Tag Archives: Muhammad Ali

Clay vs Liston 1

Will We Ever Know What Really Happened?

By Bobby Franklin

On February 25, 1964 the young upstart Cassius Clay stepped into the ring in Miami Beach, Florida to take on Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The fight took place just three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, like the Kennedy assassination, it has sparked many theories about what really happened.

Clay went into the fight undefeated but as a 7 to 1 underdog which was no surprise, Liston had won the title with a devastating knock out of Floyd Patterson and just a year later he had repeated the victory in the same manner.

MIAMI, FL – FEBRUARY 25, 1964: Sonny Liston (L) throws a punch at Cassius Clay (R) in a World Heavyweight Title fight February 25, 1964 at Convention Hall in Miami, Florida.(Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

In Clay’s two previous fights leading up to the title shot he had won a very close decision over Doug Jones and stopped Henry Cooper on cuts. In the Cooper fight Clay was dropped by a left hook thrown by Henry and if the bell had not rung just as he got up may have been kayoed. Neither of these two opponents would have ever been confused with Sonny Liston.

There were some sportswriters who not only didn’t give Cassius a chance, they feared he could be killed by Sonny. But then the unthinkable happened; Cassius Clay “Shook up the world” when Liston quit while sitting on his stool after the 6th round. This was stunnung, and immediately the cries of the fight being fixed rang out.

How on Earth could this loudmouth 22 year kid have made the unbeatable Sonny Liston give up the title by quitting? You have to remember, Liston was not only the Heavyweight Champion but also the scariest and meanest man on the planet. His awesome power and baleful stare sent chills down the spines of not only his opponents but of almost anyone who was in his presence. To the public in1964 this outcome just didn’t make sense.

Why would Sonny Liston quit and give up the most valuable prize in all of sports? Nobody could know for sure and Sonny wasn’t talking other than to say he hurt his shoulder.

190.tif

One theory has it that Liston had bet a huge amount of money on himself and had planned to lose a fifteen round decision to Clay, but when it appeared Clay was going to quit after the fifth round Liston figured he had better hang it up first or he was going to lose his bet. Liston also knew there was a clause calling for a rematch in the event he lost.

It seems unlikely Liston could have wagered enough money on himself that it would have benefited him more than having the heavyweight title. Perhaps the mob had gotten to him and pressured him to quit. That’s possible too, but it doesn’t explain one thing, the reason Clay wanted to quit.

After the 4th round Cassius came back to his corner and complained to his trainer Angelo Dundee that he had something in his eyes that was burning and he couldn’t see. He told Angelo to cut off the gloves. Dundee washed his eyes out and pushed Clay out for the 5th round. Clay, still not able to see, got on his bicycle and danced around the ring keeping his distance from Sonny. Sonny couldn’t or wouldn’t lay a glove on him. Cassius survived the round and in the fifth he was back on track and was hitting Sonny with beautiful left jabs that were causing Liston’s face to swell.

The fact that Sonny’s corner may have put a substance on the champion’s gloves should dispel the theory that Liston went into the fight planning to lose. I recently spoke to boxing historian Mike Silver about this. Mike has written a very good article about the controversy over the gloves entitled “Foul Play In Philly” where he compares what happened in Miami in 1964 to a similar situation that occurred when Rocky Marciano was fighting Jersey Joe Walcott for the title. Marciano was also blinded for a number of rounds during that fight. Rocky was always convinced Walcott’s cornermen had put a substance on his gloves. It is also believed the same thing happened when Liston fought Eddie Machen. It is called juicing the gloves.

I told Mike his article proves once and for all Liston did not throw throw the fight. “Not necessarily” Mike responded, “What if the people in Liston’s corner didn’t know Sonny was throwing the fight?” This would be the “Lone Gunman Theory”. Liston could have made a deal on his own with the mob, and the less people who know about such a deal, the less likely it would be found out. Knowing Sonny’s background this is very plausible.

Another camp posits that Liston quit because he had been threatened by the Black Muslims and he feared he would be shot if he won. This one could be listed as the “Grassy Knoll Theory” where a gunman is hiding somewhere in the crowd waiting to assassinate Sonny if things don’t turn out as planned. Again, given Sonny’s background dealing with mobsters, this also is somewhat believable.

So, what do I think happened? I used to believe the theory that Liston was going to planning on losing a 15 decision to Clay but then quit when he thought Cassius was going to. I no longer agree with that. The way the fight was going I doubt Liston would have made it the full fifteen rounds. He was tiring and the swelling under his left eye was getting worse. Liston had only a total of less than six rounds of action in the ring since 1961 and only less then two rounds since 1962. He was also confident he could easily beat Clay so he did not train hard for the fight. Meanwhile, Cassius Clay was in superb shape and he had been very active. He had 17 fights since 1961 and a total of 91 rounds of action. Quite a difference.

Clay was also pumped for this fight while Liston wasn’t. Clay’s confidence, or possibly fear, put all of his defensive mechanisms on high alert. His adrenalin was flowing and that made his already amazing reflexes all that much sharper. Put this all together and the outcome does not seem as implausible as many believed. Sonny was ripe for the taking that night and Clay had the tools to do it.

I’ll save the Magic Bullet Theory for when I write about the rematch.

Joe Bugner

Joe Bugner
Former British Heavyweight Champ
Has Unique Accomplishment

By Bobby Franklin

Joe Bugner was born in Hungary in 1950. In 1956 during the Soviet invasion of the country his family fled to Great Britain where they settled. At school Joe excelled at sports and eventually gravitated to boxing, and after a brief amateur career he turned pro at the early age of 17. He got off to a poor start losing his first bout by a TKO in the third round.

That first loss did not discourage the young Bugner and he came back to win 18 straight, 13 by knockout. His next loss was to the more experienced American Dick Hall who won a decision over 19 year old Joe.

