|12-16-2009, 02:49 AM||#1|
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The Gods Of War: Series Introduction
The Gods Of War: Series Introduction
By Springs Toledo
“Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great.”
~ John L. Motley
Manny Pacquiao is knocking on the door of all-time distinction and the sages of the Sweet Science are like ushers running into each other. Their problem is simple. Before they can open the golden door they have to prepare a place for him at the fistic table of the great and terrible. Before they can prepare a place for him, they have to decide where his seat is.
The spirits of legendary fighters, living and dead, are watching. Pacquiao is on schedule to bring about a tectonic shift among them. He will have his seat.
In the aftermath of his stoppage of Miguel Cotto, old boxing debates have been reignited in a new media where millions have an instant platform to weigh-in. Pacquiao’s exposure is unprecedented. His greatness is not. History has much to teach us.
THE FIRST BELL
The modern era of professional boxing can be traced back to 1920. James J. Walker, majority leader of the New York Senate, piloted legislation that legalized the daddy of all sports in Gotham State in the spring of that year. The Walker Law established standard weight divisions and abolished “no-decision” bouts where unofficial winners were declared by newspapermen. Decisions would thereafter be rendered by a referee and judges. It also designated the “neutral corner” rule, capped off the rounds at fifteen, required all participants to be licensed, placed a physician at ringside, attached penalties for intentional fouls, and established the New York State Athletic Commission. Promoter Tex Rickard wasted no time. He financed structural improvements to the old Madison Square Garden and staged six world title bouts in the first year after the law was enacted. New York became the Mecca of manly mayhem. In 1921 the National Boxing Association was formed and Rickard’s Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier promotion took in the first million-dollar gate.
Boxing emerged from back alleys and went big-time.
It was the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Age of Wonderful Nonsense, the Age of Intolerance. Booze was outlawed the same year that prizefighting went on the level but it didn’t matter, the bluenoses were besieged in an era of shifting values. Post-war prosperity and consumerism made the United States the richest country in the world; and when there is less to worry about, there is less to worry about –jazz clubs sprang up and the Harlem Renaissance blossomed while flappers tossed aside corsets, bobbed their hair, and danced the Charleston. Backfiring automobiles roared across the landscape as production at the Ford Motor Company became so efficient that prices plummeted. Everything happened fast. Fast and loose.
The once sure line between the hill and the tenements, between black and white, between conventionality and criminality got hazy.
In all this ballyhoo, the shady world of prize fighting was brought above-board. Sort of. Perhaps appropriately, the man most responsible for legalizing it had both legs in the shade himself. James J. Walker, a dandy first and a politician only when he felt like it, became mayor of New York City in 1926, but after serious corruption charges forced his resignation, he fled to Europe.
More than any other sport, boxing is a study of contrasts. Every serious fight fan has seen a fair share of both nobility and horror, of glorious triumph and withering defeat. The event is richly symbolic. A man climbs four stairs, solemnly ascending to the lights of truth. He disrobes in an act of athletic purity like an ancient Greek. He faces a nemesis –alone. To say that “one man wins” and “one man loses” reduces the event to something far less intense, far less meaningful. This isn’t tennis or bridge. It is life and death.
Outside the ropes, it’s a grimy sport, but those scoundrels responsible for its reputation –the corrupting influences, the blind or bought judges, safety-first managers, and pimp promoters all shrink back to the cheap seats once a great fight unfolds under garish lights. “Boxing” may have earned Jimmy Cannon’s epithet as the red light district of sports, but the “boxer,” particularly the great ones, are often diamonds in that district. The brilliance of the great fighter is unreflected in the grime. He shines in and of himself.
The debates about the competing brilliance of those diamonds can be exhilarating. Even the most sedated couch potato who loves the Sweet Science will shake off the doldrums if someone questions the greatness of the hero of his misspent youth.
Today Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has become a lightning rod. Yesterday it was Mike Tyson. In the 1970s Muhammad Ali was compared to his peers from eras gone by. A hundred years ago the debates swirling around Jack Johnson’s brilliance were downright wicked.
History’s curtain descends on former greats only to rise again when new ones climb the vaunted stairs. Fascinating questions emerge with each successor to the thrones. Yellowing sports magazines are full of them: Is Rocky Marciano greater than Joe Louis? Than Jack Dempsey? Is Bernard Hopkins greater than Marvin Hagler? Than Carlos Monzon?
Echoing across a century is another question –the definitive question: Who are the greatest fighters, pound-for-pound, who ever slipped through the ropes into a boxing ring?
The debates rage on. Everyone who is anyone has composed a pound-for-pound list of their own at one time or another. All lists are subject to criticism because in the end they are all subjective. There is no clearly superior list because there are no clear facts. There is, however, the weight of argument, and that’s the problem with most lists; there is rarely weighty argument, only mere opinion.
To arrive at his conclusions in his book Boxing’s Greatest Fighters, Bert Sugar reduces each fighter in his mind’s eye to the same height, weight, and ring conditions, effectively making heavyweights Shrinky Dinks and adding water to lightweights as if they’re children’s toys that grow. The problem here is obvious –fighters’ styles are often based on their physical dimensions. Julio Cesar Chavez had a strong inside game. He was short. Wlad Klitschko works outside behind a long jab. He is tall. Criticism of his method is one thing, but Bert Sugar has been immersed up to his crumpled fedora in boxing for decades. He knows whereof he speaks.
