All posts by Mike Silver

In Tribute to Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure: From Pug to Ph.D.

By

Mike Silver

Dr. Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, the former professional boxer, passed away last week at the age of 81. Between 1958 and 1960, Skeeter McClure won virtually every important national and international amateur boxing championship including Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Golden Gloves (Chicago and Inter-City), Diamond Belt, Tournament of Champions, and Pan American Games. The crowning achievement to his brilliant amateur career was winning the Olympic Gold Medal in the light-middleweight divisionat the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.

McClure’s roommate at the Olympics was another Gold Medal winner named Cassius Marcellus Clay. At that point, McClure was considered to be a more accomplished boxer than Clay. But whereas Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won the professional heavyweight championship in 1964 and became the most recognized face on the planet, McClure’s once promising professional career stagnated, never living up to expectations. One wonders how things might have turned out had McClure, like Clay, been guided by the savvy Angelo Dundee instead of the incompetents with whom he entrusted his professional boxing career.  

Skeeter, Cassius Clay, Eddie Crook, Rome 1960

It is to McClure’s everlasting credit that he did not let the terrible mismanagement of his professional boxing career stop him from achieving great success in an entirely new profession. McClure had a college degree in literature and philosophy. After his pro career ended, he returned to school where he earned a master’s degree in counseling and, in 1973, a doctorate in psychology from Detroit’s Wayne State University. The Ohio native joined the teaching staff of Northeastern University in Boston, where he taught courses in counseling and psychology for five years. Over the next 20 years, McClure built a successful private clinical practice. In addition, he operated a consulting firm that provided corporations, non-profit foundations, and police departments with education and training in stress management, conflict resolution, team building, and performance evaluation.

The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking.

Considering his post-boxing success, one might ask if it makes any difference that Skeeter did not win a professional boxing championship. I believe it absolutely does make a difference. McClure dedicated 17 years of his life to the sacrifice and discipline it takes to master the toughest of all sports. He had it within him not only to win a professional boxing title, but also to achieve all-time great status perhaps equal to or even exceeding that achieved by Muhammad Ali. Bad decisions made by the people he trusted to guide him to a title destroyed those dreams. The history of his pro boxing career serves as a primer for how to ruin a brilliant young prospect through appallingly careless matchmaking. 

As an Olympic gold medal winner, McClure would be a hot commodity if he were to turn pro today, especially considering that he was a college graduate. But the scenario in 1960 was quite different from today. An Olympic title, while desirable, did not automatically insure a megabuck promotional contract or a lucrative television deal. 

After considering several management offers, McClure signed on with a wealthy Ohio businessman whose hobby was managing professional fighters. This person hired a trainer who had been affiliated with Archie Moore, the great light heavyweight champion. Regrettably for McClure, both the businessman and the trainer proved to be clueless in the ability to make appropriate matches for the young phenom.  

Skeeter vs Carmelo Bossi.1960 Olympics

McClure was drafted into the Army directly after the Olympics, but he was able to turn pro and fight several times while on leave. He won his ninth straight pro fight June 30, 1962 – a 6-round decision over Harold Richardson at Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner, the Garden’s matchmaker, was impressed with McClure’s performance and his sterling amateur background. Television was in need of new faces to fill a weekly schedule calling for almost fifty Garden main events per year. So, with a grand total of nine pro fights (5 KOs) and 39 rounds of professional experience, McClure was signed to fight the South American middleweight champion Farid Salim on August 4, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in front of a nationwide television audience. Salim, a rangy 6’ 2” middleweight had lost only two of forty professional fights. 

(Note: The following are comments and direct quotes by McClure from his interview with this author that took place in 1998.) 

McClure was excited to be headlining at the world famous arena and wanted to be ready for his first major test as a pro.  I asked my trainer:Is he a boxer? Does he have fast hands? What’s he got?’ And the answer I received was: ‘I don’t know.’   What the [expletive]! My first TV fight…10 rounds…and the son-of-a-gun doesn’t know anything about my opponent! No one [today] would do that to a fighter with a Gold Medal.”  McClure shook his head in disgust.  It was the same thing with everyone else I fought. I’d ask: ‘What has he got?’  Every first round was a surprise.

“McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt.”

Despite the lack of advance knowledge, the former Olympian, a 12-to-5 underdog, was more than up to the task. He won a unanimous decision. His superlative boxing skills were a revelation to many who witnessed the bout. One reporter wrote:  McClure moves with the grace of a young Ray Robinson, hits with authority, and fights back furiously when hurt. Comparing a boxer with only ten pro bouts to Robinson, the greatest fighter who ever lived, was a huge compliment. More experience before taking on top contenders was all that McClure would have needed in order to realize his full potential.  

After four more fights, McClure was rated the eighth best middleweight in the world. But it was all happening too fast. There was little respite from one hard match to the next, all against top opposition. One didn’t have to be a boxing expert to know that McClure was being rushed into matches with fighters he should have avoided at that stage of his career.  At some point, the boxer must be tested against a quality opponent to see what he’s got, but the timing has to be right. Unfortunately, instead of being handled like a precious diamond in the rough that needed a master craftsman to cut and polish it, McClure was thrown to the lions while he was still learning the ropes as a pro. Considering his spectacular amateur accomplishments and the tremendous promise shown in his early professional bouts, the ruination of that great potential, through no fault of his own, makes Wilbert Skeeter McClure the most poorly managed fighter in the history of the sport. 

This is how it evolved: Six weeks after the bout with Farid Salim, McClure returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio and won a unanimous 10-round decision over tough Tony Montano, a 37-bout pro who’d competed with several world ranked boxers. Three weeks after the bout with Montano, McClure was back in the Garden meeting 63-bout veteran Gomeo Brennan. Once again displaying fighting spirit and superb boxing smarts, McClure won a hard-fought 10-round decision over a far more experienced opponent.  In early 1963, he returned to Toledo to outpoint former welterweight contender Ted Wright, a veteran of 60 professional bouts. 

Luis Rodriguez vs Skeeter McClure

Amazingly, despite his limited professional experience, he was good enough to be competitive with these seasoned veterans, even outpointing them, but every fight was tough. He certainly wasn’t being overprotected, that’s for sure. In fact, in his 33 professional fights, only five opponents had losing records.  As if to emphasize this point, in his next fight, on October 18, 1963, McClure was matched against the great former welterweight champion Luis Rodriguez in yet another nationally televised fight from Madison Square Garden. 

Rodriguez was a substitute for Jose Gonzales, a granite-chinned contender who six months earlier had withstood the bombs of “Hurricane” Carter and stopped the feared puncher on a cut in the sixth round. When Gonzales was injured in training, he pulled out of the scheduled bout with McClure; Luis replaced him. A bout with Gonzales would have meant another punishing contest for McClure, but taking on Rodriguez made even less sense. 

McClure didn’t have to ask about Rodriguez. The great Cuban boxer was a former welterweight champion and one of the ten best fighters in the world. His only losses in 55 bouts were against Emile Griffith and Curtis Cokes. Rodriguez was capable of beating the world’s top welterweights and middleweights. He had scored a stunning ninth-round knockout of middleweight contender Denny Moyer in his most recent fight. Luis had a total of 430 professional rounds compared to McClure’s mere 14 fights and 85 rounds. 

McClure knew that he was not ready for Rodriguez. He told his manager and trainer that he thought they were crazy for accepting him as an opponent at this stage of his career.  We argued for two days, said McClure. I was just so tired of all this crap. Isolated in a remote New Jersey training camp, the young fighter was fatigued and disgusted. But, his handlers eventually convinced him to accept the match, saying that his weight advantage of nine pounds would give him an edge. 

Meeting a fighter of Rodriguez’s stature in his 15th professional bout was both negligent and stupid. Compare it to the early career of future middleweight champion Marvin Hagler who turned pro after winning the National AAU light-middleweight championship in 1973. In Hagler’s 15th pro bout, he won a 10-round decision over Sugar Ray Seales, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. It was Seale’s first defeat in 22 bouts. Hagler’s next two opponents had a combined record of 5-14-3.  Another future middleweight champion, Roy Jones Jr., a light middleweight Silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics, had a spectacular amateur record similar to McClure’s.  In his 15th pro bout, Jones KO’d Lester Yarbrough who came into the ring with a 12-16-1 record and would win only one of his next 34 bouts. Neither of these future pro champions faced the type of brutal competition that McClure had to contend with during his first two years as a pro. 

Of course it was a forgone conclusion that Skeeter would lose. Once again displaying the heart and talent of a true champion, and despite being dropped for the first time, the overmatched Olympian actually gave Rodriguez a tough fight. The Cuban won a unanimous 10-round decision, but he had to work hard for the victory. Even Rodriguez was impressed. Give that kid another year, he said, and he’ll be champion.

McClure vs Jose Torres

After that fight, Skeeter should have taken a rest and then taken on a series of lesser opponents, while at the same time perfecting his professional skills. Instead, Brenner insisted on a rematch two months later. After all, their first televised fight was exciting and interesting so why not do it again? McClure’s management should have refused the rematch.  It is a truism in the unforgiving world of professional boxing that a quick rematch between an inexperienced boxer and an old pro is just asking for trouble. The old pro will use his vast experience to figure out what to do in the rematch while the inexperienced boxer will be at a distinct disadvantage. And that is exactly what happened. Rodriguez adjusted his strategy and concentrated his attack on McClure’s body to slow him up and bring down his guard.  In Round 6, Rodriguez dropped McClure for an 8-count with a solid left hook to the jaw. Once again McClure got up and fought his heart out. He was able to win a few rounds but lost another unanimous decision in a punishing fight. Putting McClure into the ring with Luis Rodriguez for his 15th and 16 fight was not just bad matchmaking, it bordered on criminal negligence. 

A young boxer doesn’t walk away from a series of tough and punishing fights without paying a price. If it happens often enough there will come a time in the abused boxer’s professional life when something changes within him.  It can happen after one vicious beating, or it can take place over the course of several tough fights with too little time to rest between them. The change can be dramatic, or it can be subtle and unrecognizable except to an experienced trainer or someone close to the boxer. The damage is both physical and psychological. Eventually the law of diminishing returns takes effect as progress ends and potential is blunted. 

