Here’s a news flash, folks… I love sports.
I played football, baseball and hockey to moderate success as a youngster, picked up distance running as an intermittent hobby in my 30s and have been fortunate enough to scratch out something resembling a post-college living watching and writing about athletes in action.
But I’ve always had a special affection for boxing.
Whether it was the feel of hitting a heavy bag, landing a right hand or simply sitting back with the wife and watching a couple high-enders mix it up on pay-per-view TV, it’s had me since hello.
I never kidded myself into thinking I had mettle to compete on anything near a respectable level, but through some middling training in a north Philly gym, a sparring match in Tampa with a world champion and years of simply being around fighters and trainers, I do have a feel for what it requires.
And even in the midst of a career and PR crisis, I think Billy Joe Saunders has it.
Yes, I was watching his fight with Canelo Alvarez on Saturday night – P.S., I miss Carl Froch – and yes, I was as stunned as the DAZN announce team seemed to be when the Saunders corner signaled the fight would not continue into its final 12 minutes at AT&T Stadium.
I’ll even concede that my split-second gut reaction was… “Holy sh!t, this guy’s reputation is screwed.”
But then, upon comprehending why Saunders chose to stay on the stool rather than trying to finish the frustratingly awkward tango he’d danced through eight rounds, I quickly came to my senses.
Because the reasoning in this case went far beyond the balky shoulder, cramped stomach and waning heart excuses previously given by consensus bad asses who ended up with Canastota plaques.
No, he didn’t invent an exit after a few rounds with a guy he knew he couldn’t catch – a la Liston ’64 and Duran ’80 – nor did he simply give up upon realizing his best was no longer sufficient, like Tyson ’05.
Let’s all say it together, people… he had a fractured eye socket.
Still, the impromptu surrender prompted the predictable round of real-time cheap shots from all manner of wannabe tough guys, who no doubt tossed back donuts and milkshakes while going all caps with “Saunders QUITS” or issued manly proclamations that his retirement indicated cowardice.
It’s a reason I hate the sport that I love.
While tapping out manly manifestos from poster-laden “apartments” in the comfort of mom’s basement, these clowns repeatedly have the gall to criticize athletes with the guts to attempt things in circumstances that their own raisin-sized arsenals would never have pondered.
And when one of those athletes has the audacity to choose long-term health over short-term glory in the face of a legitimate injury, the mini-testosterone factories get to pumping on overdrive.
Forget broken faces. I’d wager that most of them wouldn’t go outside in a heavy rain.
But it won’t stop the comparisons.
They’ll bring up Ali’s continuing against Norton with a broken jaw, or erect another wordy statue to a more recent hero – Arturo Gatti – and wax poetic on how no one short of a sissy-boy would ever consider abandoning a fight short of a flat-lining EKG.
As if permanent disfigurement or debilitating brain injury is somehow a badge of honor.
Here’s a tip, macho men… it’s not.
Had any of the punch-addled ex-fighters whose tragic stories you read these days had it to do over again, it’s my wager that the majority would look back and admit they’d have rather taken one or two fewer combinations in exchange for the ability to still tie their shoes without assistance.
Ali might still be the ambassador he was destined to be, and Gatti might have avoided the post-ring freefall that resulted in a mysterious hotel room demise that’ll be debated for decades.
They can’t change their histories, but Saunders can still chart his.
Though comments about Daniel Dubois a year ago are an ironic inconvenience – and a fortunate source of material for detractors – they go a long way toward showing that no matter how tough some of these clowns might talk, their tunes tend to change when they’re the ones with the crushed faces.
Saunders is fortunate that he gets to reassert himself at the elite end of the mix at 168 coming off the most important 24 minutes of his career – even in a losing effort – and he gets to do so with a little more of the maturity that comes from adversity and a little less of the bravado borne from easy success.
The 0 is lost forever.
But the fighter, and the man, will be better equipped to win going forward.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC super bantamweight title – Carson, California
Luis Nery (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Brandon Figueroa (Unranked WBC/No. 5 IWBR)
Nery (31-0, 24 KO): First title defense; Held WBC title at 118 pounds (2017-18, one defense)
Figueroa (21-0-1, 16 KO): First title fight; Eight straight wins by KO/TKO (47 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: The challenger holds a bogus WBA strap and is taller, longer and younger than the powerful champ. But it says here he’s not ready to put those tools to use. Nery in 8 (75/25)
Last week's picks: 2-0 (WIN: Alvarez, Soto)
2021 picks record: 20-4 (83.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,176-379 (75.6 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@example.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.