By Jake Chaney,
Throughout World Championship history, when a Champion retires, a Championship vacancy is created.
The key word here is "formal" e.g. Via a press conference.
Before counting down the 7 Heavyweights who formally retired as Champion, it's worth discussing two other Heavyweights: James Corbett and Tyson Fury.
Corbett's reign as Heavyweight Champion lasted from 1892 until 1897. During this time, after an alleged 1894 retirement by Corbett, Irish Heavyweight titlist, Peter Maher, claimed to be the new Champion when he defeated Steve O'Donnell in 1895.
Did Corbett formally announce a retirement? No. Corbett's off-the-cuff remark wasn't taken seriously. Bob Fitzsimmons KO'd Maher in 1 round in 1896, and then immediately challenged the Lineal Champion, Corbett, beating him on March 17, 1897, in a fight that is considered the day the Championship changed hands.
On October 3rd 2016, Fury Tweeted that he had quit the sport, and that “boxing was the saddest thing I ever took part in.” Hours later he indicated it was a prank, Tweeting, “You think you will get rid of the Gypsy King that easy. I’m here to stay.”
BBC Sport reported (October 13th, 2016) that Fury had vacated his WBA/WBO sanctioning body titles. His promoter (Mick Hennessey) explained that this “would allow him the time and space to fully recover from his present condition without any undue pressure and with the expert medical attention he requires.” His Uncle and trainer, Peter Fury said Fury would return “stronger.” Drug issues and mental health concerns were the suspected reasons for delayed ring return.
Another "retirement" was made in July 2017, this time on Instagram, but this was viewed with scepticism, after 2016’s “prank.” ESPN reported that, “a source close to Fury told PA Sport that the Manchester-born fighter is ‘fine’ and is not expected to walk away from boxing.”
By mid-2018 he was in action again. All his fights since then have been introduced as Lineal Championship fights, and respected writers such as Thomas Hauser (author of Muhammad Ali's autobiography), Tom Gray (Ring Editor), Cliff Rold (Boxing Scene editor and TBRB founder), and Luke Williams (Boxing Monthly) all recognise his current Lineal reign.
It's important to remember that the Lineal Championship predates the ABC organisations by decades. The ABC belts do not represent the Lineal Title. Fury was due to be stripped of the belts, so simply beat them to the punch - vacating belts, yes, but he did not vacate The Lineal Heavyweight Championship.
In 2016, one belt that he was not pressurised into vacating was The Ring belt (often closely associated with the Lineal Title).
Earlier this year current editor of the magazine, Dougie Fischer, was quizzed as to why The Ring didn't recognise Fury's "Twitter retirement" or his relinquishing of the ABC belts, as a reason to create a Ring vacancy. Fischer explained that "the ABC belts have nothing to do with the lineal championship," but regarding the retirement issue, as he wasn't editor of Ring in 2016, he contacted the previous editor Michael Rosenthal, to verify Ring's official standing on the matter. Fischer explained:
"When members of the Ratings Panel brought up Fury's Tweet, he contacted the Heavyweight's promoter at the time (Mick Hennessey), who basically told him that Fury was temporarily out of sorts, in part due to the stress of dealing with the legal battles with the BBB of C and UKAD, but was definitely NOT permanently out of the sport. Rosenthal trusted Hennessey and made the decision not to strip Fury."
It should be noted that for in the run up to his Championship winning fight against Wladimir Klitschko on November 28th, 2015, UKAD reported no adverse analytical findings in any respect for any of Fury’s urine/blood tests after February, in 2015 (May 11th, July 16th, October 8th, October 17th, November 14th).
In short, Fury did not formally announce his retirement at any point, and when his team were questioned on the matter, it was made clear that he was "definitely not permanently out of the sport."
Tyson Fury: Lineal Champion, 2015-Present.
