Some of you might be familiar with the work of Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, who works for ESPN. Simmons has risen in the last decade from humble beginnings as a blogger with a readership numbering in the dozens, to a multimedia ass-kicker; earlier this year his latest book (The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy), which I helped fact-check, hit No. 1 on the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list. I've enjoyed Bill's work, and have interacted with him pleasantly, if minimally, for the last few years. I've been pleasantly surprised by Bill's regard for the sweet science–the sport, not the site–and have gratefully consumed his occasional pro-pugilism columns.
So I was a bit surprised when I heard about the contretemps which began on Feb. 26, when The Sports Guy, during one of his ultra-marathon chats, responded to a query from a guy who wondered what it'd be like for Tiger Woods when he came back to golf.
Simmons replied, “To me, that's a much bigger question than “Where is LeBron going?” Tiger's comeback is going to be the most fascinating running sports story of my lifetime. I really believe that. We only get a handful of truly transcendent athletes per lifetime, he's one of them, and yet, none of them have ever been tested this way. The only thing that comes close: When Ali returned from 4 years of boxing exile for refusing to serve in Vietnam.”
The dialogue blossomed. “Really Bill?” another chatter countered. “Ali coming back to win the title after being banned from the sport for religious convictions that prevented him from serving in a war that continues to effect the course of American history today, “comes close” to Tiger missing 5 months for a cavalcade of bimbos and a staged sex rehab?”
Simmons came back, with a four punch combo. He finished off with a hook. “Here's the big difference though: Everyone was rooting for Ali. He never came even 10% close to facing the scrutiny, vitriol and 24/7 news cycle microscope that Tiger will face.”
Another chatter surfaced, and we went from boxing to wrasslin'. The other guy tagged in, and pulled Simmons in for a suplex. “Yes, I'm certain that in the early 1970s, a black man who refused to be called by his “slave name” was far better received by white America than Tiger is received in America today. Certain.”
Simmons bounced back, and his piledriver shook the mat.
“You don't know your Ali history. It's true that White America was against him in the mid-60's, but that shifted as America turned against Vietnam. By the time of the Ali-Frazier fight, Frazier was the “old guard” rep and Ali was the “new guard” rep. He had everyone under 35 rooting for him.”
The issue and question didn't die there. Simmons hammered out a whole online column on March 3, and amplified and clarified his stance. Here it is: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/100303
There have been no shortage of pundits who've gone into “Kill Bill” mode. Charles Pierce at the Boston Globe and Deadspins' Tommy Craggs, not to mention Keith Olbermann, have all come to Ali's defense. Me, I'm not getting Olbermann-y on Simmons. Wouldn't be prudent. If I indeed disagreed with Sports Guy, and thought that the comparison of golf, which Woods mastered at age five, and periodically needs to muster a hearty response to people who don't even agree that golf meets the definition of a sport, with boxing, the sport of kings, to which all others aspire, doesn't fly. I draw a paycheck from ESPN, and doing work on Bill's books, as a fact-checker, has put money in my pocket. I'm keen on continuing with that arrangement, so I refuse to engage in some sort of intra-familial skirmish, or even give the appearance of that. I will, though, weigh in for “my” sport with an anecdote which helps me keep the difficulty of boxing in proper–for me–perspective.
In 1996, I had a notion that I'd train for the New England Golden Gloves, then, after getting a decent base in the game, get a license to fight professionally, just once. I figured the experience would be personally and professionally illuminating, and one year out of a skid in which I'd gotten a bit too deep into a Cobain-y mode of living, I was eager for a transformative chapter in my life. So I hooked on at the Somerville Boxing Club, home to heavyweight prospect John Ruiz, certifiable loony-tune–in a good way–Norman “Stoney” Stone, his manager, and a bucketload of earnest amateurs and club-fighter level pros. Under the part-time watch of a delightfully crusty old trainer named Frank Murphy, I showed up at the gym a few times a week, after my 9-to-5, did the road work Frank directed me to do, and set upon learning enough of the art and science of the sport to enter the Gloves and then get that one pro fight. I kept a diary along the way, because I had designs to do a book. After about five months of working out, and four months of pestering Frank to let me spar, ole Frankie broke down.
“Ok, Ok,” he muttered through a Tiparillo haze. Following a long shredding coughing fit, Frankie gave me the green light: “You can spar.” It was a Saturday, and Frankie looked around the gym for someone either as green as I, or with a soft streak in them, someone who wouldn't light up the green guy, and tatter me for the hell of it. He saw pro Jacques LeBlanc, a defensive whiz who'd gone the distance with Roberto Duran, Alex Hilton, Vinny Pazienza and Dana Rosenblatt. The Canadian agreed to spar with me, so I yanked on an oversized cup, headgear, and entered the Somerville ring. After thirty seconds of shuffling, and some jabbing and a few looping rights, I was sucking for oxygen like I'd been waterboarded.
A minute in, LeBlanc shot a jab, and it caused me to yell, “Hold up.” LeBlanc, who by the way was operating at about a quarter of his proficiency, stopped in his tracks. I dropped down on my knees, and looked at the canvas.
“Woody, what's going on?” Murphy yelled from the apron.
“I lost my contact lens,” I replied. The whole gym groaned.
My left eye was 20-400, so I figured it'd be better to spar with soft lenses in, and see what LeBlanc threw, rather than just see hazy shapes coming at me. Jacques got down on his knees, bless his soul, and we saw the lens sitting on a layer of gym grime. I picked it up, somehow, with my puffy sparring gloves, someone got me a cup of water to put it in, and I got back to sparring.
Towards the end of the session, I shot a jab, LeBlanc ducked it, and my arm hyper-extended. I felt that big-time the next day, and in fact, a tendon tore slightly off the errant toss. With ten seconds to go, I was gassed, and recall the feeling of being totally fatigued, as a fresh foe threw one, two, three, four shots at me. My legs were heavier than Kevin Smith's, I was stuck, and LeBlanc was teeing off. Being a kind soul, he tapped me lightly, though with enough zest that my nose was tender in the days following this less-than-grand experiment.
I think we did two rounds, me and LeBlanc, with that break for the lens. And I was drained. Had nothing left. And hurt for a week afterwards.
My takeaway–I now had a better, if still imperfect sense, of what boxers go through. I've golfed a couple of times, and can safely say that this ain't a matter of apples and oranges. It's apples, and vegetables, to me. No comparison.
That's all I'll say.
What about you, fight fans? Will Woods be at a bigger disadvantage when he comes back to the links than Ali was coming back to the savage science after three-and-a-half years on the sidelines? What do you think of Simmons' stance? Are we simply too enamored of the sweet science, TSS U, and therefore, is our objectivity is out the window? You golf-hounds out there, you are better equipped than I to speak to the difficulty of coming off a lengthy break..let's hear from you.