Boxing: The Best Heavyweights to Never Get a Title Shot
By Brian Wilbur - March 2, 2005
The heavyweight division has always been the focus of the media. The heavyweight championship has been more than just a prize in sports; it represented an ideal of strength and power. During the darker times of the world's history, some boxers were denied the right to fight for the world's heavyweight title because of their race or ethnicity. More specifically, the white society of the early 1900's and before would not let some outstanding black fighters of the day have their chance at immortality. Having a black man as the representing the strongest man in the world struck a chord of anger and resentment. This was mostly from the fear of having their idea that the white race was superior shattered to pieces. Not all fall into this category however. Some of the boxers listed were promising contenders in their day that ran into setbacks at inopportune times and missed their chance at the sports biggest prize.
This is the list of the best heavyweight boxers who never received a title shot. They are not in any records books, but they deserve notoriety for their overall performance inside the ring.
Peter Jackson - Jackson fought in he 1880's and 1890's; a time when modern pugilism was in its infancy. He fought out of Australia during the first part of his career and made a name for himself when he won the Australian heavyweight title in 1886 by knocking out Tom Lees in round 30. Jackson fought with a defensive approach that was revolutionary at that time. He had the total package of size, strength, and speed that fans look for in a champion even if his style was not especially pleasing to the eye. News of the potential world beater hit the shores of the United States and his legend grew. Tempted by a chance at fighting champion John L. Sullivan, Peter moved to the United States. Sullivan was openly prejudice and refused to give a black boxer a shot at the title leaving Jackson deeply frustrated. Other white fighters did face Jackson however. Future champion James Corbett agreed to fight "the great Peter Jackson" as he referred to him. The two fought evenly for 61 rounds before the contest was called due to a lack of action. Later Corbett stated that Peter Jackson could have beaten any heavyweight that he ever saw. Jackson had some impressive wins during his career over some of the best contenders around including triumphs against Joe McAuliffe, Jem Smith, Frank Slavin, and Peter Maher. Jackson retired in 1892 because he could not secure a title shot. That signified the end of Peter Jackson's run as an elite fighter.
His Chances if he had been given a shot: Excellent. Jackson had a similar fighting style to James Corbett. Corbett was able to take down an aging John L. Sullivan fairly easily so it is reasonable to assume that Jackson could have done the same if given the chance in the early 1890's. He and Corbett had proved to be each others equal less than one year prior to Corbett's victory over Sullivan. Peter would have had a much tougher time with Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons in the years following the fall of Sullivan, but still had a solid chance to pull off the victory against any of those great champions.
Sam McVey - Another one of the outstanding black fighters of that era was Sam McVey. He was an aggressive power puncher with a compact, powerful body that knocked out many heavyweight contenders in his day. He was competitive against Jack Johnson in their 3 fights, but lost each time. He took part in many memorable battles with other top black contenders who had trouble getting competitive matches like Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, and Harry Wills. The white contenders rarely fought outside of their race leaving the top black fighters with no choice, but to fight each other. He battled those three a total of 23 times and won his share. One epic contest, McVey dropped Jeanette 27 times over 50 rounds only to lose the fight by not coming out for the 50th round due to exhaustion. Johnson was the champion during that time and although he himself was black, Johnson did not fight other black fighters while he was champion. Jack made more money beating up on the media created white hopes. Johnson was quoted as saying that the world didn't want to see two black boxers fighting for the title.
His Chances: Moderate. McVey's three losses to Jack Johnson happened early in his professional career and before he turned 20 years old. Sam did not reach his prime until several years later around 1910. If Jack Johnson had given McVey a title shot, Sam's chances were not spectacular. McVey had a charging attack that would have had trouble finding its target through Johnson's amazing defense.
Joe Jeanette - Sam McVey's arch rival Jeanette was very much his opposite in terms of his fighting style. Joe was a talented boxer that was tricky and elusive. He could also fight well from close quarters and punch pretty well when he had to having 63 knockouts in 166 bouts. Joe was noted for his stellar endurance and durability being stopped only twice in his entire career. Jeanette had slightly better success against Jack Johnson than did McVey, winning once albeit by disqualification in 1905. He had the same problem that Sam McVey had in not getting a title shot because of his race. Looking back it is ironic that Jack Johnson would not let black fighters fight for the title when he encountered the same frustrations for years until Tommy Burns finally gave him a shot.
His Chances: Moderate. Jeanette peaked around the early 1910's during Jack Johnson's reign. Johnson could do everything Jeanette could do only better. Jack likely would have cruised to a decision win after encountering a few rough spots. Tommy Burns would have been an easier target in the mid 1900's, but Jeanette had not established himself as a world class contender until after Johnson was champion.
