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The History of Boxing; The Sluggers vs. The Boxers

Updated on November 6, 2015

John L Sullivan

Boxing History on Amazon

Brawlers and Boxers

With free boxing online to watch endlessly these days it is difficult for modern fight fans to relate to the importance and excitement of boxing in the 19th and early 20th century. Long before the Ultimate Fighting Championship, when boxing magazines were not free and were collected or traded as prized possessions, the privilege of seeing a fight in person meant traveling and taking time away from every day life to see a huge event that was talked out, gambled on, and debated for months before and after the the fight itself. The importance of the man who bore the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World, was phenomenal. He was basically considered an American hero of the "Superman" proportions. Decades before The Adventures of Superman made the comic books and television, young boys would dream and fantasize about the Heavyweight champion of the world and his superhuman strength.

There is nothing that true boxing fans enjoy more than arguing over who would have beaten whom if they could be matched at the prime of their careers. That means taking the champion of 1889 and matching him against the champ of 1919 and so on. This writer is one of those who is forever learning and picking up hobbies, and did become genuinely interested in boxing and its history many years ago.

It was not long before I was sitting around a group of elderly gentlemen defending my position that Jack Dempsey could have beaten Mike Tyson if both were 22 years old and face to face in 1919. It was fun! Analyzing Frazier's left hook against Dempsey's, and Ali's floating and dancing against Jack Johnson's line of defense. There is no way of knowing exactly what the outcome would be, but one thing I learned from watching great historical boxing matches and modern ones, is that the heavy hitters always find themselves dethroned by the guys who have technique. Never is the big guy with the super human punch dethroned by an even bigger guy with a bigger punch. History has proven that the opposite strength is what ultimately beats the big lug.

Boxing fans don't very often want to admit this because there is so much glamor associated with a fighter who has a powerful punch. The boxer who walks into the ring and throws a single blow that knocks his opponent out cold reminds us of superman and the fantasies of comic books and cartoons. The young and old men are like children when a boxer with punching power stands like an unbeatable king. They are also very deeply disappointed when their hero gets stupefied in 8 rounds by a twinkle toed light weight.

I wonder how many times I have heard people say, "he is impossible to beat, no one can hit as hard as he does." I have won a few bets and angered some fans to an uncomfortable level when I would say, "a big strong puncher will not beat him, a good boxer will."

I used these lessons of history to come this conclusion.

James J Corbett

Sullivan vs. Corbett

John L Sullivan was the king of bare knuckle fights. He was a tough guy with a powerful punch. From 1880-1892 he was recognized as the Heavyweight Champion of the World. His photos were proudly displayed in bars across the country, alongside glamor photos of Lillian Russell. He was the idol of practically every boy, man and grandfather of his time. Sullivan had a sold punch, and had won 38 out of his 42 fights. Two of them were draws, one was stopped by authorities and declared no contest. His record was impressive and his image was becoming legendary.

Most of the fights Sullivan participated in were unlimited bouts, or "fights to the finish" as they called them. This simply meant that although they fought three minute rounds, there was no set number of rounds, and the win had to be by knockout; not by points. The only way the fight could end is when a knockout was achieved. The rules of modern times would not have been tolerated in the 1800s, boxers of today would be called, "sissys". The fight fans wanted to know who the real tough guy was, not who, given a set of rules, could out maneuver the other. It was a matter of who was still standing,and who had collapsed to the canvas. It was not unusual for fights to go well past 30 rounds, and fans came prepared for a real show of toughness. Although Sullivan's fights were scheduled to "fight to the finish," he seldom fought past 8 rounds due to his immensely powerful right cross. All of Sullivan's opponents had been sluggers who tried to out punch the heavy hitting champion.

James J. Corbett is credited as the first scientific fighter ever. He was a boxer who used his ability to move quickly, counter punch, and jab to his advantage.

Sullivan, 5' 10" and 212 lbs, had been fighting as a bare knuckle fighter since 1882 when he took on Corbett, ( 6' 1" and 30 lbs lighter) who as considered to be such a different kind of fighter. A pansy by the standards of the day, Corbett's clean and athletic style was no wall liked against Sullivan's straight forward pouncing, however, Corbett beat the long reining Sullivan in the 21st round by wearing his opponent down before landing a solid left to the jaw that put his heavier opponent down for good. Many true Sullivan fans cried when their idol was beaten. It was like discovering that Santa Claus did not exist, but it was most definitely one of the greatest fights in boxing history.

