Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Best Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton Preview: Class is king

Do you remember the scene in Don’t Look Back when Donovan and Bob Dylan exchange songs in the hotel room? The first time I watched it I saw it as a competition, a lesson taught to the younger Donovan by the king; and watching it today there still seems to me a hint of cruelty and competition in Dylan’s performance, a self-mastery and inward flame that finds satisfaction in the display. When he sings “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” there is an element of sadism that comes through.

But more than that I see it for something greater than mere one-upmanship; it is the recorded embodiment of class. Class, like the word quality, is philosophically impossible to pin down, it’s a matter of taste and judgment, but it does exist. To me, class is determined by its ability to be recognized by even the most novice of observers. One need not love folk music, Bob Dylan, or even music in general to see that he was a body electric during this time, that thin wild mercury seemed to course out of him and was so powerful and obscene it almost made one want to look away. Donovan had a class of his own, a beautiful voice and fine lyrics, but he didn’t have what Dylan did, and that’s what makes the scene so powerful. To see great talent with superior talent is to see the palm at the end of the mind, the romance of perfection at the limits of human capacity. I have encountered this in my life once or twice, someone so special it is alarming.

When it happens in sports it is amazing to see. I remember reading about people weeping in the stands as Secretariat powered down the home stretch. I know nothing of tennis but I find watching Roger Federer transfixing. It’s rarely seen at the top level of sports, where someone is able to separate so clearly and completely from the top competition that the opponent ceases to matter. The event almost transforms from contest to performance. I find these displays of mastery the most rewatchable of fights, boxing as the manly art.

Only a few boxers have achieved this level in recent years; Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones, and Pernell Whitaker come to mind, where the level of excellence on display is so profound that the rules applicable to the rest of the prizefighters no longer apply.

I think Manny Pacquiao is at that point. He moved from an A:class fighter to an S:class, superclass, fighter. I think it happened in the Diaz fight, and was further cemented in the De La Hoya fight. He has reached the apex of his abilities, a perfect combination of physical gifts and scientific repetition honed to a fine point, a killing edge, a prizefighting machine.

People say that Manny performed so well against Oscar because he was shot. And it’s true Oscar was well past his best, but there was something more to it. Oscar at least tried in the first two rounds, he competed, but after that it was different. I don’t think he was weakened by the weight or gun-shy, he was embarrassed. He was fighting in front of 100 million people worldwide and he was outclassed. Not beaten, outclassed. The type of difference that can’t be explained away by wrong game plans or a bad night, but the recognition that the man across from you is superior in every way, and there is nothing you can do about it. What a terrible feeling that must be, when you realized that you trained as hard as you could, you worked as hard as you could, but there is something so special across from you that you are powerless to act.

It’s speed, really. More than size or power, it’s speed that is so cruel, so visible. They say great timing beats great speed, but what if there is great speed and great timing and great power and great will; what then? That is what Hatton will have to answer. Hatton is a great fighter, an A:Class fighter. But he doesn’t have what Manny does right now. A few years ago, as an unfinished thing, Hatton would have had his way with Pacquiao, but I think that time is both past, and has not yet arrived. It will arrive soon, the type of radiant flame Pacquiao now possesses burns quickly, but he is raging now. It will take something special to quench it. Age, a far bigger opponent, or another S:class fighter are the only things that can stop Manny now. I learned that lesson in the De La Hoya fight. We are driving headlong into that moment; a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight seems almost ordained. The first fight between two S:Class boxers in their prime since Whitaker-Chavez, and before that Duran-Leonard. It is coming, because it must, a once a generation clash to clear the field and define the age.

In mythology the great heroes can only be conquered by the cruel Gods, or by even greater heroes. No wayward arrows unleashed in battle can slay them. It isn’t yet Manny’s fate to be brought down. He will win this fight, overcoming the stronger man because he must, because class will tell.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Best Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton Preview: Part 2

If Manny Pacquiao is a typhoon, an earthquake, a tornado, the ruptured fabric of the cosmos torn apart; a thing awe inspiring and impossible to avert one’s gaze from, then Ricky Hatton is the freezing ice, the hard lapping of the tide, and terrible toll of the ages on the living. It is a different type of heroism, one that for me is less striking and captivating, but nonetheless profoundly moving in its way. Ricky Hatton lacks any of the superpowers that make Pacquiao so mesmerizing, one doesn’t need any insight into the finer points of boxing to find even Manny’s shadowboxing breathtaking, but the Hitman’s charms are both more and less subtle.

