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“The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science

BY Robert Mladinich ON November 17, 2008
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If you’ve ever wondered how boxing superstars like Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran would have done against their counterparts of decades past—wonder no more.  Mike Silver has written the most definitive analyses of the classic “old school” vs. “new school” boxing debate I have ever read.  This is a book that belongs on every fan’s bookshelf.  It is an important work that reverberates with insight and wisdom, answering with startling clarity who deserves to be ranked among the greatest fighters of all time—and who does not.

Silver, a lifelong New Yorker, has carried on a love affair with the beleaguered sport since he trained as a youngster at the fabled Stillman’s Gym in the 1950s.  Over the past few decades he’s been a promoter, as well as an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission, and a renowned historian who has offered commentary on HBO, PBS and ESPN.  Anyone who knows him will agree that when Silver talks boxing, you can’t help but listen.

In his new book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science,” (McFarland & Company, 229 pages, 50 photos), Silver offers compelling evidence of the ongoing regression of boxing skills.  He explains how—and why—the top fighters of the past 20 years are not on the same level as those who came of age during the sport’s Golden Age of talent and activity, which he defines as the 1920s to the 1950s.

When he writes that “unlike their golden age counterparts, one rarely sees today’s fighters—from rank novice to multiple belt holders—duck, parry, slip, sidestep, ride, weave or roll to avoid punches,” the reader is given a crash course in the lost arts of infighting, feinting, body punching, footwork, and counter-punching skills that used to be part and parcel of a seasoned contender’s repertoire.

Silver utilizes his own vast knowledge, as well as the insights of a respected array of panelists that includes trainers Teddy Atlas, Freddie Roach, Emanuel Steward and former lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz.  In addition, over a dozen other experts, some of whom are old enough to have personally witnessed the greatest fighters of the past 70 years, offer their discerning comments.  This may be the last opportunity to delve into the wealth of information and knowledge they have to offer concerning these issues.

Dozens of champs, both past and present, are scrutinized and evaluated. Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fights with De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton are deconstructed, revealing weaknesses in Mayweather’s style that, the experts claim, would have been exploited by the top lightweight and welterweight fighters from previous decades.

“If Floyd was born 50 years earlier his athleticism and natural ability would be the foundation—not the end product—for his development into a seasoned and technically proficient fighter,” opines Silver.

Silver does not blame the modern day fighters for their inadequacies. He sees them as a product of their time. Many possess the raw talent but have no chance of reaching their full potential because fighters no longer have to “pay their dues the old fashioned way.” By fighting just 3 or 4 times a year against mediocre opposition, there is simply no opportunity to acquire the kind of extensive experience and bout-to-bout education that empowered the great fighters of the golden age.

The book reveals how the current vacuum of expert teachers/trainers has created “a fertile breeding ground for gimmickry and artifice that is of little use to a fighter.”  An entire chapter is devoted to the misuse of weight training and the effects of steroid use.  Even the popular and ubiquitous “punch pad” workouts are taken to task.

“Old school trainers rarely, if ever, used them,” writes Silver. “They believed that hitting the pads with the same combinations over and over had limited teaching potential and emphasized a robotic ‘bang, bang’ style of boxing. Their use did not encourage a fighter to think…everything that is taught with the pads achieved better results using the heavy bag.”  The extent to which punch pad workouts are used, he adds, “is just another indication of the dumbed down quality of today’s boxing instruction.”

As Silver makes abundantly clear, today’s fighters are also impeded by the pressure to maintain an undefeated record.  Promoters, managers and television executives have magnified the cost of defeat to the point that many former amateur stars are carefully navigated to maintain an unbeaten record while waiting to secure a lucrative TV appearance.  This “must win syndrome” hinders the fighter’s progress. Over the past 20 years it has fostered a “mismatch culture” that minimizes the number of competitive matches because no fighter with any promise wants to take a chance on losing.  When boxing was in its heyday, a defeat did not carry the same stigma that it does today.  It was considered a normal part of the learning process.

Silver also places Bernard Hopkins’ decade-long dominance of the middleweight division in historical context. He gives Hopkins his due as a talented and well-rounded professional “by today’s standards,” but considers his placement among the all-time greats as unwarranted. He explains, “Great middleweight champions such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Freddie Steele, Mickey Walker, Marcel Cerdan and Jake La Motta could never have defended their titles 20 times over 10 years against the kind of brutal competition that populated the middleweight division from the 1920s to the 1950s.  It is even more ridiculous to think any of these fighters—no matter how great—could have been ‘dominant’ in their respective eras as they approached their 40th birthday”.   The conclusion reached is that Hopkins’ dominance of a division that was once considered the toughest in boxing is not proof of his greatness— it is proof of how far boxing has regressed.

Silver believes that if Hopkins campaigned 50 or more years ago his talents would be considered just average. He believes it would even be questionable if Hopkins would have been world-rated, let alone win a world championship. “Both Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins benefited from the worst assortment of challengers ever faced by a middleweight or light heavyweight champion since the advent of boxing gloves,” he asserts. “Is it any wonder they stood out as giants in a land of pygmies?”

Silver also exposes the fallacious nature of the absurdly high KO records of today’s fighters. Another eye-opening chapter debunks the myth that today’s 250-300 pound heavyweights (he calls them “dreadful dreadnoughts”) would have been too big for the “small” 190 to 210 pound heavyweight contenders and champions from the 1920s to the 1970s.  He is particularly critical of media “faux experts” who, lacking both perspective and frame of reference, too often attribute greatness to ordinary fighters, thereby obfuscating the superior achievements and skills of the truly great fighters of the past.

“It is high time for boxing’s overused words ‘dominant’ and ‘great’ to be given a rest,” writes Silver.  “Since the 1990s both words have been used to wretched excess.  Let’s be perfectly clear: there are no great fighters today, and under the present circumstances it is impossible to produce one.”

Last, but certainly not least, he describes what he believes to be the severe damage done to boxing and boxers by what he calls the “alphabet-promoter cartels” who he says “have had a free hand in ruining the sport for the past 30 years.”

Although it might sound like it, Silver is not a curmudgeon or a knee-jerk believer in the myth that what’s old is always better than what’s new. He, as well as his panel of experts, persuasively state their cases while speaking with great authority and insight. After reading this entertaining treasure trove of boxing “insider” knowledge I felt like I had taken a graduate course in the finer points of the “sweet science.” The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened to boxing.

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