31.12.08 – Coach Tim Walker – Sport stars are liken to shooting stars. Heavenly bodies that streak light across our athletic universe. Ironically the greatest evidence of a shooting star is when it explodes into oblivion leaving behind a trail of what it used to be. Like shooting stars, a boxer’s mortality is most prevalent when they have mustered their remaining strength and with a bang zoom into the distant sky, demonstrating the ultimate end of their boxing life. In no other sport does an athlete’s maturity so vividly validate itself as it does in combat sports. Simply said, either you’re a star shining as bright as our noon day sun or you’re exploding into the great void. There is no middle ground for boxers..
It has always been easy to determine the end of an era in boxing. It is usually coupled with the emergence of the next rising star respecting yet stomping on the heels of the previous era. Lewis, Tyson and Holyfield shared an era which was preceded by the Ali, Holmes and Frazier era which was preceded by the Liston, Patterson and Moore era which was…well you get the point. It happens in every division and in every era.
There should be no shame in the aging champion succumbing to the future of the sport. In fact it is the way the torch should pass from one era to the next. Never duck a challenge, leave it all in the ring and go out with your boxing dignity intact but a check in the loss category. And when it is time to walk off into the abyss of boxing no one should know it sooner than the fighter himself. The finish indicated by the violent push of the young stud’s piston-like jab. This dethroning at the hands of the young stud signals that a fighter’s era is at its conclusion and it is time to move on. Well it use to. We are definitely at the end of the current era but we don’t see the emergence of the young studs. Is this a byproduct of the newer crop not being as good as the current crop or are the current fighters reluctant to release the reigns? Let’s get into some of the reasons.
Forty to fifty years ago 30 years of age was definitely the down slope of a fighter’s career but such is not the case these days. Boxers endure regimens of training methods, dietary conditioning, relaxation techniques and slew of other things that keep their bodies functioning in peek condition for longer periods of time. A quick look at the light heavyweight division reveals that most of the upper echelon are middle-aged men: (Calzaghe, Hopkins, Johnson, Tarver, Jones Jr., Woods, Garay, Erdei, etc.). There are even a few grandfathers walking around the sport. Don’t get me wrong, none of us can say when a fighter must hang up his gloves but as a fan I expect them know when they should.
Gone are the days of 200 fight careers. In the new era of fighters most careers span 30-40 fights. The first 15-20 fights in rapid succession over a relatively short period of time, then 1 to 3 fights per year, depending on which end of the pool you’re equipped to swim in. Wladimir Klitschko, considered by many to be the best heavyweight in the world, posts 36 of his 55 fights in his first five years as a professional boxer (1996-2000). On average over the next 8 years he has fought a little more than twice per year starting in 2001. Fighters who are good enough are permitted this strategy. In reality the career of the modern boxer is typically longer over time but less productive in terms of fight accumulation. Wladimir’s career which may extend 5-7 more years won’t come close to the likes of Archie Moore (185-22-11).
Gym equipment included a boxing ring, heavy bag, speed bag, jump rope and weighted balls. The training was straight forward. Pushups, sit ups, jumping jacks, jumping rope, running, cutting wood and sparring for the most part. Boxers still do most of that but their routines now include strength training, weight lifting, ply metrics, callestinics, static training, dynamic training and much more. Items such as boxing gloves, head gear and protection cups had not quality control. Prior to a fight both fighters would get together and agree on the brand and weight of the boxing gloves to be used. The major consideration during the selection process is that lighter weight gloves allow for harder blows and more damage. It can be argued that the modern boxer spends more time molding his body into a finely tuned athletic machine than he spends developing boxing skill.
Changes in Viewership
There exists a debate over whether Max Baer vs. Lou Nova on June 1, 1939 or Eric Boon vs. Arthur Danahar on February 23, 1939 was the first televised boxing match. What is not in debate is that prior to television bouts boxing was a very popular spectator sport and the advent of television ushered in a change in viewership and attendance. Boxing is still popular today but the methods of viewing are forever changed from in person attendance to cable networks and pay per view subscriptions. Many people subscribe to cable networks specifically for boxing matches and it is not uncommon for pay per view boxing purchases to range from 100,000-200,000 and be viewed all over the world by millions. This has caused the business side of boxing to change and boxers have changed with it. No longer needing to fight 8, 9 or 10 times a year to reach financial success, upper level boxers are more apt to fight less and be very cautious of their opponents.
Evading the Young Fighter
This one is obvious to me. One of the constants of the universe is that we all age and with aging comes decreased abilities. In boxing they occur in succession; first your speed, then your reaction time, then your power, then ultimately your chin. The ultimate result of a boxer’s shrinking abilities is the simple avoidance the new stud. The vet instead uses quips like “no one knows him” of “who has he beaten” to validate his intent to not fight the new guy and his overwhelming need to continue boxing. Look thru the records books and we see bouts where the seasoned guy takes on the young guy who is almost ready but seldom the young contender who is actually really truly ready. Point and case I don’t see anyone clamoring at the
chance to fight young studs Andre Berto or Marcos Rene Maidana or Arthur Abraham.
There is a push to blame fighters like Oscar Dela Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield for boxing’s thinning popularity. In my opinion they deserve as much credit for keeping boxing alive as they do for its waning popularity. They surely don’t warrant the bulk of the blame for all of boxing’s woes.
Networks favor championship fights which give way to excessive sanctioning organizations. Promoters over-protect their fighters because in this fast paced society a single loss is the difference between being considered a contender, prospect or out of the picture. Fighters don’t take the time to learn the business of boxing. In no other sport does the talent so blindly follow the people they employ. Even the modern day boxing fan is fickle and inconsistent typically paralleling their like or disdain for a fighter with their appreciation for skill level.
For my part I love boxing and everything about it though I admit it frustrates the hell out of me sometimes. I admit that I don’t have the right to tell Oscar, or Holyfield, or Jones Jr. that they should hang up their gloves; I do however wish they would realize it sooner. But for the time that a fighter is in the ring fight with all your heart, with all your might, leaving everything in the ring and nothing to chance and at the end of your boxing career we will tell stories of your triumphs, tales of our heartbreak at your defeats, and lift you into our collective memories and usher you off into the timelessness of space where your last burst of boxing brilliance can be seen like the tail of a shooting star. Make way for the birth of the new luminary. Resist the grasp of gravity simply because you can. Then your final encore will have never been more brilliant and never more expected and most certainly never more respected in our minds, soul and heart. There is a time when the next era breaks thru. I think it is time for our current crop become shooting stars and let the next stars shine bright.