There is little science to his work in the ring. Like John Henry with his hammer he swings away, and while he has nice footwork, good power, and terrific body shots, it is difficult to find any marks of romance or poetry to his rhythms. He is like a factory worker or miner, toiling away hour after hour. His is the mugging, slamming style of the industrial age; limbs caught in threshing machines, bones broken in mechanical mishaps, blunt trauma from automobile accidents; these are his fighting analogues. While Floyd Mayweather Senior tries to remake him as a smarter brawler, a scientific slugger, I find it unlikely we will see anything too divergent from his old ways. He is the steam engine, unrelenting and simple, and it will take something special to send him sprawling from his path.

Ricky Hatton TKO 12 Kostya Tszyu 2005: Ricky had gone nearly forty fights before he stepped up to the elite classes. Many, myself foremost, thought he was merely a protected British contender, content to take his money fighting limited opposition provided by promoter Frank Warren. When he took this fight against the aging Tszyu I expected a quick knockout, as Ricky’s reckless style and penchant for receiving deep and dangerous facial cuts in even domestic level bouts seemed a cruel preparation for an all time great puncher in Kostya Tszyu. But, fighting in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, Hatton fought like a man possessed. He knew he couldn’t outbox the classically trained Tszyu, so he proceeded to mug him. Getting inside and wrestling him, draining the aged champion. He used elbows, shoulders, and his head to batter Tszyu in a fight whose outcome I still wonder about if presided over by a different ref. Still all credit to Hatton who battered Tszyu and walked through hellish shots in a close fight until Kostya retired on his stool, a broken man who never fought again. Hatton won the ring belt at junior welter, which he still holds today, the longest reigning champion in the sport.

Ricky Hatton UD 12 Luis Collazo 2006: Hatton moved up to welterweight to fight slick southpaw Collazo. In a desperate struggle he managed to smother and outwork Collazo for much of the fight, but any time the Puerto Rican got any distance Hatton was at a loss, unable to cope with the technically superior, faster, and longer armed opponent. Hatton was rocked in the later rounds, in fact was, I thought, knocked down in the 12th round, but managed to pull out the close decision through his consistent pressure. He had no business winning this fight, but it takes a man more special than Collazo, the type of guy who is just good enough to lose to any quality opponent he faces.

Ricky Hatton KO 4 Jose Luis Castillo 2007: Hatton rips Castillo’s insides open with a brutal left hook to the body. In his earlier career this had been Hatton’s trademark, like some translucent Mexican he threw body punches with murderous intent. But, since raising the level of his opposition he seemed to leave the punch behind. Here he used terrific footwork to land a dream punch, knocking out Castillo, a great fighter but badly damaged by too many wars.

Ricky Hatton TKO by 10 Floyd Mayweather Jr. 2007: In a fight he was never really competitive in (no matter what the HBO announcers tried to tell us) Hatton was outclassed by the former pound for pound king. There is no disgrace in losing to a preternatural talent, but the manner of the defeat was telling. Despite protests that the ref didn’t let Hatton “fight his fight,” Hatton was handled on both the inside and the outside, unable to deal with the precise punching of Mayweather. In the memorable sixth round he hit Mayweather on the back of the head, lost his cool, a point, and any semblance of a plan. He was embarrassed and started making desperate lunges, easily countered. When Mayweather led him into a left hook in the tenth round and he smashed head first into the ring post it was a humiliating end to a humiliating performance. Hatton vows never to fight at welterweight again.

Ricky Hatton UD 12 Juan Lazcano 2008: In his comeback he went against Lazcano, a career contender, and looked and fought uninspired. Coming off a weight binge, a hallmark of his career, he was flat, easily winning but looking like a fighter playing out the string. He was even hurt at one point. After the fight Ricky fired his trainer, Billy Graham, in a move long overdue, and hired Floyd Mayweather Sr.

Ricky Hatton TKO 11 Paulie Malignaggi 2008: In his finest performance since Castillo, Ricky bludgeons Malignaggi to a corner stoppage. Malignaggi is hurt in the second round, and after that fights to survive. Though limited by the weakest punch of any world-class fighter in the world, Malignaggi was thought a difficult opponent, but Hatton used brute force and relentless aggression to ground him down in a way not even Miguel Cotto had managed. Though some see improvement under Mayweather’s training, it is difficult to tell when the opposition has no weapons to trouble you.

The theme of Hatton’s career has been consistent. He is never spectacular, but nearly always effective, particularly at his natural 140 pounds. He is strong and solid there, any technical deficiencies countered by his aggression and brutality. He is an A class fighter, and can beat anyone at a certain level. The question is, does he have more than that? Can he beat a special fighter? Does the mace still work in an age of guns and lasers? All his disappointments, his doubters, will be erased if he can just manage to pin the little Filipino in a corner. He may not be able to catch him, but he might be able to ground him up, to tear and gnash and rend the thoroughbred. His destiny stands in the balance too, to be remembered as a fine champion, a popular slugger who made it big but came up short, or to be remembered as a hero to his people. The guy who was just folks, he could have a pint with the boys back home and then travel to distant lands and catch the ghost. It means so much.

