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In Defense Of The Journeyman

BY George Kimball ON January 16, 2010
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NEW YORK --- When Rogers Mtagwa, despite an unimposing record of 26-12-2, was named the surprise challenger to Juan Manuel Lopez last fall, the Tanzanian import's Philadelphia promoter J. Russell Phelps was the first to acknowledge that while his fighter's credentials hardly resembled those of a contender on paper, "it would have been a shame for Rogers Mtagwa to go through his entire career without ever fighting for the title."

The 30 year-old Mtagwa's performance in the main event at Madison Square Garden on the night of October 10th evoked comparisons to that of a fictitious journeyman boxer presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. No, he didn't win, but  it was hardly a rout, and some will tell you that it was even closer than the judges (114-113, 115-111. 116-111) had it. Like Rocky Balboa, Mtagwa fought his heart out and won the admiration of an overwhelmingly pro-Lopez crowd, and when it was over the look on the relieved champion's face could have been that of Apollo Creed delivering his sotto voce pronouncement on what had just taken place: "There ain't gonna be no rematch."

Although JuanMa has turned his attention elsewhere and will be fighting for Steven Luevano's WBO 126-pound belt next Saturday night at the Garden's WaMuTheatre, Mtagwa's reward will be his second title shot in as many fights. This time he moves up four pounds to face WBA featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa. Since Bob Arum's goal remains an eventual showdown between the stylish Dominican Lopez and the Cuban-born Gamboa, their respective performances against Mtagwa might be considered an accurate yardstick. And you may have noticed that this time around, you haven't heard anyone say that Rogers Mtagwa doesn't belong.

On the other hand, some blogger who doesn't know any better has probably already got his back up and is in the process of complaining about our having described Mtagwa as a "journeyman" -- although that's exactly what he is.

He turned pro at 17, and was 10-2 when he left Africa for his first fight in the US a decade ago, which means that he has gone 16-13-2 since, during which time he has never won more than three fights in a row. On the other hand, Gamboa will be the sixth undefeated opponent he has faced in that time.  
* *  *
On the eve of his 1935 title fight against Max Baer, the New York Times' John Kiernan referred to James J. Braddock as "Journeyman James." (The new nickname, "Cinderella Man," wouldn't be coined by Damon Runyon until after the fight.)  Prior to his St. Patricks Day 1923 challenge to light-heavyweight champion Battling Siki in Dublin, Mike McTigue was widely described as a journeyman, as was Chuck Wepner when he fought Muhammad Ali in a 1975 bout that provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's creation of "Rocky."

The term has been so widely applied to Mtagwa since last October that matching his name with "journeyman" will elicit something in excess of three thousand Google matches -- still pretty small potatoes compared with the more than 32,000 you'll get by pairing Braddock's name with "journeyman," and to the best of our knowledge, Braddock never considered the term to have been misapplied in his own case.

Shortly after my book FOUR KINGS had been published in the United Kingdom, my description of Kirkland Laing, the British journeyman fighter who upset Roberto Duran in 1982, as a "journeyman fighter" unleashed a flood of uninformed protest from across the Atlantic.

"To describe Laing as a 'journeyman fighter' is both disrespectful and inaccurate," complained a British fight fan.

Disrespectful? Inaccurate?  

Well, yes, countered the Brit, who claimed that "a 'journeyman' is regarded with some contempt on the professional boxing circuit."

(Yeah? Says who?)

"I'm almost certain that the name Kirkland Laing probably means little to scribes such as yourself on the other side of the pond...  I feel it my duty to defend his unfairly maligned reputation when it is besmirched in a respectful (but in this case, misinformed) tome such as FOUR KINGS."

Just to make sure some alternate meaning hadn't crept into the dictionary, I looked it up.  "Journeyman" today means pretty much what it always has, to wit: "A skilled tradesperson who has completed a prescribed apprenticeship in a particular craft. The status of journeyman indicates that he has mastered all the specific skills of the craft.... An experienced, reliable worker, athlete, or performer especially as distinguished from one who is brilliant or colorful."

In short, a journeyman who is one who is accomplished, experienced, and competent at his trade, but hasn't achieved the level of master -- in other words, somebody like Kirkland Laing (no relation, as far as we know, to Clubber), whose career record was 43-12-1 and who, when he was knocked out in a 1991 fight at the Albert Hall, made boxing history by becoming the only one of Buck Smith's 201 career opponents to lose to Buck in a fight outside the United States.

