Jumbo Cummings was a hard-luck guy. He'd done 12 years on a murder beef in Joliet when, in the late 1970s, he rose to some prominence as a heavyweight fighter. Boxing had just finished its golden age of great heavyweights -- Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Ronnie Lyle, Earnie Shavers -- the list goes on and on. The early ‘70s had perhaps the greatest line-up of heavyweights in the history of the sport. If you take a look at the top ten heavyweight fighters of that period, you quickly realize that the clowns wearing those belts today would not have gotten employment sparring with those guys.
In truth there were some bad decisions in the ‘70s, in order not to upset the money machines that were both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. The most egregious of them being the robbery Earnie Shavers endured after beating Ali like a drum, with the decision going to Ali out of deference to the Champ. I've always felt Shavers to be the greatest heavyweight to never hold the title. Years later it was all downhill for Ernie -- his final embarrassing bout on the deck of an aircraft carrier in which the once-great fighter was overweight, nearly blind in one eye, and engaging in gutter tactics out of desperation. The great boxing writer John Schulian wrote a harrowing and heartbreaking account of this fight in one of his final boxing columns for the Chicago Sun-Times. This is when the Sun-Times had a couple of great sportswriters in Schulian and Ron Rappoport, who've both since found their second acts as distinguished authors and television writers.
Both men got out of newspapers at about the right time, as far as boxing goes. Larry Holmes had some good fights, and Mike Tyson became the ring's version of Grendel, trading his once impeccable skills for an animistic selfishness that one can only remember as tragedy.
Jumbo is less well remembered. In fact, he was treated more as a novelty than as a serious fighter, which was a shame. Joe Frazier came out of retirement in an attempt at a comeback, only to have Jumbo pound him around Chicago's old Amphitheater. Joe fucked up -- he underestimated a man who'd managed to keep himself alive in one of the nation's worst prisons for 12 years. If Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings was somewhat artless as a fighter, he did not lack for power. I saw this fight -- and more than once Jumbo rang his bell but good -- so good that they couldn't screw Jumbo completely -- they awarded him and Frazier a draw. In my book Jumbo beat him.
Frazier never fought again.
In the following years, Jumbo got beat by every swinging-dick in the village: Mitch "Blood" Green, Tim Witherspoon, Renaldo Snipes and Frank Bruno, to name a few. To his credit he nailed Bruno in the first round, and it almost ended the fight-- further evidence that English heavyweights ought to be wearing dresses. Jumbo ended his odd career with 15 wins, 6 losses and no small amount of heartbreak. In 2002 Jumbo went down for the bitch -- a habitual criminal three-strikes conviction for stealing $250 and a VCR -- and for this he will spend the remainder of his life in prison. I'd like to think, though, that on a March night in 1981 Jumbo came close to a moment of grace when he damn near knocked out the former Heavyweight Champion of the world. That night Jumbo transcended his jailhouse stripes and for a moment the world took notice.
This one is for him.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.