by Bobby Franklin
There was a time when you could tell a man was a boxer just by seeing him walking. You might be in a restaurant or hanging out on a street corner when a guy would walk by and you could see in his step that he had spent time in the ring. I’m not talking about a fighter who may have taken too many punches and was “walking on his heels”. I’m talking about the light step that most boxers possessed in the days before they were trained to bulk up using weights and muscle building. A well-trained and conditioned boxer was always thinking about staying loose and limber. Even years after retiring, you would see that same agile way of moving in a former boxer. (I’m not sure former boxer is an appropriate term as it is something that, once you have done it, stays in your blood all of your life.)
“Stay away from the weights” was a line heard often from the old time trainers, “They only make you tight and slow.” Back in the days when boxing was taught as an art and not a strong man contest, speed, accuracy, and staying loose was emphasized. “Speed beats power”, “If you are too tense you will be more susceptible to being knocked out”, “Get up on your toes and move”, “Stick and move”, I can still hear these words echoing in my head from my days in the various boxing gyms I trained in.
Now, many people may think I am just talking about the stick and move boxers, but you will see this in the vast majority of boxers regardless of their style.
The ferocious Jack Dempsey moved like a cat stalking his prey.In the Willard fight he is darting in and out. His body is lean and not muscle bound. He has a boxer’s physique, strong in all the right places without being encumbered by bulging muscles that would only slow him down.
When I was young I got to meet Dempsey in NYC. To this day I remember seeing him walking through his restaurant to greet visitors. He was up there in age and suffering from arthritis in his hips, but he still moved as if he were gliding across the floor, ready to move left or right and throw a counterpunch. Jack Dempsey still had it.
Today’s boxers are missing out on so much with the focus being on building up muscle. Weight trainers are brought in and muscle is layered on. While a fighter has to be strong, there are different types of strength. So often now a days, the spectacle that takes place at the weigh in before a match looks more like a pose-off at a body building competition with the fighters tensing and pumping up their muscles while mugging for the cameras. These bulky muscles are not only useless in the ring, but they are actually a hindrance as they make it almost impossible to use proper punching technique. It also results in more arm punches being tossed than shots that come from the hips with the full force of the body behind them. Fighters are also more susceptible to being knocked out because of how tight they are. It is much more difficult to “roll with the punches” when carrying that kind of muscle. Of course, that is pretty much a moot topic seeing that fighters are no longer taught defensive moves such as that.
I recently watched a brief video of Jake LaMotta training for a fight. It showed him climbing the stairs up to Bobby Gleason’s Gym in The Bronx where he was working out. Now Jake is hardly remembered as a dancing master, but you can see how light he is on his feet as he bounds up the steps. After the workout, he is seen outside walking down the street. If you had no idea who he was you would still know he was a boxer by the way he was moving along the sidewalk.
Why the difference between those fighters from earlier days and the boxers of today? Well, when you went into a gym years back you would see fighters shadow boxing, moving in front of a mirror practicing their form, stretching and shaking out their arms and legs. They were very focused on staying limber. When they would hit the heavy bag they would “work it”, which meant boxing it. Instead of just standing in front of the bag they would circle it and practice footwork as well as punching. In the older gyms there was usually space around the bag so the fighters would have room to do this. In many gyms today the bags are lined up close to each other. Now, you often see fighters just standing flatfooted in front of the bag, their feet planted while they are winding up with punches that are telegraphed as if they were being sent by Western Union. It’s no wonder that is happening since most of the time they spend working with a trainer is wasted while going through the silly mitt punching routine that reinforces these bad habits.
A good boxer has to know how to use his entire body. He needs the grace of a ballet dancer combined with the reflexive power of a trip hammer. Most importantly, he has to be taught how to think in the ring, not to just go through mindless motions. Think, stay loose, find rhythm, treat the sport like the art form it once was.
When I was a young boxer I hated doing road work, today it is called running. Most of us disliked it back then but knew it was important so we did it. As much as I hated it, whenever I saw a clip of Muhammad Ali out on the road it inspired me to go out and put in a few miles. Why? Because Ali encompassed why it was called “road work”. He would be running with a step as light as Bill Rogers, turning on his toes, running backwards and forwards while throwing punches; all the time staying loose. It was beautiful watching him move. I’ll bet he never lifted a weight in his entire life, but he had the kind of strength a great fighter possesses.
Those days are now long in the past.
Boxing has changed, and it is not for the better.You can no longer spot a fighter by the way he walks. That is because they are no longer artists and the sport is no longer an art form. It is sad.