By Thomas Gerbasi
If you were sent to a desert island but given the choice of taking career DVD sets of just 12 fighters, which dozen would you choose? In Part One of this little trip down memory lane , my first six were Alexis Arguello, Tony Ayala Jr., Diego Corrales, Frank “The Animal” Fletcher, Arturo Gatti, and Larry Holmes. Here’s the rest…
Sugar Ray Leonard
I don’t have any proof of this, and I may just be making assumptions, but I’m guessing that I was the only white kid in my Irish-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn who had a Sugar Ray Leonard scrapbook. And I didn’t care. Sugar Ray Leonard was Muhammad Ali to those of us pre-teens just getting into the sport, and even though the mainstream media gravitated to him because of his style and charisma, as I got older, it was clear that for all the TV commercials and the squeaky clean image, at heart he was always a fighter, and his resume proved it. Of course, having a diehard Roberto Duran fan as a father made things a little tense around the house back around the first Duran-Leonard bout in Montreal, but a few months later, New Orleans and “No Mas” gave me bragging rights once again.
Years later, thanks to my buddy Brian Adams, I finally got to interview Ray briefly when he was promoting the first season of ‘The Contender,’ and while he got a funny look on his face and took a step back when I told him about the scrapbook (yeah, I had to), he couldn’t have been more gracious. They say to never meet your heroes because you’ll get disappointed, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.
Why Joe Louis? I never saw him live and didn’t grow up when he was in his prime (or even fighting for that matter), but something about the legendary heavyweight champion always clicked with me. To me, he was one of the most efficient fighting machines ever, a brutal puncher with no flash, but who produced devastating results. More than that though, after tearing through numerous biographies on Louis, it’s clear that he was a man with many layers, one who had perhaps more pressure on him than any athlete before or since when he fought his rematch with Max Schmeling in 1938. This wasn’t just a fight; Louis was expected to defend America’s honor against the German (who he ironically became friends with in later years) in the days before World War II, and he delivered in the most emphatic way you could imagine – with a first round knockout. And while Louis’s story is captivating both before and after that fight, as far as a defining moment, that was it, and it’s captured the best in David Margolick’s book “Beyond Glory.”
The sad part of the story of Gerald McClellan is that I spent more time covering him after his tragic 1995 fight with Nigel Benn than I did before it. Yet before that fight, “The G-Man” was destined for stardom. Already a WBO and WBC champion whose victims’ list held names like John Mugabi and Julian Jackson, McClellan was a wrecking machine in the ring, and as he moved up to 168 pounds to face Benn, it was clear that with a win, the road to a bout with a man he defeated in the amateurs, Roy Jones Jr., would get a little bit shorter. Yet whether it was referee Alfred Asaro’s ineptitude or just one of those tragic coincidences, that fight never happened and the injuries McClellan suffered in the bout affected his life forever.
It was a few years later that I met the lady who may have been the best fighter in the family, McClellan’s sister Lisa. Feisty and fiercely loyal, Lisa would do anything for her brother, and by taking care of him around the clock, she did, basically putting her life on hold for her sibling. That was a powerful example of a sister’s love, and it’s something I won’t forget witnessing.
Another thing I won’t forget is the time Lisa and Gerald came to New York for the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner in 2002 that was celebrating their longtime friend Teddy Blackburn. Teddy and I met them at the train station, a pretty big moment considering it was Gerald’s first trip out of Illinois since he returned home from the Benn fight. I had offered to get the word out the media, especially the boxing guys who were all in town for the dinner. Yet only two people showed up: Wally Matthews (now of ESPN) and then-middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. Seeing McClellan and Hopkins interacting was something for my personal time capsule, but the saddest part is that no one else came to visit.
The next day, we did the same thing in the hotel before the dinner, but again, attendance was sparse, with a couple reporters, including Kevin Mitchell of the UK, being outnumbered by fighters like Brian Adams, Paulie Malignaggi, Ricardo Williams Jr., Mark Breland, and promoter Lou DiBella. The best exchange: McClellan asking Breland, “Are you Lisa’s date?”