Again, undaunted, Bugner would go undefeated in his next 14 fights earning himself a shot against Henry Cooper for the British Empire and European Heavyweight Titles. Bugner won by the closest of decisions that was booed by the crowd, but sportswriters were mixed on who they believed the victor was. Unfortunately for Joe, it was not only the controversy over the scoring but the fact he had ended the career of the beloved Henry Cooper that caused the public to turn on him. Being the man who dethroned “Our ‘Enry” would prove a curse to him. Coupled with the fact he was not a native born Brit he would not receive the adulation he should have gotten.

Bugner was only 21 when he defeated Cooper and by that time he had already beaten such known heavyweights as Jack O’Halloran, George Johnson, Chuck Wepner, Brian London, and Eduardo Corletti.

Joe defended the European title against Jurgen Blin but lost all his titles in his next bout against Jack Bodell. Bugner was criticized for not fighting hard enough to beat the veteran, a cry that would be heard throughout his career. There is a reason many believe Joe would often back off in a fight.

In a fight earlier in his career he defeated a fighter by the name of Ulric Regis by decision. Regis collapsed after the bout and later from a brain injury. An autopsy ruled the death was from a preexisting medical condition, but the memory of that tragedy buried in his subconscious, would cause him to hold back in fights.

After the loss to Bodell, Joe came back winning ten of his next eleven fights while also regaining the European Title. This would pave the way for him to fight former champ Muhammad Ali in 1973. That year would prove to be a pretty amazing one for Bugner and it is what made him unique.

He began the year with a victory over Rudi Lubbers and then traveled to Las Vegas to take on Ali. You may remember this bout as the one where Ali wore a robe into the ring that was given to him by Elvis Presley emblazoned in jewels with the words People’s Champ. At a party given days before the fight Joe met Elvis Presley and asked him if he could get a robe as well seeing that he was also a champion. When Elvis responded by saying ”You’re no champion” Bugner told the King to ”Stuff it” and walked out.

Joe went into the Ali fight an 8 to 1 underdog but gave a very good account of himself while losing a 12 round decision. You would think it would have been time for a rest, but not for the hard working Bugner.

In his very next fight less than five months later he took on former champ Joe Frazier in England. In the tenth round Frazier dropped Joe with a left hook, but Bugner arose and hurt the former champ near the end of the round. While the decision was not in doubt, Frazier knew he was in a fight and looked the worse for wear at the end. Joe Bugner left the ring with his head held high last night. He also left going down in history as the only man to fight Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in back to back fights.

Amazingly, Joe was not done fighting in 1973. He would close out the year with wins over Giuseppe Ros and the hard punching Mac Foster. He would continue winning bouts and earn a rematch with Ali who had by now regained the heavyweight crown. The fight took place on June 6, 1975 in Kuala Lumpur. Bugner was disappointing in this match fighting from a mostly defensive stance while losing a one sided decision. This performance further fueled the anti Bugner sentiment in England where it seemed he just could not get any respect from the fans.

At the age of just 25 he had gone the distance with Ali twice and Joe Frazier once. Taking the two former champs in the space of a few months was a truly remarkable feat, but one that is largely forgotten.

After the second loss to Ali, Bugner seemed to lose motivation. He continued fighting but at a much less hectic schedule. In many of his fights from this point on he did not appear to have the drive to again earn a title shot.

In 1986 he moved to Australia where he continued fighting as well as acting in movies. There was talk of him fighting Mike Tyson, but in 1987 after being stopped by Frank Bruno he retired. He was 37 years old at time.

He made a comeback in 1995 and won the Australian Heavyweight Title. He was victorious in 8 of his last 9 bouts before retiring for good at the age of 50 in 1999.

Joe Bugner is rarely mentioned when talk turns to the heavyweights of the 1970s, but he should not be forgotten. He had a stand up European style and possessed a very decent left jab. He could put together combinations when he wanted to. He ended his career with a very respectable record of 69 wins (41 by knockout), 13 losses, and 1 draw. He was only stopped on four occasions.

Joe should be remembered as the only man to step in the ring with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in consecutive bouts. The fact that he did this within a few short months of each other is truly amazing, and for this Joe Bugner deserves respect.

Billy Conn At 100: How Would He Have Done Against Ali?

By Bobby Franklin
.
This past October 8th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billy Conn. The Pittsburgh Kid held the Light Heavyweight Championship but is best known for his challenge against Joe Louis for the Heavyweight Crown. In that fight Conn gave Joe all he could handle for twelve rounds before Louis caught up with him in the 13th round for the knock out. I consider that bout to be one of the greatest of all-time as both fighters put on a brilliant display of what the Art of Boxing is all about. Conn was magnificent on that June night in 1941. He was fast and sharp. He mixed his punches up and feinted beautifully. He also showed he could withstand the power of the great Joe Louis. Louis was also remarkable. In a fight where he easily could have become frustrated at not being able to catch up with his elusive opponent Louis remained cool and launched a sustained attack on Conn’s body. This strategy paid off as he finally was able to slow Billy down enough to be able to take him out in the 13th round.

Conn was outweighed by over thirty pounds in the fight. Joe Louis had every advantage over him; Height, reach, weight, power, and just being Joe Louis. Max Baer once said of the Brown Bomber, “Fear is looking across the ring at Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.” Conn was one of the very few men to step into the ring with Louis to not be gripped by that fear. Billy was the consummate professional, he was in there to win and had no doubt he could do the job.

Billy Conn was born in Pittsburgh, PA in October 8, 1917. When he was a kid his father took Billy to work with him one day at the Westinghouse factory. Billy took one look around and decided working 9:00 to 5:00 everyday was not for him. He decided early on he would much prefer to make his living in the ring. He made his professional debut in 1934 just shy of his 17th birthday. Hs first year in the ring was not overly impressive as he had eight wins and 8 losses. Even though it didn’t look like an auspicious beginning, Billy was learning his trade. In the second half of 1935 Conn hit his stride. He went 28 and 0 over the the next two years and was gaining recognition. He went on to win the Light Heavyweight title in 1939 by defeating Melio Bettina. Billy defended the title in a rematch with Bettina and then twice against Gus Lesnevich before relinquishing the belt in pursuit of a bigger prize, the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Conn vs Louis I

Conn began campaigning as a heavyweight taking on the leading contenders while working his way to that title shot. It is interesting to note that while Conn rarely weighed more than 180 pounds, and was usually closer to 170, he never lost a fight against a heavyweight. In fact, though not preciously known as a big puncher, Conn knocked out more than half the heavyweights he faced. He did not do this by bulking up. What happened is when he got in against the slower moving big guys he was able to set himself more in order to throw harder punches.

