After whipping Tami Mauriello in a 10-round decision on March 12, 1943 (Mauriello's pal Frank Sinatra sang the national anthem before the fight and wept afterward), Bivins was crowned the "duration heavyweight champion of the world," which is to say, the unsanctioned champ until the war ended. In a ceremony held that July, the spiffily uniformed Louis presented Bivins with a crown bearing the title DURATION CHAMP. "You're the champ while I'm gone," Louis said. But then Louis added that in his first bout after the war, he wanted to fight Billy Conn, the white light heavyweight who had nearly beaten him in '41.
Bivins fought on, facing whomever Whizzbang put in a ring with him. "One of the truly great fighters," says 86-year-old Larry Kent, who trained Sugar Ray Robinson for 14 years and sent Curtis Sheppard against Bivins four times, losing them all. "And Whizzbang, what a character! The both of them thought alike. Nobody wanted to fight the guy. Anytime Bivins and Whizzbang got offered a fight, they took it. Bivins met every situation. If he was in there with a rough guy, he boxed. In there with a boxer, he became a rough guy. He made all the adjustments."
Bivins may have been the greatest modern heavyweight who never got a shot at that crown. Or at any title, for that matter, after the '39 Golden Gloves. "They froze me out," he says. "A mob guy came down from New York and told me I'd get this or that if I 'played ball.' I told him I was a fighter, not a ballplayer."
On March 11, 1942, in a nontitle bout against reigning light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich, Bivins won so easily that he killed any chance he had to fight Lesnevich for the title. "We'll never fight Bivins again!" one of the beaten boxer's managers, Lew Diamond, cried. "He's too good for Lesnevich."
Bivins stiffened Moore, a future light heavyweight champ, in Cleveland on Aug. 22, 1945, knocking him down seven times on the way to a sixth-round knockout. Even so, Bivins was not the same swift fighter he had been before his year of service in the Army. The next year, at age 26, Bivins lost three straight decisions—to Walcott, Lee Q. Murray and Charles. He never beat Moore again, losing to him four times before the end of his career.
Louis, meanwhile, was true to his word: After mustering out of the Army, he passed over the No. 1-ranked contender, Bivins, and fought Conn again, knocking him out. Then Louis walked through Mauriello, Sinatra's pal. Louis's handlers were loath to match him against black heavyweights. He defended his title 25 times, but on only three occasions—twice against Walcott and once against John Henry Lewis—did Louis risk it against a black man.
Bivins still savors the memory of the day he finally fought Louis. The former champ had come out of an 18-month retirement in search of his old crown, and on Aug. 15, 1951, he fought Bivins in Baltimore. This was to be Bivins's biggest payday, $40,000, and he meant to earn it. Louis announced at the weigh-in that Bivins would fall in four. "You got to hit me first, Big Red," Bivins told him, using the fighters' nickname for Louis.
Staying in front of Louis, Bivins baited him with calls of, "Hit me if you can, Big Red!" He still laughs about it today. "Around the sixth round," he says, "we were in a clinch, and I told him, 'I'm still here, Big Red.' Made him so mad he could've jumped out of his skin." Louis won the fight on all cards, but he failed to land a damaging blow, and almost 50 years later Bivins squirms with joyous indignation when he recalls that fight: "Shoot, how is he gonna knock me out if he can't even hit me! Shoot!"
Bivins left the prize ring in 1955 and joined the Teamsters. For the next 28 years he drove a delivery truck. Like many old fighters, however, Bivins never really left the gym. He spent his leisure time training fighters for the Golden Gloves and the Olympic trials. In the 1960s he trained Gary Horvath to four Ohio Golden Gloves titles. In 1988, Bivins took a 38-year-old Cleveland cop named Jim Davidson, who had never had any formal training as a fighter, and in only six months molded him into the 175-pound boxing champion at the National Law Enforcement Olympics. "I'd never have won if it hadn't been for him," Davidson says of Bivins. By 1995, the year his wife, Elizabeth, died, Bivins had a band of former students and gym rats who were devoted to him.
Not long after he was widowed, Bivins moved in with the Banks family—his daughter, Josette; her husband, Darrell; and their four children—and over the ensuing two years his friends and his sisters Maria and Viola began to see less and less of him. By mid-1997 they were finding it difficult to reach him at all. The Reverend Emory Kirk, a longtime friend of Bivins's, says that when he showed up at the house on Glencoe Road to pay the old man a visit, Josette told him he could not talk to her father, and Kirk threatened to call the police. One of Bivins's boxing friends, a cabbie named Tom Mangan, recalls that three times he arranged to take Bivins to the gym. "Jimmy's not feeling well," Darrell Banks would tell Mangan when he called to say he was on his way to pick Bivins up. "He can't go to the gym."