The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing

The decade of 1970s is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing. More world-class, highly skilled heavyweights were active during this time than at any other decade in boxing history. Names like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Quarry, Lyle, Shavers, Bugner, Ellis, Young, Holmes, Spinks, Patterson and Bonavena were known throughout the sporting world.

The decade started off with Joe Frazier winning universal recognition as heavyweight champion when he stopped Jimmy Ellis after four spirited rounds in their long-awaited showdown at Madison Square Garden on February 16th, 1970. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title and shorn of his boxing license following his refusal to be inducted into the Army in April 1967 (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”). This precipitated a series of elimination bouts between the top contenders, culminating in the Frazier-Ellis fight, which was recognized by all the major sanctioning bodies around the world as the fight that would determine Ali’s official successor. Remember, up until the advent of Ultimate Fighting around the turn of the 21st century, boxing was a longstanding major sport and the heavyweight champion was one of the pre-eminent athletes in the world. So the Frazier-Ellis fight was a big deal.

Ali was eventually granted permission to fight again and came out of his forced retirement at age 28, in his athletic prime. He and Frazier -- both undefeated and both at their physical peaks at 29 and 27 -- fought in 1971 in what was just one of the many memorable fights in the 1970-1979 span.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of these amazing fights. We certainly don’t have room to discuss them all, but these will give a flavor of the time. Apologies in advance if your favorite has been left off:

March 1971: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, both undefeated, meet for undisputed Heavyweight Championship. Frazier wins the brutal fight by unanimous decision, highlighted by a dramatic last-round knockdown, in the most-watched sporting event ever.

Jan 1973: George Foreman upsets Joe Frazier and wrests away his heavyweight crown with a blistering 2nd-round TKO.

March 1973: Ken Norton pulls off one of boxing’s biggest shockers as he breaks Muhammad Ali’s jaw en route to an upset 12-round split decision.

October 1974: In one of boxing’s biggest upsets ever, and certainly one of boxing’s most famous fights, 32-year-old Muhammad Ali knocks out heavily-favored 25-year-old George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” to reclaim the Heavyweight Championship.

September 1975: In an all-out punching war, heavy-hitters Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers wage a slugfest, with Lyle recovering from a second-round knockdown to TKO Shavers in the 6th.

October 1975: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier meet in the 3rd fight of their trilogy, the unforgettable “Thrilla in Manila.” With the title on the line, Ali and Frazier wage a superhuman war of attrition for 14 rounds, a fight that leaves each man battered to the point that neither would be the same again. After the 14th, Ali tells his corner to “Cut them [his gloves] off, I can’t go on.” But across the ring, Frazier’s corner has already told the referee that Joe is done, and the fight is over. Never before and never since, was there such a battle of sheer will, perseverance, skill and courage. It might have been boxing’s finest moment.

January 1976: George Foreman and Ron Lyle clash in a see-saw battle of the Big Punchers. Trading huge blows and seemingly unsurvivable knockdowns, Foreman finally prevails by 5th-round knockout, saving his career.

September 1977: Ali nearly loses his title to hard-hitting Earnie Shavers before launching a fight-saving rally in the 15th and final round to pull out a points victory. Along the way, Shavers rocks Ali repeatedly with his bombing punches, but is unable to follow up.

June 1978: Top contender Larry Holmes, fresh off an impressive win over Earnie Shavers, challenges Ken Norton for his share of the crown. The two put on what ranks as one of the most fiercely-contested heavyweight battles ever, with Holmes pulling out a narrow win with a last-round rally. An all-time classic fight.

March 1979: No.1 and No.2 contenders Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers face off in an elimination bout to determine champion Larry Holmes’ next challenger. With worldwide attention on this high-stakes contest, Shavers turns in a determined, focused performance and demolishes the favored Norton with a furious first-round barrage. He gets his title shot at Holmes in September of that year, but Holmes wins by technical knockout in the 11th.

These are just a few. The entire decade is strewn with great fights, one after another. It seems as if another consequential fight between top contenders or a major championship fight was never more than a month away. It was an amazing time in heavyweight boxing.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Although it seems as if every fight that could have occurred did occur and there are no unanswered questions from that time period, one potential pairing that never materialized stands out: George Foreman vs. Earnie Shavers.

The two hardest-hitting fighters of their era and arguably among the very hardest hitters of all time -- a match between these two would have been endlessly intriguing. We certainly have some legitimate hints as to how such a match might have gone: Ron Lyle (possibly Hitter No. 3 behind these two) engaged in memorable punchfests with both Foreman and Shavers and the results were multiple knockdowns on both sides with the outcome in doubt right up until the very end.

