"We’re all mad here."
When the bell rang to begin the tenth round on June 7 at Madison Square Garden, Miguel Cotto headed out from his corner to meet the middleweight king, who never met him. Sergio Martinez, battered and bloodied, was fighting his corner instead. “Uno mas,” he pleaded. “One more.” But he was not adamant. His chief second was. “No! It’s my responsibility!” he said, and stopped the fight.
Cotto watched from a few yards away, his pulse slowing; his face a detachable mask.
He had made laughing stocks of those pundits who just one year ago couldn’t imagine he’d invade the middleweight division—never mind topple a king. But Cotto isn’t the gloating type. His stoic presentation covers a heart three sizes too big, and he began his reign with kind words and a kiss for Martinez.
When Bob Fitzsimmons’s freckled fists beat the flesh though not the spirit of the acclaimed middleweight king in 1891, Jack “The Nonpareil” Dempsey’s corner did what Martinez’s corner did; they threw the sponge in. Fitzsimmons, like Cotto, was dominant from the start. He too scored a litany of knockdowns, emerged unscathed, and began his reign crouching down beside the vanquished to “whisper kind words of encouragement into his ear.”
Fitzsimmons-Dempsey. Cotto-Martinez. Two fights, one story. Declining middleweight kings deposed by weight-jumping challengers who elevated the humanity of their opponents, themselves, and the sport. It’s the Janus faces we expect to see with every fight, the contradiction that isn’t contradictory: Darwin during (‘Get him before he gets you”), John Bradford after (“There but for the grace of God go I”).
Miguel Cotto is, by my reckoning, the 49th middleweight king to enter a long and turbulent succession stretching back at least to Fitzsimmons himself. Between them are names that bring the boxing historian to bended knee: Hopkins. Hagler. Monzon. Giardello. Robinson. LaMotta. Zale. Walker. Greb. Ketchel. The twentieth century crammed it full of continental Americans—where the average dimensions of males are middleweight before training camp. Size matters. It isn’t a division that easily accommodates the peoples south of the border, and it’s no surprise that so few of them have conquered the division. Cotto has emerged as the first Boricua in history to do so. When he appeared at the post-fight press conference, the color of his shirt was purple. Like royalty.
And yet it all drifted past press row like a summer breeze.
If the sweet science was as rational outside of the ring as it is inside of it, King Cotto would have been trumpeted from the archipelago to Australia. But the sweet science doesn’t make sense. Nearly everyone is confused and many are content to remain confused. And out of this confusion came a perky phrase repeated ad nauseam in word and in print —“Cotto,” it said, “is the first boxer from Puerto Rico to win world titles in four weight classes.”
Variations of this phrase were sprinkled like fairy dust while the true significance of what Cotto accomplished was lost. Lost like Alice in Wonderland. Lost like Malcolm Gordon in NYC. And Fistiana’s fourth estate, which no longer has the inclination to take a good hard look at what passes off as accomplishments these days, is to blame.
Cotto won bouts that are counted as championships only in the make-pretend world of modern boxing. The facts (said Lewis Carroll better than I), stand in front of us with arms folded, frowning like a thunderstorm. The facts say Cotto took a vacant light welterweight title by defeating Kelson Pinto in 2004. The most authoritative ratings body at the time was The Ring, and The Ring rated Cotto eighth at the time. Pinto was not even rated. In 2006, Cotto took a vacant welterweight title by defeating Carlos Quintana. Quintana was rated ninth while Cotto himself was not rated in the division because he had never fought in the division —he was handed a belt because he’s Cotto; much like the mayor is handed a stuffed animal at a carnival because he’s the mayor. Four years after that, Cotto took another dubious title by defeating Jr. middleweight Yuri Foreman. That belt traces back to 2002 when one unrated fighter beat another unrated fighter in what was imaginatively called a world championship.
If Cotto is a four-time world champion, then I’m the Cheshire Cat. But it isn’t Cotto’s fault. He was handed a few belts and for all he knew, he was Henry Armstrong. It’s our fault.