McClure vs Johnny Pritchard, 1967

The boxing portion of this story could very well end here even though Skeeter went on to fight 14 more times over the next four years. Five months after the Rodriguez debacle, there was a 10-round decision loss to future light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres (another Garden fight McClure needed like a hole in the head); only two fights in 1965, and in 1966, a pair of back-to-back 10-rounders spaced two months apart with murderous-hitting middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. McClure lost a decision in the first bout and fought to a draw in the second. The cost of those two fights added to the erosion of this once brilliant prospect. The decline was underscored four months later when he lost a 10-round decision to unrated Harold Richardson, the same fighter he previously had beaten easily. It was McClure’s 24th professional fight and his fifth loss. Comparisons to Sugar Ray Robinson were long past. He had been put in too deep too early, and sunk. 

Yet, it took a while for this proud and intelligent boxer to finally accept the inevitable, to acknowledge that the boxing part of his life was ended. In 1967, after being stopped for the first time in his career by Johnny Smith and then losing a lackluster 10-round decision to England’s Johnny Pritchett, McClure hung up his gloves. His record was 23-7-1 (11 KOs). Three years later, feeling the itch to give it one more try, he had two more fights and then retired for good. 

Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker.

Although a large part of the blame for McClure’s failed boxing career goes to his managers, the person who was most responsible for ruining him was Teddy Brenner, the powerful Madison Square Garden matchmaker. Both Brenner and Harry Markson, the director of the Garden’s boxing department, were uninterested (or perhaps incapable) of using the resources, reputation, and influence of the world’s most famous arena to its fullest capacity. Developing and nurturing new talent was not a priority with them. There are people who mistakenly hail Brenner as a great matchmaker. The facts do not support that opinion. During his tenure at the Garden (1959 to 1977), Brenner made some good matches, but he did far more damage by destroying the careers of at least a score of very promising young fighters, including McClure, by overmatching them against superior opposition before they were ready. This pattern was repeated far too often. Brenner knew better but just didn’t care.  If the result of a match ended up ruining a prospect, so be it. It was of no concern to either Brenner or Markson. Their weekly paychecks arrived whether they put on a good show or not. They would also abuse their power by favoring certain “house fighters” handled by compliant managers who never argued with Brenner’s choice of opponent. Making matters worse, the marketing skills of Brenner and Markson were negligible. The great arena was running on its reputation and interest was dwindling. One time, near the end of their tenure, in a fit of pique they revoked the press privileges of a journalist who dared to criticize one of their awful matches in print. So much for freedom of the press.  

Former Lightweight Champion Carlos Ortiz With Skeeter

In those days the prestige of appearing in a main event at Madison Square Garden was second only to winning a world title. Even when matched against an opponent that was all wrong for their fighter, managers were reluctant to turn down a Garden main event.  But it didn’t have to be that way. In Los Angeles, during the same period, promoters George Parnassus and Eileen Eaton were carefully developing and nurturing local talent and making the sport hugely popular without benefit of a national television sponsorship. But because this is an article in tribute to Wilbert McClure, I won’t go into further details about the destructive nature of Brenner and Markson’s arrogance and incompetence. Suffice it to say that boxing suffered as a result. 

Reminiscing some thirty years later, McClure was philosophical about his ill-starred professional career.  I was bitter back in 1967, the then 59-year old grandfather admitted to me. McClure was still handsome and looked twenty years younger. But now I’ve come to terms with it. I believe everything that happened was supposed to be in my life, both before and after. When you think about it, maybe the experience helped me to save some lives. I’m probably a more well-rounded psychologist because of my experience in the [boxing] business.

McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life.

McClure was not prone to self-pity, nor did he live in the past. His positive attitude helped him to start over in an entirely new field. But boxing was not totally out of his life. From 1995 to 1998, he served as chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission where one of his chief priorities was the athletes’ safety. He especially was concerned about over-the hill-boxers who can no longer properly defend themselves yet still are allowed to fight. The boxing community, said McClure, especially the state commissions, ought to have more courage lifting the licenses of fighters who cannot and should not do it anymore. During my tenure as chairman, I was threatened with lawsuits by managers because we suspended those boxers who couldn’t fight anymore.

Mike Silver With Skeeter McClure, 2010

When asked to evaluate today’s fighters McClure’s response was precise. You cannot become skilled and polished if you are fighting two or three times a year. When you’ve got fighters challenging for a world title with 15 pro fights, you know you’ve got a problem. It makes it difficult to appraise the top boxers of today based on what they have accomplished. It is not scientifically sound, accurate, or fair. I feel sorry for Roy Jones Jr. because he hasn’t fought a great or even a very skillful opponent yet. So he cannot be placed in the pantheon of great middleweights because it takes great opponents to make great fighters.

McClure also said that welterweight champ Oscar de La Hoya, although still a work in progress, was lucky that there were no Kid Gavilans around to test him.  Put Oscar in the ring with Gavilan when he was champion, or a Ray Robinson when he was champ or a Tony Zale. Those guys were tough, man. There isn’t any way in the damn world you’re going to hurt them…and they will hurt you badly. It is a lesson that Skeeter learned the hard way. 

Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure, a gracious and intelligent man, made his mark both inside and outside of the boxing ring. But most importantly, he lived his life with meaning and purpose. 

Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing. Available from Amazon.com or publisher’s website: Rowman.com: 



Hemingway, Spider Kelly, and the (Lost) Art of Boxing

By

Mike Silver

 “Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds.”   

The above quote appears on the first page of Ernest Hemingway’s first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Hemingway often based his characters on real people. John A. (Spider) Kelly was not a fictional character. He was the boxing instructor at Princeton University for 34 years (1902 to 1936). One of the main characters in the novel, a former collegiate boxing champion, is described as having been trained by Kelly at Princeton. 

By all accounts Spider Kelly, a former professional boxer, was an excellent teacher-trainer.  Hemingway’s sentence is further proof of that. It would do well for today’s trainers to follow Spider Kelly’s example. At a body weight of 119 to 126 pounds a featherweight boxer has to rely on speed and mobility rather than strength and power. He must strive to remain an elusive target while still capable of landing more punches than his opponent. But before he learns how to throw a punch the beginner must be taught proper balance. Like a dancer, a boxer has to maintain balance while quickly changing tempo and direction. Effective footwork is not possible without proper balance. Building on that foundation the student boxer works up to more sophisticated defensive and offensive skills, including knowing what to do when an opponent makes a certain move. 

Three of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep, were all trained in this manner and used those foundational skills to reach spectacular heights. But any boxer trained in this manner has an advantage over one who was not. 

Willie Pep

So why do most of today’s boxers, irrespective of their weight division, fight like slow lumbering heavyweights who are looking for a knockout with every punch? We see it all the time. They plod forward or back (rarely circling), throw ill-timed punches, and appear to have no coherent strategy.  What used to be called “ring guile” or “craftiness” is missing. Classic defensive techniques such as ducking, slipping, weaving or parrying (common tactics used by the top boxers of past decades) are virtually non-existent. They become easy targets by remaining stationary after delivering a volley of punches. The most common defensive maneuver is to raise the gloves in rope-a-dope fashion and wait for the opponent to stop punching. Very few know how to effectively use the most fundamental punch in a boxer’s repertoire–the jab. Forget about feinting with a purpose or drawing a lead, or knowing how to slip and slide or clinch. Those words are not even in the vocabulary. And whatever happened to body punching? 

In between rounds the corner’s instruction to the boxer is the oft heard and expletive laced “throw more punches!” –which is akin to a basketball coach imploring his team to “put the ball in the basket!” 

Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are.

This dumbed down version of boxing is not new. The overall skill level of boxers has been in decline for several decades. Boxing may be the only sport where the further back you go, the better the athletes are. In fact, it would be more accurate to rename the sport “fighting” because boxing, as many of us “old timers” knew it, no longer exists. There are a number of reasons for this but first and foremost is the lack of qualified teacher-trainers. 

Cus D’Amato

I don’t blame the boxers. It is not their fault. They have the potential to be much better than they are because the ability is there. I blame the trainers who cannot teach what they themselves do not know. Yes, there are a few exceptions. Among contemporary boxers three names come to mind—Gennady Golovkin, Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford. These very talented athletes display some of the old school moves. Lomachenko (who took ballet lessons as a youth) has excellent footwork. Golovkin has a fine left jab and knows how to set up his power punches. He also understands the value of body punching. Crawford’s speed and instincts are impressive but he tries too hard for a knockout and still has much to learn. If we could time travel these boxers back 60 or more years ago they would have been considered promising prospects. Despite their obvious talent, they are not yet at the level where we would place them among the elite boxers of that era. Perhaps with more experience and exposure to better competition they could have won a world championship back then. But the road taking them to a title bout would have been far more difficult than the one they have traveled. Why? Because in every decade from the 1920s to the 1950s there were dozens of Golovkins, Lomachenkos and Crawfords vying for a contender slot. The competition was brutal. To win one of the eight title belts was truly an extraordinary achievement. 

So where have all the good trainers gone? 

What happened was that boxing’s mentoring system for turning out the next batch of well-schooled trainers began to break down in the decade following the end of World War II. By the late 1950s hundreds of neighborhood arenas, boxing’s farm system for developing new talent, had closed shop because they could not compete with free televised boxing almost every night of the week. Post war prosperity and the G.I. Bill further thinned the ranks of potential professional boxers. Gym memberships declined causing many to close. In the big cities the ranks of master teacher-trainers, never a huge number, began to be depleted. They either retired or left the sport to pursue other occupations and took their knowledge with them. 

Mike Capriano

By the 1970s only a handful were left. This caused a disconnect in the mentoring system. A few dinosaurs continued to teach into the 1980s—Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Cus D’Amato, and Mike Capriano—but they were the last of the breed. The next generation of trainers (who came of age after the 1980s) were not of the same caliber and lacked the knowledge and experience of the old school masters. Most of them were part time instructors who held full time jobs during the day and taught boxing in the evenings. In time mediocre fighters became mediocre trainers. It is no surprise that the two best teacher-trainers today are Teddy Atlas and Freddie Roach. Atlas was mentored by Cus D’Amato and Roach was trained by Eddie Futch. 

OK. Enough complaining. Is there anything that can be done to improve boxers’ skills in the absence of quality teachers? (I won’t even attempt to address the insane organization of professional boxing. That mess is beyond help). 

Over the past 40 years I have collected dozens of boxing instruction books from the mid-1800s to the present. Most have some useful information but I was always on the lookout for a manual that was all encompassing. My search ended with the discovery of two indispensable books that should be required reading and study for every current or wannabe trainer and boxer.

