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The Boxing Time Machine
By Dan Hanley
In a recent discussion with a very knowledgable fight group I associate with...awright, let's not split hairs, we go head to head. Our near violent exchanges notwithstanding however, valid points were brought up over those scar-tissued pugs of the ages who donned the old 8 ouncers, whom we dared to call 'great'.
Our discussion ventured into the realm of temporal mechanics as we dwelled upon the possibilities of Mickey Walker and Tony DeMarco duking it out with Shane Mosley and Oscar DeLaHoya. And our end results became as precarious as a 3 legged barstool on St Paddy's Day. Hey, let me tell ya, trying to transport every good fighter to present day for one major brouhaha would leave even H. G. Wells with a bit of a headache. So let's see if we can muck our way through this.
We as fans have been at the mercy of the scholarly musings of Damon Runyon, Nat Fleischer and Jimmy Cannon throughout the past century. For, we tend to 'inherit' the views and opinions of these sage old scribes and embrace them as gospel. And heaven help anyone who casts a dissenting view on what hath been written, for ye shall die a fiery death at the boxing stake. Well, let me tell ya, better start stoking up the old pyre, baby, cuz I'm about to stand on a few toes.
The first eyebrow raising statement tossed out by my pugilistic colleagues was, 'If a fighter was great in his era, he would be great in any era'. Well...I don't think so! From the time we mere mortals strode from the seas, stood erect and dried off our tails, we've had to tip our hats in thanks to evolution. And boxing is no different, as it evolved subtely but significantly over the ages. With this in mind, let's examine the case of Terrible Terry McGovern.
The 'great' Terry McGovern we've been told over and over was a snarling bull of a fighter who seared his way through the featherweights of his day before bowing to Young Corbett when he was washed up. Whoa now! Let's step back a moment. By the time McGovern ran into Corbett, he may have had 61 pro bouts behind him, but he was only 21 years old and in his physical prime. So, whussup? The truth of the matter is boxing was evolving and McGovern's tearaway style was already becoming archaic as he fell to the art of counter-punching.
Jim Corbett blazed a trail a decade earlier by showing the fight crowd that 'toeing the mark' was giving way to pugilistic science, and McGovern found himself wanting to this new breed of fighter. Now, could McGovern make the transition from crude brawler to one offering a more controlled version of mayhem if sucked into our time portal? Anything is possible, but then again, McGovern had plenty of time to correct his style back then and only succeeded in getting clocked a second time by the punch-baiting Corbett. I'm afraid if McGovern were to cross swords with today's Marco Barrerra, Erik Morales or Prince Naz, Terrible Terry would soon become Terribly Horizontal Terry.
Running with the same theory of, 'if a fighter's great in one era...', let's have a look see at three more fighters, distinct for their rather...rambunctious style. Harry Greb, Fritzie Zivic and Gene Fullmer all had one thing in common, opponents who complained bitterly and bled profusely. Indeed, Harry Greb should have had 'Everlast' tattoed on his forehead and had it signed by the state commisioner before each bout. Zivic of course, plied his thumb like a technician administering lasik surgery on the old optic. And, as for Gene Fullmer, if you were gonna clinch with this guy, you'd better make sure you had a hold of both his arms, cuz if one was free he'd be clubbing the top of your head, the back of your head, your kidneys, etc.
Now, suppose we transport these three roughhouses to the present era of modern pugs. Transition would be a must for these guys under today's rules and no-nonsense referees unless they would be content with incurring the repeated 'LDQ' on their records. Thinking this through I'd say it was funny that I actually believe Greb and Zivic could make the adjustment, because their rather imaginative methods of doling out deliberate pain could be curtailed in the event of a point or two deducted from the scoresheet. However, Fullmer's tactics were not so much deliberate as inherent, and I feel his style would bear the brunt of today's uncompromising rules. It's a shame when it comes down to it, but these colorful characters, infamous as they were, would have to lose that glorious reckless abandon to be competitive in today's market.
Another point brought up by my cantakerous fellow mavens was the line, 'fighters today would not be the fighters they are if not for Louis, Robinson, Ali, etc.' Whoa! Good point! And I agree, which is amazing in itself. The fighters today would have a headstart on the pugs of yesteryear if our mythical tete-a-tete ever took place. Present day fighters have been feasting on a wealth of knowledge handed down from Trainers and visual aids throughout the years. Whether it be a Dempsey bob and weave, a Gavilan bolo, a Walcott cakewalk, an Ali shuffle or an Olivares hook to the liver, the fighters of today have had a buffet to choose from in honing their styles.
