by David P. Greisman
Certain fighters are paired together in this sport’s history because of what was given — brutal entertainment delivered between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Other fighters end up with a combined entry in our memories because of what was taken.
Last week brought tributes in honor of Emile Griffith, who died at 75 and who was remembered for the championships he won at welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight, for the speculation about his sexual orientation, and for the fact that a remark on his sexuality had preceded the death of one of his opponents.
We cannot remember Griffith without also recalling Benny “Kid” Paret, who had called Griffith a “maricon” — a Spanish slur used against homosexual men. Griffith punched Paret defenseless and kept punching, knocking him out and delivering the injuries from which he would never recover and never wake.
This is a blood sport, but it is not a heartless one. The rules introduced by the Marquess of Queensberry about 150 years ago have been amended over the generations, making boxing safer without removing the elements that captivate us. This is still a violent enterprise, but it is a skillful one.
It is called “The Sweet Science,” but it remains capable of savagery.
Mark Kram depicted Ali and Frazier as they convalesced immediately after their third fight, the famed “Thrilla in Manila.” The two great heavyweight fighters, men who had found the will to punch and be punched for 14 rounds, were left in weakened states.
“Ali had never before appeared so vulnerable and fragile, so pitiably unmajestic, so far from the universe he claims as his alone,” Kram wrote for Sports Illustrated. “He could barely hold his fork, and he lifted the food slowly up to his bottom lip, which had been scraped pink. The skin on his face was dull and blotched, his eyes drained of that familiar childlike wonder. His right eye was a deep purple, beginning to close, a dark blind being drawn against a harsh light.”
Frazier, meanwhile, had been saved from himself. He had stopped fighting only because his trainer had decided that he was too brave for his own good and too hurt to go on.
Wrote Kram: “ ‘Who is it?’ asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around. ‘I can't see! I can't see! Turn the lights on!’ Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far — and now surely too far.”
No matter how safe this sport has been made, a boxing match is still a fight. The men who enter the ring recognize that they are putting their lives on the line. The legends among them often come closer than most to realizing those consequences.
* * *
Fights aren’t won on paper, but a certain piece of paper often predicts who will win the fight.
The bout sheets handed out to members of the media disclose assignments that are far from coincidence: the favorites all tend to fight out of the same corner of the ring.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday night in San Antonio for the three fights featured on “Showtime Championship Boxing.” Welterweight prospect Keith Thurman had the red corner, Diego Chaves the blue. Lightweight prospect Omar Figueroa had the blue corner, Nihito Arakawa the red. Former welterweight titleholder Andre Berto had the blue corner, Jesus Soto-Karass the red.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out who the promoter wanted to win, though. Thurman, Figueroa and Berto all had fought on Golden Boy Promotions cards. All three are signed with boxing adviser Al Haymon. All three were facing tough opponents, but they were supposed to be the stars of the show.
Berto and Soto-Karass were the televised main event. The true attraction, however, was Figueroa. He is just 23 and has yet to capture a world title or headline a major broadcast, but he is a Texas native of Mexican heritage. Though he grew up about four hours away from the arena, one needed only to listen to his introduction to recognize that the majority of fans had come to support him.
“It was absolutely deafening in there for him,” said Kelsey McCarson, a boxing writer who was in San Antonio covering the card for TheSweetScience.com. “Not even close for anyone else.”
A week and a half before the fight, Oscar De La Hoya, Golden Boy Promotions’ namesake, had spoken about Figueroa during a media conference call held to help publicize the fight between Berto and Soto-Karass.
“This is a kid that we feel is going to go very far,” De La Hoya said at one point.
“Now it’s time to step it up, and step it up big time,” he said at another point. “July 27 is not going to be an easy night for him.”
Often such words are part and parcel of selling a card to ticket buyers and television viewers. The best promoters and matchmakers aren’t the ones who make evenly paired bouts; they are the ones who make fights that appear to be competitive but are nevertheless designed to produce a desired result.
In this case, whether intended or otherwise, De La Hoya’s words proved to be a prescient prediction.
Figueroa, like many top prospects, had knocked out most of his opponents. He had won 21 of his first 22 fights, a draw the lone blemish, and only three of his victories had come on the scorecards (another win had come via disqualification). The longest any of his bouts had gone was 10 rounds in 2012, 8 rounds in 2011 and 8 rounds in 2010. His pro career had consisted of 66 rounds, an average of 3 rounds per bout. Four of his last five wins had come in the first round. Six of the last seven fights were over before the bell rang to end the second round.
