Boxing’s Generational Divide

Matt Hurley: There was a comment made recently by a precocious young fighter who maintained that not only was Floyd Mayweather Jr. the greatest boxer who has yet to lace up a glove but that Sugar Ray Robinson, the mythic pugilist for whom the term ‘pound-for-pound’ was coined, was overrated..

“I believe Floyd Mayweather – and I know people are going to hate me for this – I believe Floyd is the best fighter ever,” IBF light welterweight champion Paulie Malignaggi told Ring Magazine in November of 2007. “I’ve looked at tapes of Sugar Ray Robinson; I believe he over-commits a lot, he falls in a lot..

Although Malignaggi’s comments will strike some as blasphemous there is a generational truth to his opinion that is perfectly understandable. “This is my era,” the young fan says when his elders wave off the new breed of athlete, musician or political agenda they embrace. It has become an endless but timeless source of debate among those with years lining their faces and fresh-faced kids so desperate to find heroes that belong to them, not their parents.

Still, with the passage of time, what has come before becomes locked in both illusion and reality. Historical footage of past athletes, musicians and politicians are nearly always put in the context of human drama and because of the sometimes grainy quality of the films there is a sense of romanticism that casts an alluring shadow over those images. Fighters such as Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey define ‘heroic’ in stark but beautiful black and white.

To see Robinson glide across the ring like a phantom or put together merciless combinations that fighters as tough and iron-willed as Jake Lamotta have little recourse but to absorb is akin to watch the precise beauty of Ted Williams hitting a baseball. With time the mystique of athletes like Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali grows yet the image of a prime Ali pummeling Cleveland Williams with a series of power shots, ultimately reducing the ‘Big Cat’ to the canvas is a visual testament to his greatness.

As younger generations marvel at the physical strength and size of the modern day athlete and wave off intimations by their elders that generations past were superior in every conceivable way a common thread runs through every discussion. The era that is yours is not only a definition of the time you live in but of you as an individual. There should be little wonder then that when Mike Tyson was at the height of his career many of his generation put forward the notion that not only was he the greatest heavyweight that ever lived but that he could reign as champion for as long as he wanted. Those fans conveniently, but understandably, forgot that no athlete is infallible and just like their grandfathers before them who sat dumbfounded when Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in their first fight in 1936 so to did their grandkids gasp when Tyson hit the mat in 1990 courtesy of a tremendous Buster Douglas combination. The idea of an indestructible athletic force is not old or new, it is a constant – just ask Bill Belicheck and the 2007 New England Patriots. The idea of the perfect athlete is baseless because every athlete brings the baggage of being human to the playing field. Ted Williams and his fellow Red Sox never won a World Series and a fighter as tenacious and feared as Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe never won a world championship. But those failures do not diminish their stature as the years have passed on.

There is something oddly comforting about Malignaggi’s comment. Regardless of what one thinks of him as a person or a fighter, he is of his generation and as a boxer has every right to his opinion. It is that opinion that re-ignites debate, and sports fans love to argue.

In years to come there will be many people who will insist that Floyd Mayweather was not only the best fighter of his era but perhaps one of the best of all time. And on the other side of the fence will stand a vocal contingent denouncing that very assertion. But for everyone the flood of memories from when you were there, cheering on your hero will define those very heroes and ultimately define who you are as a fan and an individual.

Article posted on 10.02.2008

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