During his 16-year professional career, Mr. Bivins fought 11 boxers who, at one time or another, held world championships. He beat eight of them.
At one point, in 1942, he was ranked the No. 1 contender in both the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions. Yet for reasons that are unclear, he was never offered a chance to fight for a title.
“Bivins may have been the greatest modern heavyweight who never got a shot at [the] crown,” writer William Nack declared in a 1999 Sports Illustrated article.
The list of fighters he defeated includes Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles, Joey Maxim and Gus Lesnevich. In 1943, while heavyweight king Joe Louis was serving in the Army, Mr. Bivins won the unsanctioned title of “duration champion” — for the duration of World War II or until Louis returned to the ring.
To win the unofficial “duration” crown, Mr. Bivins defeated Tami Mauriello at Madison Square Garden in New York. Frank Sinatra sang the national anthem before the fight.
After the war, Mauriello received a title shot against Louis — and was knocked out in the first round — but Mr. Bivins never had the same chance.
He was described in news accounts as “the nation’s No. 1 heavyweight,” yet the closest he got to the championship was a six-round exhibition with Louis in 1945 that did not count in the record book.
“Bivins boxed at long range, and I couldn’t get to him,” Louis said afterward. “He’s a good boxer, and I can’t understand why he hasn’t gone farther than he has.”
Mr. Bivins was a compact 5-feet-9 — short for a heavyweight — and generally fought between 185 and 190 pounds. He won 86 professional fights (31 by knockout), lost 25 and had one draw. From 1942 to 1946, he had 27 consecutive fights without a loss.
He had exceptionally long arms — at least 76 inches from fingertip to fingertip with his arms outstretched — was quick on his feet and outstanding at defensive techniques. He said the secret of his success was simple: “I didn’t believe in getting hit.”
Mr. Bivins wasn’t considered a powerful puncher, but he did knock down Charles, a future heavyweight champion, seven times in one fight. In another bout, he floored Moore, who later became light-heavyweight champion, six times. Charles and Moore both knocked out Mr. Bivins in later fights — the only times in his career he didn’t go the distance.
Mr. Bivins’s biggest paycheck, for $40,000, came in 1951, when he lost to Louis in a non-title fight in Baltimore.
As late as 1952, Mr. Bivins was still ranked as the No. 5 contender to the heavyweight crown, but he got no closer to the championship. One reason, he believed, was that he ignored entreaties from underworld fight-fixers who dominated much of the boxing world at the time.
“This mob guy from New York talked to me,” Mr. Bivins recalled to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1999. “He said I should play ball with him. Shoot, I told him I wasn’t a ballplayer, I’m a fighter.”
James Louis Bivins was born Dec. 6, 1919, in Dry Branch, Ga., and moved with his family to Cleveland when he was 3. He began boxing in his early teens and turned professional in 1940 under the tutelage of a colorful trainer named Whizzbang Carter.
He retired from boxing in 1955 and settled in Cleveland, where he drove delivery trucks for many years. He trained young boxers in Cleveland gyms and each Sunday made a huge feast for his young fighters.
The first of Mr. Bivins’s three wives, Dollie Mapp, accused him of striking her while they were married. After a divorce, she later sued Moore — one of her husband’s ring rivals — for breach of promise, claiming the boxer said he would marry her.
In 1998, Cleveland police officers rescued an emaciated, 78-year-old Mr. Bivins from the attic of a home owned by his daughter and son-in-law. He was found covered in bedsores, wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket and weighing a mere 110 pounds.
His daughter was arrested, and the son-in-law served time in jail for neglect of the elderly.
Mr. Bivins regained his health and something of his old swagger and, in 1999, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
A few years earlier, an impostor from Queens appeared on radio call-in shows, claiming to be Jimmy Bivins. When reporters tracked down Mr. Bivins in Cleveland, he said he could settle the matter once and for all.
“Put us in the ring,” he told Newsday in 1990. “Give us a glove. I’ll show him who the real Jimmy Bivins is.”