[Author's Note: I wrote this last December on Uppercutting.com but it came up during a recent Twitter debate and I thought it might be worth sharing]
Boxing has a credibility problem. I’m not talking about the PEDs, or the questionable decisions, or the miserably corrupt alphabet soup sanctioning bodies, or Don King. I’m talking about the boxing media – even some of my favorite journalists. I’m talking the vast majority of the fans. I’m probably talking about you. Yeah, you have a credibility problem.
No sport is quicker to anoint its next savior after an impressive win, or to toss dirt on a worthy adversary after a disappointing loss. Some of this is understandable: at its essence, boxing is emotion expressed physically. Pure emotion – let alone pure physicality – is not something that naturally lends itself to calm rational thought. It is not something that peacefully coexists with reasoned argument. After all, what are you going to believe: your heart or some lyin’ facts?
The quintessential example of this phenomenon is the young Mike Tyson. As he effortlessly bulldozed his way through the heavyweight division, barely breaking a sweat most nights, and scoring knockouts that made every highlight reel in the country, it was easy to imagine him an entirely unique talent (which, in some ways, he surely is). He was, everyone assumed, the hardest puncher in boxing history, the greatest heavyweight since Ali – if not ever, he was invincible.
Of course, Tyson was none of these things. If Tyson stands atop any pyramid in boxing, it is that of marketing. Cruising over a sea of washed up former champions, blown up smaller men, and lifelong tomato cans, Tyson could look like a world beater. And he was sold as one: from Diet Pepsi to Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, from a special video series from Sports Illustrated to being HBO’s first signature star, the media uniformly bought into and perpetuated the idea that we were witnessing an all-time great. Even Will Smith wrote a song about it (a pretty good one at that).
The lie was exposed in a single moment in Tokyo – a winging left hand that separated both Tyson from his senses and the mundane reality from all of our fanciful commercialized aspirations. That’s boxing. Within the ring, the truth may be brutal, it may be hard, but it is genuine. There are many points at which Mike Tyson may have ceased to be “Iron Mike” – it could have been his knockout loss to Holyfield, it could have been when he resorted to biting Holyfield to avoid a similar fate in their rematch, it may have even been the vicious one-sided beating that Lennox Lewis administered a dozen years after Tokyo – but there is no question about the moment at which the truth was revealed. From that point on, it was only a question of when it would be accepted.
For many, including many for whom I have a great deal of respect, that moment of denouement is yet to come. It is still common to hear apologists claim that Tyson would have been an all-time great but … [he was never the same after Cus died] [Robin Givens and her mother screwed him up] [Don King!!1!]. There are people who still pine for a comeback today, believing that now – pushing 50 years of age and more than 15 years removed from anything that can be considered a remotely meaningful victory – Tyson will finally put it all together. In one sense, who can blame them? They saw with their own eyes a man terrorize not just other grown men but heavyweight boxers, some even with shiny championship belts. They saw him hit these men so hard that their legs stopped communicating with their brains, that their eyes disappeared into their skulls, that they looked like they might never get up again. They saw a superhuman destroyer of men.
But they never asked: who are these men he has vanquished? For the simple fact is that for all the highlight reel knockouts, for all the ferocity, for all the terror he inspired, Mike Tyson never once defeated a great heavyweight in his prime. The best fighter Tyson ever beat was Larry Holmes – a true great champion – but one who came out of retirement for a paycheck the night he fought Tyson. Tyson beat Michael Spinks, a great fighter, but a much smaller man (Spinks made his professional debut at 165 lbs) whose most important victories had come years earlier against men 40 pounds lighter than Tyson. Beyond that, Tyson’s most important victories came against second tier champions and career contenders like Frank Bruno, Razor Ruddock, and Carl “The Truth” Williams, all of whom had been knock out victims before ever facing Tyson. The three times Tyson stepped up to face legitimately great opponents (twice against Holyfield, once against Lewis) he was humiliated.
And this is boxing’s credibility problem cut to its essence: the appearance of greatness can take on more importance than actual greatness. Greatness becomes defined not by the quality of foe vanquished but their quantity, or the manner in which they are disposed of. Conversely, for fighters whose reputation is not yet made, a single loss – even a loss that results from a bad scorecard – can force that man to the back of the line for title shots and prime TV slots. Mike Tyson’s combination of devastating power, fearsome bearing, and lively personality would have made him a huge star no matter what. But it did not make him great (at least not as great as he was imagined to be), other than in the minds of his legions of fans.
Unlike Mike Tyson, there is no question about Manny Pacquiao’s bona fides. At or under 130 lbs, he was a force of nature. A terror who dispatched legends like Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Marquez with relish and without a dull moment. Had Manny retired after blowing out David Diaz at 135 lbs, he would have been a sure thing Hall of Famer and a legend in his native Philippines. But none of those victories are what turned him into a worldwide superstar. Instead, it would be his much-ballyhooed (and questioned) jump to face Oscar De La Hoya and his subsequent string of victories between 140 and 154 lbs that would elevate Pacquiao to the next level.