Of course, like the parsnips at the end of the table, there are also certain styles that never quite caught on. The Joe Grim/Battling Nelson style of bruising the opponent's hands by allowing him to beat on their head. The upright, hands at the hips style, which was so popular in the '30s. And, the 'revolutionary' style of Jim Jeffries, which consisted of laying in a crouch with the left arm extended like a weaving pole. Oh, that'll work! Hey, I'm probably being a little rough on old Jeff, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em. And I have to commit boxing sacriledge once again by saying, y'know all those prime photos we've seen of Jeffries over the years? Well, to me he sort of resembles the Michelin Man.
But, hang on a second, guys. In case you think I'm being too much of a cynic on the old guys and giving the fresh-faces of today an easy ride, let's segue into our final question. 'How would the pugs of today have fared against their peers of the past?'
Granted, the boys of today have a leg up on their counterparts of yesteryear in knowledge, nutrition and training procedures. But, there is one area not so easily replicated and can only be gauged under actual battle conditions, and that is heart, baby. Mental and physical toughness I'm afraid, has been sorely lacking in today's game, in which modern pugs only seek to preserve their undefeated price tag.
Hard lives and hard careers bred toughness years ago. There was no such thing as signing bonuses, multi-fight HBO contracts or Pay-per view deals to dicker over. It was live bodies placed in seats of small fight venues that paid the bills. And, with money being small, one would have to fight hard and fight often. And if one put on a decent show for the paying public, the ring would be showered in change with the 'supplemental income' divided between the two contestants. Sound a little hokey? Perhaps. But those economic times bred an honest fighter, far removed from the prima donna mentality which is so prevalent today.
To clarify further, in the 1930s, the aforementioned Zivic once dropped 8 straight before ascending to the welterweight title. His conqueror, Red Cochrane too, had dropped 11 out of 12 on his way up the ladder. And Jimmy Braddock, in between his loss to Tommy Loughran for the 175 pound title and his assault on Max Baer for the heavy crown, sported an unremarkable 14 wins, 18 losses with a couple of no decisions and no contests thrown in. Dismal numbers of course, yet these old pugs kept gritting their teeth and plugging away. Their reward wasn't a purse that would buy them that elusive lakefront condo, but simply enough for food on the table. And their only outlook if opting to leave the fightgame...was joining a bread line.
Losses, although never embraced, were not treated as a career-ending stigma years ago. They were treated with a shrug of the shoulders followed by an nonchalant, "Ah well, I'll get him in the rematch." Whereas today, the favored response to an 'L' on a fighters resume is, "Uh...well...I don't want to make excuses but, I had a hard time making weight. Yeah...yeah, that's the ticket. I had a hard time making weight so...I'm moving up." A nice, clean escape hatch.
An aura of 'quit' has been hanging over today's game since the 'no mas' debacle, and one must consider that the state of today's game has made it easy for a fighter to acquiesce. However, that test of the old ticker will always separate the greats from the wannabes. A perfect example and, the ultimate yardstick, would be the first Archie Moore-Yvon Durelle bout of '58. Old Archie, climbing off the deck 4 times and, with the taste of his intestines in his mouth, he stares adversity in the eye and dramatically retains his title by knockout. Man, this is the stuff of legends, literally. Indeed, since I was a kid, I've had this story told and retold to me while never losing it's gloriously barbaric luster in the retelling. Now, could/would Roy Jones battle back from such a deficit? Better yet, how many out there will be placing a precocious youngster on the old kneecap twenty years from now and telling the tale of how Roy Jones thumped on Rick Frazier?
Sarcasm aside, at least I still have my memories of fighters such as Carmen Basilio, Bobby Chacon and Victor Galindez with eyes bloddied and bones broken, rallying with teeth bared in hopes of retaining a title which made them larger than life. And for me...it's enough.
I'm afraid, my fellow fightnuts, activation of our mythical time machine only poses more questions and even more variables and intangibles with which we must contend ourselves with. If I may, I'd like to offer a more traditional solution in determining the answer to 'greatness'. So, let's belly up to the bar, boys, grab a cold one and get ready for a head-butting session. Because, we're talking boxing, baby.
See ya next round.