Sam Langford - Sam is considered to be one of the best pound for pound fighters of all time. He began his career as a lightweight and during his prime weighed just over 160 pounds yet he was beating some of the best heavyweights of his day. He was usually in against much larger opponents, but he used his short stature to his advantage and incorporated it into his fighting style. He was a great boxer puncher that moved well, had an uncanny ability to anticipate his opponent's moves, perfected the art of feinting, and possessed devastating knockout power; even at heavyweight. Langford has winning records over Sam McVey and Joe Jeanette and scored at least one knockout over McVey, Jeanette, and Harry Wills. The real crime was that Langford never got a title shot at his natural weight class of middleweight or even light heavyweight. He was forced to fight whoever would agree to get in the ring with him, even if they were heavyweights. Sam, despite his size disadvantages, was a terrific heavyweight contender and the most lethal puncher of his day. Early in his career, he fought Jack Johnson once before Johnson was champion and lost badly over 15 rounds to the much larger man. This was the only time Langford would lose badly at any weight until he was well past his physical prime.
His Chances: Fairly Good. His opportunities were the same as Jeanette's and McVey's. Langford was still fighting primarily at the lower weight classes when Burns was champion. Sam would have had a difficult time beating the all time great Jack Johnson. A third option was a shot at Jess Willard. Langford had longevity and was still active and winning into the early 1920's. Willard was a giant and it would have been difficult to hurt Jess and over come the huge size difference. What makes his chances a bit better than Jeanette or McVey was that Sam definitely had a puncher's chance against any champion in history. His deceptive punches and quick hands, along with his two fisted power, made him dangerous each and every time he stepped in the ring.
Luther McCarty -A racist and predominantly white America was furious with the black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson's antics. The media had a field day trying to find the next great white hope that was going to "dethrone Johnson and save the white race". McCarty at one time was thought to be the best of the "white hopes" and fought during the early 1910's. He was considered a large heavyweight at the time at 6'4" and over 200 pounds. McCarty had beaten many of the other celebrated white hopes and had only lost once, a decision loss to future champ Jess Willard. He won the White Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1913 with a knockout of Al Palzer. He went into a fight against Arthur Pelkey later that year and was the heavy favorite to win. Instead, McCarty collapsed in round 1 without being struck by a forceful punch. Luther McCarty died just a few minutes later at ringside of a brain hemorrhage. Doctors speculated that the injury was caused by a previous injury and not by damage suffered in the boxing match.
His Chances: Poor. He was only 21 when he tragically died and already had some significant wins on his record, but was still unproven at the championship level. Luther was an adequate boxer, but relied too much on his natural strength. Jack Johnson would have boxed circles around him and it avoided all of his haymakers, making him look foolish. However, McCarty would have been one of the better challengers that Johnson would have faced during his reign.
Fred Fulton - Fulton was a white fighter that was a prominent contender in the late 1910's and early 1920's. Fulton was tall, at 6'4 1/2, and fought tall using a nice jab to set up his powerful right hands. He beat just about every other white hope of the day and also had a knockout win over Sam Langford. He was the number one contender in 1918 to the heavyweight crown that Jess Willard occupied. The only person that stood in his way of a showdown with Willard was an up and coming knockout artist named Jack Dempsey that was taking the division by storm. Dempsey knocked Fulton out in 18 seconds, effectively crushing Fred's chances of ever fighting for the title. Fulton still fought on with good success after the Dempsey loss, but never got a chance to fight for world's heavyweight title.
His Chances: Moderate. As good as Fulton was, he chin was a bit shaky. Half of his losses were early round knockouts. His strategy was to maintain distance fights to avoid getting his flush. He was able to do this most of the time, but against the elite boxers, he would get caught. We already saw what Dempsey did to Fulton. Both Dempsey and Willard were devastating punchers so Fulton would have had to have executed the fight of his life to get that elusive title belt.
Harry Wills - Wills was yet another black fighter that was denied a shot because of his race. He was a big heavyweight that was well rounded and without a glaring weakness. Harry had a winning record against Sam Langford, although Langford knocked him out twice, as well as the other top contenders of the day that would fight him. He reached his peak in the early 1920's, but was still a viable contender in 1926, when he almost secured his title shot against Jack Dempsey. In an impressive run from 1922 to 1925, Wills went 14-0 with 10 knockouts which included victories over excellent boxers like Sam Langford, Kid Norfolk, Luis Angel Firpo, Charley Weinert, and Floyd Johnson. After that run he began to show his age and was no longer the fighter he once was. Jack Dempsey was champion during the entire time that Wills was a contender. Although Jack expressed interest in fighting Wills, Dempsey's promoter Tex Rickard refused to cross the racial lines because of the fiasco that came from his promotion of the Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries fight.
