The three ages of boxing romance

FallenfighterRemember, remember. John Gotti was found guilty of murder, Canary Wharf was bombed, Dolly the clone sheep was born and Bill Clinton re-entered the White House. It was also the last time a fight between Dariusz Michalczewski and Graciano Rocchigiani meant something. The year? 1996. It didn’t stop them staging a 2000 rematch and it wont stop both retired parties facing off for a third time next year. Heaven help us.

The fight, presumably attracting sponsorship from the stair lift and walk-in-bath companies, is one of a long line of geriatric curio to which the German and American markets find attendance irresistable. Virgil Hill dramatic but entirely predictable defeat to Henry Maske the forerunner to this latest veteran match-up. For Rocchigiani this will be the second return from retirement, and he is of course, the fighter who brought the WBC to its knees a year or two back when he was awarded $31million in damages. He settled for significantly less, as the award would have dissolved the famous sanctioning body. But isn’t, one would assume, short of beer vouchers. He turns 44 in December. Michalczewski will be 40 by fight night.

Of course, more serious attention is still paid to equally venerable pugilists like Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins but they stand apart from this type of clash, particularly Hopkins who retains all the vim and vigour of a 25 year old. One wonders whether age is still relevant to a fighters’ potential. Or is this simply the Germans demonstrating the type of nostalgia we’re all guilty of occasionally. Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad meet in the New Year and both are caricatures of their respective primes too, but who am I to suggest they’re no longer capable fighters? Clearly they are, in the sense there remain hundreds of professionals they could defeat, but they’re a pale imitation of their pomp and will only sour the memory of their glorious careers by continuing. The same fans that encourage them to engage in battle once more will be sneering at their performances and using the results they suffer as rationale for their inferiority to by gone greats. Loyalty is fleeting, memory short.

“If Glen Johnson could knock Roy Jones out, imagine what Ezzard Charles would have done!”

You can hear it can’t you? Forgetting Jones was five years over-ripe when Johnson caught up with him. Charles’ own nemesis Rocky Marciano possessed a shallow resume, certainly in terms of great contemporaries faced, but his perfect 49-0 ledger and departure as the heavyweight king make it difficult to propose too many men who could have beaten him. Lennox Lewis’ departure at close to his prime having vanquished his leading contender offers him safety from the revisionists of the future. Had Lewis rematched Klitschko and lost, and it was certainly possible as their career trajectories crossed, he would undoubtedly have been consider at risk from tall, rangy boxers of the past.

As it is, few historians will plump for more than a handful of heavyweights in whom they have faith in overcoming Lewis. Truth is, the type of legacy I touch on there, is of little interest to these mid-life crisis punchers. They’ll use the L word a great deal, but it actually means nothing. If it did, more fighters would retire closer to their peak in the way Lewis has. The likes of Jones, Trinidad and Michalczewski know they’re not a fraction of their indomitable best irrespective of what they may claim publicly. But the draw of the crowd and cheques the public continues to write ensure their continued and forlorn participation.

In the case of Evander Holyfield, a recent challenger for a world-belt, the loss of form and function is of greater concern because he is, apparently, blissfully unaware of it. Jones for example, wouldn’t place himself in the way of a concussive puncher in his prime; he certainly won’t be looking for knockout artists now. Holyfield has no such pragmatism. Comparing fighters across era is, by definition, a hazardous task, and it is peculiar how a fighter’s fortunes in such fantasy contests fluctuate depending on his currency. For example; fans often laud active fighters, arguing their capability to match and defeat the cream of boxing’s historical greats. Once into retirement their support fades. The capabilities of long dead former champions are emboldened and the recently retired fighters are reduced to the role of also ran in these mythical contests.

But then, at some indeterminate point the recently retired fighter becomes a long forgotten champion and his own greatness is similarly romanticised. Suddenly the current crop of fighters pale into insignificance in comparison with their once maligned predecessors.  

Recent Internet debate highlights one such combatant, former WBC Heavyweight titleholder Frank Bruno. Variously over-rated and under-rated during his career, he was largely derided at his career close for his inability to survive even a modest attack and his evident fear as he strode toward a rematch with Mike Tyson. His career summary was clear; ‘fortunate belt holder who was too vulnerable to compare to the greats that preceded him and even those who succeeded him.’

However, now 10 years retired, the perception of Bruno, that most affable and complex of fighters, has gone full circle. A whole article at BritishBoxing.net lifts Bruno from the 80’s and 90’’s he inhabited and places him front and centre in the current scene. One in which he performs with distinction against all. His metamorphosis into a respected figure appears sudden but is actually the end of a ten-year period in the wilderness. Could Bruno really have matched well with Walcott or Liston, Shavers or Sharkey? Increasingly, people believe he would.

I wonder if the sentimentality at work would have been as strong had Bruno continued in the way contemporaries Holyfield, Mercer, Akinwande and Tyson did? Or Michalczewski and Rocchigiani for that matter?

I suspect not. But Germany would happily have embraced him had he elected to.

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3 thoughts on “The three ages of boxing romance

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  1. Wouldn’t take much for the 168 division to crash. Kessler wont make 168 for too much longer…and Bute, Froch etc hardly in a rush to conquer america or likely too.

    Thats where the coin is.

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  2. Good read yet again Dave.

    Bruno is a good shout but it is all relative. Will a post-Calzaghe SM division sink as low as the current heavyweight mess? Never say never but it could be that post-Joe all the remaining guys duke it out and the division gets exciting.

    Although I get the point as I’ve advocated that if Michael Dokes was around today he would marmalise the lot of them.

    I once read that when trying to understand a work of art you have to wait for its artistic milieu to pass by.

    For example religious art is composed in an ecstasy of faith making a subjective appraisal impossible at that time. Consequently religious art works can only be appraised in a post-religious time. Similar to an apple needing to be taken from a tree in order to be tasted properly.

    After retirement the records can be picked apart, even the very best, but the really strong ones stand on their own. Plus you can see that guys like Louis and Liston really knew how to fight regardless of stats.

    Good article, it makes me want to brush off my Michael Dokes one and give it another bash.

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  3. “Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad meet in the New Year and both are caricatures of their respective primes too” you spout

    Jones is yeah, but do reckon Tito was ever really that good?

    He was certainly one of the most watchable fighters of his day, but i always thought he was just one more good fighter away from getting shown up.

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