There is a saying in football that “good and big beats good and little.” That’s usually true, but, as in the case with almost everything in life, there are exceptions to widely accepted rules. If not, why is there also a saying that “good things come in small packages”? The second truism is a common reference to the tiny boxes that hold engagement rings, which can be exorbitantly expensive, but it also might be applicable in some cases to the boxing ring. Inside the ropes, David vs. Goliath matchups can and do happen, with David emerging victorious more often than you might imagine.
During his bids for and record four reigns as heavyweight champion of the world, Evander Holyfield (inducted earlier this month into the International Boxing Hall of Fame) was often referred to as a “small” heavyweight. The “Real Deal” is 6-2½ and, in his 19 heavyweight championship bouts, his weigh-in poundages ranged from 205 to 221. In fights with a bejeweled big-man belt on the line, Holyfield was the heavier man just once – he came in at 220 to 214 against Chris Byrd – and was the same weight in two others, at 214 for his first matchup against Michael Moorer and 218 for his rematch with Mike Tyson. But despite giving away an average of more than 20 pounds (214.2 to 234.4), Holyfield went 10-7-2, and most would agree that he was jobbed out of a fifth title when he lost a hotly disputed majority decision to 7-foot, 310¾-pound WBA champ Nikolay Valuev on Dec. 20, 2008, in Zurich, Switzerland. Holyfield, who was then 46 years of age, was giving away 9½ inches in height, seven inches in reach and an almost-incomprehensible 90½ pounds to the massive Russian.
Holyfield, of course, is substantially larger than such legendary heavyweight champions as Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano, who stood 6-1 and 5-10½, respectively, during eras in which there was no such thing as a cruiserweight division and most world-rated heavyweights were considerably smaller than today’s XXXL-sized equivalents. In his eight heavyweight title bouts, during which he went 6-2 (the two points losses to Gene Tunney) with five knockouts, the “Manassa Mauler” averaged 189.3 pounds to 198.75 for his opponents, but he was actually the heavier man in five of those bouts. Against the much-larger Jess Willard (6-6½, 245) and Luis Angel Firpo (6-2½, 216½), however, Dempsey was a veritable wrecking machine, registering seven first-round knockdowns in each instance en route to blowout victories that embellished his reputation as a giant-killer. For his seven heavyweight title clashes, all wins with six KOs, Marciano averaged 186½ pounds to his opponents’ 192.4, but only once was he outweighed by a double-digit margin (189 to 205), a ninth-round stoppage of England’s Don Cockell in The Rock’s next-to-last fight, on May 16, 1955, in San Francisco.
There have been other relatively small heavyweights who rose above their limited physical dimensions to become elite champions, sub-six-footers Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson coming immediately to mind. And while it was a one-and-done excursion into the land of the large, former middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr., at 5-11 and 193 pounds, scored a one-sided unanimous decision to dethrone WBA heavyweight titlist John Ruiz, who came in at 6-2 and 226, for their March 1, 2003, bout at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Two recent events caused me to ponder another age-old question: what counts more, the size of the dog in the fight, or the size of the fight in the dog? One was the excellent heavyweight title bout in which two very large and skilled men, 6-6, 250-pound Anthony Joshua and 6-6, 240¼-pound Wladimir Klitschko, squared off before 90,000 fans in London’s Wembley Stadium on April 29. Joshua retained his IBF championship and added the vacant WBA and IBO belts on an 11th-round TKO in a back-and-forth fight in which longtime former titlist Klitschko went down three times and Joshua once. Both men, obviously, would have been huge heavyweights when Dempsey and Marciano ruled the roost, but it can be argued that, were such a thing possible, they’d be pretty fair light heavyweights or even middleweights if they somehow could be pared down to the requisite specifications.
The other thing that got me to thinking was the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, N.Y., earlier this month in which it again was mentioned that the largest fist-casting ever – 16 inches in circumference! — remains the one taken of onetime heavyweight champ Primo Carnera (pictured), the “Ambling Alp” from Sequals, Italy, who, at 6-5½ and an average of 264½ pounds for his three title bouts, was just as much larger than the guys he faced during his 1930s prime as Valuev was against his opponents six decades later.