Arakawa had never fought in the United States before. In fact, his sole bout outside of his home country of Japan had been a loss eight months beforehand in Mexico City. He wasn’t a wholly unknown commodity, though, not in an era where fights from around the globe can be seen streaming live on the Internet or watched later on YouTube and other platforms. CompuBox had reviewed two of his bouts and noted the volume punching he’d used in a win over Takehiro Shimada, with a pair of rounds in which he threw more than 100 shots.
There are two options for fighters who don’t have the heaviest of hands: He can attempt to box, or he can seek to overwhelm his opponent. It was clear what Arakawa’s choice would be.
He stood in bravely with Figueroa from the outset, though that strategy appeared to be one of foolish courage. Figueroa unleashed a torrent of hard punches and landed most of them, throwing 60 of 104 shots in the first three minutes, going 56 of 88 with power punches. Arakawa, for all of his effort, was just 17 of 78 in total, 13 of 62 with his hooks and crosses.
It seemed as if Figueroa would break Arakawa as he had done to nearly everyone else, particularly after a sequence of shots in the second round hurt Arakawa and had him briefly go down to one knee.
Arakawa never stopped, though. And because of that, neither could Figueroa.
Statistics are not necessary in boxing. One need only watch the action and keep score on the 10-point must system should the bout go the distance. Those watching Figueroa-Arakawa already recognized how entertaining and exciting it was. The statistics kept by CompuBox are astonishing, though, and they underscore just how much action there was.
The two fighters threw a combined 2,112 punches, an average of 176 per round, about 59 per minute, a shot for nearly every second. Figueroa’s hands accounted for 942 of those, while Arakawa sent out 1,170, or more than 97 per round. The least active round was the second, when they threw 150 punches combined. The most active round was the fifth, when they combined for 202.
Figueroa’s punches were more powerful, and also more accurate. He landed 480 punches in total, a 51 percent connect rate, including 450 of 794 power shots, or 57 percent. According to CompuBox, Figueroa’s power connects were the fourth most among all the fights its statisticians have worked over the past 28 years. Arakawa, meanwhile, landed 280 total punches, a 24 percent connect rate, and was 266 of 960 in power shots, or 28 percent.
Figueroa said afterward that he had hurt his hands earlier in the fight, which was no surprise given how often they had crashed into Arakawa’s head or thudded into his body. He kept punching despite the pain, bringing significant swelling above and below Arakawa’s left eye before the fight was halfway over, and scoring another knockdown in the sixth round when the referee ruled that the ropes held Arakawa up.
Figueroa bled from the third round on, a cut opened high on his nose from an accidental clash of heads. He also had to contend with an opponent who would not quit, who would not stop, and who would do — and go through — whatever it took to win.
A boxer’s life is always on the line. Legendary warriors such as Corrales and Gatti were willing to suffer through extremes. They were praised for it. That doesn’t mean we don’t worry about how close to the line a fighter is getting.
* * *
As the eighth round came to a close, Showtime commentator Paulie Malignaggi, himself a pro boxer, wondered aloud about whether the fight should be stopped.
Arakawa was still throwing, was still landing occasional eye-catching shots, but Figueroa withstood them. We weren’t certain of how much more Arakawa could sustain from Figueroa, though. Nor were we sure we’d want to see.
The most serious injuries suffered in boxing matches aren’t solely from referees letting a defenseless fighter take punches for far too long, as had happened in Emile Griffith’s fateful and fatal win over Benny “Kid” Paret. Sometimes a boxer will give the appearance of competitiveness, even as the punishment accumulates and becomes disproportionate.
This is why boxing is more dangerous than mixed martial arts. Instead of single blows that knock a fighter unconscious, the additional padding in boxing gloves allows for a brain to bounce inside a skull hundreds of times.
Those watching the fight on television began to ponder the same question as Malignaggi, the debate going on during the action thanks to the immediacy of social networks and website message boards.
Perhaps the referee, Laurence Cole, felt that Arakawa was active and aware enough to continue. Arakawa’s corner men didn’t throw in the towel or keep their fighter on his stool. He fought on throughout 12 rounds, lost a unanimous decision and won respect.
