Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Random Rules

I have a new piece up on nomas about Malignaggi/Diaz that you should check out. The fight was much more enjoyable than I expected and had the added bonus of the Malignaggi meltdown in the postfight and a memorable press conference afterwards.

In the piece I referenced recent interviews with both Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins, which absolutely must be read and listened to in full. I find Floyd’s interviews on Bossip particularly rewarding, as we get to hear him at a comfort level that he never gets reaches with the gatekeepers of white sports purity; Brian Kenny, Larry Merchant, and the rest.

It’s interesting that even when the athlete says something in this context that under more official circumstances would come off as petulant, paranoid, or racist, there seems in these interviews the natural patter of the pugilist at rest. It makes all the difference. Not that I find either Mayweather or especially Hopkins grating, but they are more charming when amongst friends, and I wonder whether it might take the edge off for those who consider Mayweather specifically the exemplar of a world gone wrong.

While I find Stephen A. Smith somewhat odious, he was often the one most able to get worthwhile material from his interview subjects, which is difficult given the restrictions placed on the athletes he normally worked with. Boxing, as I wrote in the piece for nomas, has many fewer restrictions, meaning the athlete needs much less rope to go much further. I hope the trend continues, for Floyd most of all I think there is a personal redemption in his less guarded moments that might allow him to retain his status as villain, but provide the depth to make it a lasting and meaningful role.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes from the Edge

Wrote a prediction piece on Diaz/Malignaggi over at nomas, please check it out.

I want to say a quick word on Jones/Lacy, which I haven’t been able to see yet other than the highlights. I’m a bit surprised that Jones has been getting even this limited amount of heat for the win, but not altogether dismissive of the matter. First, let me say that from the looks of it Jones performed quite admirably. He seems to have his speed back and some of the confidence that Tarver jarred loose with that fairytale left he landed.

That being said I find it hard to be too impressed given the opposition. I actually kind of like Jeff Lacy, who seems to me the sort of decent guy who was simply set up with expectations that were beyond his capacity, but the truth is he’s so long gone any proper judgments related to his performance are impossible to make. I was ringside for Taylor/Lacy last year, one of the few who cheered for him, but it was immediately clear he was a lost cause. One of my favorite things about going to a live fight is the slow build in class and speed as the card progresses, like watching a series of basketball games beginning with grade-schoolers and culminating in a playoff game. When Lacy fought it was shocking in the other way, a chiseled man who labored about the ring like a spent thoroughbred. He looked as though he was sparring underwater, using resistance training to increase his speed.

So it was unsurprising to me when even this faded Jones gave him a lesson. It was not Jones’ speed that faltered, rather his stamina and his legs. The hands are still there, it’s just the peripherals that have gone. Still, it did leave me with a bit of intrigue. Roy is a strange character, his caution first style robbed us of potentially seeing one of the most accomplished fighters in history, rather than merely one of the most impressive. While he often displayed such mastery that his fights ceased to be competition and became performance, he seemed to hold back in the ring, letting inferior opponents linger. It left you with the question of what he was really capable of.

So it’s interesting that in his late career Roy Jones seems desperate to give us his finest. I don’t think it’s lack of money, rather some personal axe he has left to grind. I suspect the Calzaghe fight might have been particularly important. Roy never liked taking punches as a young fighter. He was so averse to it that he would stink out the joint rather than close the show; and then when Tarver and Johnson abused him it seemed as though his hesitation had been proved correct; one doesn’t want to take a shot, particularly when there seems to be an inherent vulnerability.

But with the Calzaghe fight there seemed to have been some sort of paradigm shift within him. He got as good a hiding as one is likely to see and survived. It’s almost as if he realized that, contrary to his guiding philosophy, getting whipped isn’t so bad.

It’s a matter of boxing lore that Muhammed Ali, a defensive mastermind, discovered that he could take a shot in his first fight with Frazier, and that liberated him to go beyond pain and into history. I wonder if something similar happened to Roy. he doesn’t have the tools anymore to make an extended run, but he seems to have the outsized sense of self-belief to try to push himself. He might have been better served losing somewhere along the way, (the Montell Griffin fight doesn’t count.) If it would have taken the edge off and allowed him to really let loose. Sometimes that 0 on the record can be more crippling than invigorating. Maybe if Floyd had slipped up things would be different where he is concerned as well.