Jack Dempsey

Gene Tunney

The Manassa Mauler

Jack Dempsey, 6'1", had a larger than life persona after he beat 6' 7" Jess Willard to take the title of Heavyweight Boxing Champion of The World. It was a David and Goliath match, Jack Dempsey was giving away 75 pounds to the Pottawatomie Giant, who is still the tallest heavyweight champion ever. Jack had several exciting title defenses and his reputation grew to astronomical proportions. All were expecting a replay of his previous knockouts when Dempsey was scheduled to fight Gene Tunney.

Tunney shocked the fight world when he danced circles around the brawny brawler. Dempsey plodded after the superior boxer Tunney, who wore his opponent down, beating Jack Dempsey in 15 rounds by outpointing him. I believe the only way to have beaten Dempsey at the height of his boxing career would be to do as Tunney had done. To outbox the brawler who depends so much on landing that one solid hit. Times were still innocent in 1926, and the defeat of Jack Dempsey was devastating to young men all over the country. I recall seeing elderly men on television stating that their lives changed after that event. Reality had become a little more real, and they were forced to grow up and face facts. There are no real superhuman champions.

Tunney and Dempsey would later have a re match that would go down in history as "The Battle of The Long Count." The fight was virtually a repeat of the first, with Tunny leading Dempsey to swing and miss and then plod after his tormentor. The tables seemed to abruptly change when in the 7th round Jack Dempsey unloaded with a flurry of punches that staggered Tunny onto the ropes. Soon Tunny hit the canvas and Jack stood over Tunny after landing his tremendous barrage of solid hits instead of going to a neutral corner. After Tunney went down in a heap the referee did not begin counting until after he turned to Dempsey and ordered him to go to a neutral corner. Dempsey lost valuable time and Tunney's count lasted over 10 seconds, before he got up and continued the fight. This is an arguing point with boxers and always will be. But, when Tunney recovered from that knock down and the fight resumed as a replay of their first bout. Jack Dempsey did not regain the Heavyweight title as Gene Tunney out boxed him once again.

Dempsey vs. Tunney Battle of the Long Count

Ali vs. Foreman

Ali vs. Foreman

George Foreman had a menacing persona in 1974 when he faced Muhammad Ali. Even though Ali had beaten heavy hitters in the past such as Sony Liston, the general public believed that Ali, the bouncy dancer who lacked tremendous punching power, would be knocked out in the early rounds by the big powerful slugger, George Foreman.

Ali danced as expected in the early rounds, and after feeling out his opponent and seeing that he was getting tired, Ali decided that he would relax for a while and let his opponent further deplete his strength. He used his superior defense, and over all boxing skill to let his powerful foe tire, and spun around in the 8th round to upset the crowd by knocking out George Foreman. Once again the crafty man had beaten the strong, hard hitting champion. Ali's strategy would go down in boxing history as "the rope a dope" defense, due to the fact that he was leaning back on the ropes, and using them for a resting zone and as an aid in avoiding Foreman's blows.

He roped the dope into losing the battle.

Buster Douglas KOs Mike Tyson


Buster Douglas Vs. Mike Tyson

In 1990 Mike Tyson's reputation was one of a super human strength and invincibility. He managed to exude power, strength and lightning speed. Even though he was not as big as the other fighters he faced, he was regarded as the most fearsome fighter ever. Tyson had a string of one round knock outs, and it was rather unusual for a Tyson fight to make it to round 2 or 3. One thing can be observed when watching Tyson's pre Buster Douglas bouts is that the opponents look psyched out. Many looked as though they were scared out of their wits before the bell even rang.

When Buster Douglas faced Tyson all were expecting another one round fight, but, Buster Douglas was moving like Ali, or Larry Holmes that night. He had an excellent stance and threw out his jab frequently, holding his shorter opponent at bay. By the mid rounds Mike was pouting and whimpering in his corner. He knew he was up against something he had never faced before, a man who could box. In the 10th round Buster Douglas knocked Tyson out. Another heavy hitter bites the dust. No one was crying this time.


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    • profile image

      Aaron Boyd 

      14 months ago

      Tyson is not a slugger fighter he is swarmer there is a difference.

      When Sullivan fought Corbett nobody had ever really seen an “out boxer” technique so fighting it would have been very difficult. That style didn’t really catch on so when Dempsey fought Tunney it was again a bit of a foreign technique. However, Dempsey adjusted in the second fight but the long count saved Tunney.

