Sweet Science - Courage, Toughness and Fools

Israel VazquezBy Paul Strauss: Is there a difference between courage and toughness? Are the courageous sometimes really just fools? Can you learn to be courageous and tough? How can an apparently courageous act ever be deemed foolish?

First, we need to formulate the beginnings of a definition of each of these. Let's start with courage. It is a common word, used in many different situations to imply levels of the same thing. For example, you might hear someone say, "Oh, that took courage". They could be describing anything from voluntarily facing up to your boss and taking blame for a major screw up. Or, someone could say it took courage to face up to your wife's wrath after a late night with the boys. Many times the word is applied to heroism on the battlefield, which makes for legends of heroic deeds. All of these imply physical courage, but all of us know there is such a thing as moral or spiritual courage too, which proves necessary when defeating evil, avoiding temptation or risking the ire of peers or even friends. Or, it could be said, "It takes courage to step into the boxing ring." It takes courage to face an opponent you know hits harder than you do. It takes courage to slip a punch so closely that you risk getting hit, because you know that's your best chance of landing a hard counter punch. It takes courage to simply fight back, because you know it means retaliation. Hall of Fame Trainer and ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas would agree an ingredient of courage is character......doing the right thing (in and out of the ring) no matter what the circumstances.

Toughness often times is associated with overcoming or ignoring physical pain and fatigue. Vince Lombardi was credited with having said something like

"Fatigue (pain) makes cowards of us all". In boxing, it usually describes someone who can withstand punishment, take a punch, and ignore cuts and bruises. It might even start before one gets in the ring. It could be someone who is the proverbial "gym rat"........i.e. someone who is willing to make the sacrifices without complaint, and do more (make more sacrifices) than others are willing to do. When practicing that all important technique of slipping punches, it undoubtedly means coming up short and getting tagged (many times) while sparring. It involves overcoming injury. A key to greatness has always been durability. Toughness can also be a product of environment. Kids who grow up in the slums and suffer from poverty are more likely forced to fight and scratch for what they require. They are used to hardship, doing without, and getting beat on and beat down. It's both mental and physical. When exposed to some normalcy in the way of sacrifice, it's a picnic for them. That's why boxing has generated so many great fighters out of the depths of poverty. So, it would seem toughness can be learned to some extent through training and experience.

Then we have the foolish, the ones who think they are tough and full of courage, but fail to exhibit any of the ingredients of either. They talk and act tough. Usually they brag before the action starts about what they are going to do to their opponent. They're the ones who stupidly bellow about giving more than 100%. They are going to make the upcoming contest a battle of life and death. "He's going to have to kill me to win!" They promise to never give up, but almost always do. Usually it's when the first body punch releases all their "gut wind"!

Gene Tunney once observed that a person doesn't know if he/she has courage until faced with a situation that requires its exhibition. Then a person finds out the hard way. It could be as simple as when a kid stands up to the bully who demands his lunch money. When older, it could involve protecting his family from a variety of things. Maybe at personal risk you instinctively reach in to grab your little dog out of the jaws of the bigger dog. Maybe it involved rushing back into the burning building to save a family member or even a stranger. Or, it might be the ultimate example of risking your life to serve your country. Consequently, it would appear courage is a relative thing, many times based on your age and circumstances, but it's not something that is learned other than through recognition of its need.

In the Sweet Science, who should we slot where when it comes to these three categories? Let's start with a more obvious example. Mike Tyson came from a rough background, and developed into one of the most feared heavyweights of all time. He was unbelievably strong, and an incredibly hard KO puncher. Opponents would cower in their corners before the start of a fight with him. Just his appearance and reputation put paralyzing fear into their hearts. Everyone agrees, he definitely was one tough SOB.

But, was he courageous? Most would also agree the answer is no. When the chips were down, he folded. Atlas said he lacked character. Teddy elaborated a bit explaining when the situation required exhibition of character for a tough situation, it wasn't there. There wasn't any. When he couldn't knock someone stiff with the usual ease, he looked for a way out.......quitting or finding some other way out such as fouling..........even if it took spitting out a piece of ear he chomped off his opponent. .

Another fighter, who at first glance might have and in fact was criticized for quitting was Israel Vasquez. He broke the cardinal rule about champions getting carried out on their shields. But, did he really lack courage, or was he just not foolish? The fact is Vasquez knew exactly what was the right and prudent thing to do. In his first fight with Marquez, he suffered a badly broken nose, which greatly impaired his breathing. He decided to quit and fight another day. It took courage to do that, because he certainly knew he would be the subject of harsh criticism, and personal insults. But, he made them eat their words by coming back only months later to demonstrate his toughness by fighting through the effects of badly cut eyes to regain his title by stopping Marquez. He definitely has courage, and I might add is no fool.

Here's one for you.......Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali. Initially, he wasn't viewed as either courageous or tough. No, most thought of him as the "fool". But, he too proved his critics wrong. He took a courageous stand in his prime, full well knowing the possible consequences. When many thought he would fold, he stood by his convictions and continues to do so to this day. When his great mobility (legs) started to desert him in the latter part of his career, he also found out he was plenty tough. He could take a punch with the best of them, and did so against Ernie Shavers, Ken Norton, George Foreman and of course Joe Frazier.

Now it's your turn. Go ahead, name names. Certainly it's a subjective endeavor, but it does serve somewhat of a useful purpose. The task requires some level of support for your personal opinion. That requires you to think, and that's always good. Start a discussion, categorize fighters and come up with additional examples. There are tons of them out there that fit each category, and many which will fit two if not all three. Have fun, be courageous, and tough it out, but keep your foolish comments to yourself.

Here are a few names to make up a bit of a diverse group with which to start: Zab Judah, Juan Manuel Marquez, Kermit Cintron, Bernard Hopkins, Jack Loew, Joel Casamayor, Michael Katsidis, Larry Merchant, Max Kellerman, David Haye, Wladimir Klitschko, Juan Diaz, Manny Pacquiao, Edwin Valero, Librado Andrade, Joe Cortez, Jay Nady and Harold Lederman, Glen Johnson, Arthur Abraham, Andrew Golota, Ricardo Mayorga, Arturo Gatti, Allan Green and Lawrence Cole.

Article posted on 27.10.2008

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