I find his humble persona and everyman sensibilities yawn-inducing. I find his mugging style and naked aggression underwhelming. Even his excesses, the binge eating and drinking, seem so tepid when marked against the great tragic appetites of ring history. But there is something to be said for hard work, for a man who doesn’t quit. There is a certain romance in knowing oneself and the grinding hungry pressure of the ages, the valor of the loser who wins. I don’t think he can do it again, but he just might. Tomorrow the pick.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Best Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton Preview: Part 1

Like a child’s birthday or a meteorological event long speculated about but till now never actually observed, the fight approaches. Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino Southpaw with the golden smile stretches his hand toward immortality, a raging flame of passion and cheery bloodlust he sallies forth with confidence. A king, a killer, Manny is at the height of his powers, a thing rare, beautiful, and terrifying to behold. A living great in his absolute prime, a gentleman destroyer and folk hero; he is the very definition of a fighting champion.

Across from him stands Ricky Hatton, the good-natured Englishman, an overachiever and honest man. There is little deception or depth to him, either in his personal life or his fighting style. He comes forward, straight ahead, like the living image of the ancient fighting Greeks. I have one speed, one motive, he seems to say, are you strong enough, are you man enough to keep me back? Through occasionally maligned for what he is not, he has become fully what he is, and has carved his way to the pound for pound list through grit and fight; if he does not capture one’s imagination or heart, respect he has surely earned though cuts, long odds, and recovery from an embarrassing defeat. He is the most accomplished junior welterweight of the decade, an unbroken monument at ten stones, and looking to cement his place as a true great.

But today I wish to speak of Manny, where he has come from and the heights at stake for him on Saturday. It is dangerous to risk historical assessments on a fighter still at his apex, particularly one who has captured your heart, but a quick look back at Pacquiao’s most notable fights to this point will be illustrative for those of you not fully aware of his accomplishments.

Manny Pacquiao KO 8 Chatchai Sasakul 1998; Over a decade ago, fighting at the Flyweight limit (112 pounds), it was impossible to see what Pac would become. He was an undernourished 19-year-old kid and looked as though he had snuck out of calculus class and happened to find himself in the middle of a title bout, like some far-fetched Asian remake of a silly 80’s teen movie. Sasakul was an experienced and respected Ring Magazine champ, and the heavy favorite. He dominated early with his clever boxing, handling the game but wild Pacquiao. But even in this early stage, while Pacquiao didn’t have much of what makes him special today other than his sin, his straight left hand, and his fighting heart, he threw with spirit and conviction and laid Sasakul out in the eighth round. While a great victory Pacquiao was a growing boy, and soon lost the belt while struggling with weight issues. He moved to the United States and three divisions north, but this fight is still interesting, the portrait of the boxer as a young man.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 6 Lehlohonolo Ledwaba 2001; Pacquiao takes the fight on short notice and proceeds to embarrass the well-respected junior featherweight champion (122 pounds). This was Pacquiao’s first major fight under the guidance of Freddie Roach, the man who would mold him into the fighting machine he has now become. Pacquiao was a virtual unknown, but after the first minute of the fight the difference in speed was so pronounced and the furious volley’s Manny unleashed were so striking one couldn’t help but be impressed. He sliced the game Ledwaba to bits and became a champion in his second weight class.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 11 Marco Antonio Barrera 2003: In the defining performance of his career Manny savaged the Mexican legend, at the time in the top 3 pound for pound, and announced his arrival as a major player. Manny captures the featherweight title, (126 pounds) and wins his second Ring Belt. This was the fight that rekindled my love of boxing, watching the unexpected performance, a masterful display of speed, aggression, and unbridled violence. Barrera was already a superstar, having embarrassed the flashy Nasseem Hamed, and split fights with his legendary rival Erik Morales. Manny fought with passion and desperation, shooting his money punch, the straight power left over and over again. Barrera, who one suspects had no idea what was coming, ate inhuman amounts of punishment before the fight was mercifully stopped. Never before or since have I seen such a great fighter at his peak so dominated. The crown jewel of Manny’s career, this was the fight many fell in love with the smiling warrior.

Manny Pacquiao D12 Juan Manual Marquez 2004: In an incredible bout, Manny met his match in the classy Marquez, a genius boxer puncher with a great fighting heart. Manny came out on fire, scoring three first round knockdowns and, from the looks of it, breaking Marquez nose. The fight was close to being stopped, but miraculously Marquez rose from the canvas and fought his way back into the fight. Larry Merchant called Pacquiao, “a typhoon raging across the pacific,” but the great Marquez through a mixture of bravery and craft began to time Pacquiao’s desperate lunges. Pacquiao was powerful and fast, but limited to pure 1-2’s (the jab followed by the straight left power punch.) After Marquez figured out his timing the pitched battle raged back and forth in a bloody and memorable fight that surely would have been the fight of the year if not for Castillo-Corrales I. the fight ended up a controversial draw, as the deciding scorecard, 113-113, gave Pacquiao only a 10-7 round instead of the 10-6 he rightfully deserved for the three knockdown first. While I scored the fight to Pacquiao, it showed his limitations as a one handed fighter, but nevertheless further solidified his status as the most excited little dynamo in the sport.

