Boxing oddities and unusual fight nights

After the announcement of Mike Tyson vs Roy Jones Jr. this week, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston recalls some of boxing’s stranger matches and unusual fight nights including Muhammad Ali’s ‘draw’ with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki and the event where George Foreman fought five men in one afternoon.

The eight-round exhibition match between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr, scheduled for Los Angeles on September 12,  got me thinking about boxing oddities that have taken place over the years. 

You know what I mean about an oddity, right? Something that is outside what might be considered a normal boxing match. You could even say an event that is, in its way, weird (but not exactly wonderful).

Floyd Mayweather has competed in two such events. There was the pay-per-view extravaganza against MMA superstar Conor McGregor in 2017 and a rather sad affair in Japan the following year when Mayweather knocked out the Japanese kickboxing sensation Tenshin Nasukawa in one round.

Mayweather vs McGregor, which took place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, was in its way intriguing.  Mayweather was 40 and had been out of the ring for nearly two years. McGregor, 29, had never boxed professionally but he had shown punching power in MMA matches (18 KOs in 21 wins). 

People in the MMA fraternity were betting on McGregor. Sporting types who wager on boxing knew the score and made a killing. 

Mayweather was looking to take his record to 50-0, one better than 49-0 Rocky Marciano. He would not have taken the McGregor match if he was not 100 per cent certain he would win.

“I don’t believe Mayweather can allow himself to lose,” I wrote in the Boxing Monthly preview, “and I would be flat-out astonished if McGregor pulled off an upset. Mayweather can’t let it happen.” He didn’t.

The fight, scheduled for 12 rounds at 154lbs, with 12oz gloves, went according to the script. Mayweather basically walked McGregor down, hitting him with sharp right hands through his opponent’s southpaw guard, patiently wearing the younger man down. By the 10th, McGregor was worn down and wilting and referee Robert Byrd waved the finish. But McGregor didn’t disgrace himself. He hung in there and even won three rounds on one judge’s card.

Mayweather’s so-called exhibition with the much smaller Japanese kickboxing star Tenshin Nasukawa, took place in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve 2018 and it didn’t make pleasant viewing. It was a one-round wipeout.

Tenshin was not allowed to throw kicks in the scheduled three-round exhibition (no judges, so the bout was unofficial for record-keeping purposes). It was man against boy. Tenshin’s weight was given as 137lbs to Mayweather’s 147lbs, but the size-difference looked much bigger.

The bleached-blond Tenshin came out as if he wanted to make a fight of it, even landing a left hand from his southpaw style that got the crowd excited. Mayweather was not amused and proceeded to knock down Tenshin three times. The last knockdown came with the opening round almost over. The bell sounded. Referee Kenny Bayless counted to five and then waved the finish as Tenshin’s handlers rushed into the ring to go to their man’s aid. 

Mayweather made easy money against Tenshin Nasukawa in 2018.

Tenshin, 28-0 in kickboxing, had been crushed. He wept bitter tears of disappointment. Mayweather, 41, boasted on social media that he had been guaranteed $9 million for a scheduled nine minutes of entertainment. Who could blame him for not turning the offer down?

Going back a bit in time, there was Muhammad Ali’s exhibition with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo in June 1976. Ali found a nickname for Inoki. Noting Inoki’s jutting jaw, he dubbed him The Pelican. Ali wore boxing gloves, Inoki was bare-handed. There were various rule changes. As I understand it, if Inoki tried to grapple, all Ali had to do was to touch the ropes and the referee would break the combatants. The Guardian newspaper reported that Inoki would not be allowed to tackle Ali or throw him down.

Supposedly it was a real fight, not an exhibition. Inoki was allowed to kick at Ali if the grappler was on the canvas. So, for most of the 15 rounds, Inoki used a strategy of dropping to the ring floor and kicking at Ali’s legs. Ali indeed suffered blood clots in his legs. The result was a 15-round draw. Ali was guaranteed $6 million.

Before Ali vs Inoki came on the screen, viewers watching on closed-circuit saw heavyweight Chuck Wepner take on 7ft 5ins, 450lbs Andre The Giant in an event held at Shea Stadium in New York. As with Ali vs Inoki, Wepner wore boxing gloves while Andre was bare-handed. Andre was declared the winner after tossing Wepner over the ropes, with the New Jersey heavyweight slowly tumbling to the arena floor. Then Wepner clambered back into the ring and a scuffle ensued. Pure show business.