Size does count in most sports, but great size without talent only will take someone so far. Wilt Chamberlain was a physical mismatch for almost everyone he went against in the NBA in the 1960s and ’70s, but he didn’t score 100 points in one game, grab 55 rebounds in another and block 27 shots in still another (this before blocked shots became an official NBA statistic) simply because he was 7-1 and a listed 275 pounds. The “Big Dipper” dominated because he had the kind of wondrous athleticism seldom found in anyone so immense; if that were not the case, one of his contemporaries, 7-3 Swede Halbrook, would also be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He isn’t. Nor will anyone confuse 7-2, 225-pound Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with Gheorghe Muresan, who might have been 7-7 and 315 but was a slow-footed plow horse in comparison to Kareem’s elongated thoroughbred.
Statistics are a useful tool in any formula used for equating effectiveness in any athletic arena, but raw numbers alone never tell the whole story. If the Old Testament Book of Samuel offers fact and not fiction, there really was a gigantic Philistine warrior named Goliath who was mortally felled by a stone loosed from the sling of a shepherd boy named David, who would go on to become king of the Israelites. Goliath’s estimated height was measured by something called cubits, with one version listing him at 6-foot-9 (possible) and another at 9-9 (uh, no).
Research which would quantify the separation of boxing’s Wilts and Kareems from its Swedes and Gheorghes became the project which resulted in this story, and it yielded one surprising (to me, at least) result. The largest heavyweight, at least by height, was not, as I had imagined, the hulking Valuev or 7-1 Julius Long, but a Romanian named Gogea Mitu. Although BoxRec.com lists Mitu, who was just 21 when he died on June 22, 1936, as 7-4, other accounts – which probably are exaggerated – list him as anywhere from 7-7 to 8 feet tall. One highly speculative account originating in Europe suggested that Mitu (BoxRec lists his record at 8-2-1, with eight KO victories and five no-contests) might have been descended from an ancient race of giants dating back to – get ready – Goliath himself.
The notion of groups of people genetically predisposed to extreme height is not necessarily outlandish. There are certain African tribes – the Masai in Kenya, Watusi in Rwanda and Hamitic Sudanese – whose male members frequently top out at 7 feet or more. For the most part, they are inordinately slender and nimble, the prime example being the late NBA player Manute Bol, who, at 7-7, matched Muresan as pro basketball’s tallest player but was 90 pounds lighter. However, the most common cause in other parts of the world of a condition known as “giantism,” or hyperplasia of the pituitary gland, is an abnormally high level of human growth hormone. The tallest human to anyone’s irrefutable knowledge, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, is the late Robert Wadlow, an llinois native who was 8-foot-11 and 439 pounds when he, as was the case with Mitu, died young (22) on July 15, 1940. An autopsy revealed that if the condition that led to Wadlow’s incredible height had not abated, he would have grown even taller had he lived.
All of which makes Mitu and Valuev the rarest of the rare, even if their motor skills are or were unexceptional for much smaller athletes. Those afflicted with giantism, in effect, become too large to fully control their bodies. Wadlow was barely able to walk at the end of his life, and was able to do so only with the aid of massive braces on his legs. It is not uncommon for living, breathing skyscrapers to suffer from any number of size-related maladies that often result in abbreviated and pain-afflicted lifespans.
If some of what has been said of Mitu is accurate, he was virtually unencumbered by his incredible size for much of his too-brief life. It was said he was highly intelligent, despite little formal education, and his strength was such that, while appearing with the Globus circus of Bucharest, he could bend steel bars with his bare hands. In 1935 an Italian scout, Umberto Lancia, noticed him and offered to sponsor his boxing career. The long-range plan was to take him to America, where stardom or at least bankable oddity status presumably awaited, but he is said to have contracted the flu after opening a window on a Paris-bound train. He fell ill and not long afterward passed away, the cause of death listed as tuberculosis.
Could a 7-4 (or 7-7, or 7-9, or 8-foot) individual have been effective in the ring? Hard to say; most relatively normal-sized opponents could reach his chin only by standing on a stepladder, and for Mitu to reach theirs he would have had to crouch so much he’d literally be bending himself in half. The most obvious parallel in more modern times is Valuev, whose height was exaggerated to 7-2 by American matchmaker Don Elbaum for a couple of appearances in the U.S. When it comes to matters of hype, there apparently can never be too much of a good thing.
