Federer and the Punch

Once a year, I let tennis into my life.

I’m reluctant to do so. Wimbledon catches my attention for its entire duration but I don’t like the way competitors are feted for their “stamina” and “courage.” Yes, the levels of fitness they obtain are impressive, and yes it can be difficult to play on when losing, but these are well paid elite athletes in pursuit of cash money.

And nobody is punching them in the face while they submit to their cardio exam.

There is a video on YouTube on the legendary Rafael Nadal exalting “the heart of a warrior.” Overlap between tennis and boxing fans seems reasonably rare and I’d suggest that this is why such radical statements as this are allowed to be made; relative to other tennis players, it is very possible that Nadal does indeed have the heart of a warrior, but compare him to, say, Austin Trout and that claim becomes somewhat ridiculous. Compare him to someone like Israel Vazquez and such a claim becomes utterly bizarre.

Additionally, Nadal was meekly eliminated form Wimbledon early last week by a journeyman of such low ranking that it would have made Mike Tyson shudder. Still, the one-hundred and second ranked men’s tennis player, Dustin Brown, showed a lot of guts in picking up that win – but nothing like the heart James “Buster” Douglas displayed in knocking out the once-rampant Iron Mike.

Different sports – different levels of commitment and risk. Different men.

I was interested then in the questions raised by William Skidelsky in his new book about the great Roger Federer (perhaps the greatest tennis player in history) in his new book Federer and Me. Skidelsky freely admits to an obsession born of some seemingly clichéd self-psychoanalysis but the obsession bares fruit. Skidelsky’s insight into his subject is impractical and born of compulsion and so gets to the root of a matter that stirred within me some fistic interest, specifically his description of Federer’s backhand which he lauds as capable of reaching “any part of the court with every conceivable variation of height, spin and power; and he can do this from almost any position.” To a fairweather tennis fan such as myself that just sounds like tennis, but apparently this is not so. Apparently men’s tennis has retreated from the net, where the creative, exciting tennis of yesteryear was played, to the baseline at the rear of the court, where power dominates all. Thudding, booming hits swapped in rallies defined by endurance and hitting ability as much as technique. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Federer hits his backhand one-handed in pursuit of grace and touch, not power.

Angles; variation of height and power – the firm belief that placement can be more important than power. Skidelsky could be writing about a boxer, not a tennis player.

I want to take you back now to June of 1963. The #2 contender to the welterweight title held by Emile Griffith is twenty-two year old Cuban Jose Stable, two years away from the spirited but doomed shot at the title which would ruin him, and in his prime. Matching him at Madison Square Garden, New York, is Philadelphian and former #2 contender Charley Scott. Scott, once a promising prospect himself, now stands on the precipice of journeyman hell. Both men have much to lose.

Bell.

Federer’s technique is a matter of geometry. Rafael Nadal, his nemesis, deals in torque. Federer has spoken of his admiration for Nadal, of his respect for the Spaniard’s concentration, but equally has stressed that he could never play tennis in such a way. For Federer, Nadal’s mission is to make every point the same – Nadal wants to win by force. Federer gives the nod to Nadal’s overwhelming sense of self but admits that he would find such an approach boring. Federer wants variety. He wants surprise.

Scott and Stable meet ring centre. Stable gives ground a little but fights and when he comes dipping back to Scott the two bump heads to shoulder. Stable places his head under Scott’s chin and they both try to make room for punches without going wide in search of the tiny entrance behind one-another’s elbow – it’s a trap, you see. Something that is rarely mentioned when comparing old-school to new in boxing is this propensity of the referee to permit infighting, and as we shall see, more pertinently, for the boxers to do the same. Infighting was so much a part of the sport up to and including the sixties that it was not even remarked upon, generally, in commentary. It was as much a part of the boxing canon as out-fighting; there was literally no difference in how the two were perceived – a fighter need both to succeed.

Now, a fighter can be held to be a technician by the boxing public if he can throw a very good one-two from the outside. In the run up to his fight with Jennings this year, Bryan Graham, writing in The Guardian named Wladimir Klitschko definitive of the “Eastern European technicians”; Steve Bunce, the pre-eminent British boxing journalist, saw Klitschko “heavyweight’s finest technician”; some less pre-eminent members of the press have even begun to talk about “technician” as a style that Klitschko embodies.