Arakawa epitomized a trait we expect from our boxers, that willingness to fight through anything. After all, we had criticized a contender named Victor Ortiz for verbalizing his lack of that trait following his 2009 loss to Marcos Maidana, a fight in which Ortiz quit.
“I was hurt,” Ortiz had said in a post-fight interview. “I’m not going to go out on my back. I’m not going to lay down for nobody. I’m going to stop while I’m ahead. That way I can speak well when I’m older. May the best man win, and tonight, he was the best man.”
“I’m young, but I don’t think I deserve to be getting beat up like this,” he had said.
This is the fine line that comes with being a pro fighter.
They are expected to be entertaining, but also to be victorious. They are told to protect themselves at all times and then derided if they are too capable of doing so. They are honored for battling through injury, yet it is them and not us who must live with the pain and the accumulating consequences of years of sparring and fighting.
There is also a fine line that comes with being a boxing fan.
We admire highly skilled boxers, but we issue our “Fight of the Year” awards to the most exciting brawls. We looked at a photo of Figueroa and Arakawa posing together in the hospital, their faces misshapen, and we recalled a similar scene between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.
Some of us worry about whether a boxer should take any more punishment, while the rest of us are thrilled that he is able to take it and still respond.
This is a blood sport, but it is not a heartless one. It is a violent enterprise, but it is a skillful one. It is called “The Sweet Science,” but it remains capable of savagery.
It is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.
The 10 Count
1. The circumstances aren’t identical, but Andre Berto is now in a similar position with his career as Jermain Taylor was in four years ago.
Taylor’s loss to Arthur Abraham gave him four losses in five fights, three of them ending with him knocked out. The Abraham loss left him in the hospital with bleeding on the brain. But even had that injury not happened, the defeat meant that he needed to think carefully about whether to continue his career.
There was no shame in losing to Abraham, Carl Froch and Kelly Pavlik. But there also was no reason to expect that he would belong in the ring with the top tier of super middleweights.
Berto, like Taylor, will need to ponder whether he can suddenly accept a lesser spotlight and smaller paychecks. There is little shame in losing to Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero and Jesus Soto-Karass. They are good welterweights even if they aren’t at all the best at 147.
But nobody wants to be confronted with their own limitations. And Berto’s limitations mean that he likely will not be in the main event of a major boxing broadcast unless he is the B-side. That will be a big shift for a boxer who was featured prominently while he developed from a prospect into a titleholder, and who was given sizable paychecks for complete mismatches.
Berto looked and sounded heartbroken in his post-fight interview following the loss to Soto-Karass. That’s understandable. He recognized what the defeat meant.
2. It’s a shame that so many people have been rooting against Andre Berto for so long.
Much of the disdain for him comes from the fact that his skills didn’t match the hype, and he was seen as another overpaid, pampered prospect being shoved down boxing fans’ throats without truly earning it.
He’ll never be the next Floyd Mayweather. He’s flawed. But he’s fun. For that, he’s proven worthy of attention. He’s also deserving of respect.
“I’m a warrior,” Berto said after the loss on Saturday. Soto-Karass had shown himself capable of hitting Berto cleanly in the opening round. Berto’s situation got even worse after he appeared to injure his right shoulder. Berto fought on, though, digging deep until Soto-Karass landed the final blow.
“I’m going to go out on my shield regardless,” Berto said afterward.
“Every time I step in here, I put it all out on the line,” he said at one point. “I show that warrior spirit every time,” he said at another.
He went to war with Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero and Jesus Soto-Karass. He’s been criticized (deservingly) for his positive steroid test last year. He’s been villainized (undeservingly) for things related to the boxing business that weren’t his fault.
We love the underdogs who overachieve. We don’t need to hate the overhyped fighters who underachieve.
3. It wasn’t too long ago that some of boxing’s closest observers felt that Keith Thurman wasn’t ready for prime time, so to speak.
Thurman’s HBO debut came just about a year ago. It was initially supposed to be against Marcos Maidana, but Maidana didn’t accept the fight and Thurman instead appeared on the network against Orlando Lora.
It was fair to criticize. Thurman appeared slow and crude, and he was a prospect who was getting the spotlight when others weren’t, thanks in large part to him being with powerful boxing adviser Al Haymon. People take offense to certain fights or fighters being on the premium networks, particularly as the money spent on them conceivably means less money and airtime for higher-quality boxers and bouts.