Manny Pacquiao SD L 12 Erik Morales 2005: Keeping up his incredible opposition, Manny moved up to Super Featherweight to take on the last and greatest of the Mexican feathers, Erik Morales. The regal Morales looked at the fight as his chance for redemption in his never-ending quest to one up his great rival, Marco Antonio Barrera, and gave the last great performance of his career. He studied Marquez’s game plan and proved victorious in a fantastic fight. Manny was badly cut above the eye, but his weak right hand and predictable attack were countered by Morales fine boxing and iron chin. Morales turned southpaw in the final round and ate a huge left hand, an act of machismo as incredible as I’ve ever seen. Though he lost, Pacquiao’s fighting heart was unbroken to the last.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 10 Erik Morales 2006: In the rematch, almost equal to the dramatic first fight, Manny started to show a variety and completeness he never had before. Mixing in right hands and blistering combinations, Manny broke Morales down in the middle rounds with debilitating body shots, before becoming the first and only man to stop him. While many say that Morales was past his prime, and this is true, his fine performance suggests he was still a top fighter, and only the improved Pacquiao could have stopped him.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 3 Erik Morales 2006: In the rubber match, the finest three rounds since Hagler-Hearns, Manny just has too much for Morales. His legs go and despite fighting with bravery he cannot hold the Filipino off. Manny is a superstar.

Manny Pacquiao UD 12 Marco Antonio Barrera 2007: Barrera seemed content to last the distance against the monstrous Pacquiao. Barrera doesn’t want to engage and take chances, and Manny, perhaps straining to make the 130-pound limit, doesn’t push himself.

Manny Pacquiao SD 12 Juan Manual Marquez 2008: The long awaited rematch finally happens and proves as great, but ultimately as controversial, as the first fight. Manny squeezes out the split decision in a fight I narrowly thought he lost, winning a title in his fourth division, and a record tying third Ring Magazine belt. Though Manny’s right hand has improved, Marquez is his equal; a man so textbook he seems designed to counteract the physically unbridled Pacquiao. The difference is a beautiful short left hand in the third round that sends Marquez to the canvass.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 9 David Diaz 2008: After struggling to make weight at 130, Pacquiao moves up to lightweight (135 pound) to take on the weakest titleholder, David Diaz. Pacquiao becomes one of the few fighters in history to win a title in five weight classes in his most dominant and brutal performance in years. He strafes the slower Diaz mercilessly, provoking his memorable corner quote, “it’s not his power, he’s just too fucking fast.” Manny lays him out face first with another of his left handed lasers in the ninth round. Incredibly, he has never looked better.

Manny Pacquiao TKO 8 Oscar De La Hoya 2008: In a fight I thought was a farce Manny moves up two weight classes to welterweight (147 pounds) and proceeds to give the great De La Hoya a beating to remember. Though people now dismiss this fight, very few (myself included) were smart enough to foresee what happened. Manny looks amazing, incredibly his body still fits eight classes and 35 pounds about his initial championship class. More on this fight later this week.

Pacquiao is 6-1-1 against all time greats, and has positioned himself at the gates of immortality. In my opinion he is only clearly behind Pernell Whitaker in the all time rankings post 1980’s. A victory against Hatton, so far above his former glory would be a marvel, but with what he has already achieved it seems almost pedestrian. He would be the first fighter in history to win legit titles in 6 weight classes, and more importantly become the first to become a four-time ring magazine champ. And he has done so by taking the biggest most difficult fight available at every opportunity. Rarely does such greatness also meet with such entertainment value, and for a fighter from the Philippines to reach his level of fame and adoration is a testament to the blood and bone of his career. No matter the odds Manny will take the last throw from the dirty diceman and do it with a smile. As he has challenged larger and greater opposition there have always been doubts, but his happy confidence has never been shaken. Like all the truest of the true believers, the facts don’t necessarily apply, and we love him for it.

In his way stands the solid Ricky Hatton, a career 140 pounder and a man whom, only a few short years ago would have been thought an insurmountable challenge for the smaller Pacquiao. Tomorrow we will look at him.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Slow Train

Two fights this weekend worth watching. The first, suprisingly on Showtime, has Jermain Taylor trying to take Carl Froch's recently won super middleweight belt. It’s going to be strange to watch Taylor on a network other than HBO, as their relentless hyping and pushing of him was really, for me, the most consistently defining narrative of his career.

