The old school charm is missing

Any comparison of contemporary boxers with those, say 50 years ago, shows glaring chasms in quality, write Michael Klimes and P. Rajkrishnan.

“That computer was made in Alabama," said Muhammad Ali when the ’Super Fight,’ a virtual competition conceptualised in the 1960s, worked out that Rocky Marciano would have knocked him out if the two heavyweight champions had squared off in their prime. Ali’s remark insinuated that the machine’s verdict was biased towards Marciano because he was white. The fantasy match was part of a wider project to resolve who the greatest heavyweight of all-time was. That campaign is now defunct but the arguments raised by that virtual bout resonate today because the creators of the contest wanted to establish a way of assessing fighters from different eras.

Fans too wanted a system that could transcend time barriers and pit any two boxers from any era against one another. They still speculate about who could beat whom. This leads to a greater quandary — were old-time fighters generally superior to new fighters?

There are several factors to consider when answering this question. For instance, there is a much smaller talent pool of boxers, whether amateur or professional. This is especially true of American heavyweights. Many potential boxers in the US go into others sports such as basketball, baseball and American football. The legendary trainer Emanuel Steward was quoted in an article for the BBC website by Ben Dirs and Phil Harlow as reflecting, “The kids are attracted to (American) football and basketball as they know they can make unbelievable money.” Connected to this is a lower standard of competition in the sport, owing to which a boxer cannot build up the same level of experience a fighter in the 1980s could. A notable example is Floyd Mayweather Jr., a supremely gifted athlete who has not encountered the same quality of opposition Sugar Ray Leonard did, or for that matter, Oscar de la Hoya, who is part of his generation, did.

Another big issue is that a world-class boxer today fights far less frequently than erstwhile champions did. This is explained by boxers not needing to fight as often, as they do not feel compelled to step into the ring like boxers did in the old days because there is more money in boxing now. Like any other sport, boxing too has been subjected to the whims of business and commercialisation. Furthermore, comparing the career record of Sugar Ray Robinson (active in the 1940s and 1950s) with that of Pernell Whitaker (1990s) is sobering. Robinson had 202 fights in a professional career that lasted 20 years while Whitaker only had 46. Whitaker let everyone know how good he was during his prime but one can almost imagine his face going pale at the thought of Robinson’s achievement.

Consider Benny Leonard, the defensive maestro of the 1920s having 212 fights, the legendary Willie Pep engaging in 242 bouts and Archie Moore participating in 218 fights. These statistics are a reminder of how much boxing as a sport has changed; how the whole ethos of fighting has been inverted. Instead of a world champion defending his title several times in a month or six months, it is three times a year and occasionally not even that.

In a way, fewer bouts are a blessing since, on average, chances of permanent brain damage increase with the number of fights, but it has to be asked whether being able to watch a champion defend only once or twice a year is a weakness.

The late trainer Ray Arcel, who worked from the 1920s to the 1980s, was responsible for moulding 18 world champions. He observed: “Boxing is not really boxing today. It’s theatre. Some kids might look good. But they don’t learn their trade. If you take a piece of gold out of the ground, you know it’s gold. But you have to clean it. You have to polish it. But (today) there aren’t too many guys capable of polishing a fighter.” Arcel hit a keynote when he pointed out that today’s boxers “don’t learn the trade.”

A lot of the time, learning to become really good at an activity requires failure; failure is part of the creative process. The contemporary environment in boxing does not allow fighters to be defeated because there is a fanatical obsession to maintain the ‘0’ in their records, as if it is a fancy neon sign which cannot be switched off.

