bull" over 10 rounds in the first bout of what would become a classic six-fight series, and he followed up just 17 days later by decisioning Izzy Jannazzo. Robinson ended his year with victories over Vic Dellicurti (W 10), Jannazzo (KO 8) and Al Nettow (KO 3).
After victories over Zivic, Servo, Angott and La Motta, could you blame the various welterweight champions for keeping Robinson at bay until the end of 1946?
Willie Pep – 1947: 11-0 (5 KO)
Sure, the man born Guglielmo Papaleo had many better statistical years. He won his first 63 professional fights before losing a decision to Angott, then went unbeaten in his next 73 fights. But what Pep was able to achieve in 1947 was simply mind-blowing.
On January 8, Pep, the reigning featherweight champion since beating Chalky Wright in November 1942, suffered broken bones in his leg and back when his flight from Miami crashed in Millville, N.J. Several fellow passengers perished, but Pep survived and wore a cast for the next four months. When the casts were removed, Pep had the opportunity to cash in an insurance policy that would have provided for him in case of a career-ending injury. But Pep chose to go back to the gym, where he trained for a month and won a 10-round decision over tough Victor Flores on June 17.
Pep resumed his normal frenetic fight schedule with five more wins in July over Joey Fortuna (KO 5), Leo LeBrun (W 8), Jean Barriere (KO 4), Paulie Jackson (W 10) and Humberto Sierra (W 10) before putting his belt on the line against Jock Leslie on August 22. Pep was in fine form as he scored a 12th round KO, and he celebrated by giving himself two months off. Pep won two fights in October over Barriere (KO 1) and Archie Wilmer (W 10) and wrapped up the year with wins over Alvaro Estrada (W 10) and Maurice LaChance (KO 8) on December 22 and 30 respectively.
His strong performance following a tremendously debilitating set of injuries is just another one of the many reasons Pep is considered one of the greatest fighters who has ever stepped between the ropes. In 1947, Pep was able to dodge the Grim Reaper as deftly as he had his opponents’ punches. Though Gus Lesnevich won Ring’s award that year, Pep had as good a year as anyone and conquered a mountain few men could conjure scaling.
Manuel Ortiz – 1948: 13-0 (7 KO)
Until Orlando Canizales came around four decades later, Ortiz held the record for most consecutive successful bantamweight title defenses with 15, and eight of those came in 1948. The first came on New Year’s Day against Kenny Lindsay (W 10) and the second occurred just 26 days later when he stopped Georgie Freitas in 10 rounds, but Ortiz scored a quality victory on March 10 when he knocked out Lou Salica in the 11th.
Ortiz took a brief breather in the form of two non-title fights against Pedro Ramirez (KO 6) and Joe Robleto (W 10), but just two days after beating Robledo, Ortiz put his title on the line against Lupe Cardoza and came out with a sixth round KO. Imagine a champion of today – or even of this era – who would risk a title fight payday by fighting a 10 rounder – against a future title challenger no less – just two days before.
After beating Cardoza, Ortiz outpointed Robleto over 15 rounds to keep his belt and repeated the trick on July 12 with a seventh round KO 18 only days after knocking out Tony Oliveira in seven rounds. Ortiz scored two more 10 round non-title wins over Leonardo Lopez and Fillo Gonzales before wrapping up the year by knocking out Lopez in four rounds with the belt on the line and decisioning Benny Goldberg over 15 to notch his eighth successful defense of the year. For the record, Ike Williams captured Ring’s 1948 award.