At any point in a boxer’s career you can draw lines to connect the dots – time lines and opponents, victories and tragedies, things done, things having come undone – to cast, if one chooses, aspersions or make what amounts to final judgments. Winning or losing, when heavyweights of note fight on, they dream of restitution or convenient cash to make a go of family life or just enduring as a pro’s pro to the bitter end. In boxing, if you are not on an upward trajectory path, you must at least find ways to sustain routines, keep busy with your craft, while floating your name in as many promotional circles as is possible. Winning means visibility and visibility equates to viability and money.
For heavyweight boxing careers can be spectacularly fatalistic. The high tide of optimism soon enough rushes up to the shores of isolating desperation. When we take a minute to trace out the career trajectories and routes of progression and regression, we can appreciate just how sharp is the razor’s edge, the very ground upon which the big men of boxing tread, giants among men, conspicuous in victory and glory as well as defeat.
Just ask Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison of England, who was cut down over the weekend by perennial hard rock Brit some-body Michael Sprott. Sprott, from Reading, who has lost one in every four of his forty professional fights, downed in the first, found a single tranquilizing left hook to blunt and effectively burry the mega-ambitions of the irritatingly loquacious Harrison. So much for being an Olympic champion, so much for Harrison calling into question whether he should even be giving Sprott a payday. The inquest into Harrison’s failed heavyweight career has already been carried out overseas; Harrison with size, speed, a thumping right jab and ego to burn was – following his 2000 Olympic title – on a very short list of probable heavyweight stars for the first decade of the new millennium.
In Harrison’s case, ego often manifests itself as insufferable rants about his being the most talented fighter in the division and the obvious successor to Lennox Lewis. Conspicuously, victory didn’t mean development in Harrison’s case, only his trucks shimmered in many of his ring outings from the launch of his pro career against Floridian Mike Middleton up to his December 2005 defeat to talented career underachiever Danny Williams. That split decision loss to the likeable Williams put Harrison on notice that he was an arrested talent, a guy who was not moving along the celestial arch of a future heavyweight champion. A follow-up decision loss to Dominick Guinn in April of 2006 seemed to confirm that Harrison for all of his physical gifts was more glare than sunshine.
If his upper end fitness was lacking then so was his commitment to train in such a way as to secure his arsenal of offensive weapons. Boxing behind the big jab and repeatedly looking for the blistering left cross can turn assets into liabilities; when heavyweights become predictable they become ultra vulnerable. Self managed, self-assuring and self-contained – Harrison never learned the lessons that took fighters like Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis to the top of the heavyweight division. Being the best means realizing in yourself the absolute limit of your talents through total commitment to listening, learning, sacrificing and above all acknowledging the wisdom of others. Without total physical capacity even the most gifted fighters put themselves into a position to be neutralized.
Training to establish and develop top level fitness and technical capacity means a fighter literally tilts the odds in his favor, making the task of overcoming their advantages problematic for even the most determined opponents. Essentially, Audley Harrison was unable to make his potential into a multifaceted technical superiority, with mental and physical reserves anchoring technical ability. In December of 2006 Harrison reversed his loss to Danny Williams with an emphatic third round stoppage at London’s ExCel Arena and yet it was not proof of a definitive redress to his professional issues. Sprott’s left hook told the full tale as to what kind of character the now thirty-five-year-old Harrison was able to bring to his boxing. And as “Sugar” Ray Leonard has reminded us for decades now, boxing at the elite level comes down to will and character during moments of extreme duress.
At essence, Michael Sprott was able to absorb some of Harrison’s big body shots and clean up major league left crosses to give back in kind; “A-Force” – as Harrison calls himself – couldn’t. And so went the night and one expects the title aspirations of the controversial Harrison. The question lingers nevertheless… was he unequipped or talented to a fault? Contradictions do in fact define the impressions left by ironies; just look at what the career or Audley Harrison never became to find out the nature of contradictions.
