Tuesday Night Fight Talk: Pills, Chills, Bellyaches... & Caffeine Highs! Fighters and their excuses

20.12.05 - by Barry Green: To me boxers have always been my favourite sportsman: great characters, fascinating stories and the ability to be accessible for fans and reporters alike. Not monotone bores like footballers or cardboard personalities like golfers, they always make one chuckle with their funny traits and oft unusual habits that more often than not stem from their upbringing, whether it be on the streets of Brooklyn, Brixton or Buenos Airies.

However, there is one one area where the prizefighter, almost to a man, lets himself down, a symptom which first appears its rather bemusing head when he (or she for that matter) is finally beaten in the ring. Then it's time for Plan B: the little white lie; the fib, the downright ridiculous explanation for this apparent 'loss'. In a nutshell when a fighter loses he always seems to have an excuse. And most of the time, they're never particularly good ones.

There are so many examples, where does one begin. Take Gerry Cooney for instance (please, I hear you say).. Cooney said of his convincing loss to Larry Holmes in 1982 that if "He (Holmes) was the better man I could accept it," blaming the press for hoodwinking him that he could knock Holmes out early, he was "Buffaloed" he claimed, thus introducing that colourful transitive verb to my vocabulary for the first time.

There was more from Gerry's altered state of mind, the big Irishman waited so long for the Michael Spinks fight to materialise he felt "worn out" and mentally unprepared, thus not being the real Gerry Cooney in there, merely a beguiled version. Although to the vast majority watching, he was the same old same old, out of his depth at the highest level. Still, over $15 million from ring earnings alone will have no doubt soothed his fragile noggin.

The great ones are no better, Holmes himself put down his struggle with Mike Weaver, to the course of antibiotics he was taking in the run-up to the bout. Larry was heavily criticised for being extended by a man with a record of 20-8 (one which belied Weaver's decent ability). What happened is that Holmes, as he would often do, was not afraid to slug with a slugger, neglecting his boxing skills in the process. Maybe a shot of tetracycline should have been administered before every Holmes fight as this one ended up a classic brawl.

Marvelous Marvin Hagler too generally accepted his loss to Willie 'The Worm' Monroe with class after the Philidelphian outfought him back in 1976. Years later however, Marvin was undisputed middleweight champion, a formidable fighter and with that came a formidable 'ego'.

Sometime in the 1980s he decided that his fans daren't know that he was actually beaten 'fair and square' when he was a contender and slowly but surely a new story was concocted on how he was suffering from bronchitis leading up to the fight and could not pull out because he was due a world title chance if he won. Monroe won on points, but didn't get a title shot either by the way.

Interestingly when Hagler avenged this defeat the following year, it was The Worm's turn to wriggle out an excuse claiming influenza, saying he had to take the fight on a week's notice and couldn't drop out because his blah blah blah. You get the picture.

Other Hagler opponents, who were champions of the feeble excuse, if not the ring, were Sugar Ray Seales and Benny Briscoe. Seales claimed he was robbed in his draw with Marvin and blamed his KO defeat to the Marvellous One on "management problems". His managers may have put up a better fight in reality as he was destroyed in less than three minutes.

Bad Benny on the other hand spoke as if he yearned for the good old days when, on losing to Rodrigo Valdes, he claimed: "Two more rounds and I'd have knocked him out," despite there being fifteen already fought! Methinks Bad Bennie would have been better off having a bar-room brawl with ol' John L. Sullivan.

Occasionally a fighter will not only have an excuse but also another one to back it up, probably just in case no one believes the former. When Roberto Duran embarked on his 'comeback of the year' fight with Davey Moore, the boxing fraternity welcomed back an old friend with open hands (of stone). Moore, however, claimed he lost the contest because a) He never recovered from being thumbed early in the fight or b) He was still groggy from dental surgery he had just before fight time.

It hadn't obviously hadn't occured to Moore that he was in the ring with a legend who still had plenty of fight left in him. Not that the great Duran was immune to the excuse bug. His first defeat at the hands of Esteban De Jesus was partly blamed on him being sick in the run up to the fight, blaming the cold New York weather on his bad form.

