The Boxing Scene, Yesterday and Tomorrow: Some Random Thoughts
by Bernard Fernandez
THE BOXING SCENE; RANDOM THOUGHTS -- It’s early January, which means every boxing publication and web site has probably alerted readers as to who and what they believe were the best of 2016, and what all fight fans should hope for, if not necessarily expect, in 2017.
On the whole, 2016 gave us some good stuff in the ring, but not nearly enough. A lot of intriguing possibilities were left on the table, which has become the depressing standard in most recent calendar years. Don’t expect that to drastically change as boxing’s power brokers again play it safe, choosing to protect their own vested interests at the expense of what is best for the sport and the paying customers who justifiably are disenchanted with being promised filet mignon at some future date while being served up roadkill in the here and now.
Oh, there are fights that are already on the schedule that should command widespread interest, and deservedly so. Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz meet for a second time on Jan. 28, and the hope is that the action at least replicates that of their first meeting, which Frampton won, along with Santa Cruz’s WBA featherweight championship, on July 30 of last year.* We also can look forward to the March 4 welterweight unification matchup of undefeated WBC titlist Danny Garcia (33-0, 19 KOs) and similarly unblemished WBA ruler Keith Thurman (27-0, 22 KOs), but that bout comes with a caveat. It isn’t nearly as big as it ought to be, in no small part because Garcia hasn’t had a truly meaningful fight since he scored an upset unanimous decision over Lucas Matthysse on Sept. 14, 2013, filling in the interim for the most part with gimme victories over the non-threatening likes of Rod Salka and Samuel Vargas as well as a couple of almost-sure things over the faded likes of Paulie Malignaggi and Robert Guerrero. At least Thurman is coming off a scintillating, unanimous decision over Shawn Porter on June 25.
OK, so let’s again state the obvious to the dunderheads who can’t see the forest for the trees: it is always the best policy for all concerned to make the best fights now instead of allowing them to “marinate” indefinitely, or to simply not ever take place. It is time to do whatever is necessary to make the most-anticipated fight of 2017 – and I’m primarily speaking to you, Oscar De La Hoya – which is, of course, Canelo Alvarez (48-1-1, 34 KOs) vs. WBC/IBF/IBO middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin (36-0, 33 KOs). Maybe what actually takes place inside the ropes wouldn’t qualify as a shoo-in for Fight of the Year, but there at least would be a decent chance fans would see something more akin to Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I than Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao. Of course, Golovkin would have to survive a pretty stern test as presented by WBA 160-pound champ Daniel Jacobs (32-1, 29 KOs) on March 18, but if “GGG” comes through unscathed, it says here that it would be high time for the familiar circle dance concerning Canelo to stop.
Oscar, as CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, apparently is concerned that he’d be exposing his cash cow, Alvarez, to potential defeat, which could adversely affect his marketability. Bunk. Was Thomas Hearns rendered inconsequential because he lost his classic first bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, or the thrill ride with Marvelous Marvin Hagler? Absolutely not. Nor was fan favorite Arturo Gatti’s popularity diminished because he lost barnburners with Angel Manfredy, Ivan Robinson (twice) and Micky Ward (in the first of their three epic clashes). People knew that with Gatti, they’d get their money’s worth, and more, in entertainment value whether he won, lost or drew, and they were rarely disappointed.
Hearns and Gatti actually are more representative of what used to be the norm than what we get in these overly cautious times. The Ring magazine has been listing its Fight of the Year since 1945, and the same names kept appearing in classic bouts meriting that designation in the early going. Rocky Graziano was in the Fight of the Year three consecutive years (1945 through ’47), Rocky Marciano in three consecutive years (1952 through ’54) and Carmen Basilio an insane five consecutive years (1955 through ’59), and nobody felt slighted because Graziano lost one of those slugfests and Basilio came up short in two.
