By Lee Groves
Last week I likened Floyd Mayweather Jr. to the wildly successful but take-no-risks David Simms of “Tin Cup” fame.
After watching him take apart Shane Mosley Saturday night, a parallel involving another sporting figure of the past leaped to mind – Bobby Fischer.
For those who are too youthful to know – or who don’t care about chess – Fischer is regarded by many as the greatest grandmaster that has yet lived (though Garry Kasparov would have something to say about that).
Like Mayweather, Fischer took up his sport at a very young age (six) and by 14 he captured the first of what would be eight U.S. championships. At age 15 ½ he was the world’s youngest-ever grandmaster and had accumulated enough rating points to become a candidate for world championship play.
His sixth U.S. title was achieved with the only clean sweep in tournament history – 11 games, 11 wins. His stunning victory earned him and his sport mainstream notice, for Life Magazine printed a profile while Sports Illustrated published diagrams of each winning game.
After dethroning Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the first – and so far only – American world chess champion, Fischer again made Sports Illustrated, this time on its cover. By breaking the Soviets’ four-decade hold on the title, Fischer was hailed as a Cold War hero and his success allowed his peers to reap great financial rewards.
During his prime in the early 1970s, Fischer’s chessboard mastery produced shock and awe from competitors and cognoscenti. His imaginative attacking game radiated power and the word “crush” was often used to describe the tactical and psychological damage he inflicted on his rivals.
At the same time Fischer was hailed for his defensive brilliance. If ever there was a chess player who lived up to Mayweather’s extraordinary “hit and don’t get hit” standard, it was Fischer, for he exacted precision punishment while his opponents struggled to lay a glove on him.
The words of Harold C. Schonberg in the book “Grandmasters of Chess” perfectly captured Fischer’s unique genius:
“It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as aesthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity.”
Mayweather had always been praised for his technical wizardry but up until Saturday night his fistic portrait was incomplete in one respect. Critics and admirers alike wondered whether he had the will to fight his way through a crisis because he had been so commanding for so long. When Mosley cracked Mayweather with a pair of thunderous rights in the second the crowd roared with a mixture of anticipation and curiosity, for they had never seen Mayweather so close to losing his treasured undefeated record.
For once, the master of his own domain was thrust into a situation that required improvisation from a boxing brain whose synapses were suddenly scrambled.
While Mayweather’s body wobbled under the force of Mosley’s blows his mind remained steady and focused. Therefore, he worked his way out of trouble and by round’s end he had regained his composure.
From the third round onward, Mayweather – his resourcefulness and toughness now confirmed – shifted into grandmaster mode.
Just as Fischer scanned the squares for points of attack, Mayweather’s eyes darted around Mosley’s head and body for openings and struck only when the best chances to do damage presented themselves.
His accurate jabs served as the pawns that set the table for the bishops, rooks and knights that followed. Every passing minute saw Mayweather take another piece from Mosley’s arsenal – his technique, coordination, self-control, stamina and – finally - his willingness to fully engage.
Mosley’s much-celebrated warrior’s spirit no longer used to enhance his chances of victory, but rather to summon the will to survive until the final bell.
Long criticized for his tepid manner of engagement, Mayweather opened many eyes by being the aggressor. As Mayweather advanced toward his target, he projected Fischer-like confidence, command and poise as he methodically picked apart a rival celebrated for his size, strength, speed and punch. He not only neutralized Mosley’s physical gifts, but also convinced “Sugar Shane” that using them at all would put his well-being in jeopardy.
Given that unpalatable scenario, Mosley opted to withdraw, if not surrender.
In a night filled with accomplishment, such was the greatest victory of all. Mayweather had persuaded the ultimate risk-taker that discretion was superior to foolish valor.
“Practice! Study! Talent!” was the mantra Fischer followed to achieve his success and in the end, for a variety of reasons that often bordered on the bizarre, he retired an unvanquished champion. Should Mayweather prevail against Manny Pacquiao – hopefully this fall – he will be well on his way to duplicating Fischer’s feat.
Despite the bluster he uses to build ticket sales and pay-per-view buys Mayweather is, at heart, a professional who amplified his genetic gifts with a tireless work ethic and an ambition to be his best every time he steps inside the squared circle.
The threat Mosley posed to his supremacy pushed Mayweather to stretch the limits of his talent, both in training and following his near-disastrous second round. As a nod to the boxing public, Mayweather altered his safety-first approach but did so without compromising his defensive responsibilities. The result was an aesthetically pleasing but technically sound performance that will serve to enhance his legacy. For that, he should be congratulated.
Other thoughts that came to mind during this past weekend include:
* Mayweather’s victory may have silenced his critics for now, but it did confirm one piece of their argument.