Of course, Duran's infamous "No mas" has been discussed and written about more times than Joan Collins had to sleep on the wet patch, but the truth is we'll never know the real reason for his surrender. That he balooned in weight is almost certainly true, what is a fabrication though is the stomach cramps excuse. According to Ray Arcel, interviewed in Ring in 1983, Duran did not once complain about his belly and also years later Roberto's close friend and personal translator Luis Henriquez, said he was asked to invent a story by the defeated fighter immediately after the bout.

Henriquez asked Duran if he'd been injured and the Panamanian replied that his stomach bothered him somewhat. Henriquez then dreamed up the cramps story, saying: "Roberto didn't have any stomach cramps, he just quit and that was it." Freddie Brown confirmed this by saying: "We had to say that or they'd have killed him back in Panama".

Duran of course, clinging to the hope he would be forgiven by fans and promoters alike had his alibi. After all, he merely had a bad day at the office- although his machismo (and hatred of Leonard) will never let him admit this, he was merely frustrated by the Sugar man's unwillingness to co-operate in a punch-up got the better of him.

Duran wanted Montreal Part II, instead he got Leonard moving around like a young Mick Jagger, dancing and moving to his own beat. Basically, he was saying to Ray "I'm letting you win this time"...even though in reality Leonard always looked the winner that night from the first bell.

The doyen of British sportswriters, Hugh McIlvanney, put it best when he said: "There may be something in the theory that Roberto Duran had the wrong cornermen in New Orleans last week. Perhaps, he should have had Freud, Jung and Adler carrying the buckets and providing the gee-up between rounds.

One boxing wag once called this the "Moby Dick" of bad excuses, I'd say it was more The Catcher In The Rye, as after all, we are talking of things that are 'phoney' here. This is not to demean the great Duran, who's arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter of my, thus far, 34 years on this planet, but also one that cannot take defeat with any grace whatsoever. His ultimate warrior mentality (like that of Hagler and countless others) would not allow it.

When I attended business school I recall a paper entitled A Social Psychology of Schooling. One of the points addressed concerned attribution theory, which encompassed the idea that 'effort is good but ability is better'. This appeared to be the case with Duran, he, like the student who had not revised for the big exam, protected his concept of basic ability as "I didn't try" is a far more legitimate excuse to a fighting man than "I wasn't able".

The point is all self-worth based, success being accepted as being due to 'one's own efforts', whereas failure is ascribed to factors outside of one's control, e.g. "the test was unfair." For this read: "I didn't train hard enough," or "I had to lose too much weight."

This 'disease' is not exclusive to boxing of course. Anyone remember that Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson race a few years back? These guys really hated each other's guts and were at constant loggerheads as to who was the fastest: Bailey- the Olympic 100 metre champion or Johnson the 200 metre king. Both agreed to meet each other half way at the 150 mark.

When the race took place the slight underdog Bailey sprinted off to a blistering start and began to open what looked an unassailable lead. Then, lo and behold, Johnson pulls up with a hamstring injury. Oh, how we'll never know, yawn. Johnson's argument then would always be that Bailey didn't beat the real version of him as he was injured when he was closing the gap. Oh yeah, and unless there's a Pink Floyd gig in town, is that a pig I see above me?

There are some occasions were a fighter is hampered of course, but we often know about this beforehand. Lennox Lewis for example had to adjust to fighting a new and huge opponent when he proposed match with Kirk Johnson fell through for the much bigger test that was Vitali Klitschko- the same applied with Evander Holyfield vs. Bert Cooper.

There are also rare instances where fighters have excelled despite having less than stellar preperation. Michael Spinks, prior to his light-heavyweight unification clash with Dwight Qawi had to overcome the death of his partner and mother of his child. This, paradoxically, actually inspired Spinks to easily outpoint Qawi over 15 rounds in 1983 as a fitting tribute to his loved one. Same with Bobby Chacon and his wife's suicide shortly before his fight with Salvador Ugalde and Buster Douglas using his grief over the death of his mother to produce his once-in-a-lifetime moment in Tokyo. Remarkable performences all.

