Maybe Late, Great Jimmy Bivins Was a Champ After All

By Charles Jay on July 7, 2012
Maybe Late, Great Jimmy Bivins Was a Champ After All
Bivins, who passed away on Wednesday, was one of the great light heavyweights of all time.

We may not have to apply much revisionist history to ascribe the title “world champion” to Jimmy Bivins’ name…

There’s a good book written by historian Jerry Fitch about Jimmy Bivins entitled “The Man Who Would Be Champion.”

And when you think about it, maybe he actually was.

Bivins, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 92, was one of the great light heavyweights of all-time, ranked at #8 by the acclaimed historian Herb Goldman when he was asked to compile such a thing for The Ring Record Book in 1987. He was also a formidable middleweight and was more than serviceable as a heavyweight; in fact, in 1942, during World War II, he was rated #1 among active light heavyweights by The Ring and then achieved the #1 ranking among heavyweights a year later.

The record shows that Bivins scored victories over eight different world champions (Ezzard Charles, Archie Moore, Joey Maxim, Melio Bettina, Anton Christoforidis, Gus Lesnevich, Billy Soose, Teddy Yarosz), and registered another win over Charley Burley, who famed trainer Eddie Futch once told this reporter “was the greatest fighter I ever saw,” yet never received a world title shot of his own. Of course, that was reflective of an era when African Americans were not afforded many title opportunities to begin with, and world championships were not commonly split.

However, we may not have to apply much revisionist history to ascribe the title “world champion” to Bivins’ name; only a spirit of inclusion and some of the standards and sensibilities of today’s boxing atmosphere. In other words, we’re stretching, but only just a little bit.

During the war, many of the incumbent world champions were called to service. One of them was Lesnevich, who had captured the 175-pound National Boxing Association crown in 1941 with a win over Anton Christoforidis, then added the vacant title as recognized by the New York State Athletic Commission by beating Tami Mauriello. That effectively made him an undisputed champion, before he went into the Coast Guard. Ironically, his last fight before induction was a decision loss to Bivins in an over-the-weight bout.

Promoters being promoters, they did not want to let championships remain completely idle, so the decision was made to conduct “duration” world title fights in various divisions. If we were projecting these into the current context, they would be the closest thing to the “interim” titles we sometimes see when a champion has to go on injury hiatus (not only in boxing, but in the UFC, by the way).

Bivins and Christoforidis were matched in a bout that was to determine the champion “for the duration” of the war on February 23, 1943.

Truth be told, Bivins had already been accorded “duration” title status in the heavyweight division, at least by some, in September 1942 as he had won a split-decision over Mauriello at the Cleveland Arena, while Joe Louis was serving in the Army. However, the press largely ignored anything having to do with title recognition; in fact, the United Press story didn’t mention it at all.

In December of that year, promoter Mike Jacobs announced plans for an “interim heavyweight championship” tournament, and the United Press boxing writer, Jack Cuddy, barely hid his disdain:

“To aid the war effort, our citizens will accept fish instead of beef on meatless Tuesdays, and they’ll use substitutes for rubber, etc., but we doubt if they’ll accept an ersatz heavyweight king in place of Louis,” he wrote. “Particularly when the makeshift champ must come from among (Lou) Nova, Tami Mauriello and Jimmy Bivins – the three remaining gladiators in the tourney. It is our opinion that Jacobs and the fistic fathers are fooling no one but themselves when they talk grandiloquently of duration champions. They believe that such verbiage, used in publicity, will help the gates. We doubt it.”

When Mauriello and Bivins met in a rematch in March 1943, it was to be the finals of Jacobs’ tournament; Mauriello having already defeated Nova. But the idea fell out of favor. Sports scribe Lawton Carver of the International New Service wrote, “One fair and square thing about Friday’s encore is that the winner positively will not be crowned the ‘duration’ heavyweight champion, a laughable procedure which has been instituted in many other boxing cities to stem up attractions.” Jacobs must not have thought the Bivins-Mauriello fight was enough of an attraction, so he brought sentiment into play. The focus of most of the press, and indeed the first billing on the show, was instead a special appearance from former three-time world champion Barney Ross, who was going to receive the Edmund J. Neil Memorial Plaque for the Boxing Writers Association that night for his heroism at Guadalcanal.

But circumstances had been a tad different for Bivins the month before, when he took on Christoforidis in what was a rubber match, as the two had split ten-round decision wins in what was Bivins’ first year as a pro.

