A WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL AMATEURS
By Mike Silver
A few weeks ago I watched an HBO boxing double header featuring two light heavyweight title fights: Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez and Dmitriy Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba. The bouts confirmed to me that the art of boxing, as I knew it, is dead and unlikely to be revived anytime soon.
It’s not so much what I saw but what I didn’t see. As in so many other televised contests the sophisticated boxing skills that were once so common among the top echelon of professional fighters 50 or more years ago are absent from today’s champions and contenders. In the title fights mentioned above less than a dozen body punches were exchanged and there was virtually no infighting. There were no double jabs or combinations and no feints, ducking, parrying, or weaving under punches. Footwork was in two directions—forward and back. Absent was lateral movement or circling an opponent. Other than occasionally stepping back out of range to avoid a punch, defense was limited to the usual gloves in front of the face while standing still and waiting to be hit. No attempt was made to slip a punch and counter. Every round was a repeat of the previous because the fighters did not have the experience, training or ring savvy to know how to change tactics.
Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible.
With few exceptions the majority of today’s top professional boxers all fight the same way. There is very little variety in their fighting styles. Even several years after turning pro it is basically the same style they used as amateurs. In the past that would have been perceived as a weakness when competing against an experienced professional. Today the difference between the best amateur boxers and the best professional boxers is negligible. And that is why, in boxing’s current culture and climate, it is impossible to produce a world champion who merits comparison to the greatest boxers of the 1920s to the 1970s.
One of the sport’s current stars is the former two time Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012) Vasyl Lomachenko. This extremely talented boxer won his first title in 2014 in only his third professional fight. Over the next four years he added two more divisional titles to his impressive resume. But we will never know how great Vasyl can become because the talent pool in the lighter weight divisions lacks depth. Where are the great fighters to test him? Answer: there are none.
Lomachenko is a rare commodity. He reminds us of the very promising professional prospects who often caught our attention during boxing’s golden age. But even if he had been competing during the last vestiges of that era—the 1960s and 1970s—his rise to the top would not have been as rapid or as easy. And there would be no guarantees he would ever win a title. Despite his amazing amateur record he would not have been ready this early in his career (less than a dozen professional fights in four and a half years) for the likes of Sugar Ramos, Vicente Saldivar, Carlos Ortiz, Nicolino Loche, Roberto Duran or Aaron Pryor.
This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today.
What makes Lomachenko stand out today is his use of extreme speed of punches combined with rapid and constantly shifting footwork that he uses to confuse and befuddle second rate opponents. This used to be known as “stick and move” strategy. It is rarely seen today. I’m grateful to Lomachenko for reviving it. Hopefully it will catch on. After all, a target swiftly moving to and fro is always more difficult to hit than a stationary one. It is a simple concept that doesn’t seem to have penetrated today’s boxers or their trainers. The best way to neutralize a constantly moving target is to either keep your opponent preoccupied with a busy left jab, make him miss, and then counter, or cut off the ring while applying unrelenting pressure. Luckily for Lomachenko there are no outstanding pressure fighters today in the mold of a prime Manny Pacquiao or Julio Ceasar Chavez. Another was Ray “Boom Boom” Manicini who gave the great Alexis Arguello trouble for 13 rounds. Ray wasn’t ready to take on Arguello but if we were to replace Arguello with Lomachenko I think the result would be a win for “Boom Boom”.
Forty years ago another gifted professional, Wilfred Benitez, won the junior welterweight title from the great Antonio Cervantes in his 26th professional fight. It is the same title Lomachenko won by stopping Jorge Linares in the 10th round on May 12th 2018. It was Loma’s 12th pro fight. Linares had a decent amount of professional experience but at best he is a slightly better than average boxer. Yet by using an effective jab and quick counters he was able to keep the fight even through nine rounds. Now what do you think would happen if we were to replace Linares with a prime Antonio Cervantes or Wilfred Benitez?
Perhaps a boxer with as much natural talent as Lomachenko may have adapted if he had come along 50 or more years ago. But it’s impossible to say. In years past there were so many terrific prospects who faltered when it came time to make the leap from great prospect to great boxer.
I don’t say this to demean the current crop of world champions. (At last count there were over 100 spread over 17 weight divisions!) The best of them possess an abundance of natural talent, are in excellent physical condition, have extensive amateur experience, and usually put forth a tremendous effort. It is not their fault that after turning pro they do not receive the type of quality training and competition that would have a positive impact in improving their boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique.
A major reason for the lack of refined skills is the shortage of qualified teacher-trainers who understand and can teach the finer points of boxing technique. Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I think it is important to make comparisons between today’s best and those of decades past if only to gain perspective and to inform and enlighten us as to what it truly means to be a great boxer.