Some fighters do lose with class though: Muhammad Ali even has a yearly award named after his penchant for taking deafeat on the chin in KO magazine. Nigel Benn too, rarely made excuses for his losses and was always complimentray to the victor. Even Mike Tyson in his old age took his defeats with a certain amount of grace and a realisation that he wasn't quite the 'Baddest Man on the Planet' any more. Rocky Lockridge, despite being robbed in his fight with Wilfredo Gomez, accepted his loss by saying: "I'm not bitter at all. It doesn't feel like a loss and I'm proud of how I fought." This wasn't just your everyday loss, it was the worst decision I have ever seen in a world title fight, yet Rocky accepted it with such dignity and humility that I became a fan instantly.

The deciding factor on why most fighters are so reluctant to accept their losses with class is the dreaded, overwhelming ego that a fighter really needs to possess if he is to reach the top and stay there. They convince themsleves they are always the best in their division and feel the need to remind promoters and managers alike that they're worth another title shot- "If I'm at my best I'll win every time" they feel.

The downside of this, of course, leads to the vast majority of boxers fighting on too long in the belief that they'll once again rule the roost and be the champion of the world again (Hello Evander!). Also, another dreaded 'L' on their record can affect their market share; therefore they need to tell fans they are worth shelling out a few more pounds and dollars on when they next fight on pay-per-view.

At this stage you may feel I am being a tad harsh on these fighters. Okay, as an experiment to show how frequently this happens in the next paragraph I shall take a random magazine from my collection, one that features an interview with a fighter, and invariably if his has an 'L' in his record there'll be a good reason for it (actually make that a bad reason). Here goes...

The monthly I now have before me is the October 1990 issue of KO magazine, within its pages is an interview with former IBF super-featherweight champ Tony Lopez and...well, shock horror. Tiger Tony, when queried about his then recent loss to great rival John John Molina he blames the defeat on him having balooned in weight and having to lose numerous poundage to make weight, finishing with the oft killer line "when I'm in shape he can't beat me."

Take any boxing interview in any magazine, whether it be Boxing News, Ring, Boxing Illustrated or whatever and I'll show you a fighter with a reason why he lost to a supposedly inferior opponent. Tennis ace Bjorn Borg once claimed, when talking injuries, that you don't notice them muchn when your winning only when you opponent starts to get the better of you. I 100% agree with this notion, although it's fair to say Borg didn't have to take any left hooks from Jimmy Connors and co, when he played them.

Which leads us, finally, to the mother of all excuses, one which helped supply the title of this piece. Welcome to the madcap world of Vinny Pazienza. When the 'Pazmanian Devil' met Roy Jones in 1995, he was quite easily dismantled by a fighter he didn't belong in the same timezone as, never mind square ring. After this woefully one-sided annihilation, Paz, like many great fibbers before him, blamed his performance on the fact that he was "coming down from a caffeine high"!!! This meant Pazienza couldn't knockout Jones, which he would have done so of course...if he'd have taken a few cups of decaf instead.

So in future if your favourite fighter loses because he 'took his opponent too lightly' or 'had flu the week before', take it that he just had a 'bad night'. We all have them, only we do not possess the ego of the fighter. It's in his nature, he's the best and if we don't realise this then we don't know what we're talking about.

Fighters must think their most loyal fans are akin to mothers of mass murderers who can't believe their little boy has done such heinous crimes: "But my Ted was such a sweet innocent boy who bought me flowers and painted me a little house with curly black smoke," cried Mrs. Bundy...and in many cases they'd be right, only some fans are far more gullible than others.

So, whether it be pills (Larry Holmes), chills (Marvin Hagler), bellyaches (Duran) or even caffeine highs (Vinny Paz) we know at least we can always rely on our favourites to fabricate a story if they lose. Their ego and fear of decreased marketability are too strong to let it go. They see themselves as the goods in the shop window display and they want promoters to know they are still a reasonably good buy. They all do it at some stage, but we as fans need to take their excuses with a pinch of salt and give the guy who won some credit for a change.

To me all fighters should take a leaf out of Fritzie Zivic's book when he lost to Sugar Ray Robinson. Knowing he was soundly beaten by the greatest fighter of all-time he grinned: "I didn't do too bad. I came in second." And if you think this article is no good, blame it on the tea and coffee I've been drinking whilst writing it. It's made me dizzy.

Article posted on 20.12.2005

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