Then we have the Foreman vs Five event in Toronto in 1975, which was a bizarre affair, with former heavyweight champion George Foreman meeting five opponents on the same afternoon in bouts of three three-minute rounds each. The five were all pro heavyweights: Alonzo Johnson, Terry Daniels, Jerry Judge, Charlie Polite and Boone Kirkman. Foreman’s old rival Muhammad Ali was at ringside to offer comments for the ABC television network alongside Howard Cosell (while taking the opportunity to mock the then-25-year-old Foreman). 

There was a circus atmosphere to the occasion. For TV viewers, there was a moment of amusement in the second of the five bouts when Howard Cosell got the names of the opponents mixed up, mistakenly identifying Jerry Judge as Terry Daniels. “Howard Cosell, you’re not the announcer you used to be!” Ali exclaimed.

Foreman was very much the villain that afternoon. The crowd booed him constantly. After clubbing Jerry Judge to defeat in the second round, Foreman took offence at something his opponent said and threw extra-curricular punches. Handlers of both men rushed to separate the two men and both Foreman and Judge fell to the canvas in an unseemly tangle. “This thing is a carnival and it’s not pleasant to see,” Cosell commented.

The first three opponents, Judge, Alonzo Johnson and Terry Daniels (who had lasted into the fourth round in a title challenge against Joe Frazier) all went out in the second round. The last two opponents, Charley Polite and Boone Kirkman (who had been stopped in two rounds by an up-and-coming Foreman in 1970) went the distance. Foreman used an uncharacteristic style of dancing around the ring and flicking out jabs before going to work in earnest. He exchanged barbs with Ali. Debris was thrown into the ring. Howard Cosell wasn’t far wrong in calling it “an utterly weird afternoon”. 

George Foreman fought five men in one afternoon in Toronto in 1975.

Foreman actually wasn’t the first former heavyweight champion to box five men in one day. Jack Dempsey, now a 36-year-old, did it twice in three weeks in Spokane, Washington, and Boise, Idaho, in 1931, although not against serious opponents — at least Foreman met actual working professionals. As I understand it, the Dempsey bouts were exhibitions scheduled for one round of two minutes’ duration, but if an opponent survived the first round he was given the opportunity — if you could call it that — of boxing another round with the old champion. 

Researching his piece on Dempsey’s five-in-one-day appearances, the New York Times’ Dave Anderson noted that the once-great heavyweight, who had been inactive for four years after losing his rematch with Gene Tunney, had been considering a comeback. But Dempsey struggled in a four-round exhibition with King Levinsky, a heavyweight of some repute, in Chicago in February 1932, a showing that caused him to abandon the comeback notion.

Dempsey vs Levinsky, although essentially a curiosity, attracted a crowd of 23,000 to Chicago Stadium. No official verdict was given but a poll of ringside reporters had Levinsky winning 18-2 (with four reporters calling the exhibition even). “Dempsey, making his first appearance in a Chicago ring since he floored Gene Tunney for the celebrated ’14 count’ in 1927, looked like a weak carbon copy of the Dempsey who slaughtered Willard, Carpentier and Firpo,” the United Press news agency reported. 

Other oddities include Olympic gold medallists Paul Anderson and Bill Nieder trying their hand at boxing. 

Weight lifting gold medallist Paul Anderson, who billed himself as the World’s Strongest Man, lost in three rounds against a nondescript opponent named Attilio Tondo in North Carolina in April 1960.  A tank of a man at 5ft 9in and 300lbs, Anderson apparently became exhausted after dropping Tondo three times. Anderson stuck around for three more bouts and left boxing with a 2-2 record.

A year after Anderson’s debut  in the ring, Olympic shot put gold medallist Bill Nieder gave boxing a whirl but was knocked out in the first round by local trial horse Jim Wiley in Philadelphia in May 1961. Unlike Anderson, Nielsen never boxed again.

In Britain, cricketer Freddie Flintoff had a heavyweight boxing match at the age of 34, winning a four-round decision over a pudgy visitor named Richard Dawson in a bout that was part of a BoxNation show in 2012. There was even a betting line, with Dawson, who had a 2-0 record, a 7-4 on favourite. Dawson, from Oklahoma, dropped Flintoff with a jab but, as I recall, hardly threw any punches after that. Flintoff won on sheer enthusiasm and willingness. He never boxed again.

These are just some of the odd events that have taken place in boxing, or involved boxers, over the years. A 54-year-old Mike Tyson against a 51-year-old Roy Jones in an eight-round exhibition bout on pay-per-view TV? Considering all that has gone before, why not?

Main image: Muhammad Ali’s barely believable draw with Antonio Inoki in June 1976. Photo: Press Association/DPA/DPA/PA Images.