Uncharacteristic Positions – This Saturday April 30th marks the 40th anniversary of the Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Young world heavyweight championship bout in Landover Maryland. Ali won via a 15-round unanimous decision by the scores of 72-65, 70-68 & 71-64 on points, or 10-3-2, 7-5-3 and 11-4 in rounds. The decision was controversial. It was met with boos because Ali, 34, didn’t look good and missed more punches against Jimmy Young, 27, than he ever had in his career against any other fighter.
After the bout, Ali’s head trainer Angelo Dundee, one of the most tireless supporters of Ali there’s ever been, called the Young fight “the worst of his career.” A week before the fight Dundee tried to instill a semblance of seriousness into Muhammad’s preparation by putting a sign on the elevator door on Ali’s hotel floor that read “Remember San Diego” in reference to Ali’s first bout with Ken Norton in San Diego, which Norton won by split decision. Dundee kept reminding Ali that Young was awkward and a nuisance, but Ali wasn’t fazed and weighed in for the bout at a then career high 230 pounds.
Sadly, Ali’s ballooned weight gave him cover for his lousy showing. What was lost because of his poor condition was the fact that Young was a stylistic nightmare for him. Jimmy Young was a passive fighter who always let his opponent take the lead and push the action. It didn’t matter who Young had in front of him. Had Ali been a Victoria Secret model with boxing gloves on, Jimmy wasn’t going to initiate the action. In his 52 previous fights, Ali was seldom forced to fight as the aggressor, especially for an entire fight. He took it for granted that every opponent he faced would bring the fight to him. When Ali’s opponents came to him, he was in complete control (with the exception of Joe Frazier). If you go back and watch Ali’s two fights with Joe Bugner, and the Jimmy Young bout, you’ll see a familiar stylistic pattern; and that’s Muhammad assuming the role of George Foreman, minus the one shot punching power and body assault.
Sometimes great fighters are put in uncharacteristic positions that reveal things they’re not able to do well. Marvin Hagler found himself in the same position against Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard as did Larry Holmes in his two bouts with former light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks. Like Ali, Hagler and Holmes were at their best when their opponent came at them and tried to take their head off. Ali and Holmes thrived when the fighter in front of them carried the action – because it set them up perfectly to ram them with their quick, straight and hard left jab followed by the pinpoint accurate right hand disguised behind it. In Hagler’s case he was a great counter-puncher and was at his best once the opponent committed to opening up and punching at him.
It’s often missed by many observers that the fighter pushing the action isn’t necessarily the one controlling the fight unless the aggressor is named Joe Frazier, Roberto Duran or Julio Cesar Chavez. Muhammad Ali, when he was being pursued, was usually in control, unless Frazier was the predator. And the reason for that was, with the opponent in constant pursuit, Ali knew where he was going and could set up traps and counters because he knew where his opponent would end up going before the opponent knew it. Couple that with Muhammad’s speed, reflexes, balance and physical strength; he was usually the one dictating the tempo and ring geography when he was the prey.
When Ali fought Jimmy Young, believe it or not he looked like an amateur fighting in the open class – no, not a novice but nonetheless an amateur. With Young taking small half steps back, he was subtly forcing Ali forward. Well, Muhammad wasn’t used to searching and having to find the target because it usually found him. Throughout his brilliant career, Ali’s left jab was his problem solver and security blanket both offensively and defensively, as long as he was being pursued. Against Young, Ali was forced to lead, and in doing that he was pretty vanilla and relied on his superior quickness. But Young was also quick and elusive, and without having to worry about Ali working his body to open him up, Young concentrated on protecting himself from the neck up. This resulted in Ali constantly lunging in with left leads as he was hurrying to shoot the right in behind them, only he often missed. The residual effect of Ali forcing his punches while in pursuit was that Young, fully knowing that the only thing coming at him were either a jab or a cross, actually timed Muhammad and countered him effectively.
During his career Ali was berated by his critics because he seldom punched to the body, which Ali scoffed at because he was so successful being a head-hunter. In Young, Ali faced a fighter who, like him, was hard to hit cleanly to the head, especially with lead punches. However, Young was vulnerable to the body, but it didn’t cost him rounds or points like it did when he fought Ken Norton a year and a half after fighting Ali. I thought Young deserved the decision over Norton, but it was Ken’s body attack that kept him in the fight because he couldn’t land on Jimmy to the head or face. But Ali ignored his opponent’s body and cut his scoring territory in half. Against Young, Ali needed that other half like he never did before.
I thought Jimmy Young was the only fighter who ever out-pointed Ali that didn’t get the decision. It also didn’t help Jimmy that he ducked outside the ropes six different times during the bout attempting to avoid Ali’s attack, which was odd as Ali wasn’t really scoring or hurting him, but then again Young sometimes did strange things during his fights. Also, Young cannot be given full credit for being a ring genius for the way he fought against Ali. And the reason for that is that Jimmy fought the same way against Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, George Foreman and Ken Norton. It just so happened that his style was the most uncharacteristic for Muhammad Ali to deal with. Jimmy moved away from everybody he fought….Shavers, Lyle, Foreman and Norton usually attacked…so when they clashed with Young the world was in balance, he moved back and they came forward. Not so with Ali because he had nothing in his arsenal to solve Young’s style. Ali’s offense was reduced to throwing quick one-twos while he lumbered forward, every once in a while trying to sneak in a right lead. With Young stepping back or moving to the side, one of Ali’s best punches, the lead right, was nullified.
Because great fighters like Ali, Holmes and Hagler are so successful in doing what they do, they can be discombobulated by fighters who force them out of their comfort zone. Jimmy Young had no intention of fighting it out with Ali, and that served him well. Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard knew it was suicide trying to bring the fight into Hagler, so it was healthier for them trying to win by moving away and picking their spots and preventing a firefight like the one Thomas Hearns experienced with Marvin. The same applied to Michael Spinks when he fought Holmes. Michael, being a light heavyweight, knew that standing his ground with Holmes would only get him beaten up or knocked out. So he circled and moved away and fought Larry as if he were Joe Frazier. And since Holmes seldom if ever had to assume the role of Frazier in any of his bouts, he ended up fighting in an uncharacteristic style.
Think about it this way……how inept and out of sort would Floyd Mayweather have looked if he fought Pernell Whitaker in his prime? Floyd fought almost his entire career counter-punching as the prey. Whitaker would’ve forced Mayweather to assume the role of the predator, which wasn’t Mayweather at his best. Yes, Mayweather might have eeked out a close decision, but he certainly wouldn’t have looked like the fluid boxer with perfect form that he was. Whitaker’s style would have made him fight in a manner that he seldom ever had to, and one that he hadn’t mastered.
Sometimes great fighters are put in uncharacteristic positions that reveal things they’re not able to do well.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com