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From Jack Johnson to Deontay Wilder, L.A. Has Heavyweight Ties

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  • From Jack Johnson to Deontay Wilder, L.A. Has Heavyweight Ties

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    By David A. Avila

    Once upon a time Los Angeles was the foraging ground for heavyweights including the emergence of the Black prizefighter on the fistic world.

    Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) looks to continue that lineage when he defends the WBC heavyweight world title against United Kingdom’s Tyson Fury (27-0, 19 KOs) on Saturday Dec. 1, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Showtime pay-per-view will televise.

    On Wednesday, with several hundred members of the American and international media in attendance at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, the two gargantuan heavyweights stood next to each other like a pair of giant scarecrows long arms and all.

    “What I care about is showing people what I’m all about it. I’m showing you each and every time and I’m giving you a knockout,” said Wilder, 33. “America has a mighty man in me. America has the baddest man on the planet.”

    Fury, 30, trained entirely in Southern California for this momentous fight to recapture the titles he won by knockout over Wladimir Klitschko in 2015.

    “I am the people’s champion and I am the man who gives the people hope. I’m not just fighting for myself. I’m fighting for the millions of people around the world who look to me for inspiration,” said Fury the lineal champion whose hold on the title can be traced back to the very first world champion John L. Sullivan.

    Most fans today are familiar with Sullivan the “Boston Strong boy” whose victory and reign began the modern era and the rules we know today. After Sullivan won in 1885, four others would claim the title before a heavyweight title fight took place in Los Angeles 112 years ago.

    Here is where the ties to heavyweight boxing in Los Angeles began.

    Naud Junction and Hazard’s Pavilion

    Tommy Burns won the heavyweight world title back in 1906 against champion Marvin Hart at the Naud Junction Pavilion in L.A. Today, that location on Alameda and Ord Street is where the Original Philippe’s restaurant now sits. Munch on that while you eat one of their famous French dip sandwiches.

    Burns stood about 5’7” in height or about a foot shorter than either Wilder or Fury. He must have liked fighting at the old Naud Junction Pavilion as he performed there four times in his prime. The boxing arena was eventually torn down in 1913.

    Jack Johnson was also fighting in Los Angeles in the same time frame.

    It was Jack Johnson who defeated Burns thus becoming the first African American heavyweight to win the title and set the boxing world topsy-turvy.

    Burns and Johnson both met in Los Angeles and it makes sense that they saw each other’s fights. The size of the town back in the early 1900s was a mere 102,000 people, not 3 million as it is today within the city limits. Johnson and Burns probably developed a rivalry watching each other’s fights in L.A. and eventually agreed to fight each other for the world title. But in those days it was difficult to match Blacks with Whites even in Los Angeles.

    Johnson had been fighting frequently in Los Angeles in the 1900s. It’s where he won the Black heavyweight championship against Denver Ed Martin on February 1903 at Hazards Pavilion. The site of that arena is where the Biltmore Hotel now is located on Fifth Street and Olive Avenue in downtown.

    Burns and Johnson probably debated openly about who was better. But back in the early 1900s it was difficult to match Blacks or Mexicans against Whites. Mexican fighters had to change their name to Solly Smith and Joe Rivers. Black fighters were basically forbidden from fighting against White fighters especially for the world title in 1908. So the two heavyweights moved their fight to Australia where Johnson defeated Burns by decision in the 14thround when police stopped the fight. Johnson became the first Black fighter to win the heavyweight world title.

    Before winning the world championship Johnson fought a total of eight times at Hazards Pavilion in L.A. but after winning the world title he never fought in L.A. again. In the 1920s he often visited the old Main Street Gym. Newsboys would gather around the old champ whose devil-may-care attitude was considered outlandish for those days and times. One of those newsboys was my grandfather who staked out a corner on Second Street and Main to sell papers in the 1920s. It was right across the street from the Main Street Gym that was torn down in the mid-1980s.

    Over the next 100 years only a handful of heavyweight world title fights have ever taken place in Los Angeles. It’s as rare as a total eclipse.

    Here we are again 112 years after Burns became the first to defend the heavyweight world title in Los Angeles. It’s Wilder’s turn and in Fury he faces another undefeated fighter ready to showcase the heavyweight division.

    “There’s no way I’m going to let a man come from another country and take what I’ve been building,” said Wilder.

    Fury has the lineal title that can be traced back to Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns who both fought on Los Angeles boxing cards more than a century ago.

    “I’m the lineal champion. If Deontay wins, he will be the best, but he’s not going to beat me. I’m the best heavyweight alive, and there’s only one way to get that title. You have to come take it from me. There’s never been a man who could better me in a fight,” said Fury.

    One can’t help but feel similar words were exchanged more than 100 years ago when Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns both met in Los Angeles to discuss their heavyweight clash.

    Some things don’t change.


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