Please understand, I am not saying that anyone who labels Klitschko a technician is wrong; I’m not interested in semantics but rather etymology and what it means for boxing. It is now reasonable to call Wladimir a technician but there is a time when you would have been laughed at for doing so. Draping yourself across your opponents back and leaning down when he gets close was no more legitimate in infighting in 1963 than drawing a knife after a knockdown is now.

Federer is described as “pre-modern” by Skidelsky. In boxing we prefer “old-school”. Either way, what it means is belonging to a different time. Just as Federer’s essence belongs to an era before graphite rackets drove big-hitting bomb-builders to the baseline, Stable and Scott belong to an era long before referees separated fighters that went head-to-head. Naturally, this had consequences for their boxing.

For one thing, the sixties were a time when to become a technician one needed more than a booming jab and footwork birthed specifically to control distance. A technician had to fight at all ranges. If a fighter spent an evening’s work trying to bore in he was no more – but also no less – a technician than the man who backed up all night and jab-jab-jabbed. Both were lacking. A technician was a man who had mastered jab-, mid- and close-range. The word had no other meaning.

In 1963, Scott and Stable have entered the third round. They have agreed now that the fight will be settled on the inside, and given that neither man is a knockout hitter, crisp, volume punching will decide the result. Scott has decided to spring Stable’s trap and punch wide to the body, Stable responds by quadrupling the uppercut to the mid-section, an astonishing technical achievement which requires poise, balance, and the co-operation of a referee willing to let the opponent do enough punching inside that such an advantage presents itself; that last point is important: that such an advantage presents itself.

Such an advantage is not presented to the modern day boxer. It’s a rare, rare night when a boxer can be inside long enough in rounds one and two that he can feel-out and deploy a plan for infighting success. Infighting has become an opportunity to out-muscle a fighter for a psychological edge, perhaps land one punch, perhaps two, before the referee breaks. In 1963 a fighter might spend twenty minutes of a thirty minute fight finding room for punches inside, if he boxed to a certain style. Consider, if you will, how much time a fighter will spend on such techniques in the gym if that is liable to be the case. Now, flip that coin. What if all a fighter has to do to avoid infighting is clinch?

It is common to hear people say that the clinch is “killing boxing”. The truth is both more terrible and less dramatic than that: clinching is modern boxing. Clinching, specifically, is the reason that a whole plethora of infighting skills have been eliminated from boxing’s toolbox. It is one of the great ironies of sporting history, I think, that after boxing became a staple of television’s diet, clinching was frowned upon due to it being seen as dull. This cultural shift trickled through to the ring where referees were encouraged to break as many clinches as possible meaning all a fighter short of in-fighting skills needed to do in order to end that action was clinch. This, in turn, led to an erosion of infighting capabilities in modern fighters because all that is needed to negate any close action is a clinch – and this, finally, results in a huge upturn in clinching.

Boxing, the snake that eats itself.

The last two lineal heavyweight champions of the world, the keepers of the flame of the culture of the sport, have resorted almost exclusively to clinching as an infighting defence. I am a huge admirer of both Wladimir Klitschko and Lennox Lewis; I don’t believe they have done anything other than what was absolutely right for them. All any opponent wants to do with Klitschko is come inside and rough him up in search of the KO. The idea that Klitschko should play Russian-roulette with anyone that breaches his jab when the clinch is available to him is absurd and while people are free to dislike him for it, criticising him for it is not reasonable.

Some version of this is what old-timers and classic apologists are trying to tell us when they say that boxers were “more skilled” in those days. Newsflash: they were. But this is not all it seems to be, nor what dismissive modernists presume it to be, nor, finally, what some old-school determinists insist it is. At the opening of the ninth round, Scott and Stable are surprisingly fresh, and although Stable is well ahead, Scott remains game. By the time they meet ring centre in that penultimate round Stable is sure of his own speed advantage, assured in his technical superiority and his eye for distance is in. He comes narrow but reaches all the way around for a right-hand lead to the kidney, and then a left hand gunned for Scott’s jaw that is caught on the gloves, another right to the body followed up by a left uppercut which glances across the dipping Scott’s scalp. Because Scott, too, was seeking out the inside where he has done his best work, and because the referee will allow them both to punch there, these punches were available for Stable; and so he has learned them.

