THE THINNING POOL OF BRAWLERS — “This guy was a real slugger.” With those words, I was introduced to Bennie Briscoe. Before I could say “I know,” the legendary middleweight playfully waved off the statement and, in a voice and delivery not unlike that of Jeff Mayweather’s, said something about that cat not knowing what he was talking about.
What that cat was saying was that Briscoe was a part of a long line of American boxers that goes back to the days of Jack Dempsey, Billy Petrolle, Joe Louis, and extends long enough to include Marvin Hagler, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Arturo Gatti. Known as sluggers – and even warriors – they were the sons and grandsons of world wars and depressions and fought with a style that suggested they understood that second chances don’t always come around twice. Brawlers didn’t shift to a lower gear late in a fight and risk getting cut or place their fates in the hands of the judges. They came from that now shuttered school that said if a fighter wasn’t exhausted at the final bell, then he didn’t give it his all. But this long line of brawlers who made fans on both coasts jump off their couches and stand in front of their televisions throwing hooks and cheering with the ringside crowd might be reaching its end. Once common, only a few appear in the rankings. If this line continues to recede, Shawn Porter (pictured in the blue gloves), Jason Sosa, and a few others, just may be the last of the American brawlers.
If you’re equating brawling with getting hit, you probably got into boxing around the time Mike Tyson sank his incisors into Evander’s ear. Brawling was very much defensive minded. One look at Briscoe’s face proved that. Even Jake LaMotta, who was known for having a titanium chin, knew enough to keep it tucked deep into his chest. Brawlers slipped or rolled with most of the punches. Some punches got through of course. It’s a fight and, sometimes, you had to take one to land one. Brawlers stayed in the pocket like a prime Roberto Duran because they were taught nifty defensive moves that were designed to create counterpunching opportunities. The bob-and-weave is better described as the bob-punch-and-weave.
This is not meant to create a debate over which fighting style is the best. It’s simply an observation that a once prominent American style is on the verge of becoming extinct in the United States. It has happened in other sports. In the 1950s, Major League stolen base totals hovered around 700 league-wide. By the 1980s, 3,000 thefts became the average. Three-point attempts in the NBA averaged about three per game in the early 1980s. Today’s average is well over 20 and the trend in the league is to find centers and power forwards who can “stretch” the floor.
This newer style in boxing might be a result of the extended amateur careers. There used to be a distinct “pro” style and “amateur” style. Even the best amateurs had to start from scratch and learn the pro style once they turned pro. The 1960s and 1970s saw the last of the trainers with ties that extended back to the bare-knuckle days. By the 1990s, their protégés were gone. In their place were a group of trainers who for the most part learned their trade in the amateur ranks.
Likewise, the referees and judges had gotten their experience in what the old timers used to call the “Simon-pure” fights. In the past dozen years or so, the distinction between a pro fight and an amateur fight has become so minimal that more and more boxers are leaping into contention with less than 10 pro fights. Has there ever been a time during the past 100 years where a fighter with less than 10 fights was even considered to be the best in the world?
Before this spirals into that never ending and impossible to answer “this era vs that era” debate, let me say that there are great fighters today. They’re just fighting in a style that no longer resembles the ones we used to watch on the weekends while our fathers guzzled from cans they had us kids fetch for them from the corner store. In the United States, not many resemble the fighters Gil Clancy used to cover.
Shawn Porter is one who fits the mold. Even when he’s providing commentary for a network, Porter looks like he’s busting out of his suit and getting ready to rumble. Inside the ring he sometimes appears unable to contain his desire to throw punches. He would be right at home headlining a card in the days of Frank “The Animal” Fletcher and “Yaqui” Lopez.
Gervonta Davis also looks the type. So far everything about him says throwback. Youtube viewers have witnessed his rise from a young novice who once said of Yuriorkis Gamboa after a sparring session that the former champ was “pretty decent,” to become a potential star following his dismantling of Jose Pedraza. Rather than coast to a decision victory in a fight he was dominating, Davis took it to his opponent and chopped him down in a performance that brought back visions of Aaron Pryor.
Steve Cunningham has seemingly fought nothing but contenders since beating Sebastian Rothman. Now that Bernard Hopkins is retired, Steve might be the most experienced American boxer around. He did it the old-school way. His rival, Amir Mansour, is another name you could add to the list. With a nickname – Hard Core – that conjures up memories of James “Hard Rock” Green, Mansour “brings it” every time. Mansour and Cunningham however, have reached that point where there might not be too many fights left. The same could be said for Gabe Rosado, James Kirkland, Curtis Stevens, and Brandon Rios.
Leo Santa Cruz was born in Mexico but the ranks of American brawlers are so thin, we’re gonna claim him too. Keith Thurman is a borderline entry. I include him for a few reasons. Though he has shown a willingness to get up on his toes and coast to victories when he feels he’s in front or even under heavy pressure, he showed in the Porter fight that he could brawl when he needs to. Besides, in today’s climate, Thurman is probably best advised to protect the “0” because if he loses, it’s possible the only phone calls he gets for a fight will be from Shawn Porter.
Andre Ward can brawl but in recent interviews he sounds like a guy with one foot on the range. The Charlo brothers are starting to look like they can do a little bit of everything and Terence Crawford can probably brawl in his sleep. Jason Sosa deserves a mention. Jarrett Hurd and Jarrell Miller seem to be cut out of that old cloth. After that the list thins out rather quickly. I’m sure I left out a few names. Even if there are a dozen other fighters who fit the type, it’s still a heck of lot shorter list than it used to be.
Editor’s note: Jose Corpas’ second book, a biography of Panama Al Brown, titled “BLACK INK: A Story of Boxing, Betrayal, Homophobia, and the First Latino Champion,” is available now via Amazon and other leading online booksellers.
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