Obituary: Jimmy Bivins / Top ring contender never got chance to fight Joe Louis for title
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Jimmy Bivins, a heavyweight boxer who in the 1940s and '50s beat eight future world champions but, to his lasting regret, never got a shot at the title himself, died Wednesday in a Cleveland nursing home. He was 92.
A spokeswoman for Lucas Memorial Chapel funeral home in Garfield Heights, Ohio, confirmed the death.
If prizefighting adds up to a montage of cruelty and courage, fame and fear, Mr. Bivins' life was representative. He realized the power of his fists early on and then glimpsed the heights to which they could carry him. But bad luck, bad timing and perhaps bad people thwarted him, and near the end of his life he was a neglected shell of the warrior he had been.
From 1942 to 1946, Mr. Bivins plowed through the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions, going undefeated before losing to Jersey Joe Walcott in February 1946. Between 1940 and 1955, he beat a parade of fighters who would go on to become champions, among them Gus Lesnevich, Joey Maxim, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore.
Playing the villain, Mr. Bivins became one of boxing's big attractions, a scrappy, crouching slugger with a stinging left jab. At one point he was a top title contender in both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. Joe Louis was among many in the sport who were puzzled that Mr. Bivins was not given a shot at a championship.
"I can't understand why he hasn't gotten further than he has," Louis said in an interview with The New York Times in 1948.
Mr. Bivins did not say much at the time, but in 1999, speaking with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, he mentioned a conversation with "this mob guy from New York." The man said Mr. Bivins "should play ball with him," Mr Bivins recalled. To him, the message was clear -- that he should be willing to throw fights when told to.
"Shoot, I told him I wasn't a ballplayer; I'm a fighter," Mr. Bivins said.
For a man who never wore a championship belt, Mr. Bivins, known as the Cleveland Spider Man, left a lasting impression. In 1997, Boxing Digest named him the No. 16 light-heavyweight of all time; in 2002, Ring Magazine ranked him No. 6 in the same category. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.
All that eased his disappointment but did not erase it.
"The only thing is, I fought my heart out and didn't get no pay," he told The Plain Dealer in 1994. "Now, guys go for two rounds and come out a millionaire. They couldn't wipe my nose. That's the way the fight game is."
Although he fought Louis in a six-round exhibition match in 1948 and again in a 10-round, nonchampionship fight in 1951, he lived the rest of his life regretting never fighting him for the title.
"All I wanted was a chance," Mr. Bivins said. "I deserved a chance."
James Louis Bivins was born in Dry Branch, Ga., on Dec. 6, 1919, and his family moved north to Cleveland three years later. His first sport was track, and when young people made fun of him for his dedication to his school work, he would run away, he said. One day he stopped in his tracks and faced his tormentors.
"I beat the stew out of them," he said.
After his sister Viola married a boxer, Mr. Bivins went with him to a recreation center to try the sport. His father took him to see the legendary Jack Johnson put on an exhibition. And when his friend and fellow track runner Jesse Owens, who would go on to Olympic glory in 1936 in Berlin, told him that he should make boxing his sport because it paid better, Mr. Bivins was persuaded.
He made his professional debut as a middleweight in January 1940 and won $25 by knocking out his opponent in the first round. By the end of 1942, he was the No. 1 contender in the light-heavyweight division.
But all titles were frozen until the end of World War II. In February 1943, Mr. Bivins beat Anton Christoforidis to become the temporary light-heavyweight champion until fighters in the military returned to competition. Later that year, the National Boxing Association ranked Mr. Bivins second or third among the contenders for Louis' heavyweight crown.
His lifetime record was 86 wins, 25 losses and one draw. He knocked out 31 opponents and was knocked out five times.
Mr. Bivins dropped out of sight and was largely forgotten until 1998, when police discovered him living in the squalid attic of his daughter's house, wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket. His 110-pound frame was covered with bedsores, and he had severed a piece of his right middle finger trying to pry open a can of beans with a knife, resulting later in a partial amputation.
His son-in-law, Darrell Banks, was convicted of elder abuse.
First Published July 7, 2012 12:00 am