Wayne Bethea (tied for 184)
Dillon, South Carolina, USA
March 27, 1932 – January 20, 2011
6’0” / 186-217½lbs
28-18-4-0(11) from 8/12/1954 to 10/14/1963 (9y2m)
1-7-0-0(0) against the top ten
1-1-0-0(0) against linear champions
1-2-0-0(0) against hall-of-famers
no fights for the linear championship
Top ten opponents: W-UD-10 Ezzard Charles, L-SD-10, L-SD-10 Zora Folley, L-SD-10 Nino Valdes, L-TKO-1 Sonny Liston, L-UD-10 Eddie Machen, L-UD-10 Henry Cooper, L-UD-10 Karl Mildenberger
-2 total score (1 + -6 + 0 + 3)
Wayne Bethea was a tough, durable heavyweight who came along between the Marciano and Ali eras. He was a legitimate contender, but never quite made it to a title shot. Greatness eluded him, but he was largely able to hold his own against the great and the near-great alike.
Bethea turned professional as a 22 year old in the summer of 1954. He started 6-1-1(3), including a stoppage win over future contender Harold Carter. A draw that was overturned into a narrow split decision loss against experienced veteran Joe Rowan slowed his progress some. Then he rematched Harold Carter over three straight fights – losing two decisions, which sandwiched a draw. The Carter series may have turned out to be positive for Bethea, however. He went into a November 1955 fight with Julio Mederos sporting a 6-4-2(3) record. But he beat the more experienced Mederos by decision, and went on a nice run, winning seven in a row, including scoring an upset decision win over faded but still viable legend Ezzard Charles. After Charles, Bethea outworked Jimmy Slade, forced Joe Bygraves to quit after 5 rounds, and edged Howie Turner.
In December 1956, Bethea’s run would come to an end, when he faced top contender Zora Folley, losing a very narrow decision. They rematched a month later, with Bethea once again pushing Folley hard, but eventually being outboxed in a competitive split decision. Folley later commented that Bethea was one of the toughest men he ever fought.
Bethea rebounded with four out of five wins, the loss being a decision dropped to all-time great light heavyweight (and occasional heavyweight moonlighter) Harold Johnson.
Bethea narrowly lost to fading contender Nino Valdes. Then, in August 1958, Bethea took on rising heavyweight contender Sonny Liston. The durable Bethea as thought to be a good test for the power Liston. Instead, Liston demolished Bethea in just 69 seconds, obliterating him with terrifying combinations. Bethea had the misfortune of running into Liston at the very peak of his powers.
From that point on, Bethea went into either a slow decline, or perhaps his level of competition just caught up with him. He won a couple fights over relative no-hopers after Liston, but would then drop decisions to the likes of Alex Miteff, Eddie Machen, Cleveland Williams, Karl Mildenberger, and Henry Cooper. Sandwiched in there were a couple decent wins, including an upset over then-prospect Ernie Terrell, and a decision over old rival Joe Bygraves.
After beating Bygraves, Bethea spent a couple months in the spring of 1963, fighting exclusively against locals in Italy, going 2-0-2(1) in four fights against the domestic Italian talent. Bethea was a well-traveled boxer, and went to Germany that July to lose to Karl Mildenberger once more.
Finally, that October, Wayne was in Baltimore, taking on clubfighter Ernie Knox. The larger, more experienced pressure fighter Bethea was able to gradually overwhelm Knox, and bludgeon him with persistent shots in the middle and late rounds. Knox went down twice in the 9th, and was counted out with the second knockdown. Knox was badly hurt, and died two days later from a subdural hematoma. He came into the fight only 178 pounds, compared to Bethea’s 205. Through exertions in the fight, and general dehydration, Knox ended up weighing only 153 pounds when he died. There were calls for investigations into weigh-ins and medical attention at boxing matches. Some speculated Knox’s death could even lead to the end of boxing, though that obviously did not come to pass.
Bethea himself never fought again after Ernie Knox. He ended his relatively short career shy of the ten year mark. He took on many of the top fighters of his era, and with one exception, was never out of place or overwhelmed, despite being relatively slow and plodding. Bethea proved that toughness and will are often a fight’s best attributes in the ring.