IBHOF inductee Graham Houston sets the scene for Saturday’s fascinating encounter between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk by remembering previous southpaws who fought for a world heavyweight crown.
If Oleksandr Usyk pulls off the upset over Anthony Joshua on Saturday he will be only the sixth southpaw heavyweight champion in ring history, joining Michael Moorer, Ruslan Chagaev, Chris Byrd, Corrie Sanders and Charles Martin. (I suppose we have to include Martin although his IBF title win over Vyacheslav Glazkov was something of a fluke, with the Ukrainian boxer losing due to a knee injury in the third round, with the issue very much in doubt).
When Moorer defeated Evander Holyfield by majority decision in Las Vegas it was an upset, as was Chagaev’s triumph over the huge Nikolay Valuev and Sanders’ shocking second-round win over Wladimir Klitschko. Byrd’s victory over Vitali Klitschko, who retired with a compromised shoulder, was a stunning surprise. (Martin vs Glazkov was basically even money.) So Usyk will be the fifth southpaw to spring an upset in a heavyweight title fight if he overcomes Joshua.
With Saturday’s fight in mind, I cast my mind back to southpaw heavies of the past. Interestingly, it was only until comparatively recently that the US produced southpaw heavies of note. Moorer and Byrd, of course, and also Tony Thompson, the big man from the US capital of Washington DC who twice stopped David Price in the UK and thus crushed the dream of the Liverpool big-hitter ever becoming an elite-level heavyweight.
Other American southpaw heavies who come to mind include the 6ft 8ins Tye Fields, who was considered a prospect as he piled up a string of wins. Veteran trainer Jesse Reid had high hopes for Fields. But it all came tumbling down when the seasoned Monte Barrett blasted Fields with a big right hand in the opening round of their fight in Las Vegas in 2008. I guess a first-round KO loss in Kansas City early in his career should have been the red flag where Fields was concerned.
I thought that Boris Powell, a competent left-hander from St Louis, might amount to something but, no, he just faded away despite only two losses in 32 bouts.
Big Al Jones, from the Miami suburb of Goulds, Florida, was probably the best US southpaw heavyweight until Moorer and Byrd came along. Al Jones. That’s a largely forgotten name from the past I thought worth researching.
Jones was a big man at 6ft 5ins and around 230lbs. He boxed from 1964 until 1976 and he compiled a record of 33-3-3 (18 KOs). Jones met two former heavyweight title challengers, boxing a 10-round draw with Zora Folley in May 1968 and stopping Cleveland Williams in the eighth round a year later.
Apparently Jones finished strongly in the fight with Folley, who had lost in seven rounds to Muhammad Ali a year earlier. It was Folley’s third bout against a southpaw in four years. In back to-back fights in Germany, Folley drew with Karl Mildenberger and then knocked out lanky left-hander Gerhard Zech in four rounds. Folley told reporter Hank Kaplan that Jones hit harder than Mildenberger but “telegraphs his punches”.
The win over “Big Cat” Williams might have been Jones’ finest performance. Boxing Illustrated reported that Jones used his long reach and right jab to keep Williams off balance. He knocked down Williams in the fourth round and again in the seventh. It seems that Williams was in a bad way after the seventh-round knockdown and was saved by the bell. Jones wobbled him almost as soon as the eighth started and referee Eddie Eckert stopped the fight after just 11 seconds of the round.
In other notable performances, Jones knocked out the 6ft 9ins James J. Beattie in the first round and demolished the huge Jack O’Halloran in the third. Jones landed a big left hand to KO the Minnesota giant Beattie in just 50 seconds. Boston’s 6ft 6ins, 230lbs O’Halloran claimed never to have been knocked down, but Jones floored him three times.
Unfortunately for Jones, he suffered hand injuries throughout his career. He reportedly broke his left hand in the first round in his 10-round draw with Brazil’s Luis Pires. Jones retired after breaking his hand yet again in a 1976 fight.
Best southpaw never to win a world title? Probably Germany’s European champion Karl Mildenberger, courageous loser in 12 rounds against Muhammad Ali in a 1966 title bid. But you could make a case for Cuba’s Miami-based Luis Ortiz, who was twice doing well on the scorecards before getting drilled by Deontay Wilder’s big right hand. And talking of Cuban southpaws, Elieser Castillo was a useful left-hander who boxed from 1996 to 2017. Sweden’s Otto Wallin will be seeking to spring a southpaw surprise against Dillian Whyte on October 30.
Southpaw heavyweights were rare in the US in the 1960s and into the ’70s, but Britain had a bunch of them: Jack Bodell, of Swadlincote in the Midlands, who won big London fights against Joe Bugner and Billy Walker and held the British, Commonwealth and European titles, Londoner Roy Enifer, Roger Tighe, a former amateur champion from Hull, Swindon’s heavy-handed Eddie Nielsen and, of course, Yorkshire’s Richard Dunn, who won the British, Commonwealth and European titles and lasted into the fifth round in a world title attempt against Muhammad Ali in Munich. I was ringside that night. No one gave Dunn a chance but he had a go as best he could, with veteran manager George Biddles exclaiming: “I’m proud of you!” between rounds.
The West Country’s Eddie Nielsen suffered early setbacks but put together nine wins in a row (eight by stoppage) and really seemed to have found himself as a fighter. But the Nigerian Ngozika Ekwelum brought the Nielsen camp back to reality when he landed big right hands to stop the Swindon slugger in two rounds under the chandeliers at London’s National Sporting Club in January 1975.
Left-hander Franco De Piccoli was Olympic heavyweight gold medallist in Rome in 1960 and the Italian fight fraternity was optimistic that the nation might be in with a chance of having its first heavyweight champion since the much-maligned Primo Carnera. But while De Piccoli could dish it out he wasn’t so good at taking it, suffering consecutive KO defeats against New Yorker Wayne Bethea, a tough journeyman when the term “journeyman” meant something quite different to what it does today, and the British-Jamaican, Joe Bygraves.
Another Italian southpaw, Piero Tomasoni, never got a world title opportunity but fought challengers Mildenberger (who twice outpointed him) and Henry Cooper, who knocked him out in the fifth round. British fans of a certain age might remember Tomasoni, the wild-swinging “Axeman of Manerbio”, dropping Cooper with what looked like palpably low blows in their Rome contest in 1969. But Cooper got his payback, with interest, when he landed flush with his “Enery’s ’Ammer” (as Cockney manager Jim Wicks called Cooper’s left hook) in the fifth round.
Southpaw heavyweights, then, have provided thrills and spills over the years while rarely hitting the heights. But now Oleksandr Usyk has entered the stage. He’s probably the most accomplished southpaw heavyweight in history. And if Usyk beats Joshua we will surely hail him as the greatest southpaw heavyweight of all time.