Notable non-title bouts: Graham Houston recalls risky business by Emile Griffith and other champions

The news that featherweight titleholder Shakur Stevenson was lined up for a non-title fight with Rafael Rivera in June reminded me of a time when champions regularly appeared in non-title bouts.

Back in the day, champions considered it important to stay active. A non-title (or over-the-weight) bout offered the opportunity to do so while the champion could pick up some money with no risk to the championship.

Also, a champion could move up in poundage to get the feel of a heavier weight class. 

By the 1970s, non-title bouts were going out of fashion. Champions and their handlers preferred to focus on title fights. Maybe, though, in the Covid-19 era, we might see non-title fights make a bit of a comeback, seeing that fights in front of big crowds will not be happening in the foreseeable future.

Traditionally, non-title bouts were 10-rounders. Not every non-title fight was a paid workout for the champion. Some non-title fights were exciting, even dramatic. There were a number of upsets. If an underdog seized the moment, and a champion wasn’t prepared for a tough fight, there was always the chance of a surprise.

A non-title fight that could even be called sensational occurred at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 20, 1963, when welterweight champion Emile Griffith went in with heavy-hitting middleweight contender Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. It was all over in two minutes, 13 seconds, with the muscled, menacing Carter blasting Griffith to defeat with two knockdowns for counts of nine. Griffith weighed 151½ pounds to Carter’s 155.

As the video of the fight shows, Griffith boxed well for the first minute and a half, matching jabs and hooks with the bigger man. “The boys trading good leather here in round one,” commentator Don Dunphy noted on the ABC Friday Night Fights telecast. But Carter was just too powerful, dropping Griffith with a left hook for the first of the two knockdowns. Although Griffith beat the count, the fight was effectively over. Griffith looked out on his feet and a Carter barrage, culminating in another left hook, sent him down again. Griffith dragged himself up at the count of nine but the referee had seen enough.

It was clearly a good stoppage, in an era when referees were often slower to stop fights than they are today, but Griffith remonstrated with the third man. “Griffith thinks he could have continued,” Dunphy intoned. “Whether he could or not is a matter of conjecture – he was hit hard.”

The Hurricane unleashed: Carter stuns Griffith in a career-best performance.

Another one-round finish in a middleweight non-title fight came exactly 28 years earlier when Britain’s hard-hitting and aggressive Jock McAvoy crushed Babe Risko, recognised as champion by the National Boxing Association and New York commission, in two minutes, 48 seconds on December 20, 1935. “Shades of Jem Driscoll and Ted Kid Lewis were in Madison Square Garden last night as Jock McAvoy, middle and light-heavy champion of the Empire, unleashed a torrent of leather against Babe Risko,” Associated Press news agency reported. 

Risko was down six times in the one-sided affair.

Actually, McAvoy was what we would now call a super-middleweight by 1935, weighing 168½ pounds for the Risko bout. McAvoy’s only world title opportunity came at light-heavy, when the skilled John Henry Lewis outpointed him at Madison Square Garden in 1936.

McAvoy was an 8-5 on betting favourite over Risko but upsets were commonplace in non-title bouts. One such surprise came when lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown lost on a corner retirement after six rounds against Ray Portilla (a boxer he had previously beaten) at San Antonio, Texas on March 21, 1960. This seems to have been a fluke result. Portilla, born in New York but based in Houston, Texas, landed what Boxing Illustrated described as a sweeping right hand to the body in the fourth round that collapsed the costal cartilage in Brown’s ribcage. 

“Just one of those freak things that happen only once in a million years,” BI reported. Well, actually, not once in a million years. Middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti claimed a rib injury when he retired after eight rounds in a non-title bout against New York’s Tom Bethea in Melbourne on March 13, 1970. Unlike Ray Portilla, Bethea was rewarded with a rematch with the title on the line and Benvenuti knocked him out in the eighth round.