Taylor is normally the type of fighter I would find attractive, but his “yessir, nossir,” respectfulness always left me with a worrying colonial unease. A compact between two parties to create a likeable black “athletic” fighter, which included the HBO teams degraging reminders that, “he has the type of athleticism that could work in any sport!” As though fans of boxing should feel graced to have such a natural specimen and respectful son after being so long weighed down by either limited but likeable progeny or troubled geniuses who forget to call on birthdays. I like my fighters to have defiance and insolence in the ring and out, and while it may be a product of his stutter, his Southern upbringing, or a business choice, Taylor was never that. He seemed a fighter by accident. As though he never took it all that personal.

This, in addition to him winning decisions against my fighting ideal, Bernard Hopkins, under dubious circumstances, cemented my feelings of him as a company man, a flack, an accidental king. He seemed willing to let his persona and status as an HBO product carry him along in matches where he did the bare minimum to scrape through; the Winky Wright fight, and the dreadful match between “the human sleeping pill” Spinks being the prime examples.

When I saw him fight Jeff Lacy last year after his losses to Kelly Pavlik I was virtually the only one in the building cheering for Lacy. And though he battered the shell of Lacy, an even grimmer case of expectations of creation and athleticism turned to disappointment, it felt like a kabuki redemption to me. So why is it that I am excited to see him fight Carl Froch? I’m a little unclear about that, but I think it has to do with the move to Showtime, away from first the rampant boosterism and later searing disappointment that seemed to drip not only from Jim Lampley’s voice but the entire HBO production as well. In Carl Froch he has just the type of brave, hittable, powerful, and blank opponent to finally discover exactly what he is. I wonder if the divorce from HBO, from Manny Stewart’s celebrity training, from expectations, might finally convert him from a robot athlete and into a real boy. I hope so, and so should anyone who desires the grace of redemption.

The other fight, on HBO, is one that I’m more excited for than I should be. Juan Manual Lopez, the precocious Southpaw puncher is looking to cement himself as the next pound for pound Puerto Rican, and is doing so in the oldest and most respected way, challenging an aged but live champion, Gerry Penalosa. It reminds me clearly of one of my favorite coming out parties, Eric Morales unsubtle destruction of the strangely proportioned and cartoon-faced Daniel Zaragoza.

Penalosa, like Zaragoza, is a master of craft, a flim-flam artist and huckster. An old tyme tradition of fighting conmen that meshes perfectly against the athleticism and textbook technique of a young fighting champion like Lopez. Penalosa will never quit until all options and avenues have been explored; as shown by his great triumph over a much classier Jhonny Ghonzalez, in which, hopelessly outgunned, he maneuvered himself into a perfect debilitating liver shot. The type of mentality that comes in handy when you’ve never had the physical advantage and are going into the last desperate throw.

I don’t think he will be successful, but Penalosa touches on the beauty of the sport, the way that guile and greed can overcome the golden gun. Juan Manuel Lopez will win, he reminds me of a faster, southpaw version of the young Fernando Vargas. But in Penalosa there is the spirit and clenched fist of defiance, and that’s why it will be worth watching. When the beautiful gets into the muck magic can sometimes happen.

-Stay tuned for next week where I am going to explode with Hatton-Pacquiao excitement. I’m going to turn you sleepless with anticipation or your money back.

- Check out The Freedarko presents Disciples of Clyde podcast I was graciously allowed on. It’s about basketball and great. Don’t listen to my voice though, it makes me sound like science.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Road to Science

Next week will be devoted fully to Hatton/Pacquiao, but before we walk into that monster of a fight a few scattered thoughts:

1. Gamboa vs. Rojas was exciting and disappointing in exactly the way one might have expected. Rojas, terrified of Gamboa’s speed and power went into a shell, and with his awkward, jerky movements managed to get through most of the fight. He did this at the cost of reducing his offensive output to nothing and never really taking a chance on winning the fight, even when Gamboa’s insolence left him open to a last desperate heave. Rojas wouldn’t go for it, he wanted to last, but it would have been interesting to see what would have happened.

Gamboa, for his part, was content to methodically and indolently tear Rojas down. He seemed bored in the middle rounds and there was never any sense of jeopardy or inspiration. It was unclear if he wanted to go the rounds and ham it up, or just enjoys the feeling of mastery over an overmatched opponent. When he finally got the stoppage in the tenth round there wasn’t a feeling of real triumph or accomplishment, but more a thing long expected. There was something more there that we didn’t see, Rojas didn’t demand it and Gamboa was unwilling to give it for free. It was that feeling that makes some people so reactionary towards Floyd Mayweather Junior, a feeling that he was hiding something special from us.