Billy Conn was a truly great fighter. Watching him in action is a master class in the Art of Boxing. There have been very few fighters who were as consistently good as Conn. When you take his outstanding skills and combine that with his boundless self-confidence, superb conditioning, and tremendous heart you have all the makings of one of the greatest fighters to ever step into a boxing ring.

Conn had just the style to give Ali all kinds of problems.

I have given some thought to how The Pittsburgh Kid would have done against Muhammad Ali. It is a dream fight that is never brought up when old school fight people argue about what might have happened if two greats from the past had been matched up, but it should be. I believe Billy Conn had just the style to give Ali all kinds of problems.

What is often overlooked when analyzing Ali is the trouble he had with smaller and faster opponents. Going back to his fights with Doug Jones and Billy Daniels you could see how when his speed was not dominant he had problems. Even against Henry Cooper it was shown how he could be tagged by a smaller and faster man. Ali did his best against the big and slow moving heavyweights, much as Conn did.

Cooper vs Clay I

In Billy Conn Ali would be facing a man that not only could match him in hand and foot speed, I would argue Conn was faster in both departments, but also a man who would not be in the least intimidated by him. Conn was also a much better scientific fighter than Ali as Ali depended more on his speed and reflexes when young and his amazing toughness when older. Conn had a full palette of boxing moves he could tap into.

In Ali’s fight against Jimmy Young he was frustrated by Young’s cagey moves, and Jimmy Young was no Billy Conn. In three fights against Ken Norton, Ali could never improve on his performance, never being able to solve the one dimensional style of Norton.

In Conn’s fight against Louis the deciding factor was Joe’s body punching which slowed Billy down and made hm vulnerable. Ali never threw body punches so Billy would have never tired in a fight against him. Conn would have set a torrid pace against Muhammad darting in and out and while throwing a broad array of punches. Ali would for the first time be facing an opponent who was faster than he was. He would also be facing a smaller man who had incredible physical strength. Watch Conn in the clinches with the much bigger Joe Louis and you can see how he was able to hold his own with a much bigger man.

The more I think about this match up the more surprised I am that it is never discussed. It has all the makings for a great fight and a great argument. Sure, Ali had blinding speed when facing big men like Liston and Foreman, but what would happen if he was in with a talented boxer who was faster than he was? Billy Conn would have provided the answer.

Doug Jones, Boxer Who Gave a Young Cassius Clay His Toughest fight, Dies at 80

By

Mike Silver

Doug Jones

Word has reached us that Doug Jones, the former light heavyweight and heavyweight contender of the early 1960s, passed away recently at the age of 80. Prior to Muhammad Ali’s three and a half year exile that began in 1967 Doug Jones gave the fighter then known as Cassius Clay his toughest fight. On March 13, 1963, before a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,732 fans, Clay struggled to win a close but controversial 10 round decision over his persistent foe.

Opinion was split as to who deserved to win. Many fans in the Garden and those watching the bout at 40 closed circuit locations thought Jones had done enough to edge Clay who chalked up his 18th straight victory. Doug’s record fell to 21-3-1. (Eleven months and two fights later Cassius would upset Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title).

Interviewed 20 years later the defeat still rankled Jones. “Clay ran like a thief”, he said. “I carried the fight to him. Suppose I went the other way, what kind of fight would it have been? Clay didn’t hit me with any solid punches. There wasn’t any real power in his punches.”

Few boxers at his weight have engaged in so many tough fights against top competition in so short a time as Doug Jones. He was a talented boxer with a powerful right hand but what separated him from the crowd was his incredible toughness and heart. Doug had an extensive and successful amateur career during military service in the Air Force. (He was alternate light heavy for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team).

Jones Lands A Left Hook On Cassius Clay

Doug turned pro in 1958 with a four round decision over Jimmy McNair. He was rushed much too quickly yet managed to survive and attain contender status in spite of Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner’s tendency to destroy up and coming talent through horrible matchmaking. Doug only had 10 pro fights when he fought his first main event against tough former New York Golden Gloves champ Juan Pomare. After two more victories he took on hard punching Philadelphia prospect Von Clay in back to back10 rounders. His next outing was a nationally televised bout against former middleweight champion Bobo Olsen. Doug ended matters with a left right combination in the 6th round. He followed up with knockouts of Floyd McCoy and Pete Rademacher before taking on Von Clay for the third and final time winning via a 10th round TKO.

Up next was top heavyweight contender Eddie Machen. Doug lost the decision and five months later faced Harold Johnson for the undisputed light heavyweight title. Doug never stopped trying but with only 20 pro bouts under his belt he was just too inexperienced to take the measure of the great boxer and lost a unanimous 15 round decision. On October 20, 1962 Doug was matched with a 9 bout pro named Bob Foster. He stopped the future light heavyweight champion in the 8th round. (Previously Doug had defeated Bob twice in the amateurs while both were in the Air Force).

Although he rarely weighed more than 190 pounds the rest of Doug’s career was spent fighting heavyweights. A dramatic 7th round KO of top ranked Zora Folley (a few months earlier he dropped a decision to Folley) moved Jones into the ranks of heavyweight contenders and led to his match with young Cassius. Doug’s manager Alex Koskowitz and his trainer Rollie Hackmer decided the best strategy was for Doug to slip past Clay’s jab while constantly pressuring him, upset his rhythm, and land the right.