Among today’s fighters there are a few who are not of the cookie cutter variety. Lomechenko, Terrance Crawford and Gennady Golovkin are in this category. They are pleasing to watch because they are capable of performing at a higher level than the sea of mediocrity that surrounds them. They bring back memories similar to the type of young talent we used to see years ago. Golovkin is the most “old school” of the three. But an accurate appraisal of their current level of overall skill and experience indicates they are not as well rounded and seasoned as the top contenders and champions of boxing’s golden past. Through no fault of their own they will never be tested in the same way the best fighters of the 1920s to 1970s were tested. They will never experience the type of brutal competition their counterparts in decades past had to contend with while trying to hold onto a title or a top ten rating.
Let’s return to the four fighters mentioned at the beginning of this article, all of whom are either current or former light heavyweight champions. How would they have fared against the best light heavyweight champions of the 1970s and early 1980s? (Comparisons to golden oldies like Loughran, Rosenbloom, Lewis, Conn, Moore or Johnson are unnecessary because the answer is too obvious). Does anyone who has seen the following boxers actually believe today’s champions could defeat Bob Foster, Mathew Saad Muhammad, Victor Galindez, John Conteh or Michael Spinks? And what about Richie Kates, Jerry “The Bull” Martin, Yacqui Lopez, Eddie Mustafah Muhammed, Jorge Ahumada, Dwight Braxton, Marvin Johnson and Eddie Davis? These 1970s era light heavyweights did not build up their records fighting 2nd and 3rd rate opponents, as is the norm today. They did not avoid the hard fights.
All of the above proved to be tough and seasoned professionals capable of giving any great boxer of the past a competitive fight. Aside from the quality of their training and the seasoning they acquired over the course of their careers these accomplished professionals possessed another very important weapon: psychological toughness. A fighter who could combine that type of resilience with superior boxing skills was very, very tough to beat.
Of the four light heavyweights who headlined the HBO show the best of the lot is Alvarez who won his portion of the title by stopping Kovalev in the seventh round. He did very well considering he hadn’t fought in over a year. (Long layoffs and inactivity is another feature of the current boxing scene). I am impressed by Alvarez but also saddened. He is extremely talented, well-schooled in basic boxing technique and is very determined. Had he been more active (only four fights in the last two years) he could have eclipsed Andre Ward as the star of the division. But at the age of 34 and with only 23 pro fights in 11 years the former amateur champion will never have the opportunity to realize his full potential.
Another example of unrealized professional talent is Dmitry Bivol. As a successful amateur boxer he engaged in nearly 300 fights, winning a slew of regional titles before turning pro in 2014. Three years later Dimitry won a portion of the world light heavyweight title in only his 12th professional fight. As an amateur he performed at the highest level. Using those same amateur skills he has attained great success in a very short time as a pro. Dmitry won’t be required to improve much beyond his current skill level because the line that once separated top amateur boxers from top professional boxers has become blurred. In his most recent bout he won a dreary 12 round decision against a second rate opponent whose purpose was just to survive the 12 rounds and collect his payday. It would be nice if the four current champs were to engage in a tournament to determine who is best—but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Forty years ago Dmitry Bivol would be labelled a hot prospect and maybe in line for a semi-final in Madison Square Garden. But as good as he is Dmitry would not be ready to challenge a prime Victor Galindez, the reigning world light heavyweight champion. At that time 300 amateur fights and 14 pro wins (88 rounds) didn’t make you ready to challenge an outstanding professional boxer whose record showed over 50 pro bouts and 485 rounds.
That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen Kovalev’s fighting spirit.
And what of Kovalev—the once mighty “Krusher”? Three years ago he put up a stirring but losing effort against a very good Andre Ward. That decision could have just as well gone to Kovalev. It was that close. His return bout with Ward seven months later ended in controversy and left many fans puzzled. Slightly ahead on points “The Krusher” took several borderline shots to the midsection. He reacted by draping himself over the ropes. The referee awarded the tko win to Ward. In his recent bout against Alvarez he was also ahead on points. Kovalev tried hard for a KO in rounds five and six but couldn’t put Alvarez away. That futile effort, and his opponent’s stubborn resistance, appeared to dampen Kovalev’s fighting spirit. He came out for the seventh round looking tired and discouraged. Carrying his left hand dangerously low and moving slowly Kovalev was knocked down by a solid right cross.
What surprised me was that Kovalev, after arising from the first knockdown, did not appear to know what to do. But a quick review of his record explained why. In nine years Kovalev had fought only 143 professional rounds. Seventeen of his 28 knockout victims never made it past the second round. A seasoned pro in the same situation would have known how to tie up his opponent in a clinch or bob and weave his way out of trouble, or at least make the attempt. Kovalev, used to knocking out inferior opposition, didn’t know what to do when the situation was reversed. He remained an open target and was quickly dropped twice more before the referee stopped the fight.
If the reader is interested additional information related to the topic of this article is contained in the author’s book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science” (McFarland Publishing). It is available on Amazon.
Mike’s other book is “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing”, also available on Amazon.