Naval Aviation Physical Training Manual of Boxing

The greatest boxing instructional book ever written is the 286 page Naval Aviation Physical Training Manual of Boxing, published in 1943.  It was prepared by and for the officers in charge of the instruction of Boxing in Naval Aviation.  Keep in mind this book was published at the height of World War II. As explained in the introduction, boxing was part of Naval Aviation training because it was thought to “quickly acclimate the body and mind to the violence and shock so foreign to modern day youth, yet so absolutely essential to fighting men.” Boxing, it was felt, helped the cadet make that transition. I am astounded by the thoroughness of this book. You will not get better and more detailed instruction anywhere else. Example: It not only describes in detail every conceivable punch and defensive maneuver but also dozens of long forgotten combinations and coaching hints. The book was obviously written by very capable boxing trainers (although none are identified by name). It includes many photos and is available on Amazon but costs about $130 dollars. For those serious about seeking knowledge it’s worth every penny.

The second outstanding instructional book I recommend is Boxing: A Self-Instructional Manual by Edwin L. Haislet, first published in 1940 and re-issued in 1982. Haislet was assistant professor of physical education, boxing coach University of Minnesota, and director of the Northwest Golden Gloves Tournament. Before I discovered the Navy book this was my gold standard for instructional manuals. It is 120 pages, illustrated, and is an excellent source of valuable information. A reprint selling for $30 dollars is available on Amazon.

I would also strongly recommend anyone interested in why and how the sport devolved over the past thirty years to read my first book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”.  It contains extensive commentary by several top trainers, including Atlas and Roach. 

If there were a course given to certify and license boxing trainers (and there certainly should be) these three books would be required reading. 

One final note: Thanks to You Tube we have access to films of some of the greatest boxers of the twentieth century. It would be beneficial if these films were studied, but understanding would be enhanced if the aforementioned books were read first. There are scores of videos to choose from. I have selected five—one each from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to serve as an example of the type of artistry in boxing that no longer exists.

Mike Silver’s newest book is The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing.






100 years ago: The Law That Gave Birth to the Modern Era of Boxing

100 years ago: The Law That Gave Birth to the Modern Era of Boxing

by

Mike Silver

From 1895 to 1919 professional boxing was either tolerated or outlawed in various cities and states, including New York. The Frawley law, passed in 1911, had created the New York State Athletic Commission to oversee the sport. Some 40 boxing clubs operated under its purview. In 1917, after a boxer was fatally injured in a bout, reformers convinced the legislature to repeal the Frawley law and abolish boxing in the state. The ban lasted for three years. In 1920, after much political maneuvering, professional boxing returned to New York with the passage of The Walker Law.  

Boxing, despite its ups and downs, had always been popular with the general public. Now, on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, what it needed to realize its full potential was a powerful and stabilizing organizational structure with tighter controls over the sport and greater safety measures. The Walker Law was the answer. Most importantly, it allowed New York City to quickly regain its position as the boxing capital of the world. 

 Named after its sponsor, state senator and future New York City mayor (1926-31), James J. (Jimmy) Walker, the law brought back the State Athletic Commission but with enhanced rules and guidelines. One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1920, it was signed into law by Governor Al Smith and took effect on the first day of September. 

Three commissioners appointed by Governor Smith supervised the sport. The new law mandated the licensing of all persons officially connected with boxing bouts—boxers, managers, promoters, matchmakers, corner men, referees and judges. All shows required a physician in attendance. Matches could not exceed 15 rounds. Within a short time dozens of armories, arenas and stadiums began presenting boxing cards on a regular basis. There certainly was no shortage of boxers. By March of 1924 New York State had licensed 6,123 professional boxers. 

Any person who violated the rules of the commission or engaged in behavior considered detrimental to boxing would risk losing his license. It was the intention of the commission to improve the public’s perception of boxing by attempting (albeit with mixed results) to curtail the influence of gamblers, criminals and other undesirables.    

Of course a prime reason for legalizing professional boxing was the tax revenues that would be realized via licensing fees and a 5 percent tax on the gross receipts of every boxing card. Three months after the first professional bouts were staged under the new law, the sport had already paid $75,000 into the New York state treasury.                                                                                                          

Politicians in other states saw opportunity for increased tax revenues, jobs, and political patronage if they followed New York’s example and legalized boxing under government auspices. Hugely motivating was the 1921 heavyweight title bout between champion Jack Dempsey and the dashing French challenger Georges Carpentier. The bout drew 90,000 fans and nearly 2 million dollars in paid admissions, breaking all previous records in both attendance and gate receipts. Whereas in 1917 only 23 states had officially legalized the sport, by 1925 the number was up to 43. They all used the template of the New York Commission as a guide.

During the 1920s boxing reached unprecedented levels of popularity, even eclipsing baseball in terms of live attendance figures and newspaper coverage. Heavyweight title fights became the most lavish and anticipated spectacle in sports. In 1926 and 1927Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew over 100,000 people for each of their two title fights in Philadelphia and Chicago. 

The social, artistic, and cultural dynamism of the Roaring Twenties, in concert with the media’s focus on celebrities (especially sports heroes and movie stars), glamorized boxing and made Jack Dempsey the first boxing superstar of the twentieth century. But due credit must be given to Tex Rickard whose promotional genius and reputation for integrity was instrumental in revitalizing the sport. Rickard made his headquarters in New York City and his success was responsible for the building of a new and much larger Madison Square Garden in 1925. Under his watch boxing gained a respectability it had never known before. It was Rickard who transformed boxing into popular entertainment for a mass audience. The business of sports entertainment would never be the same.  

The Walker law also was a catalyst for others to hitch their star to boxing. In 1922 Nat Fleischer, a 33 year old sports editor for several New York papers, launched The Ring magazine with Tex Rickard serving as silent partner (Fleischer acquired full ownership in 1929). For the next 50 years “The Bible of Boxing” was the sport’s most important and authoritative trade publication. Fleischer often spoke out against corruption within the sport and advocated for standard physical exams and rules. The Ring “top ten” ratings of contenders for every weight class became a monthly feature of the magazine and under Fleischer’s stewardship was a trusted resource for everyone interested in the sport.                        

Dempsey, Tunney, Rickard, Walker, Fleischer, The Ring magazine, Madison Square Garden, New York City—the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. They all came together in the 1920s to create boxing’s greatest decade. But none of it would have been possible without the passage of the law that allowed it to happen.

Mike Silver’s newest book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, June 2020). 

 

Earnie Shavers: Monster Puncher—or Monster Myth?

By 

Mike Silver

 

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.                                     –Andrew Lang (1844-1912) 

         

Ali vs Shavers

Rating the top-ten heavyweight punchers of all-time would be easy if we just added up the number of knockouts on a boxer’s record.  But that would be a mistake. Without evaluating the quality of the level of competition the statistics are irrelevant. A fighter whose record lists many knockouts over third rate stumblebums is less impressive than one who has faced many more quality opponents and scored fewer knockouts. 

      Possessing knockout power is a huge asset but more important is how effective the boxer is in applying power to achieve the victory. Three months ago Deontay Wilder, possessor of perhaps the hardest right hand punch of any active heavyweight, was lucky to walk away with a draw decision against Tyson Fury. Wilder was by far the superior puncher but he had no strategy other than just throwing punches and hoping one would land. One of those rights finally landed and dropped Fury in the 12th round but Wilder couldn’t finish him off. 

             Superior boxing technique combined with a heavy punch is a dangerous combination. The most obvious example is former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. During his remarkable 28 year boxing career Moore knocked out a record 131 opponents. Many years ago I interviewed one of his opponents. Willi Besmanoff was a heavyweight contender who had fought both Archie Moore and Sonny Liston. In December 1959 Besmanoff fought a prime Sonny Liston and was stopped on cuts in the seventh round. Willi absorbed some fearsome shots but did not go down. It was the first time in 66 bouts he’d been stopped. Five months later he fought Archie Moore. Besmanoff was knocked down in the 10th round and was taking a beating when the referee intervened and stopped the fight.

“Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist.”

      I asked Besmanoff who hit harder, Sonny Liston or Archie Moore? “Liston was the stronger, a very powerful man”, said Besmanoff. “But his punches were not aimed that carefully. Moore knew exactly when and where to hit you, and he hit you where it hurt the most. Liston’s punches were more powerful but Moore’s punches were more accurate and damaging.”  Besmanoff’s answer reveals the difference between a knockout puncher and a knockout artist. 

     Even if we had a machine that could measure the power of every boxer’s punch (I’m sure Wilder would rate very high) it would still not give us the answers we seek. A powerful punch is but one of several tools in a boxer’s arsenal. What good is that tool if a fighter cannot or will not utilize it to its fullest potential? 

      There are four criteria that must be considered when evaluating a heavyweight’s rating as a puncher. Fist we start by analyzing the quality of his competition. Next we determine how many KOs were scored over opponents who were rarely, if ever, stopped. A Third consideration is the ability to maintain effective punching power into the late rounds. This quality can be influenced not just by the fighter’s endurance but also his psychological makeup. How does he react when his punches are not having the desired effect? Is he capable of adjusting his strategy when things are not going his way?  

     The fourth requirement is that a great puncher also has to be a great finisher. Once an opponent is hurt he will know how to end the fight quickly and efficiently. The textbook example of this can be found in any film of a Joe Louis KO victory, especially his one round annihilation of Max Schmeling and his 13th round knockout of Billy Conn.  

“These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video.  Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth.”

These are qualities that cannot be measured by statistics or a cleverly edited highlight video.  Too often opinion is influenced by frivolous hype that lacks context and depth.  Search the internet under the topic “Greatest Heavyweight Punchers” and every list that comes up will include Earnie Shavers. Of course Earnie possessed awesome power. That fact is not in dispute. His right cross was a frightening weapon—when it connected. But I cannot rate him among the top-ten all time heavyweight punchers, or even the top 20, for that matter. Before you blow a gasket keep in mind the four criteria mentioned earlier. We are not just considering raw power, but the effective use of that power to achieve victory against quality opposition on a consistent basis. If Sandy Koufax, the great baseball pitcher, had never learned to control his fastball, his full potential would never have been realized. Pure speed was not enough, just as raw power is not enough unless it can be used effectively to achieve the desired result. 

The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch.”

