Monday, December 08, 2008

A Little of This and That

Michael Ezra sent two separate emails, asking a question in each. Everything that follows is in response to these questions. Some of the answers are a bit difficult to follow, in that they may refer either to question #1 (talent) or question #2 (who’s overrated.) Context generally sorts out the responses on the thread though.

Mike Ezra:

1.) When I think of the best fighters in the last 20 years, I think of Lopez, Barrera, Morales, Whitaker, and Hopkins (am I missing any obvious ones?).

When I think of the most talented fighters I've seen in the last twenty years, I think of Whitaker, Roy Jones, and Paul Williams.

Am I too easily impressed with Williams or is he that damn good?

2.) Who is the fighter that you wildly overrated? You were sure he'd be awesome, and he just wasn't.

Charles Farrell: (on overrating) Hector Camacho. I thought he'd be one of the greatest fighters ever.

Mike Ezra: Why do you think he didn't turn out that way? Las drogas? Or something more complex? Lack of hitting power doesn't seem to be an utter barrier to all-time greatness, so what do you think it was it that prevented him from going all the way? Afraid of war after tasting Rosario's power?

Charles Farrell: The Rosario fight certainly fucked him up in an inexorable way. Drugs and drinking without question contributed to his demise, as did his lack of serious training. He punched hard enough so that it wouldn't have hindered him (he was a better puncher than Whitaker or Mayweather, for example.) It may have been that things were too easy for him right up until the time he got nailed by Rosario, at which point he became dispirited. Actually, I'd add Rosario to the short list of people I vastly overrated. When he was a teenager, he was an absolute monster.

Rich O’Brian: Donald Curry comes to mind.

Mike Ezra: Curry's an interesting one because he really was awesome, just for not very long. He's the poster boy for disappointment, but he did achieve hispotential for a short period.

Brian Moore: Jeff Lacy leaps to mind.

Charles Farrell: For some reason, I got Curry right. It's surprising, since he was such a flawless fighter. I sensed some small congenital dysfunction.

Lacy, I saw too often in training. His liabilities were more apparent in the gym than in his real fights.

Charles Farrell: (regarding talent) Mike McCallum, James Toney, Azumah Nelson might all be worth considering. I think Lopez was the best of the bunch though. Closer to perfect than anyone else I can think of. And Beristain's truest masterpiece.

Williams is awfully good. Frank and I both noticed that he doesn't know how to jab though. It's something he needs to learn. But he can really fight. There's something about his demeanor that suggests he's a genuine fighter.

Carlo Rotella: (on overrating) I was going to say Paul Spadafora and Zab Judah, two guys I saw very early in their careers and thought had what Colonel Stingo called the divine inflatus--especially back then, when Spadafora was hurting people with judicious body shots. But I don't know that I thought they would be truly great. I thought they would be champions, but I guess I didn't really trust my judgment enough to go beyond that. But it's worth mentioning them to bring up the point about seeing fighters in the flesh. It can go either way: Charles saw Lacy in the gym and heard alarm bells; I saw Gatti seem to come back from the dead in a fight from a few feet away and therefore thought against all sense or logic that he might find a way to get Mayweather's attention. Seeing fighters live has a strong effect on you, one way or the other, and one possible effect is to overrate them. There's an argument to be made that I overrate Holmes, and if I do it's because I've seen so much of him up close.

Mike Ezra: It is not possible to overrate Larry Holmes, at least as a fighter.

Charles Farrell: I think it would be hard to overrate Holmes. Unless you tried to make the point that he was unquestionably, indisputably the greatest heavyweight who ever lived, and that no one would have stood a chance against him, there's only so much exposure you face for being lavish in your praise of him. I would imagine that, at this point, it's generally understood that he was somewhere in the top five of all-time great heavyweights.

I know that my friend Bill Clancy refereed a couple of Holmes's post-fifty fights, and he claimed that, watched from inside the ring, Larry's jab was by far the best he'd ever seen.

Carlo Rotella: You know, a lot of sports writing has been lavished on that jab that doesn't really get at what was great about it--timing, heaviness, regular irregularity. "Piston-like" is entirely inaccurate. Part of the whole point was to throw it off the beat, just before or after when it was supposed to arrive. And the quality that always got to me was what a heavy punch it was; not just hard, but heavy. I have to say that to this day I don't really understand _how_, exactly, he got so much more on it than other great heavies got on theirs. The leverage of a cross or a hook seems more obvious. Having a great jab seems more opaque to me, like a drummer who does great things with the bass drum. I mean, you just step on the pedal and it goes boom. How do you get to be better than other people at that? So I never really have tried to describe the heaviness of Holmes's jab for publication, because I don't get it. But I do get the timing, and have always admired it. When he's really going, it seems as if the other guy is--against his will--erratically darting his head forward into Holmes's fist over and over again. The first is already there every time he moves his head. It's terrible and beautiful.

Charles Farrell: One of the things that Holmes did with his jab (and it was nearly a lost art even back when he was starting out) was to use it to lead people where he wanted them to go. Carlo, you make a really good point about how his timing was always just slightly unpredictable. He had a kind of stutter to his jab, almost like a slight pump action (often preceded by a small head feint.) That made it very hard to know exactly when the jab would arrive. He also took pains not to land it in any one place too consistently. And he was a much bigger guy then people realized (until he was so old that he really had become a very big guy.) I remember Coetzee saying that, when he met Holmes in South Africa for the first time, he couldn't believe how big Larry was. Most of that weight was in Holmes's trunk and in his ass. He was almost built like a great fastball pitcher. That kind of foundation, in conjunction with a good snap and good speed, will give you a powerful jab.

But all of what I just wrote only suggests that I don't really know how to explain it either.