Maybe this is part of his maturation as a thinking counterpuncher, a style he would be brilliant with, maybe he just doesn’t have another level, or maybe he will manifest his talents when the situation calls for it. Like a tennis player who sharpens himself in the early rounds, perhaps Gamboa will bring everything he has when the big time arrives. There has been speculation about him fighting Celestino Caballero, the Junior Feather champion. The freakishly tall Panamanian Caballero seems just good enough, and just vulnerable enough that we might finally see Gamboa as a man in full.

2. News has leaked about a potential Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Floyd Mayweather matchup and I'm still working through my thoughts on the possibility. On the one hand seeing two of the top three fighters in the world in the ring together can be nothing but special, and I think I, and moreso the people who have unthinkingly dismissed the fight, are guilty of grave disrespect to Marquez, a ring genius and modern great when we express skepticism. Marquez is a great champion, why couldn’t he beat Mayweather? They would come into the ring no more than a half dozen pounds apart, and if Mayweather is willing to come down to 142 or so why couldn’t it be something special?

I think the answer is obvious; people don’t necessarily want to see Floyd in a great fight, they just want to see him lose. So we want to watch him go into the ring outgunned against our chosen protagonist; for me it’s Mosely or Cotto, for many it used to be Margarito, and now for those of ill-temper and fundamental meanness it has become Paul Williams. For those like me that love him we want to see that level of discomfort and greatness that he has seldom been tested with, that desperate edge that all great fighters have stood at the edge of and come storming back from, or fallen into heroically after long, noble, and grim defiance. And that can only come from a larger man, or one possessing a super power like Manny Pacquiao’s speed. An honest fighter of bravery, technique and passion is simply not seen as that. It could be a great fight, we say, but it’s not our fight. I don’t think it’s fair, but that’s how it is.

I hope Floyd takes a smaller match, say Tim Bradley or Nate Campbell (if only they weren’t both black and therefore unmarketable against Floyd I think it would happen) before he goes for the glory against Pac or Mosley. I can be convinced otherwise, and there is no force that could keep me from watching a Marquez-Floyd fight, but Marquez somehow has his own destiny and I feel it’s more with Manny than Floyd.

3. A couple great KO’s from the little men last weekend. Brian Viloria, a guy with all the tools who just never seemed to put it all together until now.

And Nonito Donaire, the beautiful boxer/puncher who laid Darchinian low with a check hook as sweet as Mayweather’s and who, I think, might very well turn out to be the truth.

4. Going to do a preview of Taylor/Froch and Penalosa/Lopez tomorrow.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I could be right too: Yuriorkis Gamboa

Two men enter, one man leaves. As Oscar exits the stage (please check it out) I will nominate a new soldier of fortune to ascend.

I’m always hesitant to invest myself in prospects, not only because I find it perilous to foresee what a man is made of until they’ve leapt into the crucible, but also because I find the years of step-up fights and mismatches depressing. Still, talent cannot be denied, and Yuriorkis Gamboa is that. He has many things to commend him; the melodious name, the pedigree of the Cuban amateur, and those fast hands. Those hands that look like they are trick photography and seem a combination of Meldrick Taylor and Roy Jones. There are things that can’t be taught, and Gamboa has all of that, a wicked combination of dazzling speed and power that causes one to salivate at the possibilities. Gamboa, a featherweight who one imagines in time will move up to lightweight, flurries in quick bursts as a kind of squids-ink camouflage to better detonate his money left hook and right uppercut.

However, like all those with superpowers his speed and talent also provides his vulnerability. His manifest gifts have given him an insolence and contempt towards his opponents that I find as attractive as the fast hands and statue physique. He walks forward, hands down, darting feet with no more respect than a medieval night confronting a child with a homemade bow and arrow. And he has paid for the overconfidence, suffering several flash knockdowns as he opens up without fear of reprisal and finding the canvas for his trouble. Tito Trinidad was the same way, though more power than speed, and we loved him for it. For his joyful, stalking sense of superiority. Whether Gamboa’s disdain will last as he faces higher quality opposition or if he will use the skills that made him a successful amateur remains to be seen, but at this point his combination of raw brilliance and bonehead aggressiveness intrigue me. He has a real cruel streak in the ring, a sadistic disdain that seems that of a showman who’s dancing partner is not up to the challenge.

Even his looks say that to me, the sculpted body and lounge singer hair. He reminds me of the cabana boys in “Night of the Iguana,” flitting and chirping and knowing something in the language of 48 frames per second that those of us living in a 32 frames world do not. Normally I would think him ripe for a change in trainer, still young enough to marry his physical bravado with the more exacting, scientific style that I find most attractive. But in his case I feel an almost sadistic desire to see just how far exuberance can take him, the beauty and limitlessness of the not-knowing is what’s intoxicating.