For one thing, the fight was scheduled at a championship distance of fifteen rounds. For another, Bivins earned his way there, having just come off one of his better performances, as he had beaten Ezzard Charles on a decision, scoring four knockdowns (according to newspaper accounts) over the man who many consider to be the best ever at 175 pounds.

This was an elimination bout in a tournament that had been put together by promoter Larry Atkins. And the National Boxing Association (the forerunner of what we know today as the World Boxing Association) was offering its official recognition of the winner as an interim light heavyweight champion. The NBA edict at the time was that when Lesnevich came out of the service, he would have to fight the winner in order to keep the belt.

Bivins was a 2-to-1 favorite going into the fight, as he came into the fight with a five and a half-pound weight advantage, and Christoforidis had won a roundly-booed decision over Nate Bolden to reach this “title” fight.

However, there were some questions leading up to the fight. Bivins had already been eyeing the heavyweight division on a full-time basis and tended to gain between bouts. There was a preliminary weigh-in the week before the fight and Bivins tipped the scales at 181 pounds, so there was a little suspense as to whether he was going to make 175. And although Bivins had been ten rounds a total of eighteen times, he had never gone the 15-round distance.

His fans were a little concerned when “Christo” took the middle rounds, but Bivins came on to take the late rounds, winning nine rounds on all three scorecards, with five going to Christoforidis and one even. Still, there were plenty of boos from the 13,764 in attendance in Cleveland, which was essentially the hometown for both men.

But Bivins, who as mentioned already held a win over Lesnevich, never got a rematch for all the marbles. In fact, he only defended the “duration” championship once, knocking out Lloyd Marshall in thirteen rounds, and for that one he really didn’t want to have to make 175, or do a scheduled 15-rounder, although he ultimately agreed to both conditions.

After that fight, he left the light heavyweight division forever, but as we know, he had plenty of fights left in him.

The final fight is over, at age 92. But Jimmy Bivins’ plaque in the International Boxing Hall of Fame will hang for all of time.

The “duration,” if you will.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Pierre A. Lowe 12:21am, 07/24/2012

    Truly a great fighter. A skilled boxer. And most of all a tenacious Champion and fearless warrior. Timekeeper!!  A moment of silence,,,,,, Strike the bell Ten Times for the late great Jimmy Bivins.

  2. John Wilkinson 01:02am, 07/14/2012

    The comment is for watching the Tapes presented here/ apparently the tapes are connected.  I’m a Jimmy Bivins—-fan—- too and OF COURSE I have read all about him and truly the man is LEGEND. LOVE HIS HISTORY! Rest in peace Jimmy Bivins, we remember you well, Sir. Life of distinction and pride.

  3. John Wilkinson 12:49am, 07/14/2012

    concerning the James Toney, it’s “good”.......ONLY THING IS, ‘IBA’ Hvywt? I formed the UWBCAFO-I six years ago in order to SANCTIFY—-  FROM THE TOP—- “Echelons” of the SPORT. So, having been a boxer-coach-administrator- “intelligence guy” and all around Observer but mostly a true FAN for +40 years here’s OUR—DIG—‘1e’ belong to the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO.  “EVERYTHING” ELSE is 2ND ECHELON and they need to Advertise as 2ND Echelon and if they do not that is on account they are FRAUD.  And I’m FOR the ‘2e’ championships but where are we gonna “draw the line”?  The IBO was JUST LIKE HOW THE IBA IS—NOW—ten years ago/ a few “administrative” TRICKS and “presto”/ some [Wladimir Klitschko] -think- they hold the same “weight” as the 1ST and the -major- four.  So, it won’t be long now before the IBA, IBC, NBA, WAA -all- catch-up to the IBO/-worthless- w/o the line being in place. John Wilkinson in CONNECTICUT (pro 88-92) (860)515-7680 ps: 1ST Rule of THUMB, Echelons DO NOT ‘Mix’!

  4. Tex Hassler 04:09pm, 07/13/2012

    Jimmy Bivins would have cleaned out the light heavy divison today if he were in his prime and won the title. One of the shames of boxing is that so many men like Bivins, Burley, Eddie Booker and others never got the title shot they worked so hard for and greatly deserved. These men fought in an era of super tough competition and learned their trade from competent boxing teachers. Boxing teachers are almost absent from our sport today. Great article and thanks for remembering Mr. Jimmy Bivins!

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