John L. Sullivan took on all comers between and beyond the ropes during his heyday in the late 19th century, and his ability to outlast or overcome nearly every one of his opponents cast him as the most acclaimed fighter of his era and the first of history’s recognized world heavyweight champions.
You know what? I call bullshit.
That boxing’s fabled heavyweight championship lineage traces back to a gluttonous, whiskey-guzzling, ill-tempered street-brawler bothers absolutely no one — and nor should it. Fight fans dutifully support choirboys, but they love dirtbags, and the Boston Strongboy was as filthy as the floor of a Black Sea brothel.
What Sullivan was not, however, was the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He burnished his reputation on barnstorming tours across the United States, offering significant sums to anyone who could last four rounds with him, pummeling drunks and blacksmiths, and frequently arriving at Happy Hour early when the police busted up one of his bouts. Sullivan stopped William Samuels in Cardiff, Wales, and drew with Charlie Mitchell in Chantilly France — his first fights on foreign soil — before a celebrated showdown with Jake Kilrain, in Richburg Mississippi, in August, 1889. He crystallized his legacy in the fight, pausing in the 44th round to puke out his guts, then dragged Kilrain into the deepest of waters. Trainer Mike Donovan called off the bout more than two hours later, at the start of the 76th round, fearing for the life of his man Kilrain.
This elevated brand of badassery deserves special recognition, but there was little on Sullivan’s resume to authenticate his bona fides as a “world” champion. Mitchell had been his only significant international opponent, and Sullivan notably refused to cross the color bar for a matchup with Australia’s great champion Peter Jackson. And here’s the kicker: Sullivan’s passing of the torch — the first link in the lineal heavyweight title chain — came a full four years after his previous bout. A puffy, cash-poor Sullivan, who had boozed, brawled and (why not?) sought political office during the four years since the Kilrain bout, ended his retirement in 1892 to be pounded out back into it by Jim Corbett.
It is on this shifty foundation that Saturday’s lineal heavyweight championship contest between Tyson Fury (28-0-1, 20 KO) and Tom Schwarz (24-1, 16 KO), the fighting pride of Germany’s taxi service industry, was built.
To be the man, we’ve been told of the lineal championship many times over, you’ve got to beat the man. And on Saturday, from the MGM Garden Arena, ESPN+ spent the better part of two hours not merely reminding us of it, but audibly and visually searing it into the cerebral cortexes of its viewers. This was Fury’s Las Vegas debut, after all, and his first fight under a new promotional and network banner. Solemn, tastefully vague nods to Fury’s retirement and two-and-a-half-year bender/reincarnation/layoff following his 2015 upset of lineal heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko were the rubric of the hour. Allowing anyone to suspect for half a moment that Fury was marking time by facing a doughy, no-name European while awaiting a chance to settle his December draw with Deontay Wilder? That simply would not do. Leave open to interpretation the legitimacy of Fury’s claim to the lineal title? Unthinkable.
But the parameters of that lineage, though sacred text to some, are fit for an Etch-A-Sketch. Even if you’re buying Sullivan as the original world heavyweight alpha, the notion of an unbroken line of heavyweight champions holds as much water as you’d have found in one of old John L.’s rocks glasses. When Jim Jeffries retired in 1908, the title went to Marvin Hart. But when Jeffries returned six years later to battle Jack Johnson in the “Fight of the Century,” shouldn’t the lineal crown have been returned to him? More pointedly, shouldn’t it have belonged to Johnson after the Galveston Giant beat Corbett’s ass? (We’re gonna let Jim Crow decide this thing?) Jack Dempsey took two years off, then another three, during his reign before finally having the lineal title wrested away by Gene Tunney. Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano both severed the chain by retiring with the title. In 1967, it was unofficially stripped from Muhammad Ali when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Look, even fairy-tale titles merit basic standards and statutes of limitations.
So on Saturday, in lieu of certainty, we were treated to spectacle. Fury gave us his well-rehearsed “dosser” routine at the weigh-in. He promised us a show for his ring walk-in, and he delivered — with an Apollo Creed-style entrance, complete with star-spangled sequins and showgirls set to the backdrop of James Brown’s “Living in America.” The network did its part, setting fire to the production budget with an elaborate heavyweight-title-lineage feature and assembling a Missouri highway’s worth of LED billboards in the arena corridor, all but sock-stuffing the broadcast. Finally, Fury, no one’s idea of a heavyweight knockout artist, fulfilled his promise — or nearly so — to finish Schwarz inside a round.
Fury’s not a fool, he just plays one on TV. The Gypsy King knew what he had in front of him, but because the entire heavyweight division has come down with a temporary case of the Andy Ruiz Tics, Fury never had any intention of charging Schwarz straight out of the gate. Round 2 was something else, and within seconds the orthodox Fury had switched to southpaw, bloodied the German’s nose with a big left hand and was bouncing around the ring with his hands at his thighs, mugging and milking the moment.
Schwarz, who appeared to suddenly discover himself in his own taint-clenching “Twilight Zone” episode, could not get off — and soon stopped bothering to go through the motions. A few half-hearted swings at Fury on the ropes launched a thousand “Matrix” memes, and when Fury decided he was done playing with his meal, he collapsed Schwarz with a well-placed left. The German coaxed his body to an upright position, but shouldn’t have. Referee Kenny Bayless called time in, and Fury immediately bullied Schwarz back into his corner. Standing straight-backed and altogether unconcerned, Fury Gatling-gunned unanswered jabs, hooks, and power shots until Bayless came to Schwarz’s rescue seconds before the end of the round.
It was an undoubtedly entertaining performance, and that amounts to real capital today — not only in the eyes of promoters, but also for thirsty fans. There’s a flip side to that coin, though: competitive drama. The most entrenched boxing observers wouldn’t give a pint of cold piss for a “Rocky”-themed ring-walk or an Alex Rodriguez ringside interview. Don’t much care about mythical titles, either. The fights are the thing.
Every fighter — even champions, lineal or otherwise — deserves the occasional stay-busy bout. And there’s enough room under the big top for sideshows, especially if that’s the gateway drug that helps hook new fans. (First taste is free!) But there’s a baseline level of authenticity that even the sport’s charlatans and snake oil salesmen must achieve to maintain stasis. We’re all here to watch dudes get punched in the face and have a good time. But if that’s it — if that’s all you’ve got — and you want to package and sell it as prizefighting? As interconnected-through-the-annals-of-history living lore? Well, boxing fans don’t need my help sniffing out that bullshit.
(Photo by Mikey Williams; Top Rank)