All that being said, I hope Roy continues on his current path, fighting fringe guys and exhibiting the athletic gifts he alone possesses. While his heart might be in the right place, I don’t want to see him take another beating. It's the same way I feel about Holyfield. Let them keep going, there’s nothing wrong with acting like a still relevant fighter; as long as you don’t use it as your address.

So that’s why, despite the greatness of this interview between Hopkins and Jones Jr., I hope the long awaited rematch remains a fantasy. A win by Hopkins wouldn’t mean anything, and one by Jones would confuse matters too much. I'll be rooting for Jones to get his mini-redemption, not that he even really needs it, but the relevant pages have already been written for Jones, and that's the way it should stay.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The True Vine

*** Update: Please check out the new piece I just did for nomas on Mayweather/Marquez.****

I might be one of the few, but when I heard that negotiations between cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek and geriatric wonder Bernard Hopkins had been restarted it sent my mind racing. Behind only Pacquiao/Mayweather it’s the fight I most want to see. Tomasz Adamek is a former light heavyweight champ and in the last couple of years has carved out a place for himself as a can’t miss action fighter and a top figure in the cruiserweight division’s, admittedly short and neglected, history. It would be a big fight for Adamek; if he should win he would really stamp his name as a fine champion, and move beyond a mostly Polish attraction to an HBO headlining fighter.

But, of course, the main focus of my excitement is Bernard Hopkins and his quest for the grail. Part of me wants him to quit, certain as the grave that if he keeps pushing his end will be no more glorious than the others whose time came much earlier. My god, though, what if he does it? What if he managed to, at the age of 46 move up thirty pounds from his last bout, itself a certified miracle, and win another legitimate title from a borderline p4p champion? He is already, to my mind, the greatest “old fighter,” of all time, but this would really bring it home.

I know some think Hopkins should fight the winner of Dawson/Johnson, but to me there’s something special about the audacity of the task in an Adamek fight. It’s also something tangible and bold. It would go right in the opening line of Hopkin’s CV, something like…

“Bernard “The Executioner,” Hopkins was the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing history and won the light heavyweight and Cruiserweight championships after the age of forty.”

I’m no historian, but I think it would actually lift him above his contemporary Roy Jones Jr. as the greatest fighter of the post Whittaker era. (Holyfield, and Pacquiao or Mayweather, might have some dispute depending on the future)

A lot of people dislike Hopkins because of his cautious style and confrontational black identity, but to me he is a monument to discipline and soul. There is such a righteous fire inside him that it sometimes burns through the screen. He’s an old man, but he’s made of shoe leather and sinew, and the miasma of creation.

The thing that I’ve always loved about him is that he is not particularly physically gifted in any area. He has decent power, good handspeed, prodigious strength for a natural middleweight; but nothing compared to the genetic freaks who share his lofty ranks. What he has is a hardness and completeness of spirit that few can match. He is always on balance, always planning, always has his hands properly positioned and his chin tucked tight as though gently holding an invisible egg. He would have made a fine general in the era of cavalry, or a formidable knight in the age or heroes.

As a man constantly at odds with himself I admire his stalwart discipline. He has physically declined, but the fundamentals remain, the tricks and the insights and wisdom of the ages. I love to watch his feet in the ring, the rhythm gained through decades of shadowboxing and sparring. But even moreso one feels he is the rightful heir to generations of African-American prizefighters who passed through the gymnasiums of Philadelphia and the East coast. A true disciple of the sweet science, he may not have been born from a family of fighters, but it is in his blood.

Mike Seeger died this week, a folk singer and preservationist of roots music, he called his life’s study the “true vine.” It was a sound that came from the mountains, deep and lasting and American. That’s what Bernard Hopkins is; he is the true vine.

On some level the fight with Adamek is incidental to Hopkins’ career, he has already been etched into the book of names. For most I would say let it go, the glory of the Pavlik fight is good enough, but I want to see the old master at work again, want to see what tricks and old-tyme music he can play. He isn’t exciting or athletic or even particularly relevant to the sport anymore; but he is something more. He is an ambassador for an age and a philosophy that is largely gone. He did it his way, and I hope he does it one more time.

*I’m going to try to make a list of Hopkin’s ten best moments this week as a way of framing what I think a fight with Adamek might mean.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Thorn of Thorns

Well Saturday’s fights were strangely suited to the month that preceded them; a roiling heartache. Grant me forgiveness for my expectations both of a Campbell victory and an event worth watching.

