In my preparation of notes for this weekend’s clash between Welterweights Keith Thurman and Josesito Lopez I was struck by the inactivity of both men; Thurman returns from a prolonged sabbatical following elbow surgery and Lopez fights for the first time in almost a year. As the attraction in the fight, Thurman’s absence has been well documented and largely explainable but their respective inactivity is reflective of a broader trend in boxing, particularly among those who have punched and parried their way to the top of their division.
Not fighting has become customary. This ‘resting’, as old thespians may have once termed these periods of unemployment, is a point of frustration for many of us who remember a time when champions and contenders fought three, four and more times per calendar year. True, training has evolved. Accruing new voices from the doctrines of science, nutrition as well as a disparate parade of sorcerers and snake oil salesman from the grey-scale in between. A boxer’s ‘camp’ has now become an umbrella beneath which this entourage of analysts and soothsayers restore the abandoned physique to optimum and, in doing so, too frequently devour large swathes of calendar too.
As recently as the 1990s, 6 or 8 weeks represented an exhaustive process. ‘Progress’ has led to 12 and 14 weeks becoming common practice for a major bout in which the participants have the capital to indulge this caravan of experts. Some of this extended engagement is self-fulfilling prophecy of course; the longer a fighter is inactive, the longer it takes to restore the body to the condition required to fight. Too many fights are, essentially, and certainly by any metric employed in the 50s, 60s and 70s, comeback fights.
Undertaking cross generation comparison is a process loaded with risk and the imponderable and we must beware the misleading lens of nostalgia of course, it encourages a romanticised summation of the way things were and agitates our barely suppressed longing for a bygone youth. After all, by fighting less frequently, prize fighters reduce the risk of long-term damage and create scarcity. Scarcity, or lack of supply, at a time of high demand, increases the value of the commodity; fighters get paid more, for doing less.
Boxing is a capitalist endeavour after all; as a slew of broken and penniless former fighters can attest.
For the individual fighter, the improved financial benefits of the modern era and the preservation of the faculties required to enjoy the accrued wealth is, unequivocally, a good thing and a reality we should all embrace. However, it does impact the sport’s inherent meritocracy, specifically her ability to determine her brightest stars. The associated and simultaneous effect is to dull the reputations of those able to take these 9-18 month sabbaticals. Careers stagnate within this new ecology and the greatness of any individual fighter, or crop of contenders within a single weight class, is often left insufficiently measured.
In a world where Gary Russell Jnr, the WBC Featherweight champion can box once a year in the three years since he won the belt and Keith Thurman looks to box for just the third time since 2015, and in a World-Title fight no less, one wonders whether we will ever gather sufficient evidence to compare modern fighters with their predecessors.
Presently, where once we saw Sugar Ray Robinson v Jake LaMotta six times, Pep v Saddler four times and Archie Moore v Ezzard Charles sharing a trilogy, we still await an opening gambit between Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jnr., who are already 31 and 29 respectively. Spence Jnr., the IBF World Champion, by way of further example, has boxed one incomplete round in the past 12 months.
By the age of 24, Sugar Ray Leonard had boxed Wilfred Benitez and Roberto Duran (twice).