The allure of Western Boxing may be fading in the shadows of MMA, but the rough-and-tumble boxers of yesteryear are still fun to compare to today’s tough guys. These four practitioners of the Sweet Science were old-school toughies, some appreciated in their day, some dismissed. But based on their intangibles, they could be headlining UFC cards if they were in their primes.
4. Joe Frazier
Could Joe Frazier have forsaken boxing for MMA? You betcha. “Smokin” Joe’s trademarked headfirst style and powerful left hook would have knocked opponents for a loop. The constant pressure, bob-and-weave tactics, and lead fist would have made Frazier the Chuck Liddell of his day. How would he have looked with a mohawk? Even Mr. T would be scared.
3. Sam Langford
Before there were Wheaties, the Internet, and Victor Conte, there was the human fireplug known as Sam Langford. “The Boston Bonecrusher” not only never refused a fight, but he also went toe-to-toe with some of the all-time great fighters of his day, including the legendary Jack Johnson (who was about 30 pounds heavier, not including ego), Harry Wills, Stanley Ketchel, and Barbados Joe Walcott. His low center of gravity, long reach, never-say-die attitude, and BJ Penn-like propensity to fight “up” would have made Langford an MMA dynamo. How tough was Langford? He won his last dozen fights with failing eyesight, eventually winning the last couple legally blind.
2. Jack Dempsey
Could Jack Dempsey have made the transition to MMA? What a foolish question. The “Manassa Mauler” could do anything that he set his mind to. With his infamous left hook, Dempsey took on all comers. Knocking out such notables as the corn-fed behemoth Jess Willard, Luis Firpo, and the Battling Levinsky, Dempsey let his fists do his talking. MMA relies heavily on adaptability. What do you say about the man who knocked out Harry Houdini? I’d call that pretty adaptable. What’s more, Dempsey seemed to grow more in legend in his losses than he did in his wins. After “The Long Count” loss to Gene Tunney, Dempsey became shrouded in American sporting lore. He was a 1920’s version of Randy Couture.
1. John L. Sullivan
In 1889, John L. defeated Jake Kilrain in the last Bare Knuckle Heavyweight Championship fight under the now obscure London Prize Ring Rules. Gloves, no gloves…Sullivan didn’t care. He went the distance—even up to 75 rounds—often engaging in matches that only ended when an opponent dropped for good. Could his never-ending endurance, iron chin, and legendary mustache translate to modern day MMA? Just ask Don Frye.