7) Lennox Lewis
38 year old Lewis, had come in at a career heaviest of 256lbs for his unforgettable, bloody clash with Vitali Klitschko on June 2003. Lennox won, but only after an intensely competitive bout, that ended after the Briton had ripped the skin above Vitali's left eye, courtesy of a powerful right hand cross - leaving Klitschko with vision so poor, the contest could not continue.
On February 6th, 2004, Lennox Lewis, at a news conference in London, UK, gave his retirement speech, saying:
"I am announcing the end of an important chapter of my life and the beginning of a new one. June 21, 2003, was my last fight as a professional boxer.
"I'm particularly pleased to be stepping down, while still the reigning Lineal Heavyweight Champion. Only two other men, Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano, have retired as champion, and stayed retired. I promise you I will be the third."
6) Muhammad Ali
Muhammad regained the Heavyweight Title by outpointing Leon Spinks in 1978, making him the only three-time Heavyweight king in history. He had rolled back the years for one final triumph, but the fans were under no illusion, Ali's best years had disappeared long ago, so retirement, perhaps a lasting one this time, seemed likely.
At a press conference in Los Angeles, on June 27, 1979, Ali announced his retirement. Unlike Joe Louis, who had retired as champion, but returned, finishing his career knocked through the ropes by a young, rampaging Rocky Marciano, Ali had a different vision for himself:
"To get away clean, to get in and get out, and be able to say, I'm the first black man to win and get out clean."
A retirement gala for Ali at the Forum, in Los Angeles, in September, attended by a multitude of celebrities, demonstrated to the public that "The Greatest" appeared satisfied with his decision.
Sadly, a year later, in a humiliating losing effort, Muhammad got badly beaten by 35-0, Larry Holmes. Prior to the contest, many analysts viewed Ali (despite his age), and Larry, as the two leading Heavyweights - Holmes/Ali was therefore widely viewed as having crowned the new true Champion. The Lineal vacancy was thus filled.
5) Muhammad Ali
On April 28th, 1967, refused to submit to the United States draft, and soon afterwards, the New York Boxing Commission and the WBA stropped Ali of his titles and banned him from boxing in the USA. Of course belts and decisions of sanctioning bodies are irrelevant to the Lineal World Championship, so Ali remained the true Champion.
However, in 1970, as per the founder of Ring Magazine, Nat Fleischer, Ali formally announced his retirement:
“During that time, Ali had held a press conference – on February 3rd, 1970 – to say emphatically that he would not enter the ring as a professional. He called Nat Loubet, editor of Ring, to inform him that he had quit boxing. At this time The Ring magazine acknowledged the vacancy the New York and WBA had declared two years earlier.”
Former champion, James Braddock, writing for The New Courier on January 24th, 1970, described that the upcoming Joe Frazier/Jimmy Ellis bout, “would clear up the Heavyweight situation.” Frazier won by 4th round TKO, making him the new Heavyweight Champion.
Unlike Fury in 2016/17, Ali did hold a press conference to announce his retirement. Unlike Fury in 2016/17, Ali discussed his retirement with Ring, and declared that he had quit boxing. Unlike Fury, Ali formally retired as Champion. Not only this, but like former Champions Jeffries, Louis and Marciano had done previously, Ali publicly gave his approval of the fight which was to fill the vacancy (Frazier/Ellis).
Muhammad Ali returned to the ring on October 26th, 1970. His growing popularity led many to view him as "the people's" champion, and that is how his supporters viewed him heading into his clash with new Lineal Champion, Joe Frazier in 1971. It was billed as The Fight of the Century, and even in retrospect, it probably was - however, revered adulation for Ali should not excuse the fact that he did formally retire, and knowingly relinquishing the title, with Frazier/Ellis imminent.
Consider this. If Tyson Fury had a held a press conference in 2017, formally announced his retirement to the world's media, and then contacted The Ring's editor to inform him that he would never fight again, would Fury's retirement have been taken seriously? Almost certainly, and the Lineal crown would have been become vacant. If he had then openly supported a Joshua/Wilder fight (the top 2 contenders) to crown a new Champion, who would have disagreed? A returning Fury in 2018 may have been undefeated, he may not have lost his title in the ring, but this wouldn't have erased his formal retirement. Should Ali’s retirement get brushed aside because of his unrivalled hero status in the sport, and because people are sympathetic towards his political struggles during that period? Not in our view.