It was a bittersweet couple days, but my point to those who didn’t show up is: if you love the sport when it’s good, when you’re ringside at a championship fight and interviewing the Pacquiaos and Mayweathers of the world, don’t forget it when it goes sour. Realize that there’s another side of this sport, one that isn’t so glamorous, and one that’s shared by many retired fighters. Why not give them some time as well for all they’ve given to the sport?
It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly, but hey, what do you expect for $600? What am I talking about? Well, before the full-time writing bug bit me, I did a little bit of everything in boxing in an attempt to escape the world of maintenance and do something I enjoyed for a living. So in addition to the occasional freelance writing gig or the various pieces I did for the CyberBoxingZone, I also did a little publicity (Cliff Etienne, Leah Mellinger, Nina Ahlin) and a little web design work. My first web client? Sugar Shane Mosley. Now if you were on the World Wide Web back around 1998, Mosley was the lightweight champion of the world but still pretty much unknown to all but the most hardcore of fight fans. When I met up with his publicist at the time, Norman Horton, to set up an interview for the CBZ, we became fast friends and he told me about his efforts to get Mosley out to the world. I told him he should get a website. Norm’s response? Can you make one? Absolutely. Truth is, I never made a website before, but I figured with Microsoft Front Page, how bad could it be?
Pretty bad, but I knocked it out (complete with “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’ wav file and flashing marquee lights) and did the same for Johnny Tapia and David Reid. Eventually (or more accurately, immediately) it was clear that I had no talent for web design, so what do frustrated web designers do? We write. And while the rest is history, I always considered Mosley as one of my favorites, in and out of the ring. Through the ups and downs, he was always accessible, always interesting to talk to, and when he was on top of his game, it was something to see. My favorite Mosley fight is a pretty obscure one, but on June 27, 1998, I left a Mets-Yankees game in the fifth inning to drive down to Philadelphia and watch Mosley defend his title against Wilfredo Ruiz. And he wasn’t even the main event at Temple University that night (David Reid-Simon Brown had that honor). Mosley was dazzling in knocking Ruiz out in the fifth round, and it was clear that one day, the rest of the world would know just how good the kid from Pomona really was. And once he reached that point, he was able to get a much better website, but I wasn’t insulted.
Matthew Saad Muhammad
It may seem odd, but my first remembrance of Matthew Saad Muhammad (formerly Matthew Franklin) was those cool Sasson trunks he had. That was high fashion back in the 80’s, almost as cool as Larry Holmes’ Pony shoes. But I digress. Simply put, they don’t make fighters like Saad Muhammad anymore, and in going over some of his past wars with guys like Yaqui Lopez and Marvin Johnson, it’s clear that they don’t make referees like that anymore either, because some of the abuse these guys took without the ref stepping in was downright criminal. Of course, you can justify Saad Muhammad taking a steady barrage of unanswered blows because he usually came back to win, but that’s never good for your longevity or health. Regardless, Saad Muhammad was known for the kind of battles that made him the precursor to Arturo Gatti, and while he will be best remembered for that warrior’s heart, he wasn’t a face-forward banger. He was a champion in what I believe was the last Golden Age of the light heavyweight division, an era where Saad Muhammad called Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Lopez, Johnson, James Scott, Jerry Martin, John Conteh, Michael Spinks, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Those were the days.
It’s Mike. What more can you say, other than the fact that if 1,000 people made up a list like this, Tyson would probably be on 95% of them. He was boxing’s last superhero, the last knockout artist, the last baddest man on the planet. Hey, I love watching Pacquiao and Mayweather do their thing, but they’re not Mike Tyson. And maybe I say that for sentimental reasons. Tyson and I are in the same age bracket (he was born two years before me), and hey, we’re both from Brooklyn. What that meant to me is that when he was “Iron Mike,” wrecking everyone in his path and looking invincible, me and my friends thought we were invincible. Who doesn’t in the years 18 to 20? So while my formative years in boxing saw Larry Holmes as “my” champion, when I was able to drive and when I knew it all and when I was bulletproof, Mike Tyson was the one we all looked to. Yes, nothing lasts forever, and he had his struggles along the way, some defensible, some not, but to see him today as a happy and content 45-year old family man who made it out the other side, that makes me smile. Because for practically every young male of my generation, Mike Tyson was boxing.