Boxing Styles, History of the Weight Division & Dempsey’s Era (diary entry)

langford vs langpancho villaharry grebbenny leonard18.05.21

My teacher consultancy lesson on fight history and analysis covered a number of topics that will continue into next week’s lesson. We looked over the boxing era that Jack Dempsey often eclipsed with one call back to the previous era to a man Dempsey publically admitted to fearing, an overview of the basic boxing styles and the history of the weight divisions.

Styles of Boxing – Three, Four, Five, More?

The 1920s saw Boxing enter a new golden era and there was a clear establishment of the modern art. Here we see the prototypical styles for the many fighters that would follow. As is the case with most things boxing related, there is some messy discussion on style categorisation. For purposes of this course the styles are pure boxers, which might be sub-divided into out-boxers and boxer-punchers, sluggers and swarmers. Some might argue that my pure boxer sub-divisions are really two distinct styles and the boxer-puncher is just an out-boxer/slugger hybrid. Pure boxer designates the style of fighter that Queensbury Rules and the constructs of the sport dictate. Fighters like Willie Pepp, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hearns and Jack Johnson were good examples of out-boxers. Whereas Joe Louis, Jim Corbett, Gene Tunney, Sonny Liston and Lennox Lewis are probably better examples of boxer-punchers. Sluggers are essentially knockout merchants. Their fight is reliant on being able to land one decisive punch. Rocky Graziano is often considered to be one of the hardest hitters for his weight category and even the movie based on his life, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, makes especial mention of the energy he could transfer into his right hand. Deontay Wilder, with his incredible knockout percentage, also comes to mind as a fighter known for his one big punch. George Foreman is perhaps the exemplification of the pure slugger despite changing his style considerably between his two separate reigns at the top. Swarmers are brawl like sluggers but have faster hands and head movement. Jack Dempsey is often credited as the first sophisticated swarmer. Contrary to popular belief, Dempsey didn’t knock people out like a slugger with one big punch. He wore people down very quickly with a blitzing attack. Manny Pacquiao, Roberto Duran and also other great examples, and Rocky Marciano exemplified this style of boxer in the way he just constantly battered through his opponents’ defences.  Other sub-categories might include counter-punchers, which are also often given their own cateogory. Floyd Mayweather Jnr is great example of an out-boxer/counter-puncher as is Tommy Loughran. However, Mike Tyson is a swarmer/counter-puncher. Then we have switch-hitters, such as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who were also swarmers, and Tyson Fury who is a boxer-puncher.  Southpaw is also put down as a style, but this usually dictated purely by the fact that the fighter is left-handed. Nevertheless, they do often have specific tactics.

Boxing Weight Division History

Modern boxing and its weight divisions traces its roots to Jim Figg. There is pretty much a millenium of missing information between a sport called boxing appearing in Rome and then in England, so it seems quite a far stretch to connect their lineages. This is especially true when we see evidence of pugilism coming from late medieval/early modern era German fencing martial arts. It is also worth mentioning that fistic combat sports are far from unique to Europe or the Western World. Both Africa and Russia have fistic folk traditions unrelated to the sport that emerged in England. Despite a newspaper mention of a bare knuckle fight appearing in a 17th century periodical, Figg is really our best starting point. He was teaching at his own amphitheatre in 1719 under the patronage of the Earl of Peterborough. Figg declared himself English champion fighting in contests involving sword, cudgel or quarterstaff, and bare-knuckles. He retired in the 1730s and one his proteges, Jack Broughton, went on to establish the first set of established rules after Broughton killed one of his opponents. They would stay in place until 1838 when the London Prize Rules were superseded them after William “Brighton Bill” was killed.

Three years after Broughton opened his own amphitheatre, “lightweight” fights were reported with the weight being established at anything from up to 70kg to 75kg. Caleb Baldwin appears to be one of the first boxers to be regarded as the English Lightweight Champion after his defeat of Arthur “Gypsy” Smith in 1792, defending it successfully until 1804 when Samuel “Dutch Sam” Elias became the man beat at this weight division. In 1792 the term “welterweight” had been taken from horse-racing and was being applied to some fighters over lightweight. Samuel “Young Dutch” Evans is considered to have been informally declared the English Welterweight Champion when he beat Harry “Sailor Boy” Jones in 1825. However, 26 years prior to this we have a record of Jem “The Napoleon of the Ring”/”The Black Diamond” Belcher –  grandson of Jack “The Norfolk Butcher”/”Knight of the Cleaver” Slack who famously defeated Jack Broughton and was also supposedly the grandson of Jim Figg –  apparently winning the “Middleweight Championship of England” in 1799 against “Paddington” Tom Jones.