By beating Mosley in such emphatic fashion, Mayweather vindicated those who have defended him so virulently over the years. Unlike his opponent choices in recent years, Mayweather defeated a man in his own weight class who possessed comparable speed, superior power and was highly motivated to win.
While the margin and scope of Mayweather’s victory can’t be argued his critics still have one powerful piece of ammunition, rhetorical though it may be. In light of beating Mosley, why didn’t Mayweather choose to fight Paul Williams, Miguel Cotto, Kermit Cintron, Antonio Margarito and the rest of the rich welterweight class when he was in a position to call the shots as the pound-for-pound champ?
Just as he had against Genaro Hernandez, Angel Manfredy and Diego Corrales earlier in his career, Mayweather showed on Saturday that he still performs best against those who pose the greatest challenges. Based on his form against Mosley, Mayweather could have posted victories against any member of his mid-decade lineup of welterweight peers, so why didn’t he seize the opportunity when he had the chance?
Just imagine how fuller his resume would have been had he done so. And if he had, he wouldn’t get quite as much pushback when he lays claim to being the best ever to lace on gloves. While Mayweather can never erase the specter of what could have been, the phrase “better late than never” can apply after Saturday night.
* Why do sanctioning organizations continue to approve matches involving titles that only one man can logically win?
Such was the case when Mexico’s Daniel Ponce de Leon defended his WBC Latino featherweight title against decidedly non-Latin Cornelius Lock on the Mayweather-Mosley televised undercard.
Though De Leon appeared to do more than enough to win on my card, Lock came within two points of winning the fight and the belt on two of the cards.
How embarrassing would it have been for the Mexico-based WBC for it to award a specifically categorized belt to a fighter that didn’t match that particular category? If Lock had won, do you think Jose Sulaiman have renamed the belt the WBC African-American featherweight title in Lock’s honor?
Veteran boxing observers know that part of the “art” of matchmaking is to find the correct opponent to advance the preferred agenda. But when a sanctioning body stages a fight whose belt can be credibly held by only one fighter, that “art” becomes shameful and ridiculous.
More than once, a 30-something fighter has competed for a “youth” belt intended for fighters age 23 and below, a nonsensical scenario that actually backfired when 21-year-old Curtis Stevens was stopped by 31-year-old Marcos Primera for an interim youth title in July 2006. So why are fights like these staged at all? The sanctioning fee, of course.
At the risk of sounding like an Ollie Obvious, if an organization is going to create titles that have such tightly drawn boundaries, then both combatants must fit the given criteria.
While telegraphing punches is a sin inside the ring, telegraphing an intended result should be an even bigger one.
* In his own way, Saul Alvarez was just as impressive in beating Jose Miguel Cotto as Mayweather was in beating Mosley.
On paper, the 19-year-old Mexican prodigy was fighting the most experienced and challenging opponent of his career in the older brother of two-division champion Miguel Cotto, who gave a prime Juan Diaz quite a tussle a few years back but now was a blown-up welterweight.
Off the heels of Said Ouali’s one-round upset of the touted Hector Saldivia, it appeared another surprise was brewing when the 31-1-1 Cotto stunned Alvarez with a flurry of blows in the first round. Under the glare of his first mega-fight undercard, it would have been easy for Alvarez to wilt under the pressure. But the youngster rode out the storm, steadied himself and mounted his own response.
Alvarez’s counterattack produced a near knockdown in the second and a pile of points heading into the ninth. He approached his work with the poise of a seasoned pro and even when he unleashed a torrent of right hands that prompted referee Tony Weeks to intervene, one could almost see the wheels turning in Alvarez’s head as he considered which punches would cause the most damage.
Though it all, his relaxation was such that he lent credence to his claim that he had 13 more fights and 10 more knockouts than his 32-0-1 (24 KO) record indicates.
While it is premature to crown Alvarez boxing’s next great superstar, the fact that he overcame his brief tangle with adversity shows he has a solid emotional foundation upon which to build. A fighter can have all the physical skills in the world but if he doesn’t respond well to crisis he won’t be worth very much at the championship level.
In buzzing Cotto, Alvarez has created buzz for himself and here’s hoping the redheaded Mexican nicknamed “Cinnamon” will continue to spice up boxing for years to come.
* And finally, a touch of irony…
In the days before Mayweather-Mosley, your humble essayist wrote a piece explaining how the divide in public perception could be explained by the movie “Tin Cup.”
Imagine how surprised I was, then, when the Golf Channel aired the movie just six hours before the pay-per-view telecast began. Does someone at the Golf Channel read BoxingScene?
E-mail Lee Groves at [email protected]