Gamboa faces Jose Rojas tonight on Showtime for an interim, “title” only two years into his career. Although I’ve never seen Rojas before it should be interesting as he has fought both Chris John and Celestino Caballero with moderate success. With Gamboa’s electric talent it’s hard to imagine too stern a test, but it’s that creeping suspicion that he’s one mistake from regret or inspiration that has me on his side and watching, and hoping for something special.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I never saw a Golden Boy

With apologies for becoming a site about retired or retiring boxers something must be said about the long goodbye of Oscar de la Hoya. It had been a thing long speculated over and by the end was a foregone conclusion, but attention must be paid to the man with the golden left.

I never rooted for Oscar in any of his major fights, not because I disliked him, but he left me cold. He was like a better-looking, less talented Alex Rodriguez. But whereas Rodriguez has always been at least marginally intriguing as a cultural figure because of his very vapidity and the fundamental emptiness everyone acknowledged in him, Oscar’s career and life just seemed to float so unquestioningly and undramatically that to me he’s always been the rock that others break against in their own quest for personhood. Oscar fought like a robot; straight backed, shooting the jab, scientific footwork, and listened intently to his trainers. He also behaved like a robot, a counterfeit Latino shibboleth with the same sense of danger and even less sexual tension than your average boy band.

And all this is not really a moral judgment, or said with any particular form of malice. I never felt about him the way I did the early Kobe Bryant, who one could always see through despite the polished exterior, to the dark and lonely places beneath. Kobe through his fall from blandness has, to me and many others, become much more sympathetic and meaningful. Oscar is, as seen clearly through the two 24/7s he starred in, exactly who he has portrayed himself to be, a nice and respectful fighter who thinks of boxing as a business. He had to drag in Freddie Roach, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Anglelo Dundee, and several other celebrity trainers over the years, not because he needed help with his footwork, but because he was only gripping with his mouth closed, and one can only take his level of respectful in three minute post-fight interviews. He was a palimpsest, constantly being rewritten by big personalities, but limited only in what could be written to crayon and dollar-store greeting card wisdom.

Again, there is no sense of ill will towards him, I think if he hadn’t been a boxer he might very well have joined the priesthood, and said the sacrament with the same conviction he said, “I’m in the best shape of my life.” And lord knows it’s hard to judge a man who has lived his life in the public since his youth like Oscar and the distorting affects of that. Still, even if it was merely his elaborate impersonation of what a fighter should be, you eventually become what Oscar became. De La Hoya was a template of a man against which others are shaped, but ultimately as empty and meaningless as the sculptor’s used cast, an object through which form and meaning is brought into the world but is itself no more nourishing than a husk of corn.

Even to this day the fight and moment that I remember most was the last three rounds against Trinidad. Oscar was cruising through nine in the fight of his life, matched up against the Puerto Rican bomber he used his discipline and focus to flummox the fiery Trinidad for the first nine rounds. De La Hoya shot out just enough combinations to win each round, never risking an engagement with Trinidad. And then it happened, the corner told him he had the fight won, and all he had to do was move. And he did it. He ran, not in the sense people accuse Mayweather of, a sticking and moving and countering style that De La Hoya had worked to build his big lead, but in an inglorious, almost cartoonish way, like Chaplin in City Lights. I thought Oscar won the fight, I thought the judges got it wrong, but somehow it seemed to end up right, and it became Trinidad’s defining moment as a relentless killing machine whom, even when hopelessly outgunned would keep coming, and coming, and coming.

When, years later, Bernard Hopkins had Trinidad in a similar situation he finished him. Hopkins was more cautious and prudent than anyone in his generation, but he had a sense of the moment. Oscar listened to his corner and let it slip away. He was a businessman, a suit, a robot, and he ultimately didn’t have that thing in him that his conquerors did; Trinidad, Mosley, Hopkins, and Pacquiao (Mayweather’s is a different sort of passion) all would break a mountain with their fists just for being in their way, De La Hoya would only do so if told that there was coal inside.

And so ultimately De La Hoya’s career was fulfilling, if only for what it said about those he fought against; his conqueror’s were great fighters, his victims were very good; Quartey, Vargas, Mayorga, and the old greats he beat, Whitaker and Chavez, who were ennobled in their losses to him in ways they rarely were in victories.

So perhaps it is fitting after all this that he will become a promoter, setting up moments and destinies on others’ roads to greatness and history. I won’t miss him, his outsized box-office power distorted the natural matchups for years and created a logjam as everyone held their fire waiting for the golden ticket. One wonders what he could have been if he fought like he did here, in the last round against Quartey, with a passion and resoluteness he seldom mustered. But it was the contrast that meant so much to us, those who braved the losing battles, and those who brought low the corridors of power, and that is in itself a gift.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier

In an effort to increase my semiannual production of posts here at Boxiana I’m going to try to produce some less intensive material. A good start is this clip combining two great joys; personal heavyweight favorite Joe Frazier and my loathing of Morning Joe (Scarborough).

