By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It never fails. Whenever I enter a week in need of inspiration for my Tuesday morning labor of boxing love, I have a go-to source who’s never once left me hanging.
What, you were expecting someone else?
Indeed, when the NBA’s best active player triggered a week’s worth of headlines and sports radio palaver with musings about which players belonged on his historical hoops “Mount Rushmore,” I instinctively thought, “Hey, maybe I can get some mileage out of this, too.”
And while King James’ picks of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson were difficult to quarrel with given the completeness of each player chosen, I’m reckoning that assembling a similar list when it comes to boxing might generate a few more cross words of disagreement.
But first, let’s set some ground rules.
Because I’m a 44-year-old man who watched his first professional fight in 1977, I’m going to limit myself to that time frame when it comes to deciding who belongs and who doesn’t. Yes, I realize that cheats guys like Muhammad Ali and Ray Robinson, among others, but if I’m not old enough to have seen them fight at their peaks in real-time, then I don’t think it’s my jurisdiction to deem them worthy or unworthy.
If there are readers who quibble with that approach or find it a ghastly offense to the Willie Peps or Tommy Loughrans of the world, I apologize. And I welcome them to concoct their own lists that reflect those viewpoints. But for these second-day-of-the-week purposes, that’s what we’re going with in terms of who’s considered for the monument being erected here in sunny Southwest Florida.
Also, because boxing is a many splendored thing whose drama is not solely limited to the fighters in the ring, I’ve decided that two of the four spots on my mountain will be devoted to those whose endeavors were not of the combative variety. One slot is earmarked for a corner man whose exploits raise him to immortal status among his colleagues, and another left to a promoter, for the same reasons.
And so, having dispensed with those preliminaries, it’s time for the main event.
Spot No. 1, Promoter:
While I concede that he’s been off the big-time event radar for several years now, it’s nonetheless true that if you’re a fan who was reared in the sport during the 1980s as I was, then the man with the electric hairstyle was as much a fixture on fight night as guys named Larry, Marvin or Ray ever were.
And it’s because of that penchant for eloquent bombast, the perpetually waving stars and stripes in either hand and a profile as recognizable as any in sports history that the czar of DKP most certainly belongs on a long-lasting symbol celebrating the fight game’s most memorable characters.
Greatest promoter ever? Perhaps not. A guy with whom you’d leave a fiscal nest egg without hesitation? Doubtful. But when it comes to making an impact and getting boxing to front-page and lead-story status in print and on television – both “Only in America” and elsewhere – no one did it better.
Spot No. 2, Corner Man:
Go ahead, I dare you. Hop on YouTube or pop a tape in the VCR and watch the first 12 rounds of the “Showdown” between Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns in September 1981. Grasp the context of the fight and get a feel for how things were progressing as matters entered the “championship rounds.”
Then just try to avoid goose bumps while listening to Dundee in Leonard’s corner as he prepped his man for the 13th, insisting to a once-beaten “Sugar Ray” that he was “blowing it now, son” and reminding him that only nine minutes remained before what seemed like an imminent second loss.
I’m as big a fan of the “Hitman” as there is on this earth and I celebrated loudly when he got his comeuppance eight years later; but each time I watch the ’81 replay, dammit, I just wish Ray would have ignored Dundee and gone about his business.
Spot No. 3, Fighter:
The Nicaraguan stylist was a champion in three divisions in an era before every mid-range belt-holder with a favorable promotional allegiance allowed it to become commonplace. And when he fought – and lost – in a bid for a fourth title, he provided a classic match that’ll be talked about for generations.
Oh, and he managed to do it all while being a decent human being, too.
For those of us who got to see the lightweight version of Arguello in the late ’70s and early ’80s on what seemed like every Saturday afternoon on CBS; we were the lucky ones. His ability to take aggressive young foes into the deep waters before breaking them down was unforgettable to watch, and the class he showed both before and after fights is something today’s stars could take a lesson from, too.
He couldn’t beat a prime Aaron Pryor at 140 and he might not have beaten a prime Roberto Duran had they met at 135, but if you’re looking for the usually unachievable combination of elite-level fighter and competitive role model, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better to immortalize at any weight.
Spot No. 4, Fighter:
ROY JONES JR.
While one spot on my mountain tourist trap honors a great fighter whom I’d have no problem naming a child after, I wanted to save the second spot for the guy whose best days, in my opinion, were better than anyone else’s best days within the post-1977 boundaries we clarified earlier on the page.
That man, with zero hesitation in spite of recent results, remains the one labeled “Superman.”
While some spend more time haranguing over who he didn’t beat in his peak years rather than those he didn’t, when I close my eyes and think of Jones, I get a vision of the impossibly fast, heavy fisted phenomenon who cleared the decks from 160 to 175 pounds and beat a laundry list of elites – Hopkins, Toney, Hill and McCallum among them – along the way.
Not to mention the one-fight rise to the land of the heavyweights, where he competitively undressed a strong, capable John Ruiz over 12 rounds in what’s still the single-most impressive weight climb I’ve seen since I first switched on the television 37 years ago this May.
The subsequent series of unimpressive wins and ugly defeats have taken the bloom off the RJJ rose for some, but to me, his version of staying around too long is no more criminal or legacy damaging than Joe Namath with the Rams, Babe Ruth with the Braves or Michael Jordan with the Wizards.
No one leaves them out of all-time great discussions because of their late-stage uniform changes, so I’ll not be diluting Jones’ impact just because he’s not at age 45 what he’d been at 25 or 35.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF lightweight title – Macao, China
Miguel Vazquez (champion) vs. Denis Shafikov (No. 3 contender)
Vazquez (33-3, 13 KO): Sixth title defense; Unbeaten since 2008 (12-0)
Shafikov (33-0-1, 18 KO): First title fight; Eighth fight scheduled for 12 rounds (6-0-1)
Fitzbitz says: “If you’ve not checked Vazquez’s resume, do yourself a favor. Outside of tight decisions against guys named Canelo (two) and Bradley, he’s never lost. Won’t happen here.” Vazquez by decision
Last week's picks: None
2014 picks record: 7-2 (77.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 555-196 (73.9 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder - no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.