Ignoring a formal retirement does not make much difference in this instance, as Frazier went on to defeat Ali 12 months after the Ellis fight anyway, but it would set a precedent, which if applied across all weight divisions, makes a mockery of the sport. An example of this would be to recall Sugar Ray Leonard’s 1987 Middleweight retirement. After taking the title from long reigning Champion Marvin Hagler, Leonard swiftly declared that he was retiring. Journalists (including The Ring) and fans, were sceptical that the American super star was sincere about his decision, especially after such a stunning victory, but the 160lbs Championship was nonetheless seen as vacant. Michael Nunn KO’d Sumbu Kalambay in 1989 to win the vacant crown, who then lost it to James Toney in 1991. Toney moved up in weight, leaving the title vacant again, until Bernard Hopkins defeated Felix Trinidad in 2001 to fill the void.
If analysts and historians ignored Leonard’s retirement, well, you could easily ignore his move to 168lbs in 1988 – after all, he fought back at 160lbs again in 1989, against Thomas Hearns. And why not ignore his 1991 retirement? By 1997, after 6 years out of the ring he was still yet to lose at 160lbs – perhaps he was still Lineal Middleweight Champion? Ray lost to Hector Camacho in 1997, at Middleweight. Does this mean Camacho became the Lineal Middleweight Champion? Hector never lost at Middleweight, and didn’t have his final fight until 2010. If you ignore Ray’s 1987 retirement, Hector Camacho becomes Champion, potentially erasing the Lineal reigns of Michael Nunn, James Toney, Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor. Ridiculous? Absolutely.
4) Rocky Marciano
Marciano held a formal press conference on April 27th, 1956, with the world’s media in attendance, to declare his retirement from the sport. The full speech, along with the questions Rocky was asked from the reporters, can be viewed on YouTube.
“Gentlemen, I would like to announce my retirement from boxing, at this time.
“If Joe Louis could not make a successful comeback, I will not try it.”
When the top contenders, Archie Moore and Floyd Patterson, challenged for the vacant title on November 30th, 1956, Rocky was one of the television commentators for the bout.
3) Joe Louis
On March 1st, 1949 Joe Louis formally resigned as Heavyweight Champion of the World.
As well as giving a letter of resignation to the National Boxing Association, he also "requested and received permission from the NBA to sponsor a fight between Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott to determine a new world's champion."
Three months later, Charles defeated Walcott over 15 rounds in Chicago to become the new Champion.
2) Gene Tunney
Tunney defended his crown for the second and final time against Tom Henney on 26th July 1928, stopping the New Zealander in round 11, before a crowd of over 45,000 at New York's Yankee Stadium. After the bout rumours began circulating that the Champion was going to retire. On July 30th The New York Times printed:
"Tunney will quit the ring to study philosophy in Paris. Remarkable announcement is expected today from the world's fistic champion."
The rumours were correct. Tunney held a luncheon with promoter, Tex Rickard, William Muldoon of the New York State Athletic Commission, and news correspondents who had covered his recent fight, and formally announced his retirement from the sport. Plans to host a tournament that would crown a new champion were also discussed.
1) James Jeffries
On May 2nd, 1905, Jim Jeffries declared to sports writers that there were “no more logical challengers” for him to face, so he would be retiring. The promoter for Marvin Hart Vs Jack Root announced that the fight (on July 3rd, 1905) would be for the vacant Heavyweight crown, and the former Champion, Jeffries, added:
“I will never go back in the ring, so you may do as you please. If the winner wants to call himself champion, it is all right with me.”
Adding legitimacy to this fight for the vacant title, Jim Jeffries refereed the bout.