     The problem for Earnie was that throughout his career he remained a second rate boxer with a first rate punch. When we combine that flaw with his serious stamina issues the true measure of his greatness (or lack thereof) as a puncher comes into clear focus. The key to defeating Earnie was not to let him hit you, which wasn’t that difficult if you were a skilled boxer. But even if he did hit you with his best punch and you stood up and fought back, as happened on at least five different occasions, it was Earnie who was stopped. 

     Shaver’s greatest victory was his first round KO of former champion Jimmy Ellis in 1973. It was that win that thrust Shavers onto the world stage. He came into that fight with a 44-2 won- loss record that included an astounding 42 wins by knockout. Thirty-seven of those victims never made it past the 4th round. Nevertheless, even though the 33 year old Ellis was at least a year past his prime he was a pronounced favorite to win. The odds makers weren’t fooled. An examination of his record revealed his 42 KO victims had a total of 334 losses (and nearly half by knockout).

      Ellis was very confident, as he should have been—maybe too confident. He came out punching in the first round and had Shavers in trouble right away. In desperation Shavers threw a right uppercut that landed flush on Ellis’s chin sending him sprawling to the canvas where he was counted out.  

     I don’t think Shavers’ management expected their fighter to win. They were well aware of his limitations. Early in his career, in his 15th fight, he was flattened by Ron Stander, a tough undefeated comer with nine straight wins. A decision was made not to take any chances after that loss and instead pad his record by carefully matching him against opponents who were used to losing. Until he met Ellis the only recognizable name on his record was Vicente Rondon, a former light heavyweight titlist whose previous two fights were quick knockout losses to Ron Lyle and Bob Foster. Shavers, fighting in his home town, was awarded the decision but was unable to catch Rondon with a solid punch. 

        

Quarry vs Shavers

After his stunning win over Ellis, Shavers was matched against top ranked Jerry Quarry. The Madison Square Garden crowd expected fireworks and they were not disappointed. Quarry opened up right away and knocked Shavers to the canvas with a series of lefts and rights. He was up at the count of nine and then retreated to the ropes. Quarry was landing punches without a return when the referee intervened and stopped the fight at 2:21 of the first round.

     One year after his debacle against Quarry, Shavers returned to New York, this time fighting in the Garden’s adjacent smaller arena. His opponent was an ordinary but tough journeyman boxer named Bob Stallings, whose record was an uninspiring 21 wins and 24 losses. Stallings was able to avoid Shavers’ bombs on the way to winning a unanimous decision. It was only the second time Shavers had gone ten rounds and his lack of endurance was evident as he barely made it to the final bell.

      Three weeks after losing to Stallings he fought a 10 round draw with Jimmy Young. After three more victories against modest opposition he faced his next big test against top ranked Ron Lyle. The two power punchers staged a free swinging brawl that saw Lyle come off the floor to outlast Shavers and stop him in the sixth round.   

“Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts.”

      Now that Shavers was meeting a better class of boxer he was scoring far fewer knockouts. Whereas prior to his loss to Quarry his KO ratio was 91 per cent, in his subsequent 41 fights he scored only 23 knockouts for a 56 per cent ratio. During that time he knocked out only one rated contender while going the 10 round distance with Henry Clark, Leroy Boone, James Tillis and Walter Santemore—not exactly household names. These last two were able to avoid Shaver’s equalizer and outpoint him. But he did show improvement in knocking out Clark in a rematch and stopping Howard Smith and Roy Williams, all three of whom were decent heavyweights. 

    

Lyle vs Shavers

On the rare occasions when a fighter was crazy enough, or tough enough, to exchange blows with Shavers the chance for a successful outcome improved if they could get beyond the 5th round. Bernardo Mercado, and Tex Cobb did just that. They took Shavers’ best shots and eventually stopped him in the 7th and 8th rounds respectively. Cobb was asked what it was like to be hit by Shavers. “The first right he threw missed and landed on my shoulder”, said Tex.  “It felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my shoulder”.     

     Ken Norton was the only rated contender, other than Jimmy Ellis, that Shavers was able to defeat. Nearing the end of his career Norton seemed ready to accept defeat as soon as the bell rang. Perhaps it was the memory of his brutal knockout at the hands of George Foreman five years earlier that froze him into inaction against another big puncher. In a suicidal move Norton quickly retreated to the ropes where he presented Shavers with his dream target—a stationary fighter who would not fight back. After two knockdowns the fight was stopped in less than two minutes of the first round. 

     In his prime Shavers lost to Larry Holmes (twice), Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Bob Stallings, Bernardo Mercado and Tex Cobb and couldn’t take out a light heavyweight (Rondon) who in his previous fight was flattened in two rounds by Bob Foster. 

     So what is the explanation for so many people believing Earnie Shavers is an all-time great puncher? I believe it can be traced to the hype surrounding two of his most important fights, both of which, ironically, he lost.

       In 1977 Shavers fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship.  It was a fight that should never have taken place. At 35 Ali was washed up but refused to accept reality. Making matters worse, he barely trained for the fight. Ali came into the ring weighing 225 pounds, the heaviest of his career. He was fleshy and out of shape. The “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” days were long gone.

     If Ali had come into the ring in shape even at that late stage of his career he could have stopped Shavers in the eighth or ninth round. The key was to not let Shavers control the pace of the fight and rest when he wanted. But Ali had to rest as much as Shavers. The image that everyone remembers from the fight was The Greatest being rocked again and again by Shaver’s horrific punches as they slammed into his head. I counted at least 17 full force overhand rights that landed. At one point Ali nearly went down. It was amazing that he stood up under these punches. Only his ring guile, incredible chin, and Shaver’s lack of stamina kept him from being knocked out. It was the worst head beating of Ali’s career and did much to accelerate his descent into pugilistica dementia. At the end of 15 sickening rounds Ali was awarded the unanimous decision. Many fans thought the decision should have gone to Shavers. 

    When he was interviewed after the fight an exhausted and hollow eyed Ali made the memorable comment that added fuel to the growing respect for Shaver’s punching power: “Ernie hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolk back in Africa”. 

      

Holmes vs Shavers

Two years later Shavers fought Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. For six rounds he tried mightily to land his haymaker but kept missing. Then, suddenly, in a brief moment of carelessness Holmes left himself open and one of Shaver’s wild swings connected to the side of his jaw. Holmes fell hard and landed flat on his back.

     Holmes had never been knocked down. He was hurt but was up at the count of six and survived the round. Holmes continued his domination over the next three rounds. In the 11th round, with Shavers sucking wind and barely able to hold up his hands, the referee stopped the fight. Holmes told reporters that Shavers was the hardest puncher he had ever faced.

     A huge deal was made of Holmes getting off the canvas and surviving the 7th round. It really was much ado about nothing. In their two fights totaling 23 rounds it was the only round Holmes lost. But it was a heavyweight title fight and the big punch had come out of nowhere to nearly upset the applecart. That is exactly why people are drawn to heavyweights. You never know when the big punch might land. And it is why people were drawn to the popular Shavers whose very presence in the ring generated a certain amount of excitement, as is the case with all big punchers, no matter what weight class they compete in.  

     The following week the cover of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of the fight with the headline “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down: Holmes Comes off the Deck to Overpower Shavers”. So in trying to build up Holmes the press had to build up Shavers as well. The fact of the matter is that despite hurting Holmes with his best punch he was unable to finish him. The hype over that one punch was blown way out of proportion. But the sport needed something to get excited about in the post Ali era. (Ali had announced his retirement a year earlier). The new heavyweight king by comparison was a competent but colorless champion who ruled over a division depleted of talent. 

     Earnie Shavers gave us some of boxing’s most memorable moments. He is a class act and a credit to the sport. But his reputation as a great puncher is based on a lucky punch KO of Ellis, a fight that he lost (Ali), one spectacular knockdown (Holmes), and comments by several former opponents who beat him. That alone is not enough to place him among the greatest heavyweight punchers. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Mike Silver’s newest book is “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing” a collection of the author’s best articles and interviews from the past 40 years. 



The Amazing Harry Greb’s Amazing Year

SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING: HARRY GREB, 1919                                                                                             

By Springs Toledo

Amazon Kindle Edition $7.99

Book review by Mike Silver

   If asked to name the greatest boxer who ever lived most boxing historians would most likely place Sugar Ray Robinson in the top spot. That is always a good choice. But it is not the only choice. There are, perhaps, three or four other boxers whose spectacular record of accomplishment makes them worthy of consideration. 

     In his latest literary effort Springs Toledo makes a very strong case for a boxer who just may have been the greatest who ever lived—Harry Greb. In a career that spanned 13 years (1913 to 1926) the legendary “Pittsburgh Windmill” fought a phenomenal 294 professional boxing contests often against the greatest boxers of his era. His record shows only 19 losses (eight official losses and 11 newspaper decisions). Most occurred either early or late in his career.

Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century. 

       For those readers lucky enough to have read Toledo’s previous works this paean to a truly great fighter exposes us once again to the author’s colorful and engaging writing style. Toledo is passionate about his subject, and rightly so. Harry Greb, both as an athlete and a person, is one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters of the 20th century. 

     In conveying to the reader why Greb deserves his place at the pinnacle of boxing’s Mt. Rushmore Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 focuses on the most amazing and mind boggling year of any prizefighter of any era. In just 96 pages Toledo offers enough evidence and detail to cause the reader to shake his head in disbelief at what no normal human being would seem capable of doing. 

    From January 1st to December 31st 1919—while Greb was ranked the number one middleweight contender—he stormed through twenty-one cities in eight states and fought forty-five times. (Today forty-five fights would constitute an entire 10 to 15 year professional boxing career). “Greb was on track for well over 60 had scheduled bouts not been cancelled because of either injuries to himself, or an opponent’s nerve.”

     In one year Greb “thrashed five Hall of Famers ten times, personally sought out the middleweight champion in New York City, ran two light heavyweight champions out of the ring, called out Jack Dempsey every chance he got, manhandled heavyweights, and barely lost a round while suffering unspeakable injuries.” According to Boxrec.com Greb won all 45 bouts.

      Toledo’s books—and this one is no exception—contain far more than boxing history. They are absorbing and richly detailed character studies as well. He delves into aspects of Greb’s private life outside of the ring, describing injuries to a pre-adolescent psyche that may have contributed to his extraordinary and highly unorthodox boxing style. 

