I don't write much about boxing anymore, because there's not much in boxing anymore worth writing much about. Occasionally, things do come up. Prizefighting is the most intriguing and compelling -- not to mention most difficult -- sport, but only when it is attracting the most talented, intriguing, compelling men. Not to mention the most difficult ones. Things tend to come up then.
But now, such men are in the annual NFL draft. In another life, Mel Kiper Jr. could've been Don Dunphy. (OK, Bobby Czyz, then.) Such men are in an NBA backcourt, maybe playing defense in the NHL, or maybe in a K1 tournament. Or maybe over in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Army Rangers.
None of those options was available to Joe Louis or his contemporaries back when Joe first laced them up. There certainly was no guaranteed NBA contract back then. There wasn't anything guaranteed, except a short life and Hard Times. Opportunities even for simple meals, let alone for stupid pipe dreams, were more limited, as were general prospects. To put it mildly.
Such severity bred great fighters.
The actual training for a fight was even harsher.
I asked trainer-manager Emanuel Steward about the new state of boxing. Steward has trained at least seven world champions, including Tommy Hearns and heavyweights Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Steward had also recently taken on the job of training the unfortunate Wladimir Klitschko, who recently was toppled yet again, this time by a willing campaigner of limited talents named Lamont Brewster. We'll get to them (and to Byrd, Golota, Ruiz, Oquendo, etc.) later. No real rush, is there?
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It's true. I go to the RDV Sportsplex in Orlando to kid myself into thinking I'm still working out. It is a pristine, air-conditioned, odorless, glass-and-steel cathedral of perspiration, full of good chi and piped-in Beyonce and White Stripes, where you can get fruit smoothies and low-carb wraps after you work out on million-dollar equipment -- treadmills, spinning bikes, pulley weights, free stones, and such. There is the 21st Century equivalent of a heavy bag off in one far distant corner, the better for the odd patron (most often a woman these days) to practice her Tae Bo kicks and punches, pretending she is stoving in the mug of a rapist or a recalcitrant boyfriend reluctant to head to the altar.
I never noticed any boxers around that distant bag, or in the spot at all. If there were, I imagined them marginally talented, not gifted enough to play football or basketball to the extent that people would pay to see them play it. In recent weeks, the heavy bag disappeared.
But potential boxing talent is still around there.
For example, I've chatted up Warren Sapp, Ken Griffey Jr., Levon Kirkland, Corey Maggette, Andrew DeClerq, Daunte Culpepper, Nykesha Sales and Jason Williams, the artist formerly known as White Chocolate, half of whom (Williams, like Greg Anthony, was once a welter or middleweight hiding in a point guard's body) could be prizefighters in another time and place.
Another habitue of the spot, Kenard Lang, a defensive lineman now with the Cleveland Browns, possibly could've been heavyweight champion of the world if circumstances had been different -- which is to say, more ungodly, harsh and unfair, punishing and punitive, and hopeless so far beyond hope it ain't even funny. That, and if Emanuel Steward of Bluefield, West Virginia, and Dee-troit City had gotten hold of him early enough and trained him properly enough.
Lang has tools. In another life, could he have been honed to an edge, been up to the mark against a big heavyweight champ like Lennox Lewis? Well, Lang would have been just as big, and I would have wanted to see it and write about it. Instead, he uses his tools to do rip moves, bull-rushes and spins around 325-pound dancing bears like Orlando Pace, and chase down Michael Vick.
Why do you think the NFL is so popular? For one thing, it replaces our Circus, the violent hand-to-hand combat that boxing once personified. Sooner or later, football players, hockey players, basketball players, they all get down to squaring off and doing their simpler version of boxing. We're so disenchanted by it ... except I've never seen anybody run from watching a fight. Run away from being in one, sure. But watching? Never.
I thought of this as I was being visited by a crew taping interviews for a BBC boxing documentary series, "The Big Fight." They were thorough, showed me respect -- which, for one thing, let me know they weren't from around here; and for another, makes me think, "This might be slamming (good)."
The BBC doc comes on the heels of the "Emmy-award winning" HBO boxing series, "Legendary Nights," a creative way for HBO to employ good producers and also utilize some of their old fight footage at the same time. I had enjoyed being in it, Emmy or not. Have you seen some of the people and shows that win Emmys? Awards make you wonder sometimes, don't they?
I've done some business with the BBC and Great Britain before, the latter in the guise of the Scottish publishers of "Serenity,"one of my boxing books.
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The Scots used their mention of Tyson to recall Sonny Liston's visit to Scotland long ago, in the early Sixties. Liston had caused a bit of rumbling because he was grabbing the butts of a few fine Scottish lassies coming though the rye. With that charming and enviable burr, one of my Scottish publishers said, "DrRRRolf, that sorrrt of behavior is frrrowned upon in most precincts there in Glasgo." And I sort of smiled, and nodded, and said, "Actually, that behavior is pretty much frowned on everywhere. But since the time of John L. Sullivan to Mike Tyson, at least, the heavyweight champion of the world has felt immunity from being frowned-upon. They must feel they have fistic immunity. I guess it works kind of like diplomatic immunity, only better, as far as pinching fine lassie butt is concerned."
