Forging Kryptonite

By Ted Spoon: Save for the most red-blooded of Neanderthals, everybody is conscious of the fact that next to a battle of wills, boxing is a mash up of strategies.

Eight week training camps offer plenty of time for things outside of sweating, and the commonality which links the essentials together; during breakfast, in between rounds, and just before bedtime is the mental doctrine entitled; “What I need to do to beat this man.”

Starting with Jack Broughton, coming into a bout with a game plan has gone from an individual impulse to an enterprise with several tentacles, many unwanted. Incorporating numerous members into the team (if they stick to their specialities) can be fruitful, but the danger is always there for the fighter to get caught in a verbal crossfire.

At their worst these oversized groups will proceed to bombard boxers with instructions, and this will carry on during the fight for as long as the ref tolerates it. At times like these (and they are not few) you have to feel for the competitor, stigmatised with incompetence.

To focus on the great flops in history would be an uninteresting replay of moments we'd rather forget. On the flipside, when those tips successfully readjusted a fighter's method of mashing, to see them work their way into the opponent like a dreadful toxin is to witness the cunning in a predominantly brutal ballet.

Benny Leonard had this way about him that could iron out the worst creases. We are all familiar with his legend of coaxing his way out of disaster, but strictly in terms of boxing he had a technical resolve to crack the most stubborn foes. When the awkwardly punishing Lew Tendler was befuddled for fifteen rounds it had the toughest of reporters happy to dish up a buffet of adjectives like brilliant and masterly.

The southpaw is a keystone of confusion. Couple one with height plus a tyre-bursting punch and a hard night's work can become the pugilistic equivalent of trying to solve a spike-studded rubrics cube. Tendler, one of Philadelphia's least heralded of fighting men, was the most dangerous 135lbs contender during very dangerous times. Having not only gone the distance but hurt Leonard he had plenty reason to march into the ring, chest inflated.

In their last bout Leonard had got a little too involved and was buzzed to his heels. This time he was not about to make the same mistake and it resulted in one of the most complete victories over the closest rival.

Using his silky feet, Leonard hopped in and out of range, but only by the smallest of margins so setting up counters was a bit of a guessing game. As Tendler lunged with his right jab, Leonard cheekily came over the outside of the punch with his own jab to then automatically swoop under the retaliation; currently one of Manny Pacquiao's finer details.

Round after round the puncher kept digging up coal, but this was no bicycle job. Leonard hovered around the danger zone, encouraging Tendler to unveil his arsenal. Always precarious, Leonard got on the inside of many of the big punches, eliminating the chance of seeing something he didn't know how to deal with later on.

During rough interludes Benny would carefully seize Tendler's arms and then, in the same motion, spin him off balance. This tactic we would later see in Willie Pep as he led the more aggressive fighters into a deep fog.

The southpaw's key foil, the orthodox cross, was fired by Leonard not with indulgence but authority. Lew, “not of the fragile jaw breed” was staggered by Leonard's right a number of times when it sprung from his limber stance. At the end of the fight the challenger was a weary boxer indeed.

In a bout in which there was the very real possibility of the title changing hands the loser was entitled to one, or, depending on who you asked, just a share of one round. Never had Benny Leonard looked so good.

Rematches are times to right previous wrongs. Now that you know what lays ahead the goal becomes to specify the boxers approach, to concentrate what worked and delete what didn't. Jack Blackburn was a darling at understanding what needed to be changed, and Joe Louis projected his cerebral abilities with a couple of explosive fists.

Ten rematches (all via knockout) may help everyone appreciate just how effective the 'Brown Bomber' was when his original effort spawned a sequel. It's difficult to argue against his obliteration of Max Schmeling as the supreme example of these powers of redemption, but it was over too quickly for one to truly appreciate those nuances of tactical adjustment.

Chile's Arturo Godoy had given Joe a close fight; more notably he had made him appear ineffective, bad even. A head-down spoiling type of fighter, Godoy often smothered his own work, but it was a style Louis handled about as well as a novice would handle the dough in a first-rate pizzeria, coarsely thumping and tearing at his medium, inevitably resulting in something subpar.

Nearer to the rematch the champ knocked sparring partner Joe O'Gatty out cold, a trick he had not turned in some time. Taken by a “viscous humour”, Louis put the finishing touches to his revised fight plan. 'Chappie' was ominously content about preparation.