    

Harry Greb

At the very beginning of Greb’s sensational run he married the love of his life, Mildred Reilly, a beautiful and feisty vaudeville actress with a personality that complemented his own. The book appropriately begins with their marriage in Pittsburgh on January 30th 1919. As the author  notes: “Marriage steadied but did not quite civilize Greb, who went on to build his legend around what he did to  heavyweights, around a slogan he’d repeat again and again: “anybody, anyplace, anytime.” It was not unusual for him to fight two and three times in a week.

     Greb did not allow anything to interfere with his drive to prove himself the greatest fighter on the planet. The honeymoon would have to wait. He had a fight scheduled in Cleveland the day after his wedding with tough middleweight contender Tommy Robson for a $1000 dollar payday. 

     He easily defeated Robson who, like all of Greb’s opponent’s, could not solve or fathomThe Windmill’s style. “How does he do it”, asked Robson. “How can any man of his weight dance and leap and keep on top of you the way he does without becoming exhausted? And he can go twenty rounds the same way. He is the biggest freak in the ring.” Indeed, Greb never seemed to tire and actually got stronger and faster as a bout progressed. One newspaper described him as “the leaping, bounding, elusive Greb, who kept both of his long arms going like flails.” The next day Harry returned to Pittsburgh and his bride.

       Before he eventually won the middleweight championship from Johnny Wilson in 1923 Greb had boldly issued challenges to the light heavyweight and heavyweight champions. Both avoided him.  Along the way he hung the only loss on future heavyweight champion Gene Tunney who was savaged over 15 rounds. Prior to the bout Tunney was warned “he is not a normal fighter. He will kill you”. To force a bout with heavyweight champion Dempsey (which never materialized) Greb sought out two of his top challengers, Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan and defeated both.

He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross.

     In his persistent quest to win the heavyweight championship (despite rarely weighing more than 170 pounds) Greb went to extreme lengths to prove he was worthy. He issued a public challenge to 6’ 6” 245 pound Jess Willard and said he’d donate the purse to the Red Cross. He also opened negotiations with Luis Firpo and said he’d fight the number one ranked heavyweight contender Harry Wills “in an arena or a gym just to prove that the best African-American heavyweight in the world wasn’t much.” As noted by the author, “All of them towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, which suggests that Greb either had screws loose or was a misanthrope raging against all men, including himself.”

      Toledo goes on to say, “People who knew Greb said he needed to fight often, that he thrived on his marathon plan of meeting them all, one after the other.” He typically asked for two things—“fair terms” and “the hardest guy.” While he was pleasant and friendly and loyal outside of a boxing ring, inside the ring he was an unstoppable force of nature the likes of which had never been seen before or since.  

     Late in his career tragedy dogged the great fighter. Four months before Greb won the middleweight title in 1923 his young wife succumbed to tuberculosis. She was just 22 years old. That same year he began to go blind in his right eye due to an injury received in a bout. He eventually lost the sight in the eye but continued to fight. Attempts to get Greb a shot at Dempsey’s title were still going on in July 1925, “when he was half blind and fighting with his head tilted to the right.”

Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career. 

    Even half blind Greb scored some of the greatest victories of his career. “But he was losing his bearings; his boundless energy now crossed with sorrow, was like a scattershot.” Perhaps to compensate for his fading vision and gain an edge he often abused the rules and risked disqualification. He became reckless outside the ring as well. There was a drunken nightclub brawl, affairs with chorus girls, breach of promise law suits, and the loss of his middleweight championship in 1926 to Tiger Flowers by a controversial split decision. At 32, and after nearly 300 professional fights, the streaking comet that was Harry Greb was finally slowing down.

    Less than two months after losing the rematch to Flowers by another split decision Greb was involved in a car accident that fractured a bone near the base of his skill. Ten days later surgery to repair the injury went wrong and he died the following day. 

      Ninety-two years after his death the legendary fighter remains an object of fascination and mystery. Smokestack Lightning reveals the legend in all his glory and helps to unravel some of the mystery and, if possible, provokes even greater admiration and awe for the one and only Pittsburgh Windmill.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers 2008) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing (Lyons Press 2016). Both are available at Amazon.com. 

THE MAGIC MAN TALKS BOXING: MY INTERVIEW WITH MARLON STARLING

Marlon Starling Interviewed by Mike Silver for Boxing Over Broadway 

    

Marlon Starling

Former welterweight champion Marlon Starling was the fifth boxer from Connecticut to win a world title. Louis “Kid” Kaplan, Pinky Silverberg, Batt Battalino and Willie Pep all won their titles during the golden age of Connecticut boxing from the 1920s to the 1940s. During that time the “Nutmeg State” was home to many other outstanding boxers including Lou Bogash, Ted Lowry, Chico Vejar, Julie Kogon, Johnny Cesario, Vic Cardell, Larry Boardman and Bernie Reynolds.   

     Marlon Starling is far removed from that era, nevertheless he could accurately be described as “old school”. There were few soft touches during his ascent to the title. He accomplished his goal the old fashioned way—he earned it. Along the way be became one of the top professional boxers of the 1980s.   

      Before turning pro Marlon reportedly won 97 of 110 amateur bouts. His professional career spanned 11 years (1979-1990). He lost only 5 of 52 professional fights and stopped 27 opponents.  Only one of his five career losses (all by decision) resulted in a unanimous verdict. He drew in two other bouts.

In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers.

     Marlon won his first 25 fights before losing a split 12 round decision to future welterweight champion Donald Curry in 1982. He defeated his next six opponents (flattening four of them) and looked very impressive stopping hard punching Jose Baret and outpointing Kevin Howard over 12 rounds. 

     The rematch with Curry for the world title resulted in another decision loss for Starling. The Dallas hotshot seemed to have Marlon’s number. But showing the patience and persistence that was the hallmark of his stolid fighting style Marlon got back on track with wins over Lupe Acquino, Floyd Mayweather, Sr., Simon Brown and Pedro Vilella. 

     In 1987 he defeated Mark Breland in a torrid battle for the WBA welterweight title, stopping the former Olympic champion in the 11th round. Less than a year later he won the WBC welterweight belt with a 9th round TKO of England’s Lloyd Honeyghan.  

    Moving up in weight Marlon challenged IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn but lost a majority 12 round decision. Four months later, on August 19th, 1990, in the final fight of his career, Marlon lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker via another majority decision. 

    In an era of tough welterweight competition Marlon Starling stood out among his peers. Let’s read what he has to say about his career.

Interview:

Mike: Marlon, let’s start by talking about some of your most important fights. In 1982 you lost a split 12 round decision for the North American welterweight title to Donald Curry. It was your first loss in 26 professional fights. A year later you lost a 15 round unanimous decision to Curry, this time for the world title. Was he your most difficult opponent?

Marlon: Not difficult. Donald Curry was my most challenging opponent. That’s because Donald was a boxer like me. He did nothing great, but everything good. That was the kind of fighter I was. It was like fighting a mirror image of me. I mean he wasn’t a dynamite puncher. He didn’t have a great hook, didn’t have a great left jab, but everything was good. 

Mike: Often when boxers have similar styles it doesn’t make for an exciting fight. In fact, the New York Times reporter called it a “dull” fight. 

Marlon: I believe I won that first fight. I mean I didn’t get the decision but I know in my heart I won that first fight. But at the time Don Curry was a big Bob Arum fighter so he got the decision. The second fight was a different story. I lost that second fight more than he won it. Curry prepared himself better than I did for the second fight, even though I was prepared. He won a very close 15 round decision. My trainer kept saying ‘back him up, back him up’. But the problem was I couldn’t back him up. He was a little stronger than me in that fight. So he retained the title. I got out of the ring that day and for the first time in my career, maybe after 30 fights, said to myself ‘Wow, that guy beat me!’ And that was something that was tough for me to cough up.” 

Mike: You didn’t let that defeat slow you down. Over the next two and a half years you won 10 of 12 fights culminating in your 11th round TKO victory over Mark Breland on August 22, 1987 for the welterweight championship. Before turning pro in 1984 Mark Breland had won every amateur title including an unprecedented five New York Golden Gloves championships and an Olympic gold medal.

Marlon: I knocked him out but I still got the worst ass whippin’ I ever took. His jab hurt like most guys right hand, and he was hitting me with that jab. His jab broke my nose. I should have boxed the man, worked my way in, feint the man, and do all this, but at the time I wanted that world championship. I got it, but I had to pay to get in. My strategy was to wear him down with body punches. Once I got inside I was banging that body. I didn’t like to pay the price but I had to.  

Mike: You also had a huge edge in professional experience—45 pro fights and 287 rounds to his 18 fights and 76 rounds. And you had fought tougher competition. 

Marlon: Yes, my experience was a factor but also my professionalism, my conditioning and my willingness not to quit. But you know what? Mark Breland became one of my best friends. We talk every other week. He is a good man. I respect him to the utmost. 

Mike: You fought a rematch with Breland eight months later that ended in a 12 round draw. Most observers thought you deserved the decision.  

Marlon: Mark was a bit better in the second fight. I was better too and got hit less this time. I deserved to win that fight but he was an Arum fighter and they didn’t want him to lose. 

Mike: Your victory over Breland won you partial recognition as welterweight champion. England’s Lloyd Honeyghan had defeated your nemesis Donald Curry two years earlier and was recognized as champion by a rival sanctioning group. In early 1989 you and Honeyghan met to unify the title. You stopped him in the 9th round.  Tell me about that fight: 

Marlon: Now Lloyd Honygan was a whole different ball game. I knew I was going to beat him up.  

Mike: I recently watched a tape of the Honeyghan fight and you weren’t doing much for the first 3 or 4 rounds. Was that part of your strategy? 

Marlon:  The first two rounds I was just getting his technique…see what he’s doing…getting his timing down…getting his moves down. Lloyd was a good puncher but what good is a puncher if he ain’t gonna hit you? It’s all about hit and don’t get hit. I didn’t want to get careless. One time I did get careless and he hit me on top of the head and buckled my feet a little bit. Lloyd was a southpaw and every time he threw that right jab I’d counter with a right cross. If I showed him a feint and he put that left hand out I countered with the right. By the 5th or 6th round if I said jump he’d jump. He was actually waiting for it to happen. I mean by the 5th round I had this guy scared to punch. I was not what you’d call a knock out fighter but I’d get your attention with everything I’d throw. 

Mike: Honeyghan had a big reputation coming into that fight, running up a string of impressive victories including a TKO of Donald Curry. Do you consider the Honeyghan fight your greatest career accomplishment? 