Staying with Liston for a minute (only because it keeps us from getting to Wladimir Klitschko, also known as "Glass Joe," and the rest of today's lot), one of the more interesting boxing books of recent times was "The Devil and Sonny Liston," by Nick Tosches. Tosches used a hard-bitten, muscled-up prose, sort of like George Pelecanos, although George (the combo Chandler/Papa Hemingway/Himes/Mosley of Washington, D.C.) is in a class all his own.
Ever seen HBO's "The Wire"? That's George. He can bring serious heat.
Styles aside, where Pelecanos achieves true greatness beyond the mandatory Shared Experience of Good Writing is that he sees the truth behind things. Nick Tosches -- and also the palindrome Mark Kram, in a recent book of revisionist history about Muhammad Ali -- see whatever it is in boxing that they want to see, the truth having only an oblique relation to it.
For example, both writers think -- no doubt for some personal reasons having to do with politics, betting, ego, vanity, denial, and dislike of Ali's style -- that Sonny Liston threw the fight with 22-year-old Cassius Clay in Miami in 1964, as Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, among others, looked on. This would be funny to us, were it not so pathetic. Where would be the gain in that for any arm of the Mob, which controlled Liston?
The Mob, like any decent promoter, bought a judge or had a fighter take a dive so that another one of its fighters could get a title, or be better positioned to gain a title. The Mob had no in with Clay, who had a moat around him named Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam. So who would gain from Liston diving? Better to control the champion. Liston was anywhere from a 5-to-1 or 6-to-1 favorite, but where was the big action against him? There were no reports of any.
Yet forget all that. The bottom line, the shock of the new, the fact that led to the legend of Muhammad Ali, was not that he'd later become the last of the great heavyweight champions; or that he lost, then won back, the title three times; or that he changed his name from Clay to Ali; or that he refused to go into the Army to fight in Vietnam; or that he was banned for three years and came back, yada-yada. What gave Clay his unbelievable cachet is that he entered the ring with this most awesome of heavyweight champions, a man more feared by his opponents than even Marciano and Louis, a man who destroyed Floyd Patterson -- young Clay got in the ring with this man and totally and completely outclassed him as both a boxer and as a fighter.
The idea of it still staggers the mind. Makes what LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony did this season look like mere child's play. That night, at 22, 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, Clay was a perfect human warrior-athlete. Like Achilles, like Beowulf, like Jim Freaking Thorpe, he was beyond human -- a demigod. Of course, such a height cannot be maintained for years. But it can for a night.
It became plain gradually, as the transfixing process went past the first, the second, into the third and fourth rounds. Liston, the heayweight champ, had no way. The Kid was faster, just as big, much quicker of hand and foot, and a master boxer already, discouraging Liston with his punching accuracy, and feral in it, too, in a way. At his size, his skill must've been sobering, frightening to face. By the third round, Clay was backing Sonny Liston up with his combinations, avoiding Liston's slow-by-comparison counters with utter ease, and beating the skin around Liston's eyes, which was beginning to puff and swell, his eyes inevitably closing.
Classic. Efficient. Clean and clear. A thing of strange beauty, like watching Robinson. Liston was so baffled and desperate that he used one of the tricks of the trade, a little linament wiped on the glovehead and dug into the opponent's eyes. When that didn't work, he took some more beating and then just flatly refused to get off the stool for the eighth round. Nope. I ain't going nowhere. Nobody held him back, or convinced him not to go out there or anything. He said something about a shoulder being out of joint, to make it look good. There wasn't anything wrong with his legs, and they didn't move.
In the rematch, when he got hit with a legit punch in the first and was knocked down, he could've gotten up, I do believe. But like Duran later, who said "No mas" as he waved Leonard away (and like Tyson later, who bit off a corner of Holyfield's ear), Liston was a pragmatist. A beating was coming that he didn't feel like taking. Any way out of there is a good way.
You can't really judge it, not unless you've been in there.
Clay outclassed the feral Sonny Liston. That's just a basic tenet. That, at the root of all things Ali, is what made him immortal. If you deny it, how can anything you say about the application of the science be trusted?
* * * * *
Here I am, all ready, willing and able to make Liebling and Pierce Egan roll over in their graves with bemused reverence toward today's version of the Sweet Science and Boxiana -- and there's nothing there to be reverent about.
I'm reduced to reminiscing about Scottish publishers.
What's wrong with this picture?
Plenty, I suppose. But then, there always has been. It's boxing. Prizefighting. The ultimately noble wrapped inside the ultimately profane. How we destroy ourselves to save ourselves. It is so ... human. It's definitely us.
Zab Judah lost again the other night. I saw Zab over at Jay-Z's nightspot one recent evening. The one night I'm 'In Da Club,' so to speak, Zab was there, eating off the menu. Chicken wings, I think. Zab was once highly thought of by the hip-hop generation. Two losses have now rendered him all too human to them. He's more of a round-the-way guy.