Jones at 188 pounds and 6 feet tall was 14 pounds lighter and three inches shorter but was significantly faster than Clay’s previous opponents. In the first round Clay was sent back on his heels by Jones’s right cross. He was tagged solidly again in the 4th and 7th rounds. Clay responded with swift combinations and it was anybody’s fight going into the ninth round. Clay turned it on in the final round landing frequently with combinations to seal his victory.

After splitting two fights with Billy Daniels, Doug’s tenure as a heavyweight contender ended with an 11th round TKO loss to George Chuvalo on October 2nd 1964. During the fight Chuvalo centered his attack on Doug’s body and many punches strayed into foul territory. As a result of the punishment Doug suffered a hernia and was out of action for close to a year. His last chance for a title ended with a 15 round loss to WBA heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell on June 28, 1966. By the time up and coming Joe Frazier knocked him out in the 6th round on February 21, 1967 Doug was pretty much used up and punched out. If he needed any more convincing to retire it was provided six months later by young Boone Kirkman who TKO’d him in six. The Harlemite ended his career with a 30-10-1 (20 KOs) record. He appeared in 11 nationally televised bouts.

Doug was an unlucky fighter. He came along at the wrong time when Harold Johnson was light heavy champ. If not for that Doug was a good bet to have won that title but he chose to go for the big money and take on heavyweights. Never an easy opponent at any time during his nine year pro career, he would be a terror among the light heavyweights of today. They did not come any tougher than Doug Jones.

Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers) and Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, A Photographic History (Lyons Press).


Jersey Joe and Muhammad

Walcott and Ali
A Contrast

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him.

Muhammad Ali used to enjoy making fun of his predecessors. He would mock them for being punchy. I remember seeing him do this in front of Joe Louis. Ali would put his finger to his nose pressing it flat and then speak while slurring his speech pretending to stumble around on unsteady feet. He would talk about how guys like Louis and the other champs took too many punches, couldn’t box as well as “The Greatest”, and ended up with their brains scrambled. He bragged how that would never happen to him because he was so much smarter and better than they were.

Holmes vs Ali

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him. By the time he was training for the Larry Holmes fight Ali was already showing serious signs of brain damage. Watching interviews and training footage as he was preparing for that bout you can hear him slurring his speech. His coordination was deteriorating as seen in his difficulty hitting the speed bag. Ali was 38 years old at the time and would lose by stoppage to Holmes. It was a sad sight.

Why did this happen to such a great “boxer”? Let’s compare him to another former champ who was still fighting when he was in his late 30s; Jersey Joe Walcott.

Jersey Joe was 37 years old when he won the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Ezzard Charles. He would defend it against Charles before going on to lose it to Rocky Marciano in a fight in which Walcott was leading on the scorecards when he was kayoed in the 13th round.

Walcott also had given Joe Louis more than he could handle a few years earlier when he lost a highly disputed decision to the Brown Bomber. He dropped Louis twice in that bout. Louis would win a rematch by knockout, but not before hitting the canvas one more time.

Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing.

Ali got a lot of laughs making fun of the greats of the past. He not only went after them for supposedly being punchy, but he also demeaned their skills. Well, if Walcott was lacking in skills and Ali was so brilliant why is it Jersey Joe retired with his faculties still intact while Ali ended up a mental and physical wreck? You just have to watch footage of the two men in action and you will see what made the difference. Walcott was a brilliant technical boxer. He could move, he could punch, he was always in good physical shape (except for the times earlier in his career the he was so poor he couldn’t eat properly). He also knew how to avoid taking punishment. Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing. Watching him move across the canvas is something to behold. Walcott could feint, he could parry, he was always in position and on balance. He would turn and start to walk away from his opponent and then suddenly turn back with a lethal combination. Witness his knock out of Ezzard Charles where Joe very nonchalantly steps in with a half hook, half uppercut to win the title. Just amazing.

Walcott vs Charles

Walcott and Ali both had their last fight at the age of 39. Ali had a total of 61 fights while Walcott had 71. Walcott fought professionally for 23 years, Ali for 21 years. Ali was off for three and a half years when he was banned from boxing, so he actually had around 18 years of activity. Walcott was stopped six times. With the exception of the Marciano and Louis fights these stoppages were earlier in his career when he was struggling to survive. Ali was stopped just once, by Holmes; however, he took a lot more punches than Walcott did.

The difference between the two was in their skills. Walcott actually got better with age. Ali deteriorated as he got older. But why?  Ali depended on his speed when he was younger. He was amazingly fast and had great reflexes. As he got older he began to lose that speed, and without it he started taking punches. He did not have the skills to to avoid being hit. He was no Jersey Joe Walcott. In fact, Ali depended on his ability to take punishment in order to win fights. During training sessions he would allow his sparring partners to unload on him. In a bizarre way he seemed to think by taking more punishment he was toughening himself for his upcoming matches. This took a terrible toll on him. Sure it made for exciting fights, but as can be seen in his fights with the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and very notably, Earnie Shavers, he took some fearful shots. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did.

Jersey Joe Walcott

Walcott, on the other hand, always worked on his defense. He would spend hours in training honing his defensive skills, shadow boxing, working in front of the mirror, watching other fighters. Most importantly, he would work at not getting hit while sparring. When it came to true boxing skills Walcott was miles ahead of Ali. Joe had a full palette to draw from, while Ali was sorely lacking in the finer points of the Manly Art of Self Defense. Walcott was a true master at his trade, in contrast to Ali who had always depended on his physical abilities, first his speed and then his toughness, to carry him through. Walcott was a technician, Ali was a tough guy.

Compare these two champs in their retirement years and you can see the difference. Walcott remained sharp and clear headed. He became the Sheriff of Camden County New Jersey and also served on the boxing commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children. His defensive boxing skills served him well as he showed no signs of brain damage.