Marlon: Most fans would think that but Lloyd Honeyghan was one of my easiest fights ever as a professional. I mean he played right into my hands. Maybe I was just so eager and wanted to get him so bad. I was sharp that night. I would rather get knocked out than take a beating like he did. Nobody needs to take a beating like that. I know he wore that fight for a long time.” 

Mike: About a year after your victory over Honeyghan you put on 10 pounds and challenged middleweight champion Michael Nunn. You lost a 12 round decision. That was the only time you ever fought as a middleweight. 

Marlon: I was at the point where I said to myself there is nobody else in the world that can beat me at welterweight so I moved up a weight class to fight Nunn. What did I have to lose? He wasn’t a big puncher and I believed I could beat this guy even though he was undefeated and a southpaw. But he was a little quicker than I thought and a lot taller. That’s not an excuse why I lost that fight. In the middle of the third or fourth round I had him in the corner and I took my gloves and I like dug them into his face and he said to me, ‘c’mon man fight fair’. I decided to just get in there and box him.  I turned the fight into a sparring session. I didn’t go get him like I should have. That particular day he was a little sharper than I was. He won that fight because he worked harder. But you know what? After the fight we went out and had dinner together. 

Mike: Who trained you?

Marlon: My first trainer was Johnny Duke. He trained me as an amateur and in my early years as a pro. For a little while Eddie Futch trained me but we had a falling out and I let Eddie go. After that Freddie Roach, who worked with Eddie, became my trainer. But for most of my career my trainer was Marlon Starling. They just had to keep me in line with the training regimen. Whatever happened in my career happened for a reason. When I got with Freddie I finished with Freddie. He didn’t have to do a lot to get me ready—just sharpen me up. We were friends. 

Mike: What do you think of today’s top fighters? Do any of them stand out? 

Marlon: I watch the fights on TV now and then but I couldn’t tell you. There are too many champions. If one of them walked by me I would ask ‘who was that?’ I mean when I was fighting I knew everybody in the top ten. Now I don’t know who they are. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to degrade anybody. I just don’t know. But from what I see when I do watch the fights a lot is missing. They have a title but they don’t have the skills.

Mike: What is missing?

Marlon: I don’t see things that they should have been taught to do years ago. Listen, you can win a title with a three punch combination— left jab, right cross, left hook. You don’t see too many people throwing that combination. You don’t even see a double jab. If you throw a punch you have to bring it back from where you threw it, because if you don’t I’m going to make you pay for it. If you throw that right hand out you’ve got to bring it right back to your face. A lot of times I see a fighter throw the right and it comes back to his chest. I will counter punch you all day if you do that. You’ll be afraid to throw punches if I was in the ring with you. If all you know is “fight” I can beat you. I’m not going to fight you. I’m going to box you and win. Most of the guys when under pressure all they know is “fight”. They don’t know the professionalism of being a good boxer. Anybody could fight. Dogs fight. You’ve got to outthink the other fighter. What I mean by outthink is that sometimes you have to outfight your opponent. I’m not fighting with a guy that punches like hell. I’m going to box you, until you get tired, and then I’m going to fight you. I was a thinking fighter. I didn’t fight the fighters and I didn’t box the boxers. 

      “Today’s boxers have more toughness than knowledge. You can be tough. I love to fight the tough guys because they don’t have the knowledge. A good right hand, a good jab, and a good left hook. You have those three punches you can go places. If you don’t have a great jab it’s like training with one arm. Everything works off the jab, at least as far as I’ve been taught.”

Mike: I noticed in reviewing your fights that you rarely got trapped on the ropes or in the corner. 

Marlon: Ring generalship. Like I told people – ‘this is my house (the ring)’. I live here. I know that square. I got radar in back of me telling me ‘you’re coming close to the ropes, you’re coming close to the corner.’ You had to know these things.” 

Mike: You were very strong at 147 pounds. You had huge shoulders and a powerful physique. Many fighters today lift weights to increase strength. Did you ever lift weights as part of your training routine?  

Marlon: No, never. You know lifting weights tighten you up. I got most of my strength and power from punching the bag and training.”

Mike: You were sometimes criticized for showboating during a fight. In fact, your occassional clowning may have cost you the first Curry fight. Did you do it to play to the audience or confuse your opponent? 

Marlon: I don’t showboat. It’s all right if you do a move and knock the guy out– then it’s all right. But if something doesn’t happen then you’re accused of showboatin’. Sometimes it’s just in your rhythm. You couldn’t tell me ‘Oh Marlon do the Starling Stomp.’  I mean it wasn’t planned.  I was just in the moment. Emotions come with this sport. I wasn’t trying to showboat. I was just trying to be me trying to get what I can get out of this guy. 

Mike: In 1980, in only your sixth pro fight, you had the misfortune of fatally injuring your opponent Charley Newell. He never recovered from the brain injury and passed away nine days later. In spite of this tragedy you made the decision to continue with your career. 

Marlon: I had previously fought him in an amateur fight when he was in prison. Charley Newell was a bully on the street but to me he wasn’t a bad person. We fought at the Civic Center in Hartford. I think it was January 9th. I hit him with a combo and knocked him out. I was working a job at that time and I went to work the next morning and I got a call that Charley Newell had passed away and that really bothered me. My parents always worried about what’s going to happen to me. I never worried about it. I came back for his funeral and his parents came up to me. His mother said to me ‘my son passed away doing something that he loved to do, don’t ever stop what you want to do.’ What she told me gave me the confidence to continue with my career. 

Mike: Tommy Hearns was welterweight champion while you were an up and coming prospect. You weren’t ready to take him on but you did spar with him while he was preparing for the Sugar Ray Leonard fight in 1981. What did you learn from that experience?   

Marlon: I got an offer to go to Vegas to work as a sparring partner and help Hearns get ready for Leonard. It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do with the ‘big boys’ out there. I sparred with Tommy and he broke my jaw but they knew I got the better of that sparring session. How do I know? They kept Milton McCrory far away from me after that. (Author’s Note: Milton McCrory, a future champion, was Hearns’s stablemate and a rising star in the welterweight division).  

Mike: A few years after that sparring session you were ready to challenge Hearns or Leonard but you never fought them. Why not?

Marlon: Marlon Starling fought everyone out there. The reason why I didn’t fight Leonard or Hearns is because my name wasn’t that big. I trained with Tommy but they just didn’t want to take a chance and give up something they had. That’ why they didn’t fight me…they couldn’t make a lot of money fighting me. 

Mike: Marlon, you lost the welterweight title to Maurice Blocker in your very last bout on August 19, 1990. The 12 round majority decision was very close and could have gone either way. You were only 30 years old and still a top rated welterweight. Why did you decide to retire? 

Marlon: I don’t think he won but it wasn’t one of my best fights. I quit the ring because the promoters and managers were making more money than me and they weren’t taking the punches.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.


END

BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN

BOXING’S FIVE DECADE MEN  

By

Mike Silver   

    

Barkley vs Duran

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet up with the great Roberto Duran. The legendary four division world champion was the guest of honor at the annual Ring 10 Veteran Boxers Association benefit. It was a rare public appearance for the now 67 year old warrior. Yes, 67! As expected, Duran’s presence electrified the 400 plus fans in attendance. 

      The fighter nicknamed “Manos de Piedre” (Hands of Stone) engaged in 119 bouts and knocked out 70 opponents. While those stats are indeed impressive (especially the number of knockouts) they are not unique. Boxers who accumulated 100 or more bouts were quite common during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, 55 other pro boxers have knocked out 70 or more opponents. But, in spite of that, Roberto Duran’s record stands out for another reason that very few can match: He is one of only three boxers in the entire history of the sport who fought in five consecutive decades.

           What qualities did these boxers possess that allowed them to survive for so many years in their brutal profession? I came to the conclusion that the first ingredient had to be a deep understanding of their craft. All three were well schooled in the finer points of boxing technique.  That quality was further enhanced by the seasoning they gradually acquired during their first decade of competition. On top of that they had to be flexible enough to make the necessary adjustments as they aged. It also helped that all three had great chins. 

       These boxers weren’t just great athletes—they were very smart athletes. They were able to compensate for deteriorating speed and reflexes by combining experience with superior athletic intelligence and excellent defensive strategies. Even near the end of their careers they were rarely knocked out or subject to a sustained beating. It was a method utilized to great success by two former champions who stretched their careers to the maximum and are among the dozen master boxers who just missed the five decade mark: Welterweight champion Jack Britton (1904-1930) and light heavyweight champion Archie Moore (1935-1963). Both used an amalgam of those four skill sets—athletic intelligence, flexibility, superior defensive strategies, and vast experience— to keep them in the game long after their contemporaries had retired. 

      I could have added another master boxer to the list, the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. But despite his having fought in five consecutive decades (1897-1930) there were several gaps in his record. Johnson remained active up to his winning the title in 1908. But from 1911 to 1930 there were seven years in which he did not engage in a single prizefight. I felt this was too much inactivity, even for a five decade man, so I decided that only a fighter with not more than three separate years without a fight could qualify. Those ground rules would have applied to George Foreman as well. Big George fought in four separate decades (1964-1997) but was idle from 1978 to 1986, so even if he had fought into a fifth decade that lengthy stretch of inactivity would disqualify him.   

   In chronological order here are the three members of the exclusive “Five Decade” club:

KId Azteca

Kid Azteca: Professional career 1929 to 1961. Won-lost-draw record: 192-47-11, including 114 wins by knockout . 

   A legend in Mexico, and one of that country’s greatest fighters, the 5’8” 147 pound welterweight had his first pro bout when Herbert Hoover was president, Babe Ruth was still belting out home runs for the Yankees, and Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion. When, 32 years later, he entered the ring at age 47 for his last pro bout Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the home run kings for the Yankees, Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion, and John F. Kennedy was president. But longevity is not the only item that distinguishes Azteca’s boxing career. He was a top ten title contender for seven years. Between October 1933 and May 1941 (40 months) Azteca was ranked as high as the #1 world welterweight contender by The Ring magazine. 

