Although age usually brings a degree of wisdom, to those of us blessed to accumulate the years and decades, it also brings with it the inherent risk of becoming a nostalgic. A condition without physical pain, but one that can effect your eyesight and reason. Too often we, the royal we, because I’ve succumbed as much as the next man, unless the next man is dear old Colin Hart, apply a rosy hue to all things by gone, to the events of history and the heroes and villains who acted in them. This is most virulent around instances and characters we bore witness to in our formative years, but not exclusively so.
Boxing, like every other aspect of life, suffers from this phenomenon. I’ve seen the argument for Harry Greb being the best Middleweight of all time, and read the case for Jack Johnson being the finest heavyweight who ever graced the squared circle to name but two examples. Opinion with merit of course, but based almost entirely on still photographs and a precious few seconds of actual recorded action.
The most common manifestation among those of us with grey at the temples is the summary dismissal of any fighter active today if matched with their historic forefathers.
Nobody escapes the grip of nostalgia indefinitely. Within those formative years there is a tendency to assume only older generations are locked in time and therefore exclusively resistant to the merits of the current. In youth, we fail to appreciate that we will all become the older generation and that our place in time, is, itself, transient.
As a child of the seventies and despite a quest for integrity and impartiality in the conclusions I draw here, it is hard to contemplate that Floyd Mayweather could be the greatest fighter of all time. After all, he inhabited a world Thomas Hearns once towered over. “A Hearns that poleaxed Roberto Duran! Roberto ‘fucking’ Duran lad!” I might say when pushed and on the outside of a pint or two. I’ve similarly struggled to accept the myopia surrounding Anthony Joshua too, good fighter though he is, as I’m old enough to have witnessed Larry Holmes’ jab, mostly in hindsight I suspect, and Mike Tyson’s left hook. The latter reference confirming how the sense of ‘it was better in my day’ is a shifting feast. I spent most of the 1990s denouncing Tyson as an on top bully who would fail to dent Joe Frazier or resist the torment of Muhammad Ali after all.
Recently, on the Sky Sports Toe to Toe podcast, resident pundit Spencer Fearon suggested the much-craved Tyson Fury v Anthony Joshua bout was closer in significance and narrative to the seminal 1971 ‘Fight of the Century’ between Ali and Frazier than the host’s suggestion it was the Lewis v Bruno of its era. Instinctively, my nostalgia radar was activated, I’ll confess. I forced myself to bite on my figurative lip, because, having felt a flush of embarrassment when reaching the same conclusion in private, it would be pure cynicism to mock Fearon’s conclusion.
Adopting a more open mind, that the heroes of the past can be surpassed or equalled, is not easy to do, I must warn you, but we must embrace the new or risk succumbing to a myopia of our own. One which is no more productive, valid or correct than the one adopted by boxing’s newest followers.
After all, if we’re spared long enough, we may yet sit encouraging an as yet unborn boxing fan to look up Tyson Fury on YouTube to rebuff their suggestion an as yet unborn heavyweight champion is the greatest fighter that ever laced them up.