I spoke of Campbell with high praise, as a sort of mini-Hopkins. I suppose one must learn prudence or be gifted with the sort of perception of the self that even mirrors can't fracture. I, however, doubt I will ever learn and accept my ten lashes with appropriate humility.

I’ve never hid that I have a weak point for the brash and boastful. Campbell speaks my language, defiance mixed with the righteous anger of the oppressed. The sort of smoldering rage given to someone who was born for hard luck and keeps on coming. I still see it in him, just should have tempered the expectation of greatness of spirit with that of the flesh. There’s a reason that Bernard Hopkins is wholly unique in the history of a century old sport. An aberration so outside the margins should merit skepticism over a contemporary traveler, not brook easy comparisons.

Which is not to say that I agree with the official decision. That was as clear a no contest as you’re likely to see, and I’ve been surprised to read so many impassioned calls to the contrary. I suppose it is because judge’s choices are based on personal preference and the ring is the last grimy cave of unadulterated masculinity, but codes of conduct and morality seem to hold sway in boxing as a sort of higher law in ways that are reflected no where else in society.

Which is fine for a fan and specifically a writer, otherwise we should all just cede to the AP; but strange and magical as they are the rules of boxing must be officially respected. Nate Campbell and Timothy Bradley clashed heads in the middle of the third round after which point a cut was opened, along with a further vision problem, prompting the end of the fight before the completion of the fourth round. Following the unified rules of boxing this is a no contest, and really that ends the discussion.

Now the argument has been made that Nate Campbell was dogging it, that if he had been winning at the point of the clash he never would have consented to the stoppage of the fight. Frankly, I agree with this opinion - I also agree with my mother that I am a very handsome boy - neither of which makes either Timothy Bradley the winner of a TKO 3 or got me a date to the prom.

Nearly the exact same circumstances surrounded the second James Toney- Hasim Rahman fight. Following a butt that appeared much less severe than that in the Campbell-Bradley fight, Rahman claimed he couldn’t see and the fight was stopped. Initially ruled a TKO for Toney the California commission eventually changed the result to a no contest. I’m as delusional a fan of James Toney as still exists, but even I knew as the result was being read that it was an improper call. I screamed that James never would have quit if he’d been in the opposite corner, but ultimately it makes no difference.

The rules are there for a reason, to protect fighters from injury. It looks likely that Campbell did indeed suffer trauma beyond that of the cut, some type of bleeding within the eye, but even if he did not it’s of no importance. Those rules are there to protect fighters from going on to sustain injury, to hold them back from the risk of taking a last throw with the dirty diceman. If there are a hundred injustices to save one fighter from the loss of an eye or a brain bleed it is a small price to pay.

But all this is simple bookkeeping. I suspect the result will be overturned, but even if it isn’t the world will move on; the level of injustice will fall somewhere between the death of Socrates and the ticket I recently received for failure to come to a complete stop (a travesty quite personally poignant, if ultimately surmountable.)

Nevertheless an aborted event did take place and it does have meaning. Bradley announced himself as more than a passing beltholder. He was real and serious and earnest in a way I wasn’t expecting. I always thought him below even this later version of Ricky Hatton, but now I’m not so certain. I was struck by the genuineness of feeling he expressed in the ring, the deep personal I’m always looking for. It was more noteworthy than the fast hands and muscular but natural movement. I don’t see much grace or the underlying echo of the profoundly gifted, but he’s a soul rubbing against the best of himself, and it’s going to take a man and a half to sit him down at the children’s table again.

As for Campbell I’m not entirely sure what to think. I don’t believe, as most do, that he was out of the fight entirely. He lost the first two rounds clearly, but he was still searching, still engaged in the act of finding a way to victory. The thing is he just didn’t seem to have the tools even if the mind was still engaged. He looked poor in his last fight as well, but I was hoping it was a product of weight lethargy and an awkward opponent. Here is seemed a touch more than that. I’m not necessarily saying age was the key factor, though every man must fall; I think it’s more likely another case of someone who wasn’t quite what I wanted them to be. It’s a romantic’s folly, but it’s the human problem to hope for the special.

And I think that’s really why the vitriol seems to fall so heavy on Campbell’s shoulders. For the ones who believed in him he wasn’t the burning fire of the mountain we wanted him to be; and for those who were never impressed proof can’t be tarnished by technicalities.

Me? I’m just hoping for better days.