Bill Gray’s Boxing’s Top 100: The Greatest Champions of All Time stomped on the stogie of folk wisdom and threw a sponge at anything so unreliable and invalid as one man’s opinion. He applied scientific rigor in his effort to create an objective list, scoring 700 champions active between 1882 and 2001. Each champion is scored relative to his peers. Specific categories include the age of the fighter when he fought his last championship fight, the length of his career, the number of title bouts, and career wins by knockout.
It is a sophisticated presentation, but it is weighted heavily towards those fighters with long careers and long title reigns and doesn’t account for important factors like the quality of opposition, nor does it count uncrowned greats who were routinely ducked or out of luck –master-boxer Holman Williams for example, or Billy Graham, who was billed as “The Uncrowned Champion.” After Gray’s mathematics placed Joe Gans, an all-time great lightweight from the turn of the 20th century ten spots behind Virgil Hill, a great muffled guffaw was heard from Nat Fleischer’s quiet grave. Benny Leonard, another all-time great lightweight who often finds his way in the top ten, placed at #139.
Empiricists, those who work with facts and figures, usually aren’t insiders. Most studious types have never been inside an honest-to-goodness fight gym. Their understanding of boxing is limited to cold, hard data. Insiders who have been around for decades can’t necessarily be counted on either. They often show bias in favor of those fighters closest to them. In his all-time top ten list, trainer Angelo Dundee included not one but four fighters that he trained –Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Luis Rodriguez, and George Foreman. We are all prone to wax nostalgic about things that we know, and we are sometimes guilty of overlooking that which is great about today or yesterday, depending on our age. It’s human nature.
The best lists come out of both “books” and “gyms,” so to speak.
“The Gods of War” series treads new ground. Its top ten list was arrived at with data in one hand and a worn-glove on the other. Expect the unexpected. Make no assumptions. No boxer, regardless of how sacred his name, was given a free pass. Keep in mind that the list of boxing’s great fighters is far larger than ten, so if your favorite fighter didn’t make the cut, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t great …it simply suggests that there are others still greater.
Keep in mind also that there are great fighting men, great eras where many of them converged and fought each other, and great trainers behind those great fighting men. Count on this: the list will reflect a convergence of all three. There are perfect storms in this great sport.
The results will surely invite criticism and perhaps even outrage. We would do well to remember the timeless words of John Milton. “Where there is much desire to learn,” he said in 1644, “there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”
|12-16-2009, 02:50 AM||#2|
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There are two parameters: First, only those fighters who are retired were considered. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. Second, those fighters bridging the era before and after “The Walker Law” were considered if and only if they had reached their peak after 1920. This excludes Sam Langford, Joe Gans, and Bob Fitzsimmons. Those undeniably great fighters are representatives of a different era when boxing was essentially a different sport.
THE CRITERIA 1. Experience/Level of Competition: Fighters with less than 50 professional bouts are unlikely to score high in this category. It is also difficult for fighters who never fought 15 rounds to score high in this category. More important than the number of bouts or rounds, however, is how many objectively serious opponents were faced. For example, if a fighter is 60-0 and yet faces 50 opponents who were made of glass, the score would be considerably lower than if a fighter’s finished record is 132-16-2, but there are several world-beaters on that record. Baltasar Gracian said “many have had their greatness made for them by their enemies” and he is right –greatness untested is mere assumption. This category is the most important measure of a great fighter; therefore the maximum achievable score is 25 points.
2. Ring Generalship: This considers how “effective” a boxer was in controlling a fight. Control is established through adaptability/tactical ability, strategic capability, athleticism, and technical skill.
3. Longevity: Years active isn’t enough to score high here although it helps. The real questions ask how long or how often that fighter performed at a world-class level and whether there is a significant win over a world-class challenger that occurred when the fighter in question was past his best.
4. Dominance: Win/loss ratios, length of championship reigns or “reigns of terror” for those fighters routinely avoided are considered here.
Categories 2-4 have a maximum achievable score of 15 points because they are critical measures of greatness. Those below are worth 10 points.
5. Durability: The greatest fighters were rarely stopped during their prime. Due credit is applied in this category although “Experience” and “Ring Generalship” are mitigating factors. The former because if the fighter faced few punchers, then their durability will be less impressive. The latter because if a fighter’s style is magnificently defensive, then that fighter should not be credited twice.
6. Performance Against Larger Opponents (“P/LO”): The natural disadvantage of facing a larger opponent forces the smaller fighter to dig deeper than he otherwise would have to and rely on skill and cunning. A win over a larger opponent can be compelling evidence of just how good that boxer is.
7. Intangibles: In the end, boxing is a character sport. Most great fighters will score fairly high in this category. Unusual risks taken, adversity overcome, and resilience are a few of the qualities considered here.
Categories such as “Mainstream Appeal” or “Contributions to the Sport of Boxing” have no bearing here despite their unfortunately common usage in many popular rankings. They are based on charisma and political forces and have nothing to do with how great a boxer was as a boxer.
“Head-to-Head” determinations are not included either because they are too speculative; the idea of shrinking or inflating fighters into the same weight division flirts with absurdity. The ten fighters identified here have earned their place based solely on what they were and what they accomplished during their careers.
The Sweet Science as we know it has the seasoning of ninety years behind it. There are gods in its dusty volumes, gods who are reanimated and examined by those of us who won’t let them rest. Consider this your official program. The countdown will begin soon with “The Tenth God of War” and every few days another will be summoned from a literary dressing room to take a bow and then take a throne. The series will conclude after the smoke has cleared and the preeminent boxer of the modern era, the great and terrible “god of war” emerges into view.
Now the spotlight falls center-ring. A silver-coiffed announcer stands there as a microphone drops down from the ceiling.
In his hand are ten scorecards…
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