Some of the greatest fighters in history were beaten before they even became contenders: Carlos Monzón lost three times before he stepped anywhere near Nino Benvenuti to battle for the middleweight title. Alexis Argüello was out-pointed in his 1974 featherweight championship clash against Ernesto Marcel and Bernard Hopkins was shut out of contention by Roy Jones Jr. in 1993. Compare these examples with inexperienced champions like Jeff Lacy who did not win a single round against Joe Calzaghe in their 2006 super middleweight unification bout, Fernando Vargas’s valiant but fruitless effort in 2000 to dethrone Felix Trinidad as junior middleweight champion, or David Reid and Davey Moore, both promising young talents who were matched against veterans Trinidad and Roberto Duran respectively far too early in their careers and were damaged beyond repair. Boxing could have benefited from their presence. There was no need to feed them to the sharks so prematurely.

Interestingly, heavyweights, many of whom did not suffer defeats during their quests to become the leading men in their division, have generally been exceptions to this norm. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson only suffered defeats when they were well into their careers.

A line of thought has developed in recent years which stipulates that the current crop of ‘super-sized’ heavyweights could devastate the likes of Jack Dempsey (1920s) because of the height, reach and weight disadvantages he would have had when confronting say, Nikolai Valuev. In his prime, Dempsey weighed less than 200 pounds and hence, by contemporary standards, he is actually a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight.

However, what many critics of old-time heavyweights tend to forget is that Dempsey faced Jess Willard, a gigantic heavyweight, for the world championship in 1919. Willard can be seen as a forerunner to Lennox Lewis or Vitali Klitschko. A prime Lewis, standing 6’ 5”, walked into the ring at around 240 pounds. Willard was 6’ 6” and weighed 245 pounds. Many predicted that Dempsey’s smallness would lead to his downfall but the ‘Manassa Mauler’ administered what was perhaps the worst beating in ringside history.

Willard was floored seven times in the first round and had to quit after round three. He suffered a broken jaw, a broken cheekbone, broken ribs and partial hearing loss in one ear. This illustrates that bigger is not always better. Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson were all small heavyweights who did not let their physical proportions thwart them from gaining victory over bigger men. In fact, it was only in the 1990s that boxing really saw first-class heavyweights of huge proportions in Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, who showed that their size was not a handicap.

Technology and scientific methods of training are viewed as giving contemporary fighters an edge over their predecessors but it is inaccurate to suppose that training processes have been revolutionised in the past few decades. There might be a fancier way of running — on a treadmill instead of a street — but to assume that it is necessarily better is like thinking that using a washing machine is better than hand washing. Both techniques get the job done, thus reinforcing the idea that basics are basics, running is running — it builds up stamina whichever way one does it.

Boxers skip rope, spar, do press-ups, sit-ups, work on the pads and punch the heavy bag now as much as those a hundred years ago may have done. Evidently, fighters can get all the technology they want nowadays but these advances cannot be a stand-in for hard work.

The current light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins is living proof of an athlete who follows a Spartan-like dedication to his craft. His role model is Marvin Hagler, who was probably the hardest training boxer of his era. Hopkins is described as an old school fighter not only because of his hardiness but also his industrious work ethic.

Doctors now can monitor a boxer to see if he has brain damage using MRI or CAT scans. Technology has essentially improved safety standards much more than training methods.

The one significant training difference between current fighters and old-timers is that some boxers may be lifting weights more than earlier fighters. Weightlifting can aid a boxer — Sugar Ray Leonard’s humiliation of Roberto Duran in the infamous ‘No Mas’ fight is a case in point. But becoming bigger does not automatically increase punching power. Tommy Hearns and Alexis Argüello were magnificent punchers who were tall and very thin, while Mike Tyson, who also possessed incredible punching capabilities, was short and stocky.

This article is not intended to disregard today’s champions or their accomplishments but any comparison of contemporary fighters with those, say 50 years ago, shows glaring chasms in quality. Earlier, there were fewer weight divisions and sanctioning organisations, thus no ‘alphabet’ champions. Boxers fought more regularly because they had to. Of course, there are the Arturo Gattis and James Toneys… but watching them, we are reminded that they are a rare breed. Seeing Gatti’s face bleed profusely or Toney slip a punch by millimetres takes a fan to the past more than the present. But both of them are on the downward slope and boxing is seeking the next bunch of fighters from the old school.