In retrospect, Valuev – who posted a 50-2 record with 34 KOs and twice won the WBA heavyweight title – succeeded primarily because of size-related advantages. His punches were ponderous, but when he wrapped smaller men up in bear-hug clinches, it tended to sap their strength as might have been the case were they obliged to wrestle a grizzly bear. But longevity is an attribute not often bestowed on those in Valuev’s exclusive circle, and his two defeats came at the hands of Ruslan Chagaev (6-1, 228¼) and David Haye (6-3, 217), not counting the gift decision he received against Holyfield. Valuev, who turns 44 on Aug 21, retired after his majority-decision loss to Haye on Nov. 10, 2009, was shortly thereafter diagnosed as having severe bone and joint problems, which necessitated two operations.
Other extremely large heavyweights comprise a hit-and-miss group. Some have enjoyed or did enjoy a measure of prosperity that owed, at least in part, to their gargantuan size. Some were merely curiosity items, tall trees to be chopped down by small but skilled lumberjacks. The list includes:
*Mike “The Giant” White (26-13-1, 19 KOs). Now 60, the 6-10 White was 275 pounds when he lost a 10-round unanimous decision to Michael Moorer on Feb. 1, 1992, ending a streak of 26 consecutive knockout victories for future heavyweight champ Moorer. But that is not the highlight of White’s career; his fourth-round stoppage of another future heavyweight titlist, Buster Douglas, on Dec. 17, 1983, is.
*Primo Carnera (88-14, 71 KOs). Had he come along today, Carnera, who was 60 when he died on June 29, 1967, would not be considered to be such a behemoth. Was he a mythic figure who was made into something more than what he really was by a hype machine always set on high? Evidence would seem to support that. Carnera’s rise to fame was told, albeit with different names (the thinly disguised part of Carnera was played by actor Mike Lane in the pivotal role of Toro Moreno) in the 1956 film The Harder They Fall, was authored by Budd Schulberg and is most notable today as being the last film for Humphrey Bogart, who portrayed an unscrupulous press agent. Carnera weighed 52¾ pounds more than Jack Sharkey when he won the heavyweight title, and he was 84 pounds more than former light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran for his sole successful defense, by 15-round decision. His second defense, in which he outweighed Max Baer by 59½ pounds, saw him floored 10 times and beaten bloody in losing via 11th-round stoppage on June 14, 1934.
*Julius Long (18-20, 14 KOs). At 7-1 and as much as 315¾ for one fight, “The Towering Inferno” was rarely more than a spark. For his July 2, 2011, bout with Johnathan Banks, Long held advantages of 10 inches in height and 91 pounds. He still lost a 10-round unanimous decision.
*Tyson Fury (25-0, 18 KOs). At 6-9 and as much as 274 at his heaviest (a fourth-round stoppage of Joey Abell on Feb. 15, 2014), Fury still has a chance, at 28, to get his act together. He was briefly the toast of boxing when he outpointed Wladimir Klitschko to win the WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO titles on Nov. 28, 2015. But Fury has not fought since, and his championships were stripped after revelations of his epic cocaine binge and struggles with depression went public.
*Eric “Butterbean” Esch (77-10-4, 58 KOs). Now 50, the erstwhile “King of the Four-Rounders” can only look up to all of the aforementioned fighters, but he earns a special mention here for also being the Widest of the Wide, at a scale-busting 426½ pounds for his final boxing match, in which he retired with shoulder pain after the second round against Kirk Lawton on June 29, 2013.
*Andre Roussimoff. The pro rassler best known as Andre the Giant never laced up a pair of boxing gloves, but he did take on onetime heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner in a mixed-discipline novelty bout on June 25, 1976, in New York’s Shea Stadium. Wepner was no midget at 6-5 and 225 or so pounds, but he appeared to be little more than a rag doll against Andre, who was billed as 7-4 (he likely was a few inches shorter) and 540 pounds. The “fight” ended in the third round when Andre picked up Wepner and tossed him over the ring ropes into some unfortunate fans with premium seats. Say what you want about Andre – who was 46 when he died of heart disease on Jan. 27, 1993 – but he had some moves to go along with all that bulk. If you think Valuev wore guys down in clinches, can you imagine their being enveloped by the tree-trunk arms of Andre the Giant? And while it might have been a publicity stunt, the Washington Redskins, then coached by George Allen, brought Andre to their training facility in 1975 with the idea of signing him as a defensive tackle. There is a famous photo of Andre holding quarterback Joe Theismann on his shoulder like a pirate with a pet parrot.
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Primo Carnera photograph undated but circa 1933. Many photos of Carnera were doctored to make him look bigger.
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