Belcher would then go on to win the “Championship of England” in 1800 which he defended several times each year until 1803 when he lost his right eye in a game of racquets with Edwin Stuart. This forced an early retirement, but he still seems to have been considered the title holder in 1805 when he came out of retirement to be defeated by Henry “Hen” Pearce. This paricular title appears to have only been properly recognised by the press and the general boxing community. This was considered to be heavyweight by default but probably should be called openweight. This might demonstrated with examples like Harry Boome who was informally considered to be the English Welterweight champion from 1843 until 1851 when he successfully shot up divisions to win the English Heavyweight championship from William/Bill “The Tipton Slasher” Perry on a foul. The Slasher had first claimed the title in 1850 when he beat Tom Paddock. The actual English Heavyweight belt was still in the possession of its last champion, William “Bendigo” Thompson. Bendigo had retired and vacated the title following his final defence where he had won on a foul committed by the aforementioned Paddock. The old champion claimed ownership of the belt as his property and refused to put it on the line in a match against Perry. Harry Broome successfully defended the title against Harry Orme in 1853 but refused to fight The Tipton Slasher again. Once again, William Perry claimed the title by default. However, it appears that the unofficial nature of the English Heavyweight title meant that its real holder was now very much in dispute with at least five claimants – Perry, Harry Broome, Harry Orme, Tom Paddock and Aaron Jones – recognised by the press and boxing community. By 1855 Bond Street jewellers had been commissioned to make a new belt by a collective of fight supporters. With Jones and Paddock joining Broome in their refusal to fight Perry, The Slasher appears to have only had only Harry Orme to be concerned about. There are no details available on whether or not they met, but Perry would be unseated as the champion by a surprising underdog, Tom Sayers, in 1857. Sayers had been another lighter fighter who scaled the divisions. He had once challenged for the English Middleweight Championship and been defeated by Nat Langham (his only career loss) in 1853. Langham had apparently won the title from William Ellis in 1842. Incidentally Langham’s only defeat appears to have been at the hands of Harry Orme who would also fight amongst the top heavyweights. The 1840s appear to be the first time the English Middleweight Championship is mentioned.

Back in 1816 Jacob Hyer fought Tom Beasley in Manhattan under Broughton’s Rules in what is largely considered to be the first official boxing match on American soil. The bout wasn’t actually the first and wasn’t even the first publically witnessed in the US, but it became as significant as the first recorded English boxing match in 1681 between the unnamed footman and butcher of  Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Hyer’s son, Tom, became recognised as the “Heavyweight Champion of America” after his 101 round victory over George McCheester in New York, 1841, although there was no official sanctioning body. Although all his professional fights were heavily politicised contests and some were regarded as backed “bar-fights”, they were all fought under the London Prize Rules. Hyer vacated the American Heavyweight title in 1851 when he went into temporary retirement. Yankee Sullivan, the man Hyer had successfully defended the title twice against declared himself the new champion by default although this was hotly disputed. Sullivan lost the title to John Morrisey in 1853.  As side-note in 1855 Johnny Moneghan, an Englisman who had emigrated to the US, won a contest in Canada against James Hart to be declared the first “Lightweight Champion of America”. 1858 saw Sullivan retire and vacate the American Heavyeight Championship after successfully defending it three times, the third time against John Heenan that same year. Heenan was refused a rematch and became the American Heavyweight champion, but now had trouble securing a worthy opponent. He would look across the Atlantic to the current reigning English champion, Tom Sayers.

The same year Heenan would claim the American title, Jem Mace would lose to the very well-respected Bob Brettle in what has been documented as a fight for the English Middleweight title. Mace was yet another catchweight of the pioneer era. He saw two return matches for the same informal middleweight title in 1860, the first of which was a draw and second where he won the title. A year later and his very next fight saw him scale a division to successfully lift the English Heavyweight Championship from the generally accepted lineal champion, Sam Hurst. In 1861 Joe Goss won the English Middleweight championship in a match with John “Posh” Price. Meanwhile Tom King fought two bouts with Jem Mace for the heavyweight title in 1862. Mace retained the title the first time around and lost on King’s second attempt. King then defended the title in a brutal match against the American, John Heenan, in 1863. Incidentally Heenan’s international match with Tom Sayers had resulted in a controversial draw in 1860.  This might have been thought of as an early attempt to create a world heavyweight champion with both Heenan and Sayers both holding their respective American and English national titles. The much publicised bout was Sayers’ last fight but appear as one of Heenan’s seconds in his bout against King. Despite an aggressive campaign by Jem Mace to challenge King for the English title (they had both had one fight each) King retired and vacated the Heavyweight title. That left Mace with his old middleweight opponent, Joe Goss who he beat, drew and then beat again for the English Heavyweight Championship respectively in 1863 and twice in 1866.