This is not the case for their modern counterparts. The only time real fighting will take place inside is when the fighters decide to allow it. Before Ricky Hatton’s 2007 tilt at Floyd Mayweather his trainer Billy Graham was direct in asking that Hatton be allowed to fight on the inside. I understand why; his man’s whole strategy relied upon being able to get close and throw punches. The simple fact is, however, is that it is not in the referee’s gift to allow fighting on the inside. That gift lay with Mayweather, whose strategy for victory was to hit Hatton on the outside and nullify him inside. This, he did, by holding. Once Mayweather holds the referee is honour bound to separate them.

This fact is obscured by occasions when infighting takes place, as was the case in the first Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios war. Here, Alvarado allowed Rios inside, and allowed him to work, while waiting to reclaim distance and blast his man, giving the impression that the referee was “allowing them to work inside” in the parlance of American commentary; in fact, Alvarado was allowing Rios to work inside by neglecting to hold. He was punished for this tactical transgression.

The only ready solution to this infighting issue, should one be required, is for the referee to penalise a new generation of fighters who take holding for granted. This will result in physically and technically inferior fighters claiming wins on point deductions and disqualifications, at least in the short term; or will result in the bizarre sight, as in Lewis-Tyson, of a fighter leaning while holding his arms out wide to prove he is not holding. There is nothing harder in sports than enforcing a cultural change through a rule change (see the total inability of football’s governing body to eliminate diving in football [soccer] by penalising it).

Stable hit Scott with combination after combination on the inside in that ninth round at a point in the fight where Scott needed a knockout to win. If Scott elected to hold, Stable would have been allowed to fight out; meanwhile, if Stable had hit while holding, he would be in breach. So Scott fought on, tending to dip to his left, something Stable did too, but every now and again Stable hops out of their formation and in again to his right creating a whole new mess of geometry between the two. Next time you are watching a fight, or better yet sparring, take note, during a rare infighting exchange, of the enormous difference a small step to the left makes for both fighters. When they are head to head they seek the same punches dependent upon handedness, but with that single half step one fighter is looking for the left hook to the body, the other the right uppercut to the head. There are dozens of such variations. Now, perform the same exercise on the outside – both men still seek to jab.

Like Federer, Scott and Stable are seeking to land punches all over the court and for the most part there is no modern equivalent. Initiating a clinch is a legitimate skill in modern boxing, but it is not one that can be compared to the pulse of this whirling dervish of a contest. Scott has to try to get his head on Stable’s left shoulder opening up his right hand to the body when Stable uses his left; he wants to lock down Stable’s left with this tactic. Meanwhile Stable wants to quick-time Scott’s body when he is stepping in and snipes for the head while Scott is trying to find position. Even this singular version of the inside game is enthralling and fuelled by drill upon drill in the gym.

What this does not mean is that Scott and Stable are better fighters under their ruleset than modern fighters are under theirs. What it means is that fighters from the 1960s have, by necessity, a deeper skillset. Wladimir Klitschko is as brilliant at what he does as Jose Stable was at what he did – more brilliant, Klitschko has perfected, even defined a certain style where Stable was only a disciple of his – but he does less. That he can now be named a technician is the single harshest indictment of the shrinking pool of skills necessary to achieve greatness in boxing.

And so at last we return to tennis and the final analogy between this less demanding sport and the commitment that is boxing. Nadal is just as technically correct as Federer – more so, perhaps, given the specifics of the era, produced by graphite rackets – but Federer’s skilful backhander opens up a whole world of new and more varied techniques.

“Roger Federer,” writes Skidelsky, “made tennis beautiful again.” Whether or not it will be beautiful enough to see Federer to yet another Wimbledon title remains to be seen (he had qualified for the second round at the time of writing), but it’s unlikely we will ever see a return to the beauty of boxing as is it appears in the time of Stable and Scott. I don’t say that boxing was better then – fights like Segura-Marquez and Matthysse-Molina render that opinion invalid – but I do say it was deeper, richer.

I reach for it with the same sense of nostalgia with which Skidelsky reaches for Federer, nostalgia for a time I never knew.

Stable beat Scott by a unanimous decision. At the final bell they embraced, and walked the ring, arm in arm.

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