His Chances: Fairly Good. If the two had met in the early 1920's when they were both at their best, or in the mid 1920's when they were both fading, it would have been an excellent clash. They were the two outstanding heavyweights of their day and it is a shame that they never did fight. Dempsey likely would have had the upper hand. The blueprint to beating Jack was made by Gene Tunney which showed that slick boxing was the key. Wills, although an adequate defender, was not on the level of a Gene Tunney and likely would have traded punches with Dempsey at some point which would have been foolish. The champion made a living out of beating up bigger men and that would probably have been the case with a fight against Wills. Harry was a big powerful fighter though and if he had been able to smother Dempsey's swarming attack he may have been able to get to Jack in the later rounds.
Thad Spencer - The late 1960's and early 1970's was a golden era of heavyweight boxing with a deep pool of contenders that the sport had never seen before and hasn't seen since. Amazingly, most of the top contenders fought for the title if they were worthy, leaving very few snubbed of an opportunity. Thad Spencer was one of those few and was the best of this era that did not get a title shot. Heading into the 1967 WBA elimination tournament, Spencer had wins over Doug Jones, Brian London, Tom McNeeley, Jack Bodell, and a revenge KO victory over Amos Lincoln. He was a hot prospect that appeared to have a bright future in front of him. In the first round of the tournament Spencer beat former WBA champion Ernie Terrell by decision, catapulting Thad into the spotlight and atop of the media rankings; including Ring Magazine who had him as their #2 heavyweight. In the second round of the tournament Spencer was battered around and stopped by Jerry Quarry. From that point on his career was in that downward spiral from which he never recovered. Thad failed to earn another victory as a professional boxer. He no longer took the sport seriously after this point and his career was over seemingly before it began.
His Chances: Poor. Spencer looked so talented and promising until that fateful day in 1968 when he lost to Quarry. Thad was a good fighter, but he stood little chance against great champions of the day like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In a weaker era he may have had a much better chance of winning the belt.
Teofilo Stevenson - This Cuban Olympic boxer never turned professional at the request of his country. Stevenson won 3 consecutive Gold Medals in '72, '76 and '80, dominating the competition. The unfortunate amateurs that had to face the towering power puncher struggled to even last the entire 3 round distance. It was reported that American promoters offered him as much as 5 million dollars to come and fight Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship. He refused saying, "Why do I need 5 million dollars when I have 5 million Cubans who love me." Professional and amateur fighting is very different and Teofilo did nothing to merit his standing as a top professional heavyweight, however, it was hard to deny his talent, potential, and natural ability.
His Chances: Good. If Stevenson had not been born in Cuba and had been brought along and developed to be a professional prize fighter, he truly would have been a dominating force. His prime was in the mid seventies although he was in good enough shape to win the Gold Medal in 1980. A clash with George Foreman would have been monumental around 1974, but Big George may have been too much for him. A better chance for Stevenson would have been to fight Muhammad Ali in the late 70's around the time that Leon Spinks defeated Ali. Spinks only had a small number of pro fights under his belt and still did enough to win. Teofilo was much better than Leon ever was so a win against an aging Ali around that time is very plausible.
Ike Ibeabuchi - This Nigerian born heavyweight was forcing the boxing world to take notice of him in the late 1990's. He was a rare breed of heavyweight in that he was a volume puncher with good size to go along with impressive power in both hands. In a war with David Tua, the two traded bombs all night and neither did as much as flinch at punches that would have knocked 99% of other heavyweights out. Ibeabuchi came away with the decision against Tua and backed that up with a knockout of the elusive boxer and future IBF champion Chris Byrd. Both Tua and Byrd were undefeated before Ike got a hold of them. The bout against Byrd turned out to be his last as a professional. Ibeabuchi was accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a Las Vegas call girl in his hotel room. He was sent to prison and is not eligible for parole until after he will be too old to box competitively at the highest level.
His Chances: Good. Lennox Lewis was the champion at the time. Ike had all of the tools to get to Lewis' chin just like McCall and Rahman did. Lennox would have had to be on top of his game to keep Ibeabuchi off of him all night. Aside from Lennox Lewis, Ibeabuchi almost assuredly could have won one of the alphabet soup belts from John Ruiz or Chris Byrd had he not gone to jail and had he been given the opportunity.