Boxing is a brutal sport. Of course, those of us who appreciate the subtleties of the game use colorful euphemisms to emphasize the skill rather than the violence. We call it the “Sweet Science”, or the “Noble Art”. Yet at its essence the thing that compels us to watch boxing is the controlled savagery, the idea that we can put our basest elements on display, yet do so within a set of rules which elevates it from mere barbarism to an almost divine test of skill and heart. Yet even with this emphasis on the ethereal, we expect to see the two combatants push themselves to their limits, to give everything they have and hold nothing back in the ring. Those who do so are exalted not only in victory, but in defeat as well. Those who do not, those who seek to give less than their all in the circle of truth, will find that even a win may serve as a career setback. Watching Keith “One Time” Thurman taking the path of least resistance this weekend lead me to ask myself, what exactly is the “smart fight”?
Boxing is entertainment. Yes, it’s a sport and the object of any sport is to win; but boxing, or more accurately, prize fighting, is about garnering the biggest paydays. The way you earn your prize is by making yourself an attraction, providing entertainment. There are those who would tell you that being undefeated is the key to opportunity, however, in truth there are many undefeated fights who toil away in obscurity, waiting for a chance to showcase themselves on a national level. When that opportunity comes, what will they make of it? Will they protect that golden goose egg by fighting the “smart fight”? Will they play a safety first game of tag, touching their opponent and backing away in an attempt to simply score points rather than inflict damage? Will they be content to settle for a lackluster win amongst a chorus of well-deserved boos, berating the audience for not appreciating the “subtly” of their skill? Or will they grab the opportunity by the throat and try to win the adoration of the crowd by giving their all in pursuit of glory. Will they dare the greater risk in pursuit of the greater reward?
Now I am not advocating a face first, defense be damned, hell bent for leather approach to the fight game. I am not expecting every bout to be Gatti-Ward. What I am saying is that the “win today look good tomorrow” approach may backfire when today you are fighting on HBO and tomorrow you are on an untelevised undercard in Elwood, Nebraska. The jeers and cat calls you are hearing as you fight the “smart fight” are the people who pay your salary, and they are not happy with your performance. You are not doing your job. They are not entertained. Perhaps, when you finally do get that one big chance, it is time to lay it all on the line and produce an eye catching performance, announcing to the world that you are a must see attraction. Keith Thurman had the chance to do exactly that on the Khan vs Alexander undercard, and in Leonard Bundu he had the perfect opponent to do it with. However, after a fast start he soon realized that the combatant in front of him was not simply going to submit to his will. Instead of ratcheting up the intensity, Thurman went into prevent mode and was content to circle his way to a boring points win against a clearly over matched 40 year old journeyman. This was his audition for a fight with Floyd Mayweather, and he simply did not rise to the occasion.
Perhaps in this case the “smart fight” would have been for Keith to go out there and give his all in the ring, to demonstrate to the public that he is a fighter who is willing to make a real effort even when faced with a stubborn opponent, take a few chances for our entertainment and create a mandate for a big showdown with a high profile fighter. Instead he played a game of keep away in front of an audience which was very vocal in their displeasure. No doubt he will get another opportunity because of his pedigree and connections, however, many who do not have his type of sponsorship are not so lucky. He will get another chance, and perhaps he will learn from this experience, and the next time we see “One Time”, he will reconsider what type of fight truly is the “Smart Fight”.