Has Boxing cured itself of “One-Loss” Syndrome?
By Joseph Hirsch – It’s common to hear boxing fans gripe about who and what is hurting boxing, which promoters’ egos or boxers’ cowardice is the stumbling block to making a great fight happen. While some of these arguments have merit, fans rarely (if ever) consider their own hand in keeping great fights from happening. There are of course the obvious ways that fans can hurt the sport, for example by pirating a Pay-Per-View and thereby hurting the official numbers, which in turn jacks up the prices for the paying fans while also making it look like the sport is not as popular as it is. Factor in illegal streams for mega-fights like Andy Ruiz vs. Anthony Joshua into the official tally and boxing is not only alive and well, but it’s surpassing plenty of other sports that only survive due to the economic bottlenecks setup by cable outlets like ESPN (if you have cable, you pay for some sports whether you watch them or not).
Another, subtler way we as fans sometimes have hurt the sport in the past is by declaring this or that fighter over, finished, exposed, or a bum on the basis of one loss. The fear of a single loss has a chilling effect on promoters and fighters making the fights we want to see, which, invariably, are those in which someone’s “0 has got to go.” Sure there’s some schadenfreude in watching certain boxers considered egotistical getting their comeuppance, like “Prince” Naseem Hamed’s shellacking from turnbuckle to turnbuckle against Marco Antonio Barrera, or more recently, Adrian “the Problem” Broner being pounded into humility by the hammer-handed Marcos Maidana.
But too often this desire to write fighters off after just one loss is just the bandwagon mentality, the fickleness of the mob in action, simply forgetting that the warriors we build up into superhumans are just brave men wearing gloves.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a loss for the winds to start blowing in another direction. Lots of people who flocked to the cult of Gennady Golovkin when he was destroying solid-but-not-world-beating competition (Gabriel Rosado, Curtis Stevenson) were already jumping ship and shouting “exposed!” when the guy had only lost a few rounds (forget a full fight) against Kell “Special K” Brook.
In boxing’s Golden Age there was a school of thought among some trainers that a fighter wasn’t ready for a title shot until he’d had some losses. The thinking went that if he hadn’t lost, he hadn’t learned his craft, or what was truly in himself in terms of intangibles. The ability to get off the deck when knocked down is a great asset for a fighter; the ability to bounce back from losses is an even greater skill, and deepens a fighter’s character and many times enhances both their skillset and their character. It will also let a man know who his true friends are.
Famed trainer Angelo Dundee once advised his ward Muhammad “the Greatest” Ali to observe who was in his locker room after he lost, not after he won. Mike Tyson a little less poetically asked during the fiercest part of his descent, “Where are all those guys I gave Rolex watches to?” Gone is where they went, as is the fickle caprice of the fair-weather friend.
Consider also that most undefeated fighters have, if not an asterisk next to their official records, some questionable wins. Rocky Marciano (49-0) is rightly adored as one of the hardest punching, toughest sluggers to ever lace up the gloves, but most ringside observers (including press row) had Roland LaStarza boxing his ears off in their first encounter; to complicate matters even further, Mike Stanton in his thoroughgoing biography of the Brockton Blockbuster, Unbeaten, admits that Rock might have fallen under the sway of the Mob like almost everyone else when the IBC ruled the roost, and he may have had a couple dance partners when he was young and raw who were paid to “cooperate” with the man being groomed as the next heavyweight champion.
Other undefeated champs who shall remain nameless were arguable beneficiaries of homecooked decisions, men who never ventured across the pond or sometimes even out of their countries and only fought against handpicked, limited opposition.
Floyd “Money” Mayweather is one of the soundest defensive wizards in the history of the sport, a counterpuncher extraordinaire who turned the tables on promoters and “played the game” as boxing analyst Max Kellerman once put it, probably better than anyone since “Sugar” Ray Robinson. But most fans (and the numerical punch-count) show that a good case could be made that Floyd got a bit of a gift in his first match against Jose Luis Castillo, which would make “Money” 49-1 (and no less of an all-time great than he is at an officially listed at 50-0)
Contrast the sterling resumes of paper champions with war-scarred vets of the ring who sport more than handful of losses but will be remembered much longer than such nominal champs. To name just a few, the blood-and-guts warrior Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, who inspired a nearly-religious shrieking chorus whenever he was fighting in Atlantic City and was arguably in a fight-of-the-century candidate (and had nine losses), or how about his hard-as-nails dance partner in that trilogy of classic fights, “Irish” Mikey Ward (retiring with an unlucky 13 losses). Then just for good measure throw in names like Emanuel “Augustus” Burton or Orlando “Siri” Salido (who, like it or not) still holds an official win over pound-for-pound consensus king Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko, and also managed to edge out Mickey by one loss, retiring with a respectable 44-14.
Then there are those fighters who perhaps should have been undefeated, but were robbed of their chance by shady judging or just bad luck, like Larry “Easton Assassin” Holmes, who needed one win to match “The Rock’s” 49-0 record and two to best it. Some suggest that if Holmes hadn’t been so vocal in his criticisms in his runup to the first fateful match with Michael Spinks that he might have gotten the nod from the judges. His now-infamous comment about Rocky Marciano not being fit to carry his jockstrap (which he later recanted) probably also didn’t help Holmes in the tabulating of rounds in his split-decision loss to Michael Spinks when they met for a second time.
But to quibble over losses and wins and what-ifs is to miss the larger point, which is that if recent events are any indication, boxing fans are starting to get old-school in their approach to losses. Usually after a fight, when the winner and loser are announced, some commentator or pundit lets fly with the cliché that “There were no losers tonight,” and while the comment usually rings hollow, it’s starting to sound like the truth.
Observe the aftermath of Manny Pacquiao vs. Keith Thurman, in which Thurman very graciously said that the Fighting Senator had imparted both blessings and lessons to him in the ring. Or how about the outcome of the closely-fought match between Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn “Showtime” Porter, or, more recently, the back and forth bloody donnybrook between Regis “Rougarou” Prograis and Josh “Tartan Tornado” Taylor. Even if one doesn’t agree with the idea of moral victories in the sport, it is in fact possible for two fighters’ stock to rise after a fight in which one man leaves with his hand raised and the other leaves holding only an “L.”
Sergey Kovalev, once the boogeyman and bully of the light-heavyweight division, picked up the broken pieces after posting a brace of losses to Andre “S.O.G.” Ward and suffering another vicious K.O. to Eleider Alvarez. True, he just lost via devastating KO against superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. But in between those losses Kovalev retooled, made changes and humbly submitted himself to the tutelage of trainer Buddy McGirt, which resulted in him getting his strap back and securing a career-high eight-figure sum in his last match against Canelo.
Repeatedly picking oneself up after being knocked down is what it’s all about. Kovalev’s four losses are somehow more admirable and forgivable than “Prince” Naseem Hamed’s lone loss. No, it doesn’t make pure mathematical sense, but boxing is, at the end of the day, about the intangibles, especially the memories of the fights, not just what’s on paper or written in the ledger.
To a certain extent we all live and die by the numbers in boxing, the tale-of-the-tape and Compubox stats, as much as we literally live and die by the corollary of the actual actuarial tables (though some men grow very old and buck the odds). But just as the old saw has it that “the good die young,” I think it’s fair to say that “the best have losses.”
Joseph Hirsch, author of My Tired Shadow and other novels