Heavyweight Boxing Not Heavy With Talent
By Jay McIntyre: There was a time when the heavyweight division was boxing. While the Benny Leonards, Harry Grebs, Sugar Ray Robinsons and Ray Mancinis were all notable and talented men, they never could sell out stadiums with the urgency and regularity of the heavyweights. Jack Dempsey consistently sold out venues for his executions and on at least two occasions he packed outdoor stadiums designed specifically with the sole purpose of watching him fight.
In 1927, 104,983 people packed Soldier Field to watch him rematch Gene Tunney in the infamous “Long Count” Fight (Tunney was the first fighter to ever get a million dollar payday – though that paycheck has an asterisk beside it). It was his fights, under the expert promotion of Tex Richard, that encouraged women to attend – a novel idea for its time. Since the “Golden Era of Sports” in the 1920’s, the casual fans have always been interested in – most especially – in heavyweight boxing (there are rare exceptions, but let’s stick with established rules).
Nowadays one would be hard-pressed to find such a casual fan. Make no mistake – the spectacle, magnetism and drawing power of boxing has rapidly declined on all fronts – and given society’s proclivity for the heavyweights, when they decline, so does the casual involvement of the public. Today, the division most symbolic of strength and power lacks that depth and drawing power that it had once made its fighters household names. But there was a time…
So, where did all the heavyweights go? That’s a good question. People are awaiting the next big thing from America. A fighter’s fighter that blends knockout power with personal magnetism (or at the very least – sheer morbid curiosity). But what if no such hero emerges? Or what if one perhaps does, but he can’t be truly assessed based on the desultory pugilists upon which his skills are tested? It has often been said that “iron sharpens iron”, but there clearly seems to be a lack of hardened fighters with that proverbial edge.
We can’t blame the big boys of today, they are simply doing the best they can fighting against the existing competition. The Klitschko brothers – regardless of what anyone says – are effective boxers that have a mastery of the fundamentals and fight according to their size perfectly. Exciting or not, their cerebral approach and a style that is tailored to their body type would make them a threat to many heavyweights of many eras. But if you look past them and the few others that stood out recently, you don’t see too many faces in the crowd that stand out. Again, it’s not their fault – it’s the times that have changed. While it is near impossible to enumerate the reasons which have crippled and hamstrung a once unanimously captivating sport, we can identify some clear culprits.
When the television was first made available to the general public in 1950’s, many skeptics feared the decline and fall of family values and the rotting of young minds once so full of potential. Neither of these things have necessarily come to fruition (at least not because of T.V.), but T.V. did change how people watched boxing. Rather than attend the local venues and observe the regional circuit of talent in what were called “Smokers” (places where fights would take place, and were packed with the cigarette smoke of its patrons). Gone went the income to the smokers, which in turn meant less demand for fighters. While television did expose more people more easily to a boxing match, it paradoxically undercut the grassroots system which cultivated the talent it was trying to showcase. The end result, it turns out, was that tougher talent was harder to find as fewer young boys were lacing up their gloves and trading blood and sweat (and sometimes tears) in the ring.
Also, there is the glaring truth that poverty hardens people. As the standard of living and the quality of life amongst Americans rose steadily in the post-war period after Hitler’s fall, the appalling conditions which forced people to “suck it up” steadily declined. That’s not to say that there isn’t poverty in North America – just not as much. You have to remember that in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, North America was experiencing the tail end of the Industrial Revolution and a cushy middle class was still slow to emerge. Remember that socio-economic pyramid of wealth distribution that you no doubt learned in a social studies class? Well it was around more or less back then. What this means is that more people were living in squalor. I am not going to try and subjectively measure if the squalor of today is worse than back then – you can do that if you feel that it helps in your overall assessment (particularly if you are brooding over a counter-argument).
These are all issues which have afflicted all of boxing – so why are the heavyweights different? Remember that what has happened to the heavyweight division is not inherently the division’s fault. Oftentimes, it is the external and tangential things that alter the status quo. Coupled with the rise of television and standard of living, was the continued rise of American football and basketball – two sports which are indescribably colossal these days – and they require tall men. The opportunities for big guys to make money expanded rapidly in sports which were not only growing in infrastructure, but were also far less violent. If one had to choose between a team sport where there is a ball, or being trapped in an enclosed space alone with a big man that wants to punch you (a lot), it is no surprise that more would be inclined toward the former. The violence of a sport like football (which indeed has its own variety of pain) does not inspire the same visceral reaction to that of the more obvious and intentional violence in boxing. Pursuant to this, if a team loses a couple season games – while unfortunate – then that team will still have other opportunities to win others (and, of course, have a salary). Boxing does not come with a salary, and a couple of losses can cause irrevocable damage to a fighter’s career. This begs the question: why take the risk? It turns out, all that stuff I said before about poverty might prove to be an apt answer to that question. If you have no money and prizefighting gives you the chance for wealth – taking that chance and its inherent risks is better than the alternative of living in squalor your whole life. Better yet, get in another sport where the risks are fewer and the rewards could be incredible in their own right.
Sure, there will still be heavyweight boxing, and sure some of the fighters are pretty good ones, but if we place the them on a spectrum along with the talent of the last 120 years we are left with some questions to consider. Does the knockout record of Deontay Wilder really impress when we look at his level of competition? Furthermore, does an unbroken string of knockouts mean he is great, or even necessarily just a great puncher? It invariably brings us back to the not-so-age old question: How many five year olds can you take in a fight? If your level of talent is so poor then you are expected to knock them out! Some may point to Joe Louis’ “bum of the month” club as evidence of times when the division was also weak, but let’s not forget that in that time he clobbered a slew of champs, former champs, and general trouble makers from the 1930’s through to the 1950’s.
When you watch the heavyweights of today lace up and punch each other in the face be sure to pay close attention to the following:
– lack of balance and footwork (ex. heavy on the front foot, backing straight up, etc.)
– poor ring generalship and lack of a long-term stratagem (ex. can’t cut off the ring, struggle to adapt to opponent’s style)
– appalling stamina (ex. excessive holding, very low punch output that is not substituted with anything constructive)
What you will notice is that most heavyweights are guilty of the above criteria. They look great against tomato cans and that’s why most heavyweights today are simply “can crushers”. Heavyweight boxing will be the last weight class to get ‘fixed’. There is simply more money and there are more opportunities for big athletes in other sports such as basketball and football. This is not an attempt to blame other sports, as I believe that there is room for all sports to be appreciated in their own respective way. In the meantime don’t expect boxing to go anywhere, it has a niche and nothing can replace a dearly coveted art kept alive by die hard fans.
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I cannot end this without giving due credit to @stevenasimon85 for contributing – what I think to be – a very appropriate title. Thanks dude!