Having supplied furnished anecdotal evidence in addition to a dictionary definition, I was content to rest my case, but the next came an email link to a compilation of boxing terms compiled by a fellow called Gus, who offered his unique definition of the term: "A journeyman is a boxer with good boxing skills who strives to succeed but who has limitations and little or no expectation of winning a fight. Journeymen are often hired on short notice to fight up-and-coming prospects to pad their records."

"Sorry, George," wrote last summer's pen pal. "This does not give an accurate portrayal of Kirkland Laing."

This dialogue did not seem promising. "I provide you with a dictionary definition and you counter with one provided by somebody named Gus. Since your definition, and Gus's, differs wildly from my own, I suggest that you look it up for yourselves in any reputable dictionary. If you do, I think you'll be satisfied that the problem isn't that I've misused the term, but that you have ascribed to it a negative connotation that was never intended.

"The semantic problem here is with your inaccurate perception," I went on to point out. "If you phoned a plumber and he dispatched a worker with a journeyman's license, would you assume that he was going to eff up the job? Or that he had 'little or no' expectation of doing it correctly?'"

That some of our overseas friends were misapplying the time-honored term to what we might refer to as stiffs or tomato cans or worse in this country seemed plain enough when one of them cited example of the recently retired Peter Buckley, he of the 32-256-12 record.  This is not to say that the Peter Buckleys of this world don't perform a function of their own, but to call him or his ilk "journeymen" is an insult to journeymen.   

It should also be noted that these no-hope opponents are a vanishing breed in Britain as well as in the US. Since the fall of the iron curtain they have been supplanted by a new and even more insidious class of opponent from Eastern Europe. Today's promoters truck them in by the planeload on cheap flights from Riga and Belarus to pad the records of English and Irish fighters, and almost without exception, the notion of winning a fight is the furthest thing from their minds. All they care about is not getting knocked out or stopped, since if they can avoid a suspension they can go someplace else to lose a week later.

Happily, the transoceanic journeyman debate seemed to have at last expired several months ago. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I was alerted that it had been revived, this time in some online message board carried on boxrec.com. The latest squabble ensued over a separate issue, this one having to do with the new WBA heavyweight champion.  Somebody described Carl Thompson, who knocked out David Haye at Wembley Arena six years ago, as a "journeyman."

His anger aroused, a Thompson defender shot back that "describing Carl Thompson as a journeyman is not only inaccurate and lazy, it's insulting. Just as it was when journalists scrabbling to ramp up the sensationalism described Hasim Rahman ad Danny Williams as 'journeymen' when they beat Lewis and Tyson, respectively."

Leaving aside the obvious -- that "journeyman" pretty accurately describes Thompson, Rahman, and Williams --  before you knew it the fur was flying again and my name had been dragged back into the argument.

One guy who voiced his objection to my "inaccurate dismissal" of Laing as a "journeyman" not only offered his own definition of that term ("a serial loser"), but even volunteered an imaginatively constructed etymology upon which to base that claim:

"A 'journeyman' is a boxer who has little or no expectation of winning his fights, thus he is said to be 'along for the journey,'" went his explanation.

In actuality, that has nothing to do with the origin of the term. In point of fact, "journeyman" and "journalist" derive from the same root word -- journée, the French term meaning 'for a period of one day.'
*  *   *
It was an Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, who noted that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language" (although the Brits often get that wrong too, and are sometimes wont to ascribe it to Churchill), but to the best of our knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary remains the standard arbiter for British usage.

While not boxing-specific, the OED offers two interpretations, both nouns: 1. a skilled worker who is employed by another and 2. a worker who is reliable but not outstanding.

Merriam-Webster, and American reference book, goes a bit further, even citing the examples of a journeyman trumpeter and a journeyman outfielder, but a troll through cyberspace did unearth an interesting list of classifications in a WikiPedia entry on boxing terms:

There are, in order, champions, contenders, fringe contenders, journeymen, opponents, and "tomato cans," and they all exist in every weight division. The terms are not interchangeable ("journeyman" is actually a term of respect), and almost none of the individuals referred to as "tomato cans" would be considered so under that definition of the phrase."

Or perhaps in lieu of all this semantic quibbling over the term "journeyman" we should just put up a picture of Rogers Mtagwa. I don't think he'd object, and we can promise you this much: the oddsmakers might make him an 8-1 underdog, but that doesn't mean he doesn't think he can win. He'll be trying, and it's hard to ask more than that of any boxer.

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