Interestingly, Golden Boy apparently has no problem putting one of its fighters, a downsized Gatti clone named Francisco Vargas, into the bruising and well-bruised role filled by so many of his stylistic forebears. Vargas was in the consensus 2015 Fight of the Year, an epic, ninth-round dethronement of WBC super featherweight champion Takishi Miura, and to date his title-retaining June 4 majority draw with Orlando Salido has earned 2016 Fight of the Year plaudits from most boxing publications and web sites, including The Sweet Science. Accepting, even welcoming, the element of risk has made Vargas a cult favorite whose fan base is spreading; why not place the same sort of faith in Canelo? Even if he loses to a sure-to-be-favored Golovkin and provides a sufficient quota of exhilaration, his box-office status should not be affected. In fact, it might even get a boost.
The same notion – with great risk comes great reward – should apply to a heavyweight division that has long been moribund, but of late has shown some signs of recovery. No, the current crop of big men isn’t likely, at least not yet, to make anyone forget the 1980s and ’90s Golden Age when Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe ruled the roost, but even that halcyon period failed to maximize its full potential; Bowe never got around to fighting Tyson and Lewis.
What the public demands and deserves is a unification showdown between IBF champ Anthony Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) and WBC king Deontay Wilder (37-0, 36 KOs). Who wouldn’t want to see a pairing of two guys with a current combined record of 55-0 and 54 KOs? Although Joshua attempts to add the vacant WBA and IBO belts when he takes on almost-41-year-old and former long-reigning titlist Wladimir Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) on April 29, Klitschko was dreadful in losing to Tyson Fury his last time out and, despite his high knockout percentage, his penchant for long and frequent clinches apparently is alluring only to certain Europeans. And since claiming his title in the only bout he didn’t win inside the distance, against Bermane Stiverne, Wilder has defended it against a non-Murderer’s Row of Eric Molina, Johann Duhaupas, Artur Szpilka and Chris Arreola.
Hey, all you powers-that-be. Make the best fights as soon as possible. Boxing’s famished diners deserve more than the same old roadkill, or even the occasional inexpensive flank steak. Bring on the filet mignon. Treat the public to a pugilistic banquet every so often and the folks will keep coming back to the table instead of sampling other options like MMA.
Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins reaffirmed his third announced, and presumably final, retirement following his eighth-round knockout loss to Joe Smith Jr. on Dec. 17 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Hopkins has been so good for so long, he went off as the favorite, despite the fact that he turns 52 on Jan. 15 and was old enough to have been the 27-year-old Smith’s father.
But the natural laws of diminishing returns cannot be repelled forever. No matter what a Hopkins or George Foreman or Archie Moore says or said, 50 is not the new 40, any more than 40 is the new 30. Bones get creaky. Reaction time slows. Hair falls out or turns gray, and the internal workings of the human body make it increasingly difficult to retain youthful vigor and muscle tone. You can still live a good and fulfilling life as your golden years beckon, so long as you acknowledge that nothing lasts forever.
B-Hop is nearly 17 years junior to me, so I understand these matters well. I count myself fortunate not only that I was at ringside for his final bout, but also for his pro debut, in which he dropped a four-round decision to a fellow first-timer, Clinton Mitchell, on a four-round majority decision on Oct. 11, 1988, at Resorts International in Atlantic City.
Not surprisingly, I had no idea then that Hopkins would go on to become a legendary figure and surefire future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Virtually all of my fight story for the Philadelphia Daily News focused on the main event, in which a world-rated junior welterweight from New York City, John Wesley Meekins, scored a 10-round majority decision over veteran Saoul Mamby. The Hopkins fight, as I recall, scarcely got a mention.
But you know what they say about what goes around eventually coming around again. Mamby was 41 at the time he lost to Meekins, and nearly 61 when he fought for the last time, dropping a 10-round unanimous decision to Anthony Osbourne on March 8, 2008. By Mamby’s standards, Hopkins was still something of a kid when he stepped inside the ropes against Smith.
Lest a hard-to-discourage Hopkins get the idea of following in Mamby’s footsteps and coming back yet again, let it be noted that the Bronx native lost his final three bouts, and 11 of his last 14, to finish 45-34-6 with 18 KO wins. Yeah, Hopkins lost to Smith on Dec. 17, but he was double-teamed that night, his other opponent being the relentless march of time.
Longevity Isn’t Everything
John Wesley Meekins, referenced in the previous item, also has a connection to another Philadelphian, Meldrick Taylor, who like Hopkins was a celebrated world champion but whose prime did not last nearly as long.