Some results in non-title bouts had the boxing fraternity  wondering if the news agencies had got the result backwards, such as an over-the-weight bout at Ciudad Juarez in August 1960, when bantamweight champion Jose Becerra lost on an eighth-round knockout to fellow-Mexican Eloy Sanchez. 

Becerra was on a 24-fight winning run, which included his two knockout wins over Alphonse Halimi, of France, in title bouts. Sanchez had an undistinguished 24-12 record and he had lost his last three bouts.  Yet, according to Boxing Illustrated’s report, Sanchez knocked down Becerra four times. Becerra’s retirement was announced after the fight, although BoxRec shows him winning a six-rounder two years later, which was likely a farewell appearance to allow the ex-champ leave boxing on a winning note.

It wasn’t unusual for champions fight overseas in non-title bouts

For instance, the great light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore blew a 10-round decision to rugged Italian Giulio Rinaldi in Rome on October 29, 1960. Rinaldi staggered Moore into the ropes in the final round. The referee gave Old Archie a standing eight count. It was a different story in the rematch at Madison Square Garden the following June when Moore, slimmer and sharper, comfortably won a unanimous 15-round decision with the title on the line.

Davey Moore, a fine but ill-fated featherweight champion, lost in seven rounds to a solid-punching local junior lightweight named Carlos Hernandez in Caracas on March 14, 1960, in another shocker. Moore had won 18 consecutive fights in a record of 40-5-1 whereas Hernandez had boxed just 14 times professionally. But Hernandez had natural size on his side and he could punch. Moore suffered a broken jaw and retired in his corner after seven rounds.

Just five months earlier Moore had appeared in London in a non-title fight, stopping British featherweight champion Bobby Neill in the first round in a mismatch. 

Promoter Harry Levene brought Moore to London for the Bobby Neill appearance. Jack Solomons, Levene’s big promotional rival in the 1960s, went one better by featuring two world champions on the same bill at Wembley in October 1963 in non-title fights. Featherweight champion Sugar Ramos, the Mexico City based Cuban who had taken the title from Moore in a tragic bout, appeared as a lightweight, stopping a London-based Scot named Sammy McSpadden in two rounds. In the other non-title bout, lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz outpointed County Durham’s Maurice Cullen. 

Emile Griffith successfully defended his world welterweight title by outpointing Wales’ Brian Curvis at Wembley but he also had two non-title bouts in London, stopping game but outgunned British lightweight great Dave Charnley in the ninth round and halting rugged but outclassed middleweight Harry Scott, who was retired by his corner after seven rounds.

British world titleholders also appeared in bouts where the title wasn’t at stake.

Scotland’s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan had two non-title bouts at Wembley in the early 1970s, stopping Carlos Hernandez in the eighth round in what was to be the Venezuelan boxer’s last fight and outpointing Al Ford, a well-regarded boxer from Edmonton, Alberta.

Great Scot: World lightweight champ Buchanan in non-title action at Wembley.

Wales’ Howard Winstone had only one win as WBC featherweight champion, and that was his non-title points victory over limited but heavy-handed Jimmy Anderson, the British junior lightweight champion (the term ‘super-featherweight’ had yet to be coined). Non-title fights could be revealing. This was one such bout. Anderson knocked Winstone down with a right hand in the first round. Although Winstone came back to outbox Anderson he had a vulnerable look. The three punishing world title bouts with Vicente Saldivar had taken a toll. In his next bout after beating Anderson, Winstone lost his world title to the Madrid-domiciled Cuban, Jose Legra.

And, of course, we had Sugar Ray Robinson barnstorming his way across Europe with an astonishing six non-title bouts in a two-month span in 1951, the tour comprising bouts in Paris, Zurich, Belgium (twice), Berlin and Italy. If Robinson had been a little tired when losing his title to Randolph Turpin in London on July 10, 1951, it would have been understandable.

So, non-title bouts have played a part in ring history. Maybe they will do so again as the boxing world adjusts to the coronavirus pandemic.