Sean Anderson recalls some of Philadelphia’s great fighters, as Stephen Fulton bids to join them this weekend
Philadelphia, or ‘Philly’ as it is more commonly known across the pond, is a city that has been considered to have underachieved at baseball, basketball and American football. This is not the case when it comes to boxing and the area is absolutely steeped in history. While to the casual boxing fan Rocky Balboa will be the first boxer that springs to mind, some tremendous Hall of Fame fighters grew up in the United States’ sixth most populous city.
Boxing was legalised in the area after two fighters died as a result of an illegal bare-knuckle contest on a barge in 1876. The fight between Jimmy Weeden and Billy Walker was held in New Jersey but both fighters hailed from Philadelphia. As a result of the deaths, boxing was considered to be a safer option and a way to help prevent such tragedy striking again.
Since boxing’s legalisation this fistic hotbed has become so consistent in producing world-level talent that it has become known as the ‘Fighting City’. A large population helps to produce an impressive number of successful boxers, but many believe the real key to success is the galvanising effect on those who grow up there. The statistics certainly support this notion. In fact, with almost one in four people living in poverty, Philadelphia is labelled as the poorest big city in America. In population terms, if Philly was considered a country it would sit 153rd in the world, between Bahrain and Equitorial Guinea.
What also undoubtedly helps the conveyor belt of talent is the huge number of role models the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ has produced, inspiring generation after generation. This has been the case for over one hundred years.
Philly has a knack of producing top-class light-heavyweights. Jack O’Brien was world champion in 1905 before Battling Levinsky followed in his footsteps from 1916-1920. To many, Tommy Loughran is considered one of the greatest fighters to come out of Philadelphia, and was world champion from 1927-1930. Harold Johnson achieved the same feat in the 1960s while both Matthew Saad Muhammad and Dwight Muhammad Qawi did so during the 1980s, a period during which they fought each other twice.
Furthermore, the city has produced high-quality boxers right through the boxing weights. Harry Lewis became welterweight world champion in 1910 while 1920s featherweight king Benny Bass is considered the greatest fighter even seen by the legendary Jack Dempsey. Flyweight Midger Wolfgast was world champion for much of the 1930s, a decade in which Johnny Jadick claimed a junior-welterweight title and Bob Montgomery dominated the lightweight scene in the 1940s.
The second half of the 20th century saw Philadelphia produce its first two heavyweight champions, although neither Sonny Liston nor Joe Frazier were actually born in the city. Liston moved there in the 1950s before becoming world champion in 1962 and Frazier moved to the place he called home when he was 15. Despite being born in South Carolina, ‘Smokin’ Joe was adored by the Philly locals, not least because he ruled the globe from 1970-1973.
In between their coronations, Joey Giardello, the tremendous middleweight, held world honours between 1963-1965. He was one of the few people to beat the great Sugar Ray Robinson. More recently Jeff Chandler held world title status and is considered one of the best bantamweights of the 1980s. This was a similar time to when Tim Witherspoon gained the WBA version of the heavyweight title. Another notable world champion from the city is Meldrick Taylor who prevailed at super-lightweight in the early 1990s.
The sublime and consistent talent development continued into the new millennium. Bernard Hopkins has a strong argument as Philadelphia’s greatest fighter. He first became a world champion in 1995 and held honours at this level as recently as 2015. Steve Cunningham was champion of the world at cruiserweight in 2014 and Danny Garcia was a welterweight ruler in 2017. Julian Williams claimed a world title at super-welterweight in 2019 before losing it in his first defence, whilst Tevin Farmer was world champion at super-featherweight just last year.
The aforementioned fighters do not constitute an exhaustive list of Philadelphians to have reached the summit of their weight division. Nor does it mention those that just missed out on the top honours. The 1960s and 1970s saw the city produce various classy middleweight contenders, for example.
The sheer amount of talent produced does not seem to weigh heavily on the shoulders of a Philadelphian boxer, in fact, the results indicate they embrace the responsibility. This is because the production line does not look likely to stop any time soon. Jaron Ennis and Stephen Fulton are two to keep an eye on. At just 23, “Boots” Ennis is already in his fourth year as a pro and has compiled a 26-0 record at welterweight. Twenty-six-year-old Fulton is 18-0 at super-bantamweight and challenges for the WBO title this weekend, against Angelo Leo.
For a city that simply loves being entertained by two boxers in the squared circle this is good news. Unfortunately, the principal venue, the Spectrum, held its last fight in 2003 when David Tua beat Hasim Rahman in an IBF title eliminator. This had been the setting for many a great fight including the Saad Muhammad versus Qawi rematch. Fortunately, the Licouras Arena has been hosting boxing events since 2008. Hopkins and Garcia have appeared whilst Williams and Farmer have fought in world title fights. It also hosted the light-heavyweight unification match-up between Artur Beterbiev and Oleksandr Gvozdyk in October, 2019. If ever there was a city deserving of a light-heavyweight fight of that calibre, it is Philadelphia. There is also a thriving small hall scene.
The people of Philadelphia are proud of their close association with the sport and it is easy to see why. Loughran, Bass, Frazier, Hopkins, you name it, Philadelphia boasts an astonishing roster of boxers to have dined at the top table.