      

Kid Azteca

Kid Azteca earned his rating with wins over contenders Joe Glick, Young Peter Jackson, Eddie Kid Wolfe, Baby Joe Gans, the Cocoa Kid, Izzy Jannazzo, Morrie Sherman and future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia (two out of three). In 1939 he lost a close decision to future welterweight champion Fritzie Zivic. After losing twice to Zivic in return matches Azteca finally gained a victory in 1947. Other notable opponents were Jackie Wilson, Baby Casanova, Bep Van Klaveren, Leon Zorrita and former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Most of his fights took place in Mexico City but he also appeared in Los Angeles, Texas and South American rings. There are no gaps in his record—he engaged in at least one or more fights every year from 1929 to 1961. 

    Throughout his life Kid Azteca remained hugely popular among his countrymen and even appeared in several movies produced in Mexico. Unfortunately there are no films of him in action. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be a stretch, considering his career and high rating, to say that Azteca possessed an outstanding defense. Fighters who are “catchers” or who engage in too many wars are worn out quickly and cannot sustain a career anywhere near that length of time.

Roberto Duran

Roberto Duran:  Professional career 1968 to 2001. Won-lost record: 103-16, including 70 wins by knockout. 

     The street urchin who emerged from the slums of Panama to become one of the sport’s greatest and most charismatic champions turned pro at the age of 16. Five decades later, on July 14, 2001, in the final fight of his career, the 50 year old legend lost a unanimous 12 round decision to 39 year old Hector Camacho. 

     The Roberto Duran who lost to Camacho was many years passed his prime. He was not the same fighter who took down Ken Buchanan, Estaban DeJesus, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lampkin, Pepino Cuevas and Iran Barkley. Nevertheless, he could still display the subtle boxing moves and ring smarts that kept him from being dominated by much younger opponents. 

       Roberto Duran was one of the greatest punchers in the history of the lightweight division. But, as sometimes happens with exciting punchers who can also box, their cleverness often goes unrecognized or underappreciated. Duran had a world of natural ability but he also was intelligent enough to understand that there was far more to this sport than throwing punches at an opponent. There is a telling quote in Kelly Nicholson’s excellent article on Duran (“The Panamanian Devil”, International Boxing Research Journal, September 2018): “As to the motivation for his career, Duran would say shortly before the first fight with Leonard, ‘I got into boxing to learn it…I didn’t enter the ring to get out of the gutter. Those are stories. I got into it because I like it.” 

       Duran’s nascent career benefited tremendously from the expert teaching of his two old school master trainers Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel. These two professors of pugilism had nearly 100 years of combined experience. They answered his desire to learn as much as possible about his craft, smoothed out the rough edges, and made him even more dangerous. They taught him the tricks of his trade and the result was that Duran eventually developed into the type of throwback fighter that is virtually extinct today. 

     Watch a video of any Duran fight after 1974 and you will see that even in his dotage he never gets trapped on the ropes, often rides with and slips punches aimed at his head and performs subtle feints to lure his opponents into making mistakes that are paid for with damaging and accurate counter punches (especially to the body). As he moved up in weight and as he aged Duran’s punch was not as devastating as it had been during his eight year tenure as lightweight champion. As a result, he had to rely more on his strategic boxing skills. To watch Roberto Duran fight is to experience a textbook lesson in the lost art of boxing. He is one of the few genuine ring greats who still walks among us. 

Sweet Saoul Mamby

Saoul Mamby: Professional career 1969 to 2008. Won-lost-draw record; 45-34-6, including 18 wins by knockout.  

     It is virtually impossible to go through an entire professional boxing career and expect to come through relatively unscathed. But if anyone came close to achieving such a goal that person would be Saoul Mamby, which is all the more remarkable since he had his last professional fight at the age of 60!

      Just as there are born punchers I believe there are also born boxers. What I mean is that some neophyte boxers seem to grasp the concepts of on balance defensive boxing more readily than most. Perhaps it’s a genetic disposition that tells them it is better to give than to receive. 

      Saoul Mamby never thought it a good idea to receive a punch in exchange for the opportunity to land one of his own. He did not seek a knockout victory, although if presented with the opportunity his solid right cross was capable of dropping an opponent. His basic strategy involved keeping his hands up to protect his chin, using a busy left jab to keep an opponent off balance, and always keep moving. He never threw a right hand punch unless he deemed it safe to do so. It was a style that didn’t win fans but it kept him from taking a sustained beating. Jim Corbett would have approved.    

     Mamby’s defensive prowess was put to the test when he faced a prime Roberto Duran on May 4, 1976 in a non-title 10 round bout. The lightweight champion tried mightily to make Mamby his 49th knockout victim. Duran won the unanimous decision but he did not come close to scoring a knockout. Six months later Mamby faced another test when he crossed gloves with the formidable former champion Antonio Cervantes who had knocked out nine of his previous ten opponents. Like Duran, Cervantes could not find his elusive opponent’s chin and had to settle for unanimous decision.  

         His first attempt to win a title occurred in 1977 and resulted in a controversial split decision loss to the WBC Super Lightweight champion Saensak Muangsurin. The fight took place in Thailand, the champion’s home turf. Mamby believed he was the victim of a hometown decision.

  

Saoul Mamby

  Three years later, in his second try for the 140 pound title, he challenged Sang Hyun Kim of Korea. Once again he found himself fighting in his opponent’s backyard. Not willing to take any chances on a hometown decision the 32 year old challenger displayed a more aggressive style and was intent on ending the fight before it went to a decision. In the 14th round, Mamby saw an opening and landed a powerful right cross on Kim’s jaw that dropped him for the full count.    

    Winning a world title seemed to energize Mamby and in his first defense he stopped former lightweight champion Estaban De Jesus in the 13th round. Four more successful defenses followed before he lost a controversial 15 round split decision to Leroy Haley. After outpointing Monroe Brooks he was given a chance to regain the title from Haley but lost another close decision. In 1984, in his final title challenge, he fought Billy Costello for the super lightweight championship and lost a 12 round unanimous decision. 

     By the 1990s Mamby was losing more often (he won only five of his last 17 bouts) but, win or lose, he continued to frustrate opponents. Mamby finally announced his retirement   on May 19, 2000 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 52 years old. 

     Eight years later Mamby attempted a comeback. After being told that no boxing commission would dare license a 60 year old prizefighter Mamby found a place that would—the Cayman Islands. On March 8, 2008 he lost a 10 round decision to a 31 year old boxer with dismal 6-26 won-lost record. As usual Saoul emerged unscathed. As of today there are no plans for a comeback. 

End

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both books are available on Amazon.com.

Introduction of Kid Azteca:


Roberto Duran Gives Master Class On Boxing:

Roberto Duran meets Brighton & Hove ABC from South Coast Productions on Vimeo.

A World Of Professional Amateurs

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.  

 

   

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https://youtu.be/PXy3VHC0obY

INSIDE THE RING WITH TEDDY ATLAS and ESPN 

By

Mike Silver

Timothy Bradley and Teddy Atlas

Considering the level of ignorance, incompetence and sophistry that has taken over virtually every aspect of today’s schizophrenic professional boxing scene it was a revelation of sorts—not to mention a breath of fresh air—to discover the recently televised (ESPN) series of five master classes conducted by world renowned boxing teacher-trainer Teddy Atlas. The program’s title, Inside the Ring, doesn’t do justice to the quality of “insider” information and knowledge that is imparted in each of the five segments totaling 47 minutes. Atlas, a protégé of the legendary Cus D’Amato, is the former trainer of Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Timothy Bradley and a slew of other notable champions and contenders. For over 20 years he also served as a ringside commentator for ESPN’s televised boxing cards.

With the premier of Inside the Ring (first televised in May and June) Teddy’s role as teacher, historian and boxing psychologist is fully realized. The program brought together Atlas and one of the best boxers in the world, the undisputed super lightweight champion Terence Crawford whose current record shows 33 victories and no losses. Last month Terence added a welterweight title belt to his already impressive resume. 

With both men seated in a boxing ring they reviewed filmed highlights of five of Crawford’s most important fights and discussed how each contributed to the progression of his boxing skills. At its core this program is an engaging and enlightening conversation between an accomplished boxer and a master trainer as they examine and explain the various technical subtleties and strategies on display.  

What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.

Inside the Ring makes good use of the fight films, often reverting to slow motion so the audience can more readily see what is being described and analyzed. Atlas’s insightful observations, interspersed with Crawford’s astute comments, are both eye opening and entertaining. The mutual respect each has for the other is obvious. Crawford comes off as personable and intelligent. In explaining to Atlas why he decided on a certain strategy Crawford reveals himself to be a thinking fighter who can easily articulate his methodology. What transpires is a wonderful “teacher and student” vibe in which the audience becomes privy to aspects of boxing technique that are seldom revealed or understood.

Teddy Instructing Michael Moorer

Each episode also includes Atlas and Crawford standing up to demonstrate a significant move or counter move that was utilized during the course of a match. Some of the topics discussed include how timing can nullify speed, how to handle a taller opponent, the importance of footwork for defense, or why Crawford was getting hit by an opponent’s left jab. There is a wonderfully revealing moment during the viewing of Crawford’s breakthrough bout with Yuriorkis Gamboa, a talented fighter with as much boxing skill as Crawford but of late hampered by inactivity and age. A slow motion replay shows Crawford getting tagged with a solid right cross. It was Gamboa’s best punch of the fight. Atlas explains that Gamboa set up the punch with a feint and a “throwaway left hook” that distracted Crawford and left him open. Lesson learned. 

This type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day.

This is as far away as one can get from the mindless “rock ‘em sock ‘em” robotic style of too many of today’s poorly coached boxers. Every moment of Inside the Ring is filled with information that relates to tactics and strategy. Thankfully the overused and simplistic “punch stats” aka “CompuBox” numbers are never mentioned. Atlas and Crawford are less concerned with counting up the number of punches than with understanding and explaining what created the situations for those punches to find (or not to find) their targets in the first place. As opposed to the usual mundane and hyperbolic verbiage that accompanies most televised fights, exposure to this type of real boxing knowledge is like imbibing a cool glass of sweet lemonade on a hot summer day. 

As of today there are no plans to continue the series. That is unfortunate because ESPN is in possession of a treasure that is not being utilized to its fullest extent. That treasure is Atlas’s extraordinary knowledge and teaching skills combined with ESPN’s vast collection of boxing films from the 1890s to the present. 

Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport!

How great would it be to experience Atlas analyzing and interpreting the boxing techniques, strengths, and weaknesses of the sport’s biggest stars of the past and present in the setting described above? I have no doubt that such a program would do much to revive, or at the very least improve, the lost art of boxing. It would be a shame if this program was just a one shot deal thus depriving us of future insights into the mysteries of the sweet science. Not only would such a program improve the boxing IQ of every fan, it would improve the overall quality of the sport! In other words, it would be a gift that would keep on giving. 