Frazier is promoting the new HBO documentary about the Thrilla’ in Manilla. While I was initially hesitant, really what more can be said about that fight that hasn’t been, from what I hear it’s going to be excellent. It was apparently made by a British filmmaker, and was so good that HBO picked it up.

We’ll see, but it’s hard to imagine it will live up to this clip, with Joe looking regal in his stylish hat and not too far beyond fighting trim. The interactions are bizarre, with the questioners talking to Joe as though he’s not a native speaker.

And Joe actually does respond in a different language. These nobs may have met a black man before, but certainly not someone black like Joe Frazier. He speaks not just with a heavy Philly drawl mixed with too many punches, but with an honesty, earnestness, and feeling that is usually in poor taste on shows such as this. These are people who talk lightly of disagreements over major policy decisions that send people to their death. They debate the forty million people without health insurance and the nine percent unemployment rate as though it is who should be atop the AP poll in college football. It is what I find most contemptible about the pundit class, the breezy, self-congratulatory diminution of important things to the level of mere sporting event. It takes Frazier to show that even sport is serious, it’s personal, it’s important on a level where you can’t just look and move on like these people have done with the Iraq war and so much other wretchedness.

The point really comes into focus at the 4:45 mark, where the woman questioner tries to tie Frazier, Tiger Woods, and the economic collapse together in some sort of serious point. Joe Frazier, befuddled by the comparison between someone who hits a tiny white ball and one who destroyed souls with his fists begins a rambling, borderline incoherent response which, in my dreams, ends with one of his textbook left hooks.

One can dream.

Going to try to post a full preview of this Saturday’s HBO lineup, which includes the Thrilla’ Doc, Pacquiao/Hatton 24/7, and the intriguing Wright-Williams fight.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bad Faith

When Allen Iverson became a national pariah last week for saying he’d rather retire than become just another player, another name in the boxscore, it made me uneasy. Not only the underlying racism carried by much of the reaction, which goes without saying any time Iverson is discussed, or the imperial calls of owing something to “the game.” Personally my feelings about Iverson have never been constrained by any team, or game, or victory paradigm, but more on a moral, religious level. His is a will to overcoming that has long left me with the feeling that, had things been different, he might very well have been the modern day Ray Robinson, all the tools and spirit to be a welter and middleweight destroyer. There is something about what he has done, that, like a great boxer just past his prime, makes one hope he steps away, so that his will can be preserved, perhaps as a gentleman farmer, world traveler, and collector of rare and exotic orchids.

But why is it for so many that the athlete in the team sports “owes” something that the boxer does not. A question that seems particularly pressing at this time, when so many or our recent greats are on the way out, with much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the appropriate manner and time of their departure. Bernard Hopkins, De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Barrerra, James Toney, and Evander Holyfield are all perched at the exits at points between glorious and macabre. Unlike Iverson the general consensus is that all should leave, nothing more is expected or wanted. There is no owing of anything, just a general undercurrent that they should get off the stage before they embarrass themselves.

Now the obvious and true difference is that boxing is the hurt business, a deep and lasting kind of hurt that we respect and fear far more than the ruined knees of Patrick Ewing or the fused ankles of Bill Walton. But really, is that what it’s about? Is Holyfield in any more danger today than he was taking hellish beatings from Bowe, or fighting with a heart that supposedly had a hole in it against Tyson?

How can one in good faith tell a man with the type of maniacal, borderline psychotic self belief of Holyfield, or a man like Hopkins who has kept his body a preserved marvel at 44 years old, or a will like Barrerra’s that has allowed him to arise from various stages of washed up to rejoin the elite that they no longer have it? It’s like reasoning with the insane, and ultimately says more about our own bad faith as boxing fans than it does of those of the truly great boxers who touch us, and whose psyche is fundamentally unknowable to the type of person who so admires them. They are the sort who could bring the very world to ruin for their desire for glory, or for a woman, and do we really believe that we could or should try to influence that type of person? If there was a way to reason with a will like that they never would have accomplished the things that made us love them.

No, I think the answer is a feeling of bad faith, our worry that what we have seen from Holyfield or Hopkins, or Toney (Oscar is somewhat different, as his will is as much Donald Trump’s as it is Ali’s) is something so personal and destructive, and have enjoyed it so much that there is something dirty and unseemly about it. And the reason we lived with the feeling of dirt and worry and deep unease was the chance at witnessing a great moment, an act of becoming that would stand as a monument. And when that moment has past, when Holyfield is only just another fighter, another contender, we see more starkly what boxing is for the vast majority of its’ participants. Not a historical monument, but two hungry men fighting for a bone. What is the difference between Roy Jones and any other long in the tooth top twenty light heavyweight contender? Nothing, except that he once was the romance of the sport, the god on Olympus, and now that he’s scrapping in the dirt we realize far more clearly that we are too.