Muhammad Ali

Ali’s deterioration had already started before he retired from the ring. While he made appearances in his retirement years he had become, to people who were willing to face the truth, a symbol of the dark side of boxing. He had become that which he had mocked. It was almost Shakespearean in that Muhammad Ali would become that caricature of the punch drunk boxer he said would never be.
https://youtu.be/opAJBr9G9MYhttps://youtu.be/opAJBr9G9MY

When Heavyweights Ruled

 Jerry Izenberg Recalls The Time And Excitement

Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing

Skyhorse Publishing, NY, NY

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

From the time of John L. Sullivan and through most of the 20th Century being the Heavyweight Champion of the World meant being the stuff of legends. It was as close to immortality as any man could get. Young boys would dream of growing up and one day being the next Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. To hold that great title also meant being arguably the most famous man in the world. It is impossible to recall the Roaring Twenties without thinking of Dempsey. The 30s and 40s always have Joe Louis’s visage looking at us from that time of the Great Depression and WWII. As America got back to work after the War we had Rocky Marciano to remind us of the value of hard work and perseverance. In between each of these great champions were other great men who left their own mark on the history of boxing. The Heavyweight Championship was the most difficult to attain and most prestigious honor to capture in all of sports and I would argue in any realm of the world of entertainment.

It is sad that today it is just a memory. That great title no longer exists. Oh, there are people, a lot of them, who claim it but none who have earned it. I doubt there are any young men today who wake up in the morning with that dream their grandfathers and fathers had of being the Champ. Those days are far behind us, but they didn’t go away without a fight.

The final era when the Heavyweight Title still meant something was also one of its most exciting, Jerry Izenberg in his new book Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age Of Heavyweight Boxing (Skyhorse Publishing, NY,NY) brings us back to that very exciting time.

If you were fortunate enough to have experienced boxing from the 1960s until the late 1980s Jerry’s book will bring back terrific memories of what may have been the most competitive period in the history of boxing among the big men. Mr. Izenberg argues it was, and he is standing on solid ground when he says so. It was certainly a very exciting time to be a fight fan.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments.

As background Mr. Izenberg chronicles the rise and fall of the mob that took place from the 1930s up until the 1960s. We are introduced or reintroduced, depending on your age, to such characters as Owney Madden, Frankie Carbo, Jim Norris, Blinky Palermo, and many other gangsters who controlled boxing for decades. It is a sordid history of corruption and strong arm tactics and very worth reading.

After Rocky Marciano retired, the Heavyweight Championship fell into a sorry state. Cus D’Amato who had crusaded against mob control of boxing was able to take hold of the title with his young fighter Floyd Patterson. Mr. Izenberg sheds a lot of light on the real D’Amato who, it turns out, had his own mob connection. D’Amato also made it even more difficult for legitimate contenders to get a shot at the title because he was not going to allow his champion to step into the ring with any opponent who had a pulse. At least with the old mob a fighter could buy his way in. With D’Amato the division went into a period where having talent only increased a fighter’s chances of not getting a title fight.

Ironically, it took the underworld figure Sonny Liston to change things, though it took someone else to shake up the world of boxing. When Sonny won the title by destroying Patterson boxing epitaphs were being written. Boxing had gone from a mama’s boy to a man who was pure evil. It didn’t look like it could sink any further.

This is where Jerry’s book goes from the darkness to the glory times. A young Cassius Clay had returned from the Rome Olympics waving his Gold Medal and proclaiming himself “The Greatest”. He stepped up and whupped Sonny and began a new age in boxing. An age Jerry Izenberg was there to witness from beginning to end.

In a lively narrative Mr. Izenberg brings us to ringside and into the backrooms to visit with the fighters to relive many great moments. When Clay, now Ali, became champion he fought everyone. Of course, a number of these contenders had grown old waiting for a title shot, but they were no longer going to be denied. Ali fought often and was always heard from. He was loved and hated, and he was exciting. Boxing was now back in a big way, and Mr. Izenberg brings it all alive again.

As Ali was mowing down the old line of contenders a whole new crop was sprouting up. While none seemed an immediate threat to Ali, it was going to get interesting. Well, it did get interesting when Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army. With Ali sitting on the sidelines the heavyweight division still blossomed as many of the young prospects developed into serious contenders. By the time Ali returned to the ring boxing was a whole new picture. It had certainly become much more competitive and even more exciting.

Jerry Izenberg follows these events up until the implosion of Mike Tyson when it can be said heavyweight boxing was breathing its last. We are there for the three Ali v Frazier fights. The Foreman destruction of Frazier as well as Ken Norton’s win over and two controversial losses to Ali. And the rise of Larry Holmes, a fighter who never got the respect he deserved.

Mr. Izenberg’s insights are terrific, and his chapter on the Holmes v Cooney fight is particularly interesting. The racial overtones that fight took on were a sad episode, but it is good to know they were not shared by the fighters.

There are also many behind the scenes stories about the rise and fall of Mike Tyson that include one very personal moment the author had with the future champ as well as the story of Teddy Atlas’s break with D’Amato and Tyson. Boxing fans will love this.

And if that isn’t enough, Jerry takes you to the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis for a visit with Michael Spinks. The visit took place at midnight in the notorious project and it took plenty of courage for Jerry to show up. It does result in a very interesting story.

Jerry Izenberg and Ali

If you want to know what competitive boxing is like. If you want to know what it is like to have evenly matched contenders fighting for the title. If you want to get a taste of the electricity that would fill the air all across the country when the Heavyweight Championship was on the line you will find it in Once There Were Giants. It’s unfortunate it will never be seen again.

Ali v Frazier I: 11th and 15th Rounds

Remarkable Moments In A Remarkable Fight

by Bobby Franklin

This coming March 8th will mark the 46th anniversary of the first Ali vs Frazier fight, The Fight of the Century. It will also be the first time the date will arrive with both men now having passed on. Rewatching this great fight it is hard to believe neither Joe or Muhammad is still with us. That night in Madison Square Garden they both appeared to be immortal. It was as if two ancient gods had stepped down from their mountains to do battle for control of the universe.