Nearly all boxing analysts view Manny’s string of blowout victories over De La Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Clottey, Margarito and Mosley as the crowning achievement of his career. During that run, there was serious discussion on HBO telecasts about whether Pacquiao might be in the conversation for the best fighter of all time. (Of all time! Manny Pacquiao may not even be the best Filipino fighter of his era.) Fans twice packed the gargantuan football stadium in Dallas to catch even a televised glimpse of the legend on the massive TV monitor dangling from overhead. The fawning over all things Pacquiao reached such an absurd level that that HBO saw fit to give his trainer, Freddie Roach, his own reality show. And, yet, through all of this, what did Pacquiao really prove?
The honest answer is not that much. Of the six giant names Pacquiao ran over, five were spent husks of their former selves, and the other, a middling career contender who got more credit than he deserved for fighting through an injury in a losing effort. I remember (somewhat fuzzily) drinking with Steve Kim before Hatton-Pacquiao and arguing about Manny’s place in history. Steve insisted that Manny was obviously an all-time great if he beat Hatton and I kept asking, “why?” How does beating Ricky Hatton – especially the version of Hatton who Pacquiao faced, the version that had already been viciously knocked out and been drained by dozens of cycles of massive weight gain followed by brutal training – prove that anyone is an all-time great? How does one raise his profile by doing what he is overwhelming favored to do?
Let’s just say it: De La Hoya, Mosley, and Margarito were completely done when they fought Manny. Cotto has never been the same since he took the vicious, likely illegal, beating from Margarito in their first fight. Hatton was always much less than his reputation. Clottey got a lot of credit for losing with dignity against Margarito but he probably shouldn’t have. At the time, a lot of people were impressed that he fought through what was assumed to be a broken hand. But it turned out not to be broken, and also that Clottey often complaimed about phantom issues. In hindsight, Clottey was just a whiner, not the gutsy opponent he seemed that evening.
So, what did Manny prove at 147 lbs? That he could rip apart old, slow, spent opponents? That he could beat a timid, never-was in Clottey? That Ricky Hatton had a tender chin? The truth is that Manny is a great, great champion, but that all of his meaningful accomplishments occurred at 130 lbs or lower. Sure, Manny deserves credit for agreeing to fight each of those men, for proving he could take a bigger man’s punch, and for putting on a good show. But none of those opponents proved anything about Manny’s greatness, and his recent performances against Juan Manuel Marquez (twice) and Timothy Bradley shout the cold, hard truth: that Manny would not have been a very successful welterweight against the best fighters in the division. Certainly, there is no version of Pacquiao that ever could have challenged the corresponding version of Mayweather.
The Brothers Klitschko
Recently, rumors have begun to circulate that the Klitschko brothers are top pound-for-pound fighters. That they are somehow special heavyweights. That they could have fared well against heavyweight champions past. Unlike Manny, or Tyson, the answer to this is easy and defintive: what absolute nonsense. The Klitschkos are to the current heavyweight division what rodents were in the post-Dinosaur world – a dominant force solely by virtue of the fact that all their competition had already been wiped out.
The Klitschkos do not receive credit for beating any top opponents, for top opponents simply do not exist. Between the two brothers, they have fought exactly one fight against a top-level opponent and that was Vitali’s fight with Lennox Lewis a decade ago. Like Joshua Clottey against Margarito, Vitali got a lot of credit for his losing effort that night, and just like Clottey, it is questionable how much of that credit was deserved.
First, Lennox had an established history of performing poorly when he wasn’t taking a fight seriously: his stunning knockouts against Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall being the prime examples. And Lennox was clearly not in shape with the fight for Vitali. Vitali was a last minute replacement for Kirk Johnson and Lewis showed up looking like he’d trained more for a hot dog eating competition than a heavyweight title fight. When he did this against Rahman and McCall, he ended up on the canvas. Against Vitali, he ended up with his hands in the air. Is it fair to say this means Vitali is less than the prime versions of Rahman and McCall? No. But it’s not an unreasonable question to ask.
Second, despite what you may have heard, Lennox was going to knock Klitschko out that night. The fight was stopped on a wretched, repulsive gash over Vitali’s eye, thereby permitting him a dignified exit. But the momentum of the fight was clear: Lennox had gotten off to a slow start, but he was taking over the fight and on his way to knocking Klitschko out. Had the fight lasted another three rounds, and Lewis stopped Klitschko in a more traditional fashion, no one would be discussing what might have been. A Klitschko would have been vanquished (again) and there would be no question where the brothers fit in the pantheon of heavyweights. If there ever was a time that being cut to the bone above your eye could be considered a lucky break, this was it.
The simple fact is this: the Klitschkos were not remotely on the level of a Lennox Lewis. The Klitschkos were not on the level of a prime Tyson, Holyfield, Bowe, or Holmes. The Klitschkos may have made for interesting fights with the likes of Ray Mercer or Razor Ruddock, but nothing more. Their current stature says far more about who they have been fighting (or who they haven’t) than about themselves.