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Gus Lesnevich


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One of the least known of the world champions of the 1940's, Gus Lesnevich was your typical come forward die hard warrior, who still had class, as well as power. He ruled as the light heavyweight champion at a time when half the world was at war, which made him less famous and he has to play that ungrateful role of a world champion few today remember. Even more amazing is the fact that he reigned for almost seven years as a world champion and that he was named The Ring's Fighter of the Year once.


Lesnevich was born 22 February 1915 in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. In 1934, he won the Intercity Golden Gloves at middleweight and then turned pro that same year, winning by a TKO 2 in his first fight. At first, the 5'9 Lesnevich fought as a middleweight but always weighed in close to the light heavyweight limit. He won his first 10 fights before losing to the experienced Jackie Aldare by SD6 in November of that same '34. He defeated Aldare in the rematch in December and then again in February '35, both times by UD8. His first notable victory was against Carmen Barth, a future world title challenger, decisioning Barth in 10 rounds in October '36. He was then matched in his first big fight against world champion Freddie Steele, one of the greatest middleweights in history, 17 November '36 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The 21-yearold from New Jersey was no match for the 24-yearold Tacoma native Steele, who put him down twice in the first and once in the second round, before Lesnevich suffered a massive cut and the fight had to be stopped due to excessive bleeding. He fared no better in his next big fight, losing to Young Corbett III by TKO5 due to a cut left eye. He then became a light heavyweight and knocked out the seasoned Johnny "Bandit" Romero in 7, after decking him three times. Romero had a record of 104-23-10 and ended his career with 90 ko's on his resume. Lesnevich decisioned Lou Brouillard of Canada and beat Alabama Kid by corner retirement in 9 before finally getting his first world title fight, against the great Billy Conn. Conn, taller by 4 1/2 inches and a great technician, was considered to be the best light heavyweight of that time. The two squared off 17 November '39 at Madison Square Garden. The much shorter Lesnevich fought well but ultimately lost by a decision that wasn't as wide as many would have expected it before the fight. Gus shook Conn a few times but just couldn't get the better of him due to his reach and boxing iq.


He faced Conn again 5 June '40 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. Again, the fight was competitive but the lankier and more polished Conn edged out Lesnevich and won by a UD. After losing to Al Delaney on points after that, few thought Lesnevich would ever accomplish much more. But, the good stuff was just around the corner, it turned out. He got a chance to win the vacant NBA title against the champion, the Turkish-born Greek Anton Christoforidis. It was 22 May '41 at Madison Square Garden when Lesnevich finally achieved his dream at 26 years of age, defeating Christoforidis by UD15 to take his first world title. His first defense was against the young Tami Mauriello, a hard-punching young warrior. This time, the NYSAC title was also put on the line. Gus added it to his collection when he put Mauriello down in the second round and went on to win in a hard fight by SD15. He faced Mauriello again, now defending two titles, 14 November '41, almost 3 months later. This time Lesnevich was clearly dominant, until he faded in the last three rounds but still held on to win by UD15. He hurt Mauriello in the 2nd, 3rd and 8th round. Lesnevich then went for the first time above the 175-limit and fought as a heavyweight against Bob Pastor, but dropped a 10-round decision to the naturally bigger man. 11 March '42 he was also unsuccessful against the future legend Jimmy Bivins, who hurt him in the first round and dropped him in the second round but Gus survived till the final bell, losing a UD10. He then scored an impressive knockout in his third fight as a heavyweight, against Joe Kahut; Gus caught him with a short overhand right after about a minute, which sent him down. As Kahut rose, Gus pounded him and then put him down again with a left hook and a right hand. The fight was over as Kahut failed to beat the count, at 2:45 of round one. However, Lesnevich was known to be unlucky with cuts and in his next heavyweight fight against noted contender Lee Oma, the fight had to be stopped after 5 rounds because of a deep cut under his left eye, Lesnevich thus losing by TKO.


He finally defended his light heavyweight world titles again 14 May '46, having been inactive due to a service in the coastguard between 1943 and 1945. He for the first time travelled abroad, to England, to face their greatest light heavyweight hope, "Fearless" Freddie Mills. Mills was slightly taller and very tough and tenacious fighter who could hit. The fight was at the Harringay Arena and Lesnevich first put Mills down twice in the second round before Mills bounced back and won several rounds. Lesnevich then had a comeback and put Mills down twice again in the tenth round before the fight was over. Johnny Sharpe from The Ring wrote:"This was one of the greatest fights in the history of British boxing." The two would remain friends since. He came back to the same place again in September to fight the best heavyweight in Britain, Bruce Woodcock. This time, it didn't go so well, as Lesnevich was caught by a huge right to the jaw and knocked out cleanly for the first time in round 8. He returned to the States and defended his world title against Billy Fox; Fox had a record of 37-0 but many felt he was being protected and pampered by his management. Jake LaMotta had reportedly thrown his fight against him before. Despite being hurt by an attack from Fox in round 3, the rest of the fight was all Lesnevich and he exposed Fox as being overrated and protected, knocking him out in round 10 with a big right hand. Fox rose at 8 but was helpless and the referee stopped it. Lesnevich then scored the fastest knockout in a main event at Madison Square Garden when he put Melio Bettina (a very solid fighter) down three times before the fight was stopped after only 59 seconds! He then beat Mauriello again in their rubbermatch, by UD10, before finally stopping him by TKO7 in their fourth and last match. He had a rematch with Billy Fox in March '48 and this time easily won by KO1, knocking Fox down twice and ending the fight at 1:58. It was his fifth world title defense.


However, it all couldn't last forever. After all these triumphs, his long championship reign finally came to an end in a rematch against Freddie Mills, 26 July '48 at White City Stadium. Mills came out roaring and put him down twice in the first round, while also cutting Lesnevich badly over both of his eyes. He still persevered and came back fighting, but couldn't keep Mills off him and in the end lost by a unanimous decision. It was the first light heavyweight fight he had lost since the rematch with Conn 8 years earlier. He then tried to reclaim the NBA title against superb technician Joey Maxim, 23 May '49, but again lost by UD15. In his last fight, he took on Ezzard Charles himself for the NBA heavyweight title, 10 August '49 at Yankee Stadium. By now an old 34, the veteran of many battles took a beating against his younger and naturally bigger opponent, before the fight was stopped after round 7 due to excessive bleeding from Lesnevich's cuts. He had gotten 1 round on the scorecards. This was it for him and he retired with a record of 61 wins, 23 by ko, 14 losses and 5 draws. He has only been knocked out for real once, which is quite amazing given the caliber of his opponents and given that he fought quite many naturally bigger and heavier men. He was named the 1947 Fighter of the Year by The Ring.


After hanging up his gloves, Gus Lesnevich worked as a referee. He was married twice and had 4 children, 2 sons and twin daughters. He worked for a trucking concern, as a public relations man. Sadly, he died during the visit to his doctor, in his office, at the age of 49. He went there due to stomach pains. It was 28 February 1964, just 6 days after his birthday. As epilogue, it is enough to say that due to losing so many times, Lesnevich will not be inducted into the IBHOF and since he already hasn't been, it is unlikely. But, he defeated some of the best fighters of that time and never was in a dull fight, always giving all he had.

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