Jumbo Cummings was a hard-luck guy. He’d done 12 years on a murder beef in Joliet when, in the late ’70s, 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 one took a look at the top ten heavyweight fighters of that period, one would 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. The decision went 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 was on the deck of an aircraft carrier and the once-great Shavers 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 heart-breaking 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–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–though to his credit, he nailed Bruno in the first round it almost ended the fight, further evidence that English heavyweights ought to be wearing dresses. Jumbo ended his odd career with 15 wins, six losses and no small amount of heartbreak. In 2002, Jumbo went down for the bitch–a habitual criminal, 3-strikes conviction for stealing 250 dollars and a VCR–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.