Amateur star Vasyl Lomachenko has been given a hero’s welcome to Wonderland. Rightfully hyped for his superb athleticism and skills, he is wrongfully hyped for winning “a world championship” not two weeks ago. Neither he nor his opponent were ranked in the top-ten by the Transnational Rankings Board, and neither have anything resembling a claim on anything resembling a championship no matter what they did on June 21. “If it was so, it might be,” said Lewis Carroll better than me, “and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t.” Then again, we’re in the land of make-pretend, where facts are flakes of dandruff brushed off Versace suits.
Lomachenko did not earn but was granted an “international title shot” in his first professional fight and a “world title shot” in his second professional fight. (Grinning from ear to ear is an inconvenient detail that we are invited to ignore; it says Lomachenko was paid for six five-round bouts before his Vegas debut and was thus and therefore a professional with a 6-0 record before either of those “title” fights).
Promoter Bob Arum told the Boxing Channel that the fast track was all “part of the deal” in signing Lomachenko. Isn’t that a peach? Lomachenko wanted to become a champion immediately, Arum wanted to sign him, so Arum made it happen. The only check on their ambitions was Orlando Salido, a dead-eyed spoiler who stymied Lomachenko’s first attempt at a faux title. To get him right back on track, they clicked their heels and there appeared Gary Russell, Jr., a bright-eyed tenderfoot absurdly rated number-one by Arum’s glad-handing friends in the belt business.
Lomachenko’s victory over Russell was followed by another perky chorus repeated ad nauseam in word and in print. Lomachenko, it said, “tied the record for fewest fights to a world title.” This was, in turn, puffed-up by a minute-and-a-half of research that uncovered long-retired Saensak Muanysurin, who won a faux title in his third professional fight in 1975. Another two minutes’ research would have uncovered the sorry origin of that sorry title: Muanysurin won it from Perico Fernandez who fought Lion Furuyama for it though neither were rated in the top-ten by The Ring. Not a one of them ever conquered the division. Neither has Lomachenko. Nohow! They brandish decorations and are solemnly declared “champions” by mad parties that profit from the term, while we the press fret about deadlines and smile at it all like white rabbits.
We had good reason to smile Saturday night when HBO cameras zeroed in on a 69-year-old-man shadowboxing from his seat. It was Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander, who long ago tried to knock off the head of Joe Frazier in a bid for the one and only heavyweight throne. I was smiling too, until the commentators had to go and make something that isn’t something that is. “After an absence of 42 years,” they said without a great deal of thought, “championship boxing returns to Omaha, Nebraska.” No it didn’t. Terence Crawford isn’t “the lightweight champion” —not yet. That there’s a reality check; it doesn’t diminish the fact that he conjured up a young Ezzard Charles in a Fight of the Year candidate to overcome a nerve-racking challenge in Yuriorkis Gamboa. (By the bye, Gamboa was touted as “an Olympic gold medalist, a dominant amateur, an undefeated professional, with belts in multiple weight classes.” Can you guess which accolade was first declared by dodos?)
“So far, I don’t know what it means to be the champion,” Lomachenko said in a moment of accidental clarity. It should be said in chorus with sixty-eight other so-called champions in a sport that has become as fatuous as Lewis Carroll’s Caucus-race.
It need not be. If we’d only poke our heads out of the rabbit-hole, we’d realize the madness underfoot and at least examine our role in it.
After all, children know that not everyone can win, and that if too many do, it diminishes the prize and the point. Children know that good sense trumps nonsense even when nonsense is common, and that dodos shouldn’t speak.
The graphic design is the work of Jason A. McMann of Plymouth, MA. Special thanks to boxing historians Alister Scott Ottesen, who kindly provided The Ring ratings used in this essay and Sergei Yurchenko (http://senya13.blogspot.com/) for his insights regarding early middleweight championship history.
Springs Toledo is a founding member of the Transnational Rankings Board and the author of the newly-released book, The Gods of War (Tora, 2014, $25). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for signed or inscribed copies.