Carlo Rotella: He was big even when he was young, as you say, and, as you say, it wasn't in his chest and shoulders. It really was in his ass and thighs and torso, so it was invisible to most people. And when he got old he was huge. Big head, too, and oddly planed. The thing about the jab that I can't quite say--because I can't really see it in a way that leads to understanding--is the way he stepped into it. This is going to be wrong, but I'll just say it to communicate a recurring impression: it looked like he was stepping _down_ off a ledge with his lead foot, which gave his jab special force and heft. I can't explain the particular sequence of leverage and timing that led to that impression, but that's the way it always felt to me: he's up on a ledge about six inches above the ring surface, and when he throws the jab he steps down, and that gives it extra pop. He didn't flick it or flash it at all. If anything, the step seemed a little ponderous, a little more footwork than others' jabs require, but his timing was so good that the other guy still couldn't get out of the way. All I can say that isn't entirely useless is that he stepped into his jab differently than other fighters I've seen, and I've always associated its heaviness with that.

RE: Holmes's strength. I think I've said it before on this list, but I wassurprised when Holmes easily wrestled Tyson around on the inside duringtheir fight. Tyson punched immensely harder than Holmes by then, butHolmes was still the stronger man.

Carlo Rotella: I've spent a lot of my time as an academic trying to trace how people get good at things (boxing, music, writing, etc.), and what comes out most times is that getting really good at something depends on pouring a talent into an institutional vessel of some kind--a gym, a record label, a magazine, a local style--at a moment when it can still mature. That's hard to do these days in boxing--not impossible, but hard to do. Often, what happens is that you get _either_ first-rate natural talent or excellent preparation, but not both, and usually one is plenty. Some version of this has probably been true of boxing for a long time, or forever, but what's more apparent these days is that the institutional structure--fewer gyms, a TV setup that doesn't reward full development as a fighter, etc.--is particularly unlikely to produce honed, mature craftsmen who marry talent to training.

Charles Farrell: I think that's why the Marquez brothers and some other of Beristain's finished products impress me so much: they're such a rarity. There's a combination of good natural ability (although not genius, except possibly in the case of Ricardo Lopez), hard work, wonderful training and conditioning, all filtered through an entirely professional mind-set. There are fighters out there with as much talent as either Marquez, but no one else nowadays knows what Beristain knows, and he routinely turns out elite fighters.

Carlo Rotella: I think the ideal situation would be 1) natural talent, plus 2) excellent teacher wired into the field's body of knowledge, plus 3) sustaining institutional frame (a gym, a network, whatever), plus 4) other similarly well-developed practitioners to learn from, test yourself against, etc. Take the blues scene in Chicago in the late 50s. It had all 4 elements going strong, and it produced serial and multiple greatness that carried along not only stone geniuses but also good solid craftspeople. I think in boxing these days you'll never get all 4, but you can get kind of close. Maybe Beristain's best fighters, if they're lucky in finding good opponents, might be most likely to get as close to the ideal as is possible these days. But there's a lot going against them, including the negative side of #3 (networks that don't reward progress as a craftsman) and #4 (rushing along to fights with stars who are incomplete fighters but who do one thing spectacularly well, or who just look real good with their shirt off, or who happen to excite crowds precisely because of their incompleteness--a la Gatti, Duddy, mid- and late-period Tyson). And, of course, there's the #2 problem: the decline of the class of teachers, which is maybe the most dire part. But it could well be that plenty of #1 is still out there, even if less boxing talent is going into the boxing pipeline (big men taking up football, e.g.).

Carlo Rotella: So the question, for me, then becomes: is pure talent visible no matter what the circumstances (is it, in other words, unbound by historical conditions in that sense), or in this particular historical moment can we say that we're no longer confident that talent could express itself fully enough early on in a fighter's career to be truly visible?

Charles Farrell: Talent is pretty apparent, assuming a trained eye is cast on it. I don't think it's bound in any way by historical conditions. The next step seems more problematic. With so few competent trainers, fighters with immense natural talent have trouble learning out how to actually fight. I guess I'd say that the talent part is visible, but finding its expression might be difficult.

Williams is a good case in point. Clearly he has talent. And, by beating Margarito, he has at least some measure of achievement. But he can't even throw a jab properly (and unlike, say, Roy Jones, Williams would be helped immensely by adding a jab to his arsenal.) This kind of disconnect between talent, success, and thoroughly integrated technique might be what constricts the full expression of a fighter's ability.

Gary Moser: I know we're all frickin' STARVED for talent in current-day boxing, but REALLY....BEST WINS IN FIRST 37 BOUTS---------------------------ROY JONES JR: Jorge Castro Bernard Hopkins James Toney Mike McCallum Virgil HillPERNELL WHITAKER: Roger Mayweather Azumah Nelson Buddy McGirt Julio Cesar Chavez [ even though officially a draw ] Julio Cesar VasquezPAUL WILLIAMS: Antonio Margarito Carlos Quintano ??? Sharmba Mitchell ???
Charles Farrell: Let's all agree to restrict Gary's access to all printed boxing material. He's dangerous when he gets his hands on things.

The most impressive youngster fighting today is Jorge Linares. I like Williams quite a bit, but I don't think he's nearly as developed as Jorge.

Carlo Rotella: I like the cruel specificity of "first 37 bouts." On the other hand, I still say we have to clarify the age old question of standards--talent vs achievement--here. Are Mike and Gary talking past each other here, or do they have fair grounds for an argument?

Charles Farrell: Aside from fighters with no managerial or promotional clout, exactly how much can a prospect achieve in his early career in today's boxing climate? Marketing and its concomitant obsession with cautious matchmaking render legitimate achievement very difficult. We now routinely see fighters becoming multiple belt holders without having beaten anyone of note. The guys who can be said to achieve early are usually fighters who didn't start from a privileged position.