New Zealander David Tua and Buffalo, New York’s Joe Mesi will be trying their best to avoid the fate endured by Harrison as they carry on with their respective careers in the heavyweight division. Harrison fell at the checkpoint this weekend, now it’s up to Tua and Mesi to try to buck the odds that seem surmounted against them. These two heavyweights of better days past are not fighting one another. David Tua and Joe Mesi fighting one another would be, even in 2007, news, truly an intriguing minor event on the not too packed early season of professional boxing. But they are both fighting on the same day, Thursday, February 22, 2007, Tua in New York at the Roseland Ballroom and Mesi at the Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, West Virginia.
Neither guy is taking on a world beater, no challenge of any real merit, with Tua mixing it with the light hitting Robert Hawkings, who’s lost 3 of his last 4. His ‘claim to fame’ is that he lost a unanimous decision to Samuel Peter in December of 2005. You can bet that Team Tua will compare notes visa vie Peter, should they get a stoppage win over Hawkings. Other than getting in some work that’s the only logic for the fight: making a point by comparison. Suggesting as it might, that Tua’s on Peter’s trail? You bet! How else does Tua come in from the cold of his almost cryogenically challenged career at this point, aged 34, though the weight scale, sadly, still sees him right around 250 lbs?
That’s the holding pattern, the perch of availability that Tua precariously stands atop of, since he cannot yet manage the kind of professional discipline it takes to get himself fully fit and back to being a full-time, 24/7/365 danger man ready to menace the entire heavyweight division. Though, despite all of his lost years, many believe he could be; though that too may be another sideways comment on the state of the current heavyweight division. No wonder Tua fans are among the most frustrated in all of world boxing. Their guy simply will not commit to being David Tua, full-time heavyweight threat.
Still, he lingers, refusing retirement, still engaging boxing to get a payday, if no longer truly challenging to be a top contender or heavyweight champion. There is about Tua, his long-term management troubles notwithstanding, something of a guy just trying to hold a theoretical spot on the muddled map known as the land of the heavyweights. Again, name recognition might be enough for Tua to reenter the limelight, coming back from the nowhere of repeated disappointments. He does have a KO win over Oleg Maskaev on his CV; alas, that hook will be of little or no import matter once Maskaev steps into the ring with a returning Vitali Klitschko in April, one would think. Yes, maybe it’s just a job, a way to make money for as long as his body holds out against the tide of inevitability. Let’s hope we are wrong in our insinuations; let’s hope David Tua holds out for far greater nights of credible ambitions. Of course, that’s what he’s left with to sell, himself as something like what he once brought to the ring: Tuaman!
As for “Baby” Joe, he’s still talking about getting back in shape, retracing his way back up the heavyweight ladder. There has been no evidence, so far, that Joe Mesi has anything like the package of pressurizing presence and thudding power he did before his neurological close encounter at the fists of Vassiliy Jirov, in March 2004. Rarely has a unanimous ten-round decision win been so destructive to the title ambitions of a fledging HBO blessed heavyweight super-somebody. But Joe Mesi fights on, asserting his rights and freedom to choose. More than a heavyweight, Joe Mesi’s become a small chapter in the legal history of professional boxing. And a diminished looking heavyweight elite tempts Team Mesi into playing (endlessly replaying) with the idea of sneaking back into a title fight. The operating principle here being ‘just keep winning and passing your self off as a winner.’ You never know how things might turn out.
Taking on George Linberger – whose latest “victim” was Butterbean – strikes Mesi and his father Jack as an act of progressive legitimation, meaning one more step toward the recovery of his name in the game, if not the prospects of his former conditional fame in the game of boxing. No matter how the metaphysics strain credulity, Mesi’s all about believing to the very end. So his career is, in a pure sense, about faith beyond reason.
For now Tua and Mesi press on seeking to impress upon the boxing world that they are becoming legitimate heavyweights full of marketing possibilities, given the right offerings, the right shot at something meaningful. Why not hold to the notion that a title or a significant payday is their next step after their respective Thursday paid workouts? Isn’t that precisely what fighting for the right to be paid the big money is all about: hope and glory blinding the faithful?
And, yes, you soldier on… making the case that you really still can be a significant some-body. You keep the fate of guys like Audley Harrison in perspective, meaning way, way in the back of your mind; if you think about it/them at all.
No point on dwelling on the negatives.
Falling from grace, that’s the other guy’s problem.
To the bitter end, you gotta believe!
Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org