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. Both are available at Amazon.com

A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore

A Few Pearls of Wisdom from My Interview with the Great Archie Moore

By 

Mike Silver

On February 26, 1983 I had the great good fortune to meet and interview the legendary Archie Moore. The former light heavyweight champion (1952-1962) had amassed one of the greatest records in boxing history. After a long and arduous 17 year campaign Archie finally won the championship in his 177th professional fight. He fought from 1935 to 1963 and retired with an outstanding 186-23-10 won-lost-draw record (including one no contest). It is safe to say his extraordinary number of knockout victories—131—will never be eclipsed.  

Archie was in New York City to present an award to one of his former opponents, Charley Burley. Burley was just one of at least a score of genuinely great boxers that Moore fought during his illustrious career. Many of the names in that record read like an entire HOF roster: Cassius Clay (Moore made it a point to say that he never fought Muhammad Ali since the future heavyweight champion had not yet changed his name at the time they fought), Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams, Bert Lytell, Lloyd Marshall, Harold Johnson, Eddie Booker and Teddy Yarosz, to name a few. If Archie Moore were fighting today he would be heavyweight champion after already having won both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles. 

Although his formal education ended in high school, Archie never stopped learning. He was a worldly individual and full of the wisdom of life experiences. He possessed an analytical mind and was intensely curious about a wide range of topics. Mostly self-educated Archie was, without question, one of the most remarkable, charismatic and accomplished characters I have ever met—in or out of boxing.  

Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word.

As author Joyce Carol Oates has so accurately stated—“The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers”.  Archie was an artist in the truest sense of the word. In 1955 the near 40 year old Moore challenged Rocky Marciano for the heavyweight championship of the world. Although knocked out in the 9th round Moore put up a rousing fight, even dropping Rocky hard in the 2nd round for a short count. This is how the New York Times reported it the following day: “Moore…gave an exhibition of boxing skill that, even in defeat, was almost as thrilling and moving as the display of awesome power that eventually brought the victory to Rocky.” When this sport was still worth our time and attention Archie Moore’s name stood out like a brilliant shining star. 

Here is the interview:

MS: Archie, you are in New York to honor one of your former opponents, the great Charley Burley. So I think it’s appropriate to begin with him. You lost a unanimous 10 round decision to Burley and were knocked down four times. What happened?

AM: Charley Burley had a very deceptive style of fighting. He just tricked me. He tricked me because we both boxed similar but whereas mine was an apparent forward movement Burley’s was a continuous serpentine movement. He was like a threshing machine going back and forth. His body would sometimes lean over towards you and he’d pull it back just in time. Hitting him solid was almost impossible. But what made him so dangerous was that he could punch from any angle. He was never off balance although he appeared to be off balance on many occasions. 

MS: You had one of the longest careers of any boxer who ever lived. You fought in five separate decades—the 1930s to the 1960s. What was the secret of your boxing longevity?

AM: Well, I knew how to fight. I was also a master of pace. It was very important to know how to force pace and set a pace. As a result very few people could make me fight out of my system of fighting. Eddie Booker, Lloyd Marshall and Charley Burley made me fight out of my system. In my winding up years Marciano was one, as was Durelle. I had to fight out of my system to get back into that fight. Another boxer I had trouble with was Jimmy Bivins. Jimmy knocked me out the first time we met because he had such a deceptive reach. Although he was no taller than I was (5’ 11”)his arms touched below his knees. When he pulled his arms up they looked no longer than mine, but when he reached them out he hit me with the hook. 

MS: Well, you obviously learned from your mistake because you defeated Bivins four times after that. Looking over your amazing record I noticed that the great Ezzard Charles defeated you three times during your prime fighting years. Did Ezzard make you fight out of your system of fighting?

AM: No…no. He just outfought me. Ezzard was always in superb condition. He was a nice standup fighter and an expert boxer. Whereas he was not a terrific puncher, but he was a good puncher with both hands.

MS: Archie, you are acknowledged to be one of boxing’s all-time knockout artists. Are great punchers born or can a boxer increase power by perfecting such things as balance, leverage, and timing?

AM: Those ingredients you just mentioned are conclusive; all are an admixture as such as you just described, especially timing. 

MS: Who were some of the great punchers Archie Moore fought?

AM: Charley Burley was a terrific puncher, although to look at him you would not know it. His build fooled everybody. Burley’s legs were skinny, he was not extra wide of shoulder, he was small in weight and his height was the same as mine. But that man could get more leverage into a punch than anyone I ever fought. Another great puncher was Curtis “Hatchetman” Sheppard who once missed a punch to the jaw and broke a man’s collar bone. Lloyd Marshall was the snappiest hitter of them all. He could knock you out with either hand. Ron Richards was a tough hitter. Marciano was a very hard puncher—a bludgeoning type of hitter—super conditioned by Charlie Goldman. He was 100% aggression. There were others but I’d have to look at the record because I forget. 

MS: Archie I think it’s fair to say that since you were still fighting at an age when most other boxers were long retired you had to utilize every advantage, mental, physical and psychological, in order to maintain your edge over much younger opponents. Can you give an example?

AM: In 1955 I fought Nino Valdez in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time Nino was the top ranked heavyweight. He was 6’ 4’ tall and weighed about 215 pounds. It was a 15 round bout and the winner was promised a bout with Marciano for the heavyweight title. The fight was staged at an outdoor arena in the late afternoon. As the sun began to settle on the west side of the ring I was sitting in my corner facing the sun and noticed that Nino was sitting with his back to the sun. The bell rings and I move to maneuver and before any activity starts I’ve already got my head under his chin and I’m muscling this big guy around. I face him into the sun and I keep turning him to the sun. He’s trying to get back around and I keep cutting him off. I’m always maneuvering him back to face the sun which was very bright. And all the while I keep spearing him with the left hand and keep twisting and twisting and turning him and try as he could, he could never make me turn into the sun. The sun was of course bothering him and I kept thumping him with the left jab. Hard stiff stiff jabs.  Pretty soon his eyes began to lump up. One eye closed up completely and the other was closing fast. By this time the sun was going down and the fight was coming to a close. I won 14 out of 15 rounds. 

MS: What does Archie Moore think of today’s boxers?

AM: “I think modern day fighters do not get proper basic training.  Boxing is based on disciplined training and disciplined repetition. Do you know the best friend a fighter has when coming up? (Archie pointed to a large floor length mirror). A very important part of training is practicing your moves in front of the mirror. But most fighters never come in contact with the mirror until they start to jump rope. Since they skip rope in front of a mirror why don’t they shadow box in front of a mirror? You can do that at home. You go through the motions. You learn how to duck. I can see where I’m going to hit my opponent. Am I at the right distance from him? I can hit him over the heart. I can hit him in his liver. I can step aside and hit him in the kidney. Go over the top, whatever. 

MS: After your victories over Joey Maxim for the title you defended it against Harold Johnson. This was your fifth meeting with Johnson, who you already had outpointed three times. In this fight you were behind on points when you knocked Harold out in the 14th round. 

AM: Harold Johnson was a great fighter. A picture book boxer. I was just his nemesis the same way that Ezzard Charles was my nemesis. Joey Maxim was a difficult boxer to fight because he knew so much about defense. Joe was 99% defense. And Joe was very durable and tough. 

MS:  What are the ingredients that go into making a successful prizefighter and what advice would you offer to a young boxer asking for guidance and direction?

AM: The first ingredient is discipline. Discipline and desire. It is said that desire is the candle of intent and motivation is the match that lights it, and that candle must be kept burning.  Once you make up your mind to go all the way to the top in boxing, first of all, go and get the best qualified instructor to teach you of the things you need to know. It should be someone you like, someone that you can deal with and someone you can listen to and obey. It should also be someone that you have trust in. Otherwise, somewhere down the line you’re going to have a breakup, a mix-up, or an argument and you lose a friend. Because the person who is your instructor, your trainer, your teacher, he’s closer to you than your father. 

MS: Trying to find a qualified trainer nowadays is easier said than done. The number of expert boxing instructors, as compared to years ago, has diminished. What can be done about that?

AM: As far as the area of improving the skills of boxers is concerned, I have developed a whole new system of teaching the basic boxing techniques. It is a new and revolutionary technique. I taught it to George Foreman and we went down to Jamaica and won the title with it. I thought George had untapped reservoirs of strength and it was up to me to channel it. 

MS: Can you describe your revolutionary system and how it works?

AM: I could readily describe it but I prefer not to at this time.

MS: OK. Let’s change the subject. Who in your opinion was the greatest pound for pound boxer you have ever seen. 

(Author’s note: Archie did not answer immediately, taking about ten seconds to consider his answer)

AM: Henry Armstrong. Here is a man who won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles all in the same year, and the men he beat to win those titles were great fighters in their own right. 

MS: What about Sugar Ray Robinson?

AM: When Ray was active there was nobody any smoother. Watching Ray fight was like drinking a nice…soft…drink. I enjoyed watching Ray Robinson fight because I appreciate beauty in athletics. I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson move on the basketball court, Jim Brown on a football field, Andretti in an automobile, Willie the Shoe ride the horses. Everybody had their way of doing things with skill. These are skilled men and there’s nothing I like better than skill. When a guy does something, and does it well, I admire that. There’s never been anybody more graceful, skillful with a rope than Ray and I’ve seen some awfully good rope skippers. I would rather see Ray Robinson punch a speed bag than watch the average guy go out and fight a six round fight. Ray was a skillful man, he was a game man. In his time there was nobody more beautiful than he was, although there were one or two guys that might have beaten Ray in their time. I would like for someone to say, personally, that I think Charley Burley could have beaten Ray in Ray’s best time. But people hate to go out on a limb. 

MS: Is there anything about your boxing life you would have changed or done differently?

AM: I’d have like to have made some money and have more financial gain out of boxing. You see a  boxer’s wish is to be independent. This is a profession. I like to be without obligations to other people but I was obligated. But I was mindful of whom I borrowed money from and I was careful not to get mixed up with people who would be embarrassing to you at a time when they wanted to collect.

MS: Thank you for your time Archie. 

(Mike Silver is the author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing and The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. Both books are available on Amazon.com)


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