When it comes to American cities and their rich boxing traditions, you cannot have that conversation without mentioning Philadelphia. Legendary fighters such as Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins, Joey Giardello, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Bob Montgomery were just some of the great fighters based in the City of Brotherly Love. While I agree with the many who consider Hopkins to be the greatest fighter to ever come out of Philadelphia, he is not my favorite fighter ever to come out of Philly. That distinction would go to the 36th greatest fighter of the last 45 years, Joltin Jeff Chandler.
Coming into 1977, Chandler had a pro record of 5-0-1 with all but one of his wins coming via decision. Standing at a height of 5’7, which is very tall for the 118 pound division, Chandler had yet to learn how to put his shoulders into his punches. Because he had only started boxing two years earlier, he was basically an arm puncher the first two years of his pro career. Chandler was originally managed by Arnold Giovanetti, a reputed member of the mafia. Early in 1977, Giovanetti mysteriously disappeared and to this day his whereabouts are still unknown. Chandler’s career was then taken over by the husband and wife team of Willie and Becky O’Neill. Willie served as Jeff’s trainer while Becky assumed the managerial role. By the beginning of 1979, Chandler, with the help of Willie, had finally perfected his powerful right cross and stiff left jab which gave him a huge advantage over his much shorter opposition in the bantamweight division.
Chandler’s first major test occurred against a man my father knew back in his days as an amateur boxer, Davey Vasquez. Vasquez was a 5’2 technician who was the perfect test to see if Chandler was a real contender. On April 3, 1979, in front of his hometown fans at the famed Philadelphia Spectrum, Chandler dominated the at times frustrating Vasquez with his laser like left jab and occasional right cross to win a unanimous decision. That was the night my father was convinced that Chandler was destined for greatness.
After winning his next seven fights, Chandler secured the WBA number one ranking and title shot versus their 118-pound champion Julian Solis. The Puerto Rican champion was an aggressive fighter who threw punches in bunches and who my father felt was tailor made for Chandler to shine against. On November 14, 1980, Chandler fought Solis for the latter’s world title in Miami, Florida that was televised nationwide on the old Spanish International Network. My father and I were highly impressed with the poise Chandler showed as Solis attempted to bully the taller Chandler in order to make it an ugly fight. Undeterred, Chandler dominated the champion with an assortment of hooks and crosses off of his ramrod of a jab. Finally, in the 14th round, while Chandler was shellacking Solis up against the ropes, referee Carlos Berrocal ordered a halt to the fight. The 24-year-old Chandler was now the first American born boxer to win the world bantamweight title in 30 years.
After successfully defending his title against former champion Jorge Lujan, Chandler traveled to Japan to face the tough and highly skilled Japanese fighter Eijiro Murata on April 5, 1981. Murata had fought to a draw a year prior against the WBC champion Lupe Pintor and was considered a live underdog against Chandler. Murata was indeed just that as he hurt Chandler badly early in the fight but faded down the stretch and for the first time in boxing history a challenger fought to a draw against two world champions from the same weight division.
Chandler and the O’Neills valiantly tried to get not only a 118-pound unification fight against Pintor, but they also tried in vain to secure a super fight with WBC 122-pound champion Wilfredo Gomez. It is criminal that neither fighter gave Chandler an opportunity to engage in what would have been the biggest fights of his career. Despite the inability to secure a high profile fight with either future hall of famer, Chandler left no doubt among boxing writers and fans about who the best bantamweight in the world was in the early 80s. Chandler stopped Murata twice in rematches as well as Julian Solis in their rematch. The only hiccup he suffered before his reign ended was when he lost a non-title fight via decision to Oscar Muniz on July 23, 1983. Five months later Chandler avenged that defeat by stopping Muniz in the seventh. It was the ninth and final successful defense of his WBA title. Then the unthinkable occurred.
On the afternoon of April 7, 1984, my father and I sat in our living room anticipating another great performance by Chandler as he was defending his title against the undefeated Richie Sandoval. We had seen Sandoval show great potential as an amateur and possible future world champion, but we didn’t think the 23-year-old Mexican-American boxer-puncher would pose a serious threat to the 27-year-old in his prime Chandler. Shockingly, we were wrong. Chandler completely dominated the first round before all of a sudden becoming completely lethargic. Sandoval totally bullied and battered Chandler at will before referee Frank Cappucino stopped the fight midway through the 15th and final round. My father felt that Chandler looked more like 37 and not 27 and should retire immediately. A few months later, Chandler did retire as he had severe cataract issues that he had kept secret. After a successful surgery, Chandler retired from boxing. He never went back to the sport he dominated for four years.
Jeff Chandler went from a 19-year-old novice boxing for the first time to becoming WBA 118-pound champion in less than five years. In his three and a half years as champion, he was not only the best 118-pound champion, but one of the 10 best fighters in the world during the single greatest talent laden era boxing has ever witnessed. Despite being forced to retire at the age of 27, Chandler was easily the greatest bantamweight I’ve ever seen in my 45 years of watching boxing. His ranking as the 36th greatest fighter of the last 45 years is more than deserving.