Friday, November 03, 2006

Thoughts on Larry Holmes's 57th Birthday

On November 6th 1981, I went to the Pittsburgh Civic arena to see the heavyweight elimination bout between Randall "Tex" Cobb and hard-punching Columbian heavyweight Bernardo Mercado. The Cobb-Mercado bout was part of the undercard to the Larry Holmes-Renaldo Snipes WBC heavyweight title bout.
A few of Randall's friends along with a couple fighters from the gym took a bus from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Cobb-Mercado was a great fight. Having seen most of Cobb's bouts, I don't think he ever looked better. He looked like a professional heavyweight contender that night. Had Cobb been blessed with a bigger punch, he would've stopped Mercado. Both fighters had their moments, but I kept thinking how Mercado must be getting discouraged, because in spite of nailing Cobb flush with some massive right hands, Cobb just kept coming at him. The fight went the 10 round distance and Cobb won a hard fought and well deserved unanimous decision.
In November 1981, Larry Holmes was undefeated (38-0) and in the middle of his prime. Since winning the title from Ken Norton in June 1978, Holmes had made 10 successful defenses and was looking to make Snipes number 11. Snipes earned his shot at the title by winning a 10 round split decision over former WBA heavyweight title holder Gerrie Coetzee in his last fight, leaving him undefeated in 22 bouts.
The Holmes-Snipes bout was scheduled for 15 rounds. Once the fight started, Holmes was in control and looked as if he'd only need about five rounds to secure a win. For some reason I started watching the fight through a pair of binoculars in the seventh round. I was focused on Snipes's hands, and I literally followed his right when he dropped Holmes as he was releasing it. Holmes stumbled into the ring post as he was getting up. He looked to be on the verge of losing the title just as he did two years earlier when Earnie Shavers dropped him with a big right hand in the seventh round of their rematch.
Once again, Holmes showed one of the reasons why he's considered among the greatest of the greats. Snipes found out, as did Shavers, that maybe it's best not to make Holmes think you might beat him. Showing tremendous heart and reserve, Holmes resumed control of the fight in the eighth round. In the 11th round, Holmes was pot-shooting Snipes at will and the fight was stopped.
Today, Renaldo Snipes and Earnie Shavers are part of the Holmes legacy. Both hurt him badly and sat him on his rear end in the seventh round during their title bouts. But they couldn't hold him off and were stopped in the 11th round. They also can claim they were the heavyweight champion of the world for eight seconds.
As I left the arena after the fight, I was consumed with two thoughts. I thought Larry Holmes was a special fighter, but didn't think he'd be remembered as an all-time great. And I flirted with the idea that if Snipes can come within two seconds of stopping him, Gerry Cooney might put him on disability if he catches him clean. However, those thoughts only lasted a day or two. By the night he fought Cooney, I didn't have a morsel of doubt he would beat him.
It's been almost 25 years since Holmes-Snipes and there are no questions unanswered pertaining to Holmes greatness. In fact, I happen to be the best witness against what I doubted about him in 1981. As a member of International Boxing Research Organization, I rated Larry Holmes the fourth greatest heavyweight champion in boxing history.
Larry Holmes may not be in a class all by himself, but whatever one he's in, it won't take long to call roll. . I could state why and fill up 10 blogs, but I'll leave that for my colleagues on this one. I'll just end with this: Muhammad Ali was right, "Larry Holmes was a BAD MAN!"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Non-Celebrity Champions

Carlo’s reference to a recent biography of Gene Tunney prompted me to consider champions whose title reigns immediately followed those of charismatic champions.

Among heavyweight champions, I’d guess you’d have to include Sullivan, Dempsey, Louis, Ali, and Tyson as the ones most heartily embraced by the public.

If Max Baer had stayed champion longer, he probably would have been included.

Jack Johnson has some kind of special place too, for what would have then been considered negative reasons.

George Foreman is more problematic; his status as an icon didn’t really take place until he was old enough to be more oddity than championship figure. To most of the world, he's at least as much pitchman as he is boxer.

Finally, Rocky Marciano may not have had suitable opponents to elevate him to the A List of beloved champions. But time has favored him. Maybe from a remove of forty years and more, he’s made it.

The replacement champs were, in order, Corbett, Willard, Tunney, Charles, Frazier, Leon Spinks—although Larry Holmes probably is Ali’s historic successor—and Douglas.

Aside from Frazier and Holmes, none of them was a high profile ex-champion. I think history is already starting to be kinder to Holmes than it will be to Frazier. Part of that is because Ali is starting to become ancient history. It’s possible that, when younger fight fans think of Frazier, they remember the much more recently active Foreman yo-yoing him off the canvas.

Three of the successors (Willard, Spinks, and Douglas) got lucky. None of them deserved to become champ.

Corbett was a very good, historically significant fighter.

But the rest comfortably slot in among the all-time greats. And Ezzard Charles deserves a place somewhere in the P4P top ten.

I noticed something odd. Among the charismatic champs, only Louis was a truly efficient fighter. It's possible that there was a deeply held cultural need for Louis to be perfect--to be reassuringly unbeatable.

All the rest in the immortal group had eccentricities, idiosyncrasies, and exploitable liabilities.

On the other hand, the three most technically sound champs ever (unless you want to make a case for James Toney, who most people refuse see as having held the title) are all among the follow-up group—Tunney, Charles, and Holmes.