Foreman and Shavers both had stamina difficulty going past the midpoint of a tough fight. Both tended to wear down and lose steam as time went on. On the surface, it seems like Foreman had the better chin, since he absorbed Frazier’s best hooks without ill effect and was stopped by Ali more from exhaustion than the power of Ali’s punches. Still, when Lyle tagged him solidly early in the fight, Foreman’s legs turned instantly to jelly and he was all over the ring. As hard as Lyle hit, Shavers’ punches had even greater immediate effect. One wonders if Foreman could have recovered from the right that Shavers decked Holmes with in their second fight or the hook with which he deposited Lyle on the seat of his pants.

But Shavers was widely-reputed for having what’s known in boxing circles as a “glass jaw”: hit it hard, right on the button, and it will shatter. Not exactly a defensive specialist, Shavers was pretty easy to hit. Jerry Quarry (a tough hitter, but not in Foreman’s class) easily dispatched Shavers in one round once he got him in trouble.

That’s what makes this match so fascinating: both men possessed power that could turn a fight around on a single punch, both men were known to be susceptible to sudden trouble when hit solidly, and neither fighter was exactly a defensive wizard.

My guess is that it would be short and sweet. I see Foreman taking a few hard shots from Shavers and perhaps even hitting the deck, but in the end, I just don’t see Shavers standing up to Foreman’s power. Foreman by knockout in three.

However, in my opinion, the best fight of the 1970s that never materialized would have been an early 1970s Joe Frazier against a late 1970s Larry Holmes. It didn’t take place because the principals were separated by about five years too much. Holmes was an all-time great, with a ring style akin to Ali’s, but with a bit more power and a bit less movement. He didn’t have quite the same ability to take a punch as Ali, however. Close, to the point that no one would ever question Holmes’ toughness or resiliency, but not quite the equal of Ali in that regard.

Given the perfection of their styles for beating the other man, the amount of punishment that would have been meted out in a Holmes-Frazier fight strains the imagination. Could Holmes have gotten up from the 15th-round hook that Frazier hit Ali with in Fight I? Would Holmes have survived the 6th-round hook with which Frazier sent Ali’s mouthpiece flying in the Thrilla in Manila? Given Holmes’ toughness over the long haul of a grueling championship fight, as evidenced by his amazing last-round rally against Norton in their epic struggle, would Frazier have simply worn himself out and taken too much in return by the time a Holmes fight entered the very late rounds? I go back and forth over this one. I can see it going either way.

I just consider myself fortunate to have experienced the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing firsthand.

The decade of 1970s is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing. More world-class, highly skilled heavyweights were active during this time than at any other decade in boxing history. Names like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Quarry, Lyle, Shavers, Bugner, Ellis, Young, Holmes, Spinks, Patterson and Bonavena were known throughout the sporting world.

The decade started off with Joe Frazier winning universal recognition as heavyweight champion when he stopped Jimmy Ellis after four spirited rounds in their long-awaited showdown at Madison Square Garden on February 16th, 1970. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title and shorn of his boxing license following his refusal to be inducted into the Army in April 1967 (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”). This precipitated a series of elimination bouts between the top contenders, culminating in the Frazier-Ellis fight, which was recognized by all the major sanctioning bodies around the world as the fight that would determine Ali’s official successor. Remember, up until the advent of Ultimate Fighting around the turn of the 21st century, boxing was a longstanding major sport and the heavyweight champion was one of the pre-eminent athletes in the world. So the Frazier-Ellis fight was a big deal.

Ali was eventually granted permission to fight again and came out of his forced retirement at age 28, in his athletic prime. He and Frazier -- both undefeated and both at their physical peaks at 29 and 27 -- fought in 1971 in what was just one of the many memorable fights in the 1970-1979 span.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of these amazing fights. We certainly don’t have room to discuss them all, but these will give a flavor of the time. Apologies in advance if your favorite has been left off:

March 1971: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, both undefeated, meet for undisputed Heavyweight Championship. Frazier wins the brutal fight by unanimous decision, highlighted by a dramatic last-round knockdown, in the most-watched sporting event ever.

Jan 1973: George Foreman upsets Joe Frazier and wrests away his heavyweight crown with a blistering 2nd-round TKO.

March 1973: Ken Norton pulls off one of boxing’s biggest shockers as he breaks Muhammad Ali’s jaw en route to an upset 12-round split decision.

October 1974: In one of boxing’s biggest upsets ever, and certainly one of boxing’s most famous fights, 32-year-old Muhammad Ali knocks out heavily-favored 25-year-old George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” to reclaim the Heavyweight Championship.

September 1975: In an all-out punching war, heavy-hitters Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers wage a slugfest, with Lyle recovering from a second-round knockdown to TKO Shavers in the 6th.