Brooklyn is still licking its wounds over Tyson -- in some cases, literally. But to me, Mike had a pretty good run for the tools he was given to work with. And if there was one thing Cus and Jacobs gave him (besides a wonderfully orchestrated PR campaign), it was a sense of boxing history. I fully expect Tyson to be a boxing color commentator one day. I know there is a school of thought that says he'll rip somebody's head off and spritz down their throats, but I still think the smart money is that the commentating thing will happen first.
Shane Mosley had a certain cachet until that Hearns-like clone Vernon Forrest took him to task twice. It was a matter of styles, and Forrest's was such that you knew Shane could never beat him. Obviously, that took a lot out of Shane. Shane dropped his father as his trainer-manager after this last loss, also well-earned, and the father willingly and gracefully stepped aside. But this is not golf. The so-called right swing coach cannot compete with Father Time and Up-and-Comers. Shane Mosley is fighting out the string.
Corey Spinks, conqueror of Zab ... Judah! has a chance to do some damage.
Paging Mr. Steward ...
As for the Klitschkos, the less said the better, at least in the person of Wladimir. I don't want to be too hard on him with the glass jaw comments and all. Easy for me to joke about it. Lamont Brewster saw it early.
"When I looked at his neck, I knew I could hurt him," Brewster said.
Wladimir's only way was to put you away before you could measure him up and land a good one. Wladimir has the tools to hurt you, but boxing is the art of self-defense; and of that art, he has no clue. Even Emanuel couldn't give him one. When Wlad lost to Corrie Sanders of South Africa, it was like Sanders was not only a lefty, but three-handed. That's how easily he hit W. Klitschko flush.
The promoters at HBO, Kery Davis and all of them, hoped for the best; maybe Sanders caught Wlad cold or something. But no. Brewster exposed him again. Once people see your chin is your flaw -- trust me, from there you've got to go to the A & P, to paraphrase Sam Langford. It's a little too late for trapezoid muscle exercises now. You can't get a chin out of a bottle.
Davis and HBO did well with Lennox Lewis. Their moment of triumph, shared by Showtime, was the Lewis-Tyson walkover. They sold it as a competitive fight that would prove Lewis. Tyson helped with that little charade at the press conference. That could fool even a Corleone. Even I bought it up until the opening bell and I saw the size disparity in the ring, and that Tyson had lost his zing, the punching speed that had separated him.
The outcome pleased HBO, as does its association with Roy Jones.
It would have been good to see Jones (with Leonard, of the highest class, next to Robinson, the Shakespeare of the sport) face a challenge like Duran did in Leonard, or Leonard did in Benitez, Hearns and Hagler, or that Ali did in Liston, Frazier and Foreman. Or more approximately, like Robinson did against a dozen superb men from Henry Armstrong to Sammy Angott to Jake LaMotta to Randy Turpin to Bobo Olson to Carmen Basilio, etc. But even Robinson couldn't go up to heavyweight. Not for very long anyway.
Roy Jones' greatest competition now is Larry Merchant.
Roy also has a future as a commentator in the sport. He knows it for what it is in there, and can communicate same. Matching him against Tyson would be a circus -- but, admittedly, a circus I would want to see and write about.
As for recent festivities, I had liked Chris Byrd over Andrew Golota. Byrd is skilled from the waist up, presents a moving target. His only problem there is that sometimes he has too much timing and rhythm to him, like the sweep hand of a metronome; and if a puncher is observant in his aggression, he is able to catch him with one.
Byrd is an educated boxer, but he has no magic with the public. You can win a certain way and nobody cares. You have to have that Hot Rod, that KO punch, Tyson's Complaint, a little Shavers, John L., Dempsey, Liston, Foreman, Louis, or the Rock in you. Or you have to be the boxing master of them all. Otherwise, you have to be Ali.
John Ruiz was basically known for losing a heavyweight title to Roy Jones, the blown-up, light-heavy version. He did become a heayweight title-holder, a rare thing for a Latino fighter. I am curious about Oquendo. Is my curiosity equalled by the masses of viewers? I would guess not, but there might be a lot of Telemundo viewers who'd disagree.
There's something in the air in the world, in 21st-century Boxiana, and it goes beyond the NFL draft and its annual rite-of-training-camp fights, or the combative spring playoffs, or cold-blooded ambushes and firefights near the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. There is another breach to be stepped into.
Who will have the will and the skill?
Wherever he is, he's alive, impossibly young, suffering deprivations, with his back against the proverbial wall, and out here among us.
But he wasn't on the card at the Garden on April 17th. Don King's promotion was proclaimed "Next Era of Heavyweights."
You wish, Don.
Deep down, I fear, so do I.
Who will it be? Whoever it is, he's definitely not named Klitschko, not the Wladimir side, although we shall see about Vitaly. It was Vitaly who stood toe-to-toe with Lennox Lewis and came up about thisshort, wasn't it?
Who will it be? Who lures Lewis out of retirement?
Whoever he is, the one chosen to awaken boxing's glory and viewership, maybe we'll never know. Maybe he's been drafted by the Oakland Raiders.
We may never see the like again.
Know what? We'll live.
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.