I am surprised how their third encounter has taken most of the spotlight over the years. While that was a great brawl, both men had lost much, if not most, of their great skills. The first bout was the only time in history when two undefeated men with legitimate claims to the Heavyweight Championship met to settle things. The fight lived up to all of the hype and even more. I truly believe the fight would be given more notice if Ali had won, and that is the reason the third fight is so often shown. The Ali publicity machine never stopped working while Joe Frazier slipped into a quiet retirement. It is too bad because their first meeting was one of the greatest fights and greatest sporting events of all time. It should be shown every March 8th. Fortunately, it can be seen on Youtube, and boxing fans should take an hour on the anniversary to watch it.

I have written about the fight on a number of occasions. Each time I watch it I see something new. Each time I watch it I am still in awe of what a battle of wills it was. Each time I watch it I am in disbelief of how these two men were able to hold up for fifteen rounds at such a torrid pace.

Today, as I reflect back on that night, I want to focus in on a couple of moments from that war. These occurred in the 11th and 15th rounds, and I would like to share my thoughts with my readers.

When the bell rang for the 11th round both fighters appeared to be slowing down. Ali was content to stay on the ropes and Joe was not landing with the same power he had been displaying over the pervious 10 rounds. The fight seemed to be losing its intensity and that was no surprise seeing the pace these two had set. Well, that was about to change.

With about a minute left in the round, Ali was on the ropes near a corner. Frazier had landed a couple of left hooks on Ali’s chin, but not with full force. Then it happened, Joe let a hook rip that caught Ali and buckled his legs. Muhammad attempted to get out of the corner and stepped to his right with Frazier in pursuit. This is a key moment in the fight and if things had gone slightly different would have most likely been the end of the bout.

As Ali moved along the ropes trying to escape from Joe, Frazier landed a powerful left hook to Muhammad’s jaw. Ali fell backwards and his arms swung back and away from his body. He was wide open to be hit at will. He was hurt and off balance. So why didn’t Joe follow up?

Watch this moment in the fight and you will see why. There are a couple of different views of it, but all clearly show what happened. After Joe landed that brutal shot and Ali’s legs buckled it appeared he was going down, and indeed he would have. Joe seeing him start to go down stepped away to head for a neutral corner. What then happened is that as Ali was on the way down his backside caught one of the ropes and held him up. Joe looked over as he was walking away and immediately rushed back to Ali. By this time Muhammad had righted himself and had his hands back in position. If Joe had not believed Ali was going down he could have landed at will and very likely ended the contest. In boxing, seconds and fractions of seconds make a difference, and it certainly did in this case. Frazier pummeled Ali for the remainder of the round. He staggered him a couple of more times, but he could not finish him off.

The 15th round produced another amazing moment in a night of great moments. In what is perhaps the most famous knockdown in boxing history, Joe dropped Muhammad with a tremendous left hook early in the round. Ali went down flat on his back. It looked as if the fight was over. However, in what seemed like a miracle, Ali not only got up but rose almost immediately. How was he able to regain his feet after absorbing such a shot? Both men were beyond exhausted. Ali was caught flush on the jaw by one of the hardest left hooks ever thrown. Or was he?

Ali used to brag that he had a built in radar that could detect punches that were about to hit him so he could avoid them at the last second. His radar was working here. He was not able to avoid the punch, but if you watch closely as the blow connects you will see Ali moving his head as the punch makes contact with him. Basically, he, to some degree, rolled with the punch. It was still a brutal shot, but it would have been much worse had he not moved the way he did. It is amazing his mind and body were still able to respond in that manner seeing how grueling the fight had been.

I remember seeing Arthur Mercante, the referee for the fight, interviewed once. When questioned about the 15th round he said he felt the men were so tired that he feared he might push one or the other over while breaking a clinch. It just shows how much Ali and Frazier drove themselves in this battle of wills.

I once had a chance to talk with Arthur Mercante. I asked him how much he got paid for officiating that night. He told me he received $500.00. When I said it didn’t seem like much he turned to me and with a big smile said, “I would have done it for nothing.”

This March 8th take an hour to watch this fight. Do it to honor two great athletes. Do it to remember what boxing once was.

Ali’s Last Fight

Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight

by Dave Hannigan
Sports Publishing, 2016

reviewed by David Curcio

51bn64anucl-_sx329_bo1204203200_In Drama in the Bahamas: Ali’s Last Fight, Dave Hannigan eschews the usual narratives that dominate the literature on Ali, generally comprised of sycophantic biography, vilifying exposé, or exhaustive, blow-by-blow accounts of Ali’s most famous bouts. Instead, he turns his attention to the swift, ignominious (and unnecessary) decline of this once-towering figure while subtly laying down the gauntlet (especially to fans of the current boxing scene) in the shape of an indictment of the sport in general. Since its inception over a century ago, boxing has been under various forms of scrutiny, with state commissions banning, reinstating, and amending its legality (more often due to financial and legal concerns than for the protection of the fighters). But the

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored

brain trauma caused by the sport can no longer be ignored Muhammad Ali has come to exemplify the traumatic brain injury brought on by a game in which the goal is to render one’s opponent unconscious, or at least knock him down with enough force that he is unable to stand up. Despite Ali’s remarkable ability to absorb blows, the repeated, brain-addling blows to the head he received over the course of his twenty year career and sixty one fights number in the tens of thousands.

The book starts out with Ali’s loss in 1980 to Larry Holmes. At 38, he had grown soft, and was already showing signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome (different from Parkinson’s Disease but still diminishing to motor-function) and what is broadly classified as Dementia Pugilistica. He frequently slurred his speech, his movements were slower – this lean machine who averaged around 215 pounds in his prime was into the mid 230s. The fight was a devastating spectacle. Ali moved as if in slow motion, his punches lacking all their previous power. The speed and reflexes that, more than anything, had made him a great fighter had vanished. In the words of Mark Kram, Ali had fallen to “embodying the remains of a will never before seen in the ring, a will that had carried himself so far – and now surely too far.” Ali lost by a TKO when his trainer, Angelo Dundee, refused to let his fighter answer the bell for the eleventh round.

