By Lyle Fitzsimmons
As a Cincinnati Reds fan, I’ve been saying it for 25 years.
Though he’s long been known for a loathsome personality, one Peter Edward Rose has more hits than anyone else who’s ever played major league baseball. Which means, without his plaque on the wall in the bucolic enclave of Cooperstown, N.Y., the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a fraud.
Meanwhile, just 69 miles northwest in the Syracuse suburb of Canastota, another such statement can be made about the home of stars in another sport. Though he had a career most would envy, if Arturo Gatti makes it onto the wall there next year, then the International Boxing Hall of Fame is an abject failure.
And with apologies to election-season poll heads, “likeability factor” should have nothing to do it.
While Rose is by consensus a lying egomaniac with a bloated sense of self, his performance on the field is measurably as good as anyone who’s ever gripped a bat. It’s a stark contrast to Gatti, who admittedly thrilled a generation of wide-eyed fans, but fell flat – literally – against the best of his peers.
Rose – a rookie of the year, an MVP, a three-time batting champion and a 17-time all-star – has been barred from enshrinement for more than two decades by voting rules concocted to punish him for being defiant, rather than reverential, when it came to explaining off-field foibles.
At the same time, Gatti’s admirable accomplishments – five defenses of alphabet titles in two weight classes – are raised to legend by the Jersey Shore set because he tended to wobble and bleed a lot before rallying to beat fighters who’d never caught a whiff of a pound-for-pound list.
Whether or not you can stomach baseball, the comparison is valid. And if my fellow boxing voters lean on car-crash nostalgia rather than cold, hard logic, the symbolic blood on their keyboards will be as red as that which has caked under holier-than-thou major-league fingernails for two decades.
While the baseball case for Rose can be made with barely a glance at his body of work, the only way to justify “Thunder’s” inclusion in 2013 is by waxing poetic about ambiance in Atlantic City and holding séances in the flickering DVR glow of train wrecks with Micky Ward, Ivan Robinson and Gabriel Ruelas.
“But those were all named fights of the year,” the enraptured masses wail, mentioning neither that the foes were light years from elite, nor that Gatti actually lost two of the brawls. “And he was part of three rounds of the year,” they cry, though their hero, too, was a measly 1-for-3 in those fights.
Devotion, to them, apparently trumps disclosure.
No matter how it’s inspired, the induction dossier for Gatti hardly goes beyond a revisionist history recap of a run that was really big on highlights, really small on greatness. And once past the claims that Gatti was both an action fighter and very popular on his adopted home turf – neither of which is up for a vote, by the way – the “Arturopoligists” have precious little else with which to buttress their cases.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. If all we’re talkin’ about here is a barroom nook to honor the greatest Italians to ever crack a few skulls in the Garden State, I concede my cohorts’ lingering man-crushes are enough for me to say “fuggedaboutit” to dissent.
But when it comes to halls of fame, there really ought to be something more, don’t you think?
Something more than never being undisputed? Something more than never being a pound-for-pounder? Something more than half of what Felix Sturm totaled in terms of title defenses?
And something more than sycophants simply insisting he had more heart, courage and guts than contemporaries, simply because he got hit a lot more and fell down twice as much?
It’s the sort of popularity contest mentality that chips away at Canastota’s remaining relevance.
Whether he drew crowds of dozens or thousands and whether he played rooms in Jersey or Joliet, a fighter ought to be judged on his acumen, his accomplishments and the level of his adversaries. He needn’t have won every fight or looked good in every triumph, but at the end of the day, it should be a no-brainer that he meets the litmus test of “Was he one of his generation’s best?”
Take away dramatics against guys of his ilk, and the answer for Gatti is a resounding “Hell, no!”
He was only one of the best at 130 in the days of Nelson and Hernandez, and got pounded far below that depth when he wandered from the Branco/Dorin/Leija wading pool to the Mayweather Jr. deep end at 140 a few years later. A contrived resurgence at welter was a flop as well – save for a defeat of forgettable Dane Thomas Damgaard – and it ultimately ended not in a unification coronation, but with consecutive “somebody ought to stop this” losses to guys barely graduated from reality TV.
If you can find me a Hall-worthy stretch in any of that, I’d love to see it.
But in truth, he was a lot closer to 20-lap feature night at the local fairgrounds than the Indianapolis 500, and a lot nearer to Spider Rico than he ever got to “Italian Stallion.” And if he’d have ever actually tangled with the real-life likes of Apollo Creed, they’d have never needed a second movie.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF/WBO junior featherweight titles – Carson, Calif.
Nonito Donaire (IBF/WBO champion) vs. Toshiaki Nishioka (No. 2 WBO contender)
Donaire (29-1, 18 KO): Second WBO title defense; Fourth fight above 118 (3-0, 1 KO)
Nishioka (39-4-3, 24 KO): Twelfth title fight (7-2-2); Unbeaten above 118 since 1995 (27-0-1, 16 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “Donaire has battered a pair at 122 but couldn’t finish either one. Faced with a slugger who’s been near the division’s top for years, expect another struggle – but a win.” Donaire by decision
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.