October 1975: Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier meet in the 3rd fight of their trilogy, the unforgettable “Thrilla in Manila.” With the title on the line, Ali and Frazier wage a superhuman war of attrition for 14 rounds, a fight that leaves each man battered to the point that neither would be the same again. After the 14th, Ali tells his corner to “Cut them [his gloves] off, I can’t go on.” But across the ring, Frazier’s corner has already told the referee that Joe is done, and the fight is over. Never before and never since, was there such a battle of sheer will, perseverance, skill and courage. It might have been boxing’s finest moment.

January 1976: George Foreman and Ron Lyle clash in a see-saw battle of the Big Punchers. Trading huge blows and seemingly unsurvivable knockdowns, Foreman finally prevails by 5th-round knockout, saving his career.

September 1977: Ali nearly loses his title to hard-hitting Earnie Shavers before launching a fight-saving rally in the 15th and final round to pull out a points victory. Along the way, Shavers rocks Ali repeatedly with his bombing punches, but is unable to follow up.

June 1978: Top contender Larry Holmes, fresh off an impressive win over Earnie Shavers, challenges Ken Norton for his share of the crown. The two put on what ranks as one of the most fiercely-contested heavyweight battles ever, with Holmes pulling out a narrow win with a last-round rally. An all-time classic fight.

March 1979: No.1 and No.2 contenders Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers face off in an elimination bout to determine champion Larry Holmes’ next challenger. With worldwide attention on this high-stakes contest, Shavers turns in a determined, focused performance and demolishes the favored Norton with a furious first-round barrage. He gets his title shot at Holmes in September of that year, but Holmes wins by technical knockout in the 11th.

These are just a few. The entire decade is strewn with great fights, one after another. It seems as if another consequential fight between top contenders or a major championship fight was never more than a month away. It was an amazing time in heavyweight boxing.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Although it seems as if every fight that could have occurred did occur and there are no unanswered questions from that time period, one potential pairing that never materialized stands out: George Foreman vs. Earnie Shavers.

The two hardest-hitting fighters of their era and arguably among the very hardest hitters of all time -- a match between these two would have been endlessly intriguing. We certainly have some legitimate hints as to how such a match might have gone: Ron Lyle (possibly Hitter No. 3 behind these two) engaged in memorable punchfests with both Foreman and Shavers and the results were multiple knockdowns on both sides with the outcome in doubt right up until the very end.

Foreman and Shavers both had stamina difficulty going past the midpoint of a tough fight. Both tended to wear down and lose steam as time went on. On the surface, it seems like Foreman had the better chin, since he absorbed Frazier’s best hooks without ill effect and was stopped by Ali more from exhaustion than the power of Ali’s punches. Still, when Lyle tagged him solidly early in the fight, Foreman’s legs turned instantly to jelly and he was all over the ring. As hard as Lyle hit, Shavers’ punches had even greater immediate effect. One wonders if Foreman could have recovered from the right that Shavers decked Holmes with in their second fight or the hook with which he deposited Lyle on the seat of his pants.

But Shavers was widely-reputed for having what’s known in boxing circles as a “glass jaw”: hit it hard, right on the button, and it will shatter. Not exactly a defensive specialist, Shavers was pretty easy to hit. Jerry Quarry (a tough hitter, but not in Foreman’s class) easily dispatched Shavers in one round once he got him in trouble.

That’s what makes this match so fascinating: both men possessed power that could turn a fight around on a single punch, both men were known to be susceptible to sudden trouble when hit solidly, and neither fighter was exactly a defensive wizard.

My guess is that it would be short and sweet. I see Foreman taking a few hard shots from Shavers and perhaps even hitting the deck, but in the end, I just don’t see Shavers standing up to Foreman’s power. Foreman by knockout in three.

However, in my opinion, the best fight of the 1970s that never materialized would have been an early 1970s Joe Frazier against a late 1970s Larry Holmes. It didn’t take place because the principals were separated by about five years too much. Holmes was an all-time great, with a ring style akin to Ali’s, but with a bit more power and a bit less movement. He didn’t have quite the same ability to take a punch as Ali, however. Close, to the point that no one would ever question Holmes’ toughness or resiliency, but not quite the equal of Ali in that regard.

Given the perfection of their styles for beating the other man, the amount of punishment that would have been meted out in a Holmes-Frazier fight strains the imagination. Could Holmes have gotten up from the 15th-round hook that Frazier hit Ali with in Fight I? Would Holmes have survived the 6th-round hook with which Frazier sent Ali’s mouthpiece flying in the Thrilla in Manila? Given Holmes’ toughness over the long haul of a grueling championship fight, as evidenced by his amazing last-round rally against Norton in their epic struggle, would Frazier have simply worn himself out and taken too much in return by the time a Holmes fight entered the very late rounds? I go back and forth over this one. I can see it going either way.

I just consider myself fortunate to have experienced the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing firsthand.