Even the World Boxing Commission wanted him to stop fighting, going so far as attempting to revoke his fighting license in Nevada and New York. Even England refused to sanction another Ali fight as the British Boxing Board did not want one of its fighters to face the washed up ex-champ. But Ali wanted a rematch. “I’m a long way from a shambling wreck,” he told the BBC before delivering a poem in the form of a challenge to Holmes that we will never hear as it was so slurred that the BBC opted not to air it.

The book drives the message home, in no uncertain terms, how badly the public were ready for an Ali retirement – sportscasters, writers, friends, even his wife pleaded with him both publicly and privately to call it quits. For fear of being party to what would surely be the his final downfall, no promoter wanted any part of the spent fighter. Then a Muslim by the name of James X Cornelius stepped in. His resume was not impressive: complete unfamiliarity with the fight game and deep in debt to boot with the reputation of an untrustworthy charlatan with an FBI warrant out for his arrest. But he was certain he could make the fight happen in the newly sovereign islands of the Bahamas.

aliberbick94xu7The fighter chosen as Ali’s opponent was Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican who came to America by way of U.S. employment on the military base at Guantanamo Bay. Details of his childhood, including his year of birth, are murky. We do know he was a deeply religious man who claimed to have had “visions” by the age of sixteen, preferring to return to his room after fights to settle in with his bible than to celebrate with the usual misbehaving. He learned to box in Cuba and had his first professional fight in 1976, The manager Doc Kerr could see through his powder puff punching and poor form and groomed him through the ranks to become the Canadian heavyweight champion. Upon his victory against John Tate as an undercard for the first Leonard-Duran match in 1980, he took a page from Ali’s book upon his victory, parading around the ring and demanding a shot at Holmes (who beat him in a unanimous decision a year and a half later). Still, Berbick had garnered enough credibility that Cornelius was able to orchestrate a fight with Ali in Nassau, Bahamas set for December 11, 1981, exactly eight months after Berbick’s defeat by Holmes, and fifteen months after Ali’s.

In comparing the two fighters, it should come as no surprise that Hannigan instills little menace in either.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point.

If Berbick was more or less a lucky tomato can, Ali wasn’t much better at this point. early as 1970 his long-time doctor Ferdie Pacheco was injecting Ali’s hands with cortisone and Xylacene before fights to dull the pain, and by 1977, could not condone sending the fighter back into the ring. After Ali’s fight with Earnie Shavers, Pacheco said of the bout “He won the fight, but his kidneys lost the decision.” When Ali asked him a year later why he said he was “all washed up,” Pacheco replied “I don’t. What I do say is you should not be fighting,” adding portentously to the promoter Bob Arum, “In two or three years we’ll see what the Holmes fight did to his brain and kidneys. That’s when all the scar tissue in the brain will further erode his speech and balance.” X-rays discovered two years after the fact revealed other symptoms, including an enlarged third ventricle. Ali found a new doctor named Harry Demopoulis who would provide him with a glowing bill of health.

The setting of the Bahamas did not seem to motivate either fighter. Neither were particularly diligent about training: Ali was down to a third of his usual roadwork and sparring, instead enjoying the lax atmosphere of his camp while the notoriously undisciplined Berbick was referred to more than once by the press as a bum and a tomato can. Despite the idyllic island setting, promotion became a nightmare when Cornelius was unable to come up with the cash for Ali’s advance of a mere $100,000. It was time for Don King to step in, who departed for the Bahamas post haste.

The frustration and hesitant support from Ali’s corner can be positively painful to read about. Angelo Dundee, out of fealty or nostalgia (who can say?) believed that, while his legwork was gone and Ali was “only half of what he used to be… half is good enough to beat Berbick.” He added that money held no interest to the fighter. This was his way of erasing the terrible specter of the Holmes fight that continued to haunt him. Dubbed by Bert Sugar as “The Trauma in the Bahamas,” the fight was fast approaching, and Ali began using Thomas Hearns (one of the undercards) as a sparring partner. Hearns spoke with guarded confidence of Ali’s abilities, though other attendees of the sessions were less generous. A wag from NBC quipped, “He floated like an anchor and stung like a moth”; a reporter from the Montreal Gazette described his coverage as a “death watch”; Ray Arcel called it “a damn shame”, promoter Dan Duva referred to it as “a disgrace”; and even Don King said “As a fan and a friend, I’d rather he didn’t [fight].” The two fighters, however, saw it as a win-win prospect. Berbick believed that, win or lose, the fight would elevate his status and credibly with the boxing world. Ali, meandering in non-sequiturs during press conferences, generally concluded with a declaration that the fight was a means of paying homage to Allah.

Cornelius found help from a wealthy American backer with deep ties to the Bahamas through a proposed casino and a lucrative money-laundering scheme named Victor Sayyah to put up the $450,000 he believed was sufficient to move forward without King’s intervention. But as fight day arrived, Berbick was still owed his money, as were judges who flew to the Bahamas on their own dime. The fighters, including the undercards, expressed outrage over the organizers’ failure to attend to the most basic aspects of preparation. They’d neglected to provide new gloves for the fighters and, having forgotten to acquire a bell, stole one off a nearby cow.

tumblr_mxo2wlexcg1rnxl9do1_1280The fight was both a disaster and dull at the same time. Berbick was almost twenty pounds lighter than Ali, who was unable to shed the weight he had planned and was a puffy 236. Slow and plodding, perhaps the fight’s most memorable moment was Berbick’s begging the referee to stop the fight in the middle of the seventh, so much punishment was he inflicting on the former champ. Ali lost by unanimous decision. When asked at a press conference if he believed his skills may have gone, he responded “They have gone. Not may have gone. They have gone.”
This was an admission of the diminishing skills all fighters experience, not an acknowledgenmnt of anything else being wrong. When Berbick was chewed up and spit out by a young Mike Tyson in 1996, he too had already begun showing signs of brain damage. He’d become erratic, fabricating bizarre and highly improbably excuses for his losses and contriving outlandish conspiracies against him. Turning to crime, including sexual battery, housebreaking, and larceny, he was summarily deported back to Jamaica where soon he was again back on the lam.