Meanwhile back in the Middleweight and Welterweight divisions, Tom Allen, an English emigrant boxer to America, had set his eyes on the titles of his homeland titles. In 1864 he failed to lift the Welterweight title after 50 round battle with Bob Smith. However, in 1865 John “Posh” Price appears to have been the man to beat once again for the English Middleweight Championship and Tom Allen did just that after 41 rounds. Two years later he drew with Joe Goss over the same title. He then tried his luck at the American Heavyweight Championship in 1869 when he fought Mike McCoole, another imigrant to the US (this time from Ireland), who had won the title from Bill Davis in 1866. McCole won the bout on a foul when Allen, although ahead of the game, apparently tried to gouge his opponent after they fell to the ground together. It is worth noting that this was the period of the no holds barred American combat sport known as “Rough and Tumble”, which not only permitted gouging it sometimes was actually called “Gouging”. However, by 1870 Allen must have been considered the American Heavyweight Champion because his match with Jem Mace, once again the English champion, is now sometimes regarded as the first World Heavyweight Championship in boxing history. Therefore, Mace might be considered the first boxer to hold that title when he won the bout. He then fought Allen to draw in a rematch and also drew with Joe Coburn both of which were considered defences of the World and American Heavyweight titles. Although there are further recorded bouts after this involving Mace, including another victory over Tom Allen in 1876, a win for the first time in gloves under the Queensbury Rules with Bob Davis in 1877 and a loss in an English Heavyweight Championship match against Charlie Mitchell in 1890 also wearing gloves, none of these appear to be world title defences. The validity of what was considered the world title appears to been in dispute. Indeed there appears to now be some discrepency about the English Heavyweight title as the mysterious Jem Smith is recorded to have won it in 1884 against the even more mysterious Woolf Bendoff. Bendoff is down as having won a tournament of sorts for the English title from 1881 to 1884. In 1880 it appears that Mace had temporally retired and had vacated his titles. Joe Goss seems to have been declared the American heavyweight champion and lost it to newcomer Paddy Ryan. Ryan then lost it to John L. Sullivan.

The aforementioned Charlie (“Charley”) Mitchell was another weight climber having competed as a lightweight, a middleweight and eventually as a heavyweight. He is significant to our weight division history because his bout against John L. Sullivan in 1888 in France is sometimes argued to be the first official World Heavyweight Championship despite Gem Mace’s victory over Tom Allen in 1870. It is also contested that Sullivan’s victory against Jake Kilrain in 1889 was the first. Jake Kilrain had begun boxing in 1883 and was declared American Heavyweight Champion by 1887. That year he was declared the winner of a 106 round bout he had fought with the English champion Jem Smith for two hours and 16 minutes in 1887. Darkness had prompted the closure of the fight, which was first declared a draw but then given to Kilrain by the National Police Gazette. With Kilrain being declared the world Heavyweight Champion by the press, one might argue that his bout with Jem Smith might also be considered to be the first World Heavyweight Championship. Of course, none of these bouts were sanctioned by any official body and they were technically legal in both America and Britain with authorities trying to stop them from happening whenever a venue and date was set.

As a side-bar, a 40 year old Jem Smith was later defeated in 1903 by a middle-aged Charles C. Smith, the first man to claim the title of World Coloured Heavyweight Champion in 1875. Although he fought many times and even killed another fighter in a boxing match, Smith doesn’t have a single recorded defence of his title. The World Coloured Heavyweight title must have been considered vacant when Morris Grant claimed it in 1878 and then lost in his first defence against Charles “The Professor” Hadley. These two would meet a total of 10 times with Hadley winning eight matches, one being declared a draw and the only time Grant getting a points decision being when Hadley didn’t put the title on the line. Hadley would lose the title to George “Old Chocolate” Godfrey who would be the first black fighter to start a campaign to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. Sullivan, who like his contemporaries had fought many black fighters during his career, would use the colour bar to prevent fighters like Godfrey from challenging for the title. The World Coloured Heavyweight Championship title would remain in place from 1875 until 1935. After defending the title 17 times, Jack Johnson successfully campaigned and won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1908. However, he also used the colour bar and did not put the title on the line, eventually losing it to Jess Willard in 1915. After Johnson’s reign it would 22 years before a black man would win the World Championship and the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship would end with Larry Gains as its last title holder.

