On Saturday night, Philadelphia’s Julian Williams and Jeison Rosario are to meet in a super-welterweight title fight at the Liacouras Center.
One of only a handful of championship bouts to take place here in recent years, Williams-Rosario is a reminder of all the big Philadelphia fights during the sport’s golden era, the 1920s through the 1970s.
Here are 10 of the biggest -- not necessarily best – fights in the history of a great boxing city:
When New York refused to issue Dempsey a license, Sesquicentennial Exposition director E.L. Austin invited promoter Tex Rickard to hold it in Philadelphia a week later. The numbers from that rainy Thursday night at Sesquicentennial Stadium tell the story. The crowd of 120,557 and the gate receipts of $1.8 million were both sporting-event records for the first half of the 20th century. Interest was so intense that dozens of special trains ferried fans here from New York. Politicians, actors, and sports stars arrived from across the country. What they saw was that roaring decade’s greatest upset, the crafty Tunney outboxing and outfoxing the brawling, heavily favored champion. A year later, in their controversial “long count” rematch in Chicago, Tunney won again.
According to boxing legend, Walcott’s manager hoped to delay a match with the lethal challenger. But a meeting with mobsters in a Camden bar persuaded him. The 40,379 fans at Municipal Stadium got their money’s worth in this heavyweight title fight that also was aired in 50 theaters nationwide. Camden’s Walcott knocked down Marciano early. Far behind in points, the unbeaten Marciano prevailed by knocking out the 38-year-old champ in the 13th. Promoter Herman Taylor called it the “greatest heavyweight match I ever looked at.”
The only one of heavyweight champion Louis’ 25 title defenses to take place in Philly, it was seen by a sellout crowd of 15,982 at Convention Hall. Louis was in his “Bum of the Month” period, when, with the prospect of war in the air, he scheduled a quick succession of fights with overmatched pugs. Just 17 days before this one, he’d beaten Red Durman. A month afterward, he whipped Abe Simon. When Louis KO’d Dorazio with a short right hand, 1 minute, 30 seconds into the second round, the Philly crowd booed. Dorazio, who’d become a mob enforcer a la the fictional Rocky, went to his grave deluded, insisting he’d have won a rematch.
This intriguing stylistic matchup -- the smooth, technically brilliant Robinson against the powerful and mercurial Cuban challenger -- lent considerable cachet to this Municipal Stadium welterweight title fight. A crowd of 35,000 erupted often during a spectacular 15-rounder that Robinson won in a unanimous decision. But the 27-year-old champ was impressed, admitting afterward that his 23-year-old challenger had “stung me.”
In a meeting of two gifted boxers with local roots, Trenton’s Williams won the lightweight title from Montgomery by stopping the Philadelphian in the sixth round. The much-ballyhooed bout attracted what The Inquirer described as “an electrified crowd of 30,500” to Municipal Stadium. Traffic on South Broad Street was so heavy that police made it one way. The governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey attended, as did such celebrities as band leader Harry James and singer Dinah Shore.
Two of the best of the North Philly middleweights who dominated the 1970s, Briscoe and Hart had been pointing toward this fight for some time. More than 11,000 fans saw the two battle to a draw at the Spectrum in one of promoter J. Russell Peltz’s most memorable matches. Ring magazine selected Briscoe-Hart as that year’s second-best fight. No. 1? The Thrilla in Manila.
Just nine days after a low-budget film called Rocky debuted, the largest indoor crowd ever to see a boxing match in Philadelphia – 16,109 – packed the Spectrum for this junior-lightweight title fight. Everett suffered the only loss of his career, a controversial split decision that veteran judge Harold Lederman said “may be history’s worst decision.” A rematch was set for Puerto Rico in June 1977, but on May 26, Everett was shot and killed by his girlfriend in South Philadelphia.
Remember, we said biggest fights, not best. The exotic, oversize Carnera – “The Ambling Alp” -- was, for a brief time, an enormous attraction, and 35,002 fans crammed Baker Bowl to see him. The prototype for the naive, misused foreign fighter in the film The Harder They Fall, Carnera, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound Italian, had won 17 straight bouts by knockout, although boxing insiders believed many had been fixed. That belief seemed validated that night in Philadelphia when Godfrey, clearly ahead on points, suddenly was disqualified for a low blow in the sixth round.
The biggest non-title fight crowd, 14,530, in the arena’s history filled the Spectrum for this storybook middleweight pairing of an up-and-coming talent (Hagler, 23, the future champion) and a tough but plateaued Philadelphian (Briscoe, 35). Much to the raucous spectators’ disappointment, Hagler dominated in scoring a 10-round unanimous decision that pushed him down the road toward a title shot.