It makes me wonder if there ever a time when consummate professionalism was prized over personality? Can a totally efficient fighting machine be seen as a hero?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Weekend of Upsets?

Lord, I was born a gambling man. I hate games of chance, but I love an
intellectual gamble. Guys like me look for something called an overlay,
which is a proposition that gives us favorable odds on a situation we
think will come out to our liking. An overlay is a bet that gives us good
value. We live for these moments when the world gives us 5-1 on a matchup
that should be 2-1.

I have an ego, but not an exceptionally big one. Even when I sense an
overlay, I don't necessarily play it. I don't have the bankroll to bet
every intuition that comes to me, nor do I have the skill to be right
enough times to make those bets profitable. If you want to get into sports
betting, you'd better make it your full time job unless you want to throw
cash out the window. My job is to be a college professor, and I avoid the
temptation to gamble even when the situation seems exactly right. In my
life, I've never wagered over $20 on a sporting event other than horse
racing. I've bet $1000 on a single hand of poker and $500 on a single
horse race, but those moments have been few and far between in my life.
I'd love to be involved in the action, but I know what a degenerate
gambler is, and I know I'm lower middle class at best (my parents' wealth,
which I will probably inherit, notwithstanding), and I'm not going to
throw away my life on gambling and pray that logic will trump chance. But
I also understand gambling theory, and even if I don't have the guts,
stupidity, or cash to take advantage of those moments of truth, I
understand their existence.

I feel that this weekend may provide two of those moments, namely the
Mayweather-Baldomir bout and the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Carlos Baldomir is a 5-1 underdog against Floyd Mayweather. To me, that is
insanity. At worst, Baldomir should be 5-2. My friends, this is an
overlay. If the referee allows Baldomir to clutch, grab, foul, and brawl,
then he will maul Mayweather. If the referee is to Mayweather's liking,
and disallows infighting, then Baldomir still has a 4-1 chance or so to
win the bout on his own merits. I will not bet on this fight, because
that's not what I do, but if you are a boxing bettor, how can you pass
this up?

Invasor is a brilliant horse who is made to go 1 1/4 miles. Yet he is
going to be 6-1 in the Breeders' Cup Classic. There's a horse in the race
named Bernadini who will be the favorite in the race, probably at even
money, because people see him as a superhorse. And he is a super talent.
But he has never been looked in the eye and been pushed the way Invasor
will push him; the situation is not unlike Mayweather-Baldomir, since
Baldomir will push Mayweather as he has never been pushed before. I will
bet $100 on this race. I'm not sure if I'll do Invasor to win or if I'll
bet exactas, but I will get my money down on Invasor.

There's a lot of luck in gambling. That's why it's gambling. But I think
there will be more than a handful of people who will start with $100 on
Saturday and wind up with $3000 by betting on Invasor and Baldomir. I
won't be one of them. But if you've
t the guts, I hope you will.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Thought on Klitschko-Brock

I was thinking about the upcoming Klitschko-Brock IBF heavyweight title bout. Actually, my thoughts were more on Brock than Klitschko. The thing I kept going over was, if you're Brock's trainer, Tom Yankello, how do you approach Brock and prepare him for the fight. IF Yankello is honest with himself, he knows Calvin doesn't really do anything better than Wladimir. On top of that, this is Brock's first title fight. Klitschko's already experienced the best and worst a fighter can fighting in a heavyweight title bout.
I'm sure, Emmanuel Steward, Klitschko's trainer, is aware Brock doesn't do any one thing spectacular. Taking it a step further, the only thing Steward doesn't know about Brock as a fighter is, how good his chin is, and how tough and determined he is mentally. Physically, Wladimir is the more complete and formidable fighter. Having watched Emmanuel Steward for years, I think he'll embed it into Wladimir's head that he can only lose this fight if he's careless and gives it away.
With Brock being a little bit of a mystery, he'll instruct Wladimir to be smart early and see what Brock has, or how he wants to fight. Which brings me back to Yankello. If he's honest with himself, he has to go in with the thought his fighter is not going to get any benefit of the doubt in the scoring. Translation, his fighter has to stop Klitschko to guarantee they leave the ring with the title. So when all is said and done, Brock's task is no different than any other fighter that doesn't have any one thing in his arsenal to worry Wlad about, who fights him. That is, hurt him early and take his confidence. Make him think safety first and concentrate on not getting tug with anything big. If Brock can do that, he could turn the table on Klitschko. Seeing that he can hurt Klitschko, his confidence will soar. In the process it will make him harder to hurt or deter because he'll start to believe he can't lose, instead of questioning if he can win. At the end of the day, without hurting or shaking Klitschko's confidence early, he probably won't win the fight.
Sounds easy right? Not quite. The problem for Yankello is, Brock probably thinks he can out box Wlad, or out fight him. Making it that much tougher for him to instruct Brock that he has to enter the Lion's den early and with purpose, if he hopes to win. Something that's very easy to say, but hard to convince a fighter to do, if he doesn't believe it's his only chance or doesn't have to.
Unless Tom Yankello knows something that I haven't been close enough to pick up, he's got his work cut out for him. Without knowing Calvin Brock, it would appear that Yankello has to be honest with his fighter, without being too honest.