Following his points nod over Mamby, the-then-23-year-old lost his next fight on what officially became a seventh-round stoppage at the very fast hands of the even-younger IBF junior welterweight titlist, the 22-year-old Taylor, on Jan. 21, 1989, at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Ring physician Dr. Frank Doggett called a halt to the one-sided bout prior to the start of the eighth round with the well-battered Meekins’ right eye swollen shut and his left eye cut and also puffing up badly.
“He hits you so many times, you think it’s raining on your face,” Taylor’s trainer, George Benton, said of his fighter, who was just 17 when he won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Then known simply as “The Kid,” Taylor was indeed a marvel to behold at his best, with fists that moved with the blurring swiftness of a hummingbird’s wings. He had the fastest hands of any fighter I’ve ever seen, and, yes, that includes Roy Jones Jr. He had won the title on a one-sided nod over the very capable Buddy McGirt, and he brought a 24-0-1 record, with 14 KOs, into his March 17, 1990, unification showdown with the great WBC champion, Julio Cesar Chavez, at the Las Vegas Hilton.
You know the rest. Taylor hit “JCC Superstar” with the same rapid-fire combinations that had semi-disfigured Meekins, but Chavez had a head like a cinder block. Not only did the Mexican standout not wobble, his face scarcely bore the marks of the steady tattooing Taylor was administering. Still, entering the 12th and final round, Taylor, whose own face was a bloody mess (JCC’s far-less-frequent connections landing with the force of a sledgehammer), needed only to finish on his feet to get the victory in what would eventually be hailed not only as Fight of the Year, but in some quarters Fight of the Decade. Judges Jerry Roth and Dave Moretti had Taylor ahead by respective margins of 108-101 and 107-102 while colleague Chuck Giampa’s card favored Chavez by 105-104.
You know the rest. Taylor, told that he needed to win the 12th round by co-trainer Lou Duva, did not play keepaway but foolishly and needlessly continued to trade with Chavez, who floored him with a jolting overhand right in the closing seconds. The way the fight ended – with referee Richard Steele awarding Chavez a TKO victory with just two ticks remaining before the final bell – remains one of boxing’s hottest controversies.
Although Taylor enjoyed some post-Chavez success, winning the WBA welterweight crown on a unanimous decision over Aaron Taylor and successfully defending it twice, he was pummeled in losing by fourth-round stoppage to WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris on May 9, 1992. He was even less competitive, if that were possible, in an eighth-round TKO loss to Crisanto Espana for the WBA welterweight title on Oct. 31, 1992.
In retrospect, it was obvious that Meldrick Taylor’s abbreviated prime was beaten out of him in that first clash with Chavez (he also lost the rematch on an eighth-round TKO on Sept. 17, 1994). But that prime, what there was of it, was truly special, and raises an interesting question.
On June 11, Holyfield’s Olympic teammate, Evander Holyfield, will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with Marco Antonio Barrera and the late Johnny Tapia. They are all worthy selections, but it is highly likely they will never be joined as IBHOF members by Taylor, who burned so brightly but not long enough to meet any sort of longevity requirement for serious consideration.
I voted for Taylor, on the grounds he was to boxing, in a manner of speaking, what baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was to his sport. When Koufax was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, he was a hard-throwing but wild lefthander. Koufax was just 36-40 in his first six years in the majors as he attempted to harness his incredible stuff, but, suddenly, it all blossomed for him in 1961, when he went 18-13 with a 3.52 earned run average and 269 strikeouts in 255.2 innings. For the rest of his career, which ended after the 1966 season when he was only 30 because of an arthritic left elbow, he was the most dominant pitcher in the game, and arguably the best ever. For his final six seasons, Koufax was 129-47 with 35 shutouts, including four no-hitters (one a perfect game) and 1,713 strikeouts in 1,632.2 innings.
Taylor, in a manner of speaking, was a sort of Koufax in reverse. His first six years as a pro were his best, and they were breathtaking. He wasn’t able to sustain them, however, and even his heady run to the top did not make as deep or lasting as impression on IBHOF voters as was the case with Koufax, who entered baseball’s Hall of Fame with overwhelming support in 1972.