From round one it was a more assertive Louis in there, engaging the rushes and firing short clusters. Evidently he had learned from the first bout when he was held up against the ropes. He welcomed the physical fight, pushing and turning his rugged assailant. Being hunched over made it easier to make space while a right uppercut began to threaten.

At not one point was Joe a victim of that smothering. The bombers jab, one of his best weapons, was used more so as a range finder. When he felt Arturo about to close a neat back slide was implemented to both encourage the advance and plant his feet. As expected Godoy rushed in, but instead of successfully sticking to Joe's midriff his head was met by six-eight inch cracks.

With elbows hugging his waist the champion got inside whatever came his way, ripping through the middle with blows that started to create painful swellings, and with every passing round Godoy's punch shipment miserably increased.

Harry Wills had been known to lightly bounce a medicine ball off his chin to increase the strength of his neck or 'shock absorber'. Godoy disliked the practise but it had helped make a sturdy chin like steel. There was fair money on this one going the distance again, but steel or no steel, the way Louis was punching did not favour any alloy.

In the seventh Godoy's crouch was rendered into a series of confused squats as Louis thumped his head consecutively with that right hand. Trying to claw his way forward in the only way he knew how the disfigured challenger stumbled into more of the same. This was not the oppressive hunter of Schmeling II but a receding buzz saw.

The eighth produced two more knockdowns after classic Louis dispersals, coolly revising his angles of attack in those delicate moments when the aggressor usually loses himself. A right cross changed its trajectory along with Godoy's ducking head and put him down and into the arms of referee Billy Cavanaugh.

Interviewed later, the victor (his career already an almanac of welts) believed that to be “The worst beatin' I evah gave a man.”

Spoiling is an obnoxious tactic but it can be effective, and one the greatest at it is one of the latest. Bernard Hopkins was similar to Godoy in this respect, but in a more pleasing way, or at least while his geriatric body could maintain a respectable work rate.

Numerous decorations were stapled onto a hall-of-fame-bound career with victories over Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal, but 'The Executioners' calling card will always be his win over Felix Trinidad.

Critics would say that Felix was unproven at 160lbs, a natural welterweight. These gripes lose much of their credibility by the fact he made it to the twelfth of a bout in which he was virtually always on the receiving end.

“What do you do if a guy's pointing a gun at you?” probed Hopkins after his masterpiece, “…you grab it.”

In this case the gun was Trinidad's left hook which had blown a few holes in William Joppy. Fundamentally, Hopkins was equipped to deal with this having one of the most punctual of rear-hand defences, but to further mitigate punishment he was up on his toes.

Never was making a single punch obsolete more important as the unfavoured champion spied those tense signs and started to move left, taking the sting off the danger blow.

Hopkins played the part of the sophisticated thug, getting close, holding and hitting, but using the ring and firing crisp punches. This zigzag rhythm prevented Trinidad (a bit of a plodder) from getting set. When he did pinch the canvas with his toes Hopkins was right in his face.

Getting inside the big punches was key, but before Trinidad could settle the champion was on the outside, moving side-to-side, stabbing him with a hard jab. Trinidad wasn't much of a short hooker, and Bernard knew this, preferring to fight either long or on the inside.

Like Benny Leonard, but with less grace and more grit, Hopkins methodically jumped into Trinidad's space, cuffing, pushing and generally encouraging those frustrated retorts that are easy to read. A rough boxing lesson trudged its way into the sixth, Tito's best round; and in another sense his worst.

With the big hook and a sneaky uppercut Trinidad poured it on where it became apparent he had nothing to threaten the man who was his tactical and now physical superior. For whatever noise the Puerto Rican contingency made while their man swung for the fences, Hopkins grinned a knowing grin through his mouthpiece.

The boxing lesson, though no less stylishly, turned into a beating. Hopkins work maintained its incredible neatness as his confidence grew. Lead rights were cultured with rolls and left uppercuts began to sieve their way through the middle. There was nothing superfluous with each movement slotting itself into the jigsaw.

With the tenth almost done a combination we're used to seeing from Mike Tyson had Tito wobbling on the spot like an excited toddler. The eleventh was as unfruitful as rounds get, and the twelfth brought the perfect close to a fight which is among the giants of systematic shutdowns.

To cap off a fine nights work the champion was attractively modest, believing he had come “halfway” in attaining greatness.

There was certainly nothing 'halfway' about his performance.

Article posted on 19.04.2012

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