Thurman kept being featured, though, thanks not just to his business affiliation, but also because HBO seemed to like his personality and his power. And we’ve seen him grow, dispatching the faded Carlos Quintana, outpointing Jan Zaveck and then scoring a stoppage over Diego Chaves this past Saturday on Showtime. He’s still somewhat unproven, but he’s not at all undeserving of attention.
He very well could have his limitations exposed sometime soon, but at least he’s good TV against a certain caliber of opponents.
4. Thurman earned an additional $10,000 as a bonus for getting the knockout of the night on the broadcast portion of a card promoted as “Knockout Kings II.”
His performance was good. Whether he deserved that bonus is arguable. I thought Jesus Soto-Karass’s knockout of Andre Berto was the more aesthetically pleasing highlight.
In reality, however, I think the real knockout of the night was the one fight that went the full 12 rounds. Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa knocked us out of our seats.
5. We’ve heard of fighters getting hit so hard that they don’t know where they are. That wasn’t the case with Keith Thurman during his post-fight interview following his win over Diego Chaves. Alas, what was but a slip of the tongue earned Thurman a round of boos:
“I also want to thank this city right here — San Diego!” he said to Showtime’s Jim Gray, before recognizing his error. “San Antonio! San Antonio! My bad, baby. My bad.”
It happens to the best of us.
Glen Johnson, for example, said this to Jim Gray when explaining that he got robbed against Chad Dawson in 2008: “Everybody here in the audience saw it. Everybody that’s watching HBO — I mean Showtime, I’m sorry, Showtime — saw it.”
Mike Tyson, during HBO’s “Fight Day Live” broadcast prior to the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez 3 in 2011, confused Jim Lampley — with whom he was speaking — with Jim Gray.
Thurman has more in common with another kind of ring performer — pro wrestler R-Truth.
“Green Bay, Wisconsin! What’s up?” he said in 2011.
The only problem? WWE was in Milwaukee that night. The fans in attendance responding by chanting their city’s name during his match.
6. Shameless self-promotion: My first book is now available. “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing” is 342 pages strong and includes 63 of my best columns and articles dating back to Arturo Gatti’s final fight, in 2007, and continuing all the way through 2012.
It can be ordered online via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsbook and can also be found on Amazon.com at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon . Those of you from overseas should also be able to find the book on your country’s Amazon site.
7. As I’ve noted before, today’s technology has simultaneously shrunk and enlarged our boxing world.
On Saturday, you could’ve woken up at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (or stayed up until 3 a.m. on America’s West Coast) to watch the preliminary bouts taking place in Macau, China.
Those who did so saw a fight that wasn’t part of the HBO2 and UniMas tape-delayed broadcasts later in the day: an entertaining nine-round battle between junior featherweights Genesis Servania and Konosuke Tomiyama.
I started my day with good fights and ended it with Showtime’s stellar three-fight card. Boxing fandom can be an addiction, but it’s an addiction that can produce some stellar highs.
8. Years ago, I could justify my 10 a.m. trips to the local bar, where I watched the United States play in the World Cup while I held a burger in one hand and a beer in the other, all just minutes after I’d filed my deadline stories at my newspaper
Alas, I couldn’t allow myself a cold Yuengling while watching boxing at 6 a.m., even though it was a Saturday.
All the more reason to move out west.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly update: A warrant calling for the arrest of Herbie Hide after the former heavyweight titleholder failed to appear at a court hearing has been canceled, but the case against him remains active, according to BBC News.
Hide is accused of conspiring to supply cocaine, according to the article. He allegedly arranged for undercover reporters from tabloid newspaper The Sun to get the drug.
Another defendant in the case has pleaded guilty to three of four drug charges.
Hide’s attorney said earlier this month that he’d been told that the 41-year-old boxer was in a clinic in Nigeria, where he was being treated for Malaria. But no doctor’s note had been sent to the court at the time of that hearing, according to BBC News.
"Norwich Crown Court said the warrant had been dropped, as long as he complied with restrictions upon his expected return to the UK in August," BBC reported last week. "A new date for his plea and case management hearing has not yet been set."
Hide’s record as a fighter was 49-4 with 43 knockouts. He held a heavyweight world title twice during the ‘90s and had continued to box at or around cruiserweight over the past several years. His last bout was in April 2010.
10. I wish I had a joke about Rampage Jackson vs. Roy Jones, but those five words alone are joke enough…
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org