The Times They Are A-Changin’

BY Michael Olajide ON August 21, 2006
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The biggest quake (or should I say wake) in boxing? Four heavyweight champions from the former USSR… (Oleg Maskaev, Sergei Lyakhovic, Wladimir Klitchsko and Nicolay Valuev) or is it four white heavyweight champions that two years ago maybe even a year ago, three of which were either never on, or no longer on, the boxing radar screen. The truth remains that there should only be one heavyweight champ, and I know most would say Wladimir Klitchsko given the fact he beat Chris Byrd. He appears to be the most talented… but from my POV, I gotta say it’s Sergei Lyakhovic (not that he could beat Klitchsko)… he beat Lamon Brewster, who KO’d Wladimir… Simple as that… no heavyweight controversy here… but therein lies a travesty.

No world heavyweight champion from the United States… I can barely remember the time when there wasn’t an U.S or western hemisphere or black world heavyweight champ (which is really the rumbling under the surface and it would be much more interesting if people just came out and said it). After all, even when Gerrie Coetze was champ, you still had Larry Holmes as the real thing… before that, I think Ingemar Johansson was the last white heavyweight champ, Rocky Marciano before him and then you had to stretch back to pre-Joe Louis to find a “non-black” world heavyweight champion… The States was probably as shocked almost 100 years ago when Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champ as it is today knowing there aren’t any black heavyweight champs… The worst thing is, many aren’t even sure if any are on the horizon. The best hopes for U.S heavyweight boxing are James Toney, Shannon Briggs and (dare I say it)… Evander Holyfield… Evander is a real interesting story that we will get to at another time.

Anyway, I don’t want to reside here too long because things can get kinda grim, and that really isn’t where I want to go with this story. I want to rap about the apathy in the current stateside heavyweight, black, white or whatever... I believe it started back with “Two Ton” Tony Galento… a man who at 5’8” and 235 lbs, fought with a big left hook and an even bigger beer belly. He had Joe Louis on the deck but the Brown Bomber got back up and that’s all she wrote.

So let’s say it started with an attitude and manifested itself physically. There used to be a certain pride when it came to being a fighter, now for heavyweights it has devolved into something less glamorous… In the late 70’s early 80’s, that’s when we began to see the heavyweights’ bodies change. Yes, there were always the Buster Mathis, Scott Ledoux types, but they never got to be champs and one would think their conditioning would have something to do with that. Jimmy Young, Greg Page, Tony Tubbs, Riddick Bowe are just some of the ridiculously gifted fighters that you feel only needed the help of a good fitness regimen and they would’ve been GREAT fighters.

I am not saying that your body has to be like a god’s in order to fight, (Larry Holmes took out Mike “Hercules” Weaver) but the fact that you do have some muscle definition says something… it says you have sacrificed and paid the price… and paying the price is something many of the U.S heavyweight are no longer interested in doing…

So where does the responsibility lie? Well, trainers and managers need to get on the same page. Managers are partially responsible, as are the trainers (ultimately the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the fighter, as does the embarrassment). Here’s what not all, but many, managers do: instead of continuing to make their fighters train hard and pay the price for glory through various performance clauses, they mollycoddle their fighters with comforts that would cause the most desperate to not want to fight…. I mean, c’mon, who wants to fight after you’ve just had a full meal? I don’t know if the human brain can tell the difference when it comes to satisfaction, but my obvious guess is that it cannot, otherwise it wouldn’t lull fighters into a false sense of accomplishment because the belly is full or the sexual appetite has been sated. Now, if they build in a certain performance clause that rewards a fighter for “Spartan” behavior or, better yet, accomplishments, you will see the difference in how a fighter fights and how he prepares for a fight…

Trainers are the second partial culprits… Hey, you got a fighter that is undefeated, you two get along, your fighter doesn’t do the things you would like to see him do in the ring, but, hey, you haven’t lost and your guy can punch… he’s exciting. They turn a blind eye to work ethic… allow him to miss roadwork, go light on floor work, cancel sparring sessions, the list is massive. Little strain in the calf, ok, don’t jump rope, twinge in the shoulder… ok, no pushups… that behavior fosters a lazy fighter, period… And it all comes out in the fight because a fighter can only do what he was trained to do… there are no miracles. How many times have you heard a trainer yell in the corner what sounds like great advice,  something like, “get under the right hand come back with the left hook.” Sounds simple enough, but guess what? If that isn’t what was practiced in the gym, over and over again, it sure isn’t going to happen in the middle of a title fight with some 250 lb. behemoth trying to behead you. Trainers have to meet their fighters head-on with the support and backing of their managers. Trainers at one time used to get the respect afforded a martial arts master; nowadays, not necessarily so. I understand that for many professional trainers, this is how they put food on the table and like every other earner he can’t afford to get “fired.” The fighter may end up disliking you and if he says he doesn’t want you as his trainer anymore, then you have to give up the reigns... And there ain’t no “human resources department ” that will help you out or a severance package as you’re out the door either. I agree that is a tough one and I have never had that experience before so I can comment no further, but maybe there is room for compromise.

One more glaring note on how both managers and trainers contribute to the demise of the U.S. heavyweight. Both trainer and manager used to have just one or two fighters, these days a trainer can have at least 5 different fighters and a manager even more. There has to be a quality drop-off somewhere.

Is it the game of numbers? Now that the gates of competition have been opened worldwide, are we discovering talent throughout the former Soviet Union that never existed before? Definitely, yes, just as we have missed a massive amount of talent from Cuba. Has the U.S lost a lot of talent due to the lures of other higher paying sports like basketball and football? Yes, without a doubt… but the only excuse for the U.S being dominated by the new influx of Soviet-trained heavyweights is work ethic, hard work being the great equalizer.

Gentlemen, you are fighting… Sacrifice (willingly giving up one thing to achieve another) will win out in the end. Sacrifice can and often beats amazing talent… at the very least it stresses talent to its breaking point. That’s what we have been seeing of late, desire and the necessity of a win overcoming athletic talent lacking in the dedication department. Put sacrifice together with talent and you have the ultimate fighter.

Brewster, in my estimation (put their talents head-to-head) should have thumped Liakovitch, and Ruiz should have thumped Valuev. (Didn’t see that fight but I understand it to be like most other Ruiz fights and he could’ve been given the decision, but like I said, I didn’t see it). Byrd vs. Wladimir? Any time you get a 6’1” heavyweight that doesn’t own a knockout punch trying to “walk down” a 6’6” 240 pound heavyweight that is fast and also a puncher, well, I think they employed the wrong fight style… And that brings us to the latest U.S debacle, Maskaev and Rahman. I am sure there was a psychological advantage due to the fact that Maskaev had previously knocked Rahman out, but it was a flawed performance in a very winnable fight for Rahman and it was probably just one thing that made the difference… the desire. So far the U.S, may have won the Cold War, but without a doubt the beautiful States are getting drubbed in the ring wars.

Yes, the times, they are a-changin'… again.

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