Due to the lack of any legal authority or organisation, lineage of other weight categories are even harder to establish than the heavyweigh title before boxing started to become legalised. Jack “Nonpareli” Dempsey is sometimes considered to be the first world middleweight champion when he beat the American champion George Fulijames in 1884 or when he beat George La Blanche under the Queensbury Rules in 1886. The Queensbury Rules are used as the starting point for all the lineal championships today. Paddy Duffy is recognised as the first world welterweight champion because of his victory under these conditions over Billy McMillan in 1888. Ike Weir is recorded as the first world featherweight champion after his victory in 1889. The great George Dixon, the pioneer of shadowboxing, is credited with being the first world bantamweight champion in 1890 and also the first black athlete to win a world title in any sport and the first Canadian-born boxing champion. 

1890 saw the official establishment and recognition of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules and this began to offer more legal opportunities for boxing even though it was still technically banned in the countries that had the biggest active interest in the sport. The rules also properly standardised the weights. Although multiple weight champions would continue up to the present day, mismatches began to decline and it would become rarer to see fighters jump up and down the divisions in the way I have already described. In 1903 journalist, boxing manager and promoter, Lou Houseman, established the light heavyweight division with Jack Root being crowned its first official champion that year after defeating George Gardner. However, evidence has been uncovered that Joe Choynski – the man credited with helping Jack Johnson develop his defensive style – won a decision 1899 over Jimmy Kyan for what the Los Angeles Herald called “The Light Heavyweight Championship of the World”. Choynski never laid claim to this title and this article was only rediscovered by boxing historians in the 1980s.

Boxing debuted in the modern Summer Olympics in 1904, alongside another combat sport, Freestyle Wrestling, with seven weight categories including the new lightest division of flyweight but not including light-heavyweight. Flyweight would not be recognised properly recognised in professional boxing until 1911 when Sid Smith won the inaugural English (later changed to British) championship in 1911. He then won the European title in a bout with Eugène Criqui in 1913 who had won the French Flyweight Championship the previous year. Criqui was a remarkable boxer who had his jaw shattered when fighting in the horrors of World War I’s Battle of Verdun and, after extensive reconstructive surgery, came back to win the French, European and World Featherweight titles in 1921, 1922 and 1923 respectively. Four year s later and there were only five weight categories in the Summer Olympics. Light heavyweight was still absent but so too was the new yet to be professionally established flyweight and curiously welterweight, one of the oldest weight divisions. Interestingly the USA had won every contest in the 1904 Olympics and Great Britain had won every contest in the 1908 Olympics.

In 1909 the National Sporting Club of London recognised what has come to be known as the “Glamour Divisions” of boxing. These were the eight recognised championship weight classes that the NSC would award their prized Longsdale belts to:  heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight and flyweight. However, the US did not always agree with these divisions and boxing was growing more popular in their country. For example, Britian set 135lbs as their limit on the lightweight division whereas the US stuck at 133lbs. Britain eventually preveiled, but by the 1920s boxing really exploded in the US and the decade kicked off with a new law to properly legalise the sport. The Walker Law, a state law introduced into New York in 1920, helped establish these eight divisions and also introduced new ones that would not be properly recognised by sanctioning bodies. The first of these bodies was the New York State Athletic Commission. By 1963 this commission put its support around the newly formed World Boxing Council. In 1921 the National Boxing Association was formed to counter the influence of the NYSAC and became the World Boxing Association in 1962.

Nine more weight divisions, sometimes called the “Tweener Divisions”, have slowly become recognised since the introduction of Walker Law. These divisions are: cruiserweight, super middleweight, junior middleweight or super welterweight, junior welterweight or super lightweight, super featherweight, super bantamweight or junior featherweight, super flyweight or junior bantamweight, junior flyweight or light flyweight and starweight or minimum weight.