      As far as Foreman vs Ali....if Foreman didn’t throw that fight England doesn’t have a Queen.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I had been thinking "taking sugar out" was a Cryptocoolopolitan I was wrnoeding if this guy defeated Sugar Ray Robinson. Somethin' ain't Jake (LaMotta) here, 'cuz as I recall twarn't Jake LaMotta Jr. in the role of Jethro Bodine. Who's that goomer, Jed?Peabody

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Hello Hub Author - I enjoy your boxing articles,photos,and videos,but there is much more great ground to cover. I am respectfully requesting that you provide the same for bouts concerning the following fighters: Cornelius Boza-Edwards,Raphael "Bozooka" Limon,Bobby "School Boy" Chacon, 175 pounders such as Matthew Saad Muhammad (Matthew Franklin),Dwight Muhammad Quwi (Dwight Braxton),Marvin Johnson, Michael Spinx, and Eddie Mustapha Muhammad (Eddie Gregory). There where some great fights within the names I mentioned here. I thank you in advance for all considerations. - Kelco

    • Skarlet profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from California

      Thank you lesliebars. I have had my obsession with boxing, that is for sure. I love history too, so put them together and I am in heaven.

      I appreciate your kind comment.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I enjoyed this article. Boxing is my life. Voted up, interesting and tweeted my friend.

    • Skarlet profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from California

      Sorry Dean, but this article was about the "historical" timeline of heavyweight champions who were either boxers or sluggers. The platform is basically showing how the great heavy punchers have traditionally been beaten by a superior "boxer" type of fighter.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It's a real shame to not see Lenny Mcleans name on here. One of the most unpredictable boxers i have ever seen. I remember his fight against mad gypsy bradshaw. Look it up.

    • Skarlet profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from California

      @wba- Yes, I forgot that Tunny was nicknamed "the fighting Marine." I will have to look up Speculator. I know boxers often went to the mountains to train. (somewhere with high altitude) Thank you very much for the comment.

      @fpherj48- I wish I could talk to your dad. I do still love talking about boxing, and those old guys who can talk details about the old timers are so interesting. Thank you for the + vote.

      @Vincent- I believe you when you say you had to learn to fight in the streets of Canada. I think its probably a good thing you did not continue boxing, because it does cause serious long term damage. I also admire both punchers and boxers. I get caught up in the romance of the heavy hitters too, but when it comes time to guessing who will eventually beat the slugger, I say it will be someone with a lot of style.

      I used to follow it more than I do now, but because the title is all over the place now, it has taken the importance out of having just one heavyweight champion.

      I have watched some kick boxing, but I guess I feel like the kicking takes away from the boxing, and I don't enjoy watching it as much.

      Thank you for the vote and share...

    • profile image

      Vincent Moore 

      8 years ago

      Wonderful hub you packed a knockout punch with this one. I boxed in my day, I had to learn quickly in the mean streets of The Point in Montreal, Quebec back in the 60's. My Irish friends and I often had brawls in the streets with the French, it was the thing back then to stand up and fight and take your lumps. I fought for the Golden Gloves and got knocked out in the second round. I was up against a tough black kid muscle bound and packed one hell of a punch, he faked me and caught me with his jack hammer right. He was the professional fighters brother Doug Jones.

      I didn't continue boxing, however I have followed it all my life and admire both the styles sluggers and boxers. We had a Canadian Champ George Chavalo who never was put down, even the great Ali claimed his fists were swollen under his gloves from the amount of punches he threw at George and the Bulldoze just kept coming at him.

      George and the Raging Bull- Lamatta were similar bloody, bloody brawlers. I studied kick boxing for a few years in my thirties and I had two Irish brothers who fought moving forward all the time, dishing out punishing blows and taking them back, often their faces a bloody mess, but never backed down. Yup those were the days. Voted Up and shared.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      8 years ago from Carson City would be crowned HUBBER of the century, by my Dad, if he was still here with us, to read your hub. He was a devoted fan of "boxing."

      He would want to talk with you for hours.....which he really only did when the subject greatly interested him.

      I'm afraid I know very little....except that I positively LOVED the movie "Cinderella Man." Wasn't it just the BEST??! UP ++ and Shared

    • profile image 

      8 years ago from upstate, NY

      Gene Tunney was a WW2 army buddy of a guy who lived in Speculator NY where my family has a summer camp. Speculator is a small town on a lake high up in the Adirondack mountains. For a while Speculator became a boxing training center for world renown fighters such as Max Schmeling, Gene Tunney and many others. I saw a picture of Tunney standing by a pontoon Airplane after he had been flown in to Lake Pleasant in Speculator to visit his army buddy. The fighters boxed in the many rinks in town and ran countless miles on the mountainous dirt roads.


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