The story reads like a coda – which in a sense it is – not only to a great career and captivating personality, but to a time that served as a kind of wake-up call to the public. Like the recent Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, Hannigan’s book is exhaustive in its research, providing a narrative of a later chapter in the life of this twentieth century icon. Unfortunately, with Ali’s passing last June, it will be a hard sell to the casual fan who wants action, trash talk, and courageous stories of standing up to the system and who will probably grab more fawning reads such as David Remnick’s biography, Life Magazine tributes, or Joyce Carol Oates essays instead of facing the hard truths about how their favorite athlete arrived at the state in which he lived out his remaining thirty two years. But to anyone truly interested in the darker chapters of Ali’s life and the dangerous nature of his chosen field, it is essential reading.

Shadow Box, A Second Look At An Amateur In The Ring

by Bobby Franklin

Shadow Box: An Amateur In The Ring
By George Plimpton
(Little Brown, 347 pages, $20.00)

Shadow BoxEvery young man who steps into a boxing ring for the first time sees himself as a future champion. Appearing so basic in its nature, prizefighting is the one sport where it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see one’s self as landing that knock out blow against the champion and taking the title. Reality is a bit different.

For many, that first experience getting punched on the nose by a blow that seemed to come out of nowhere is enough to send even the most imaginative packing and leaving the gym never to return. For others, it is just the thing that gets the adrenalin flowing and the desire spiked to move forward in pursuit of the nearly impossible dream.

George Plimpton was the editor of the The Paris Review from 1953 until his death in 2003. He was also a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated Magazine. Mr. Plimpton earned a reputation as a participatory journalist by stepping onto the mound to throw against a number of MLB All Stars, play quarterback briefly for the Detroit Lions (he lost thirty yards in his few minutes on the field), and being beaten at golf by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer among other things.

In 1960 he also decided to experience boxing first hand. Now most people would have gone to a boxing gym and taken a few lessons, stepped in with a sparring partner of similar experience and gotten a good taste of what it is like to be in the ring. Not so in Plimpton’s case. His first choice of opponent was Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. When that arrangement failed to materialize he moved down a weight class and sought out Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore. The Old Mongoose agreed to meet George in the ring at Stillman’s Gym in New York City.

He recounted his session with Moore in Shadow Box: An Amateur In The Ring first published in 1977 and now reissued by Little Brown as part of a delightful set of the sports books by George Plimpton. This title is one of seven in the group, and it is a wonderful read.

I first read Shadow Box in 1977 while I was still active in the ring. Rereading it now has brought back so many memories of that time when boxing was quite different than it is today.

Moore and Plimpton (Photo: Walter Daran)
Moore and Plimpton
(Photo: Walter Daran)

Mr. Plimpton begins with his bout with Archie Moore. He took this match quite seriously enlisting a professional boxing trainer to prepare him for the fatal day. He also read numerous books on the subject and learned he was not unique among writers in getting into the ring with a champion boxer. The poet Arthur Craven, reputed to be the nephew of Oscar Wilde, fought Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in Paris. It should be noted that Mr. Plimpton fared much better in his match against Archie Moore.

George had one fatal flaw as a boxer, something he called the “sympathetic response”. This was an involuntary reaction to being hit that resulted in tears flowing from his eyes giving the appearance he was crying. This reaction was a far cry from the Sonny Liston stare and would hardly send chills done the spine of an opponent.

The three rounds with Moore went well in front of a large crowd that had gathered in Stallman’s for the event, and George was very proud of the bloody nose he came away with.

The book moves on from there to many interesting experiences Mr. Plimpton had in the boxing world as well as some wonderful stories about authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote. In one of these tales we learn of how the author attempted to arrange a meeting between Hemingway and Mailer, but it never happened. Perhaps, this was for the better as any restaurant the two would have met in almost certainly would have been busted up. We also learn that Mailer was undefeated at thumb wrestling.

Some of the best parts of the book are about the time Mr. Plimpton spent with Muhammad Ali and his covering both the first Frazier fight as well as the Foreman fight in Zaire.

The author was in Ali’s dressing room immediately after the Frazier bout and describes the pain Muhammad was in after his fifteen rounds with Joe. Most fans are not aware of just how much punishment boxers take in a fight, and this was no ordinary fight. Ali was exhausted and in excruciating pain. He could barely walk. I am sure the situation was as bad if not not worse in the Frazier camp. Mr. Plimpton’s wonderful writing brings this moment in boxing history vividly to life.

The last portion of the book is devoted to Ali’s fight with Foreman in Africa. After the press had arrived the bout was postponed for six weeks due to a cut eye the champion received in training. Being so far from home the writers stayed in Zaire for the six weeks. This leads to a number of tales such as the one where Norman Mailer thought he was going to be eaten by a lion.

Mr. Plimpton spends a number of pages writing about Hunter Thompson. Thompson was sent to cover the fight for Rolling Stone Magazine but didn’t go to the bout. I really don’t know why so many pages are devoted to Thompson as I really never understood why he was ever taken seriously, but it is an insight into the time.

The author talks quite a bit about Drew Bundini, Ali’s sidekick. Mr. Plimpton refers to him as Ali’s trainer. In one depressing scene Ali belittles Bundini and slaps him in the face in front of a roomful of reporters. Mr. Plimpton, who worshiped Ali, says he hated him at that moment.

Shadow Box is a delight. It is a book by an author who is a master with words. A man who brings the enthusiasm of the dedicated boxing fan along with just enough knowledge of the sport to make it all come alive. It is a book about the sport when it was much different and much more exciting. That excitement comes through on every page. If you have not already read Shadow Box, I urge you to do so. if you read it years ago, go to it again. You will not be disappointed.

Walk Like A Boxer

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.

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.

Gregorio Peralta and Jack Dempsey
Gregorio Peralta and Jack Dempsey

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.

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.

Ali Running
Ali Running

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.

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.