Other Fighters of the Dempsey Era

Sam Langford versus Billy Lang

“The hell I feared no man… There was one man, he was even smaller than I, and I wouldn’t fight because I knew he would flatten me. I was afraid of Sam Langford.” – Jack Dempsey

Sam Langford was included in tonight’s fight analysis because although he isn’t really in Dempsey’s era, his style seems to fit in more and he is often criminally over-looked from the previous two decades. Langford is one of a number of black heavyweight fighters, such Joe Jeanette and Harry Wills, that won the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship multiple times and was denied the opportunity to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. He was only just over 5’6″ but had a remakable ape index (73″ reach) that allowed him to still be an effective counter-punching out-boxer against taller opponents. Langford had a lot of trouble with long-range jabbers but was known for his high ring IQ and would feint a lot to create openings. He would block and parry rather than slip, using a typical counter-puncher guard with the rear hand high and lead hand low.

In his fight against Billy Lang, recorded in 1911, Langford stalks his opponent confidentally. This match is quite eye-opening for the fights that were to become popular in the next decade with Langford exploding out of nowhere into his opponent and Lang demonstrating a fair amount of footwork. Langford controls the centre of the ring and is not so keen to clinch but handles it like a master when Lang tries to tie him up. On from here we see him regularly using the jab and a long hook before closing the distance and wading in with succession after succession of hooks. The footage shows Langford clipping Lang with a long hook for a knockdown and the fight would eventually end on a disqualification. However, reviewing the fight we saw plenty of reasons why Langford was so feared.  He picked his targets and was a classic boxer-puncher.

Pancho Villa versus Jimmy Wilde

Pancho Villa (Francisco Guilledo) is a classic example of an over-looked fighter from yesteryear. Tragically dying just 17 days before his 24th birthday, Villa was the first Asian to win a world boxing championship title. The 5’1″ Filipino was an aggressive swarmer who threw an amazing lead hook coupled with quick upper body mobility. His fight with Jimmy Wilde, the returning world flyweight champion with an incredble record of 137 wins, exemplifies his skills at their peak. Never afraid to fight out of the pocket, Villa was relentless with his punches which he often throws from a coiled stance with a cross-arm guard reminscent of Archie Moore years later. Wilde was known for his heart and the contest was an even affair until Villa unleashed a long range hook and powerful overhand. After that Wilde cannot withstand Villa’s relentless assaults. Much like Dempsey, he ploughs in with vicious hooks and uppercut inside. Villa would defend his title four times before he lost a fight in a non-title match whilst suffering from a tooth infection that would later kill him.

Harry Grebb Training

I could not source any fight foootage of the great Harry Grebb but had to mention the only man to defeat Gene Tunney and is often regarded as the great pound-for-pound boxer of the 1920s. Greb was known for his swarming style, his dirty tactics and his amazing courage, fighting most his career with vision in just one eye. Greb was a perfect World Middleweight Champion who regularly challenged and beat much heavier fighters in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, winning the World Light Weight Championship from the great Tommy Loughran. He was the exemplification of the swarmer who constantly came forward and overwhelmed opponents with multiple punches, however, he lacked knockout power. This latter factor was probably down to the fact that he regularly took on much heavier opponents. The footage of his training is fairly typical of the time with skipping, regular callisthenics, shadow boxing and some sparring. The sparring is pretty heavy and demonstrates Grebb’s aggression, possibly motivated by the fact that he was being filmed.

Benny Leonard  versus Lew Tendler

Before Sugar Ray Robinson, before Willie Pepp there was  Benny Leonard. Leonard gives us the gold standard for pure out-boxers. His versatile use of the jab was years ahead of its time and is perfectly exhibited in his 1922 defence of the NBA and NYSAC lightweight titles against Lew Tendler. Tendler was an intelligent southpaw who regularly appears in top 10 lists of greatest lightweight fighters of all time as well as one of the greatest boxers never to win a world title. In the fight, we note that Leonard is not a fan of fighting southpaws on the outside of their lead foot. This is a common tactic, but for Leonard it would limit his many jabbing options. He wanted free reign with that punch and we watched as he used it as a pawing jab that would bring a smile to the face of Thomas Hearns decades later, as a power jab and to turn it into a collar tie for hooks and uppercuts from his rear hand. Leonard had various ways to set it up as well, including hsi infamous nose rub distraction tactic. However, my favourite part Leonard’s jabbing was the way he could turn slipped jabs into posts or even straight arm hooks.