Monday, October 23, 2006

Fighters Who Love To Fight

I can’t address the subject of loving to fight from Frank’s perspective, since I’ve never been in the ring, but I’ve been around a lot of fighters. I’d say that the vast majority want to fight, are uneasy when not preparing for a fight, and frame their post-boxing lives almost entirely around their days in the ring.

This doesn’t seem to apply to terrible fighters any less than to great ones. If anything, the better fighters have an alternative motive for being in the ring (making money) and often that becomes the primary reason for why they fight.

Rich mentions Micky Ward among those fighters who love to fight. I’m not convinced. Micky always seemed a reluctant fighter–not once he actually got in the ring, of course–but prior to and after. I think he’s an unusual case—a genuine working stiff who found himself in the strange position of being able, after an unrewarding career, to make real money for letting people to see him put everything on the line. He knew he wouldn’t emerge the same as he went in, and I think it scared the shit out of him. But, because he’s a guy with a family, who understood he’d never have another opportunity to earn the kind of money the Gatti fights would bring, he chose to sacrifice some brain cells in exchange for a million plus dollars. And he was willing to hold to his part of the bargain from the moment he ducked under the ropes, poor bastard.


At 4:51 PM, Blogger Carlo Rotella said...

It would be sacrilege to publish such thoughts about Micky Ward in a Boston paper, or in a boxing magazine, and it makes you want to think about why that is. Why is it important to people to believe that fighters love to fight? Why do people shy away from the notion that a fighter goes into the ring reluctantly, with misgivings, or as the result of a cost-benefit analysis in which all the actual fighting goes under "costs" (and under "benefits" go things like money, notoriety, doing something that matters, being able to not regard yourself as a coward, and so on)?

Part of the desire to believe that fighters love to fight is wishfulness, I think, but part of it is laziness: that is, confusing "I love to watch him fight" with "He loves to fight." One thing that happens often is that people mistake a fighter's love for public attention (that is: "He seems to love it when I watch him fight") for a love of fighting. (Not in Ward's case, though. He always seemed like a decent, modest, retiring fellow.) To take some heavyweight champions as examples, Sullivan, Johnson, Dempsey, Ali, Tyson, Holyfield, and others really did seem to breathe public attention like pure oxygen. (It turned out to be poison for Tyson, but he still doesn't treat it that way. Maybe he should.) But I'd say that , e.g., Tunney and Holmes did not, and had to put up with succeeding champs who did love public attention. They didn't hate it, and they did appreciate being appreciated for what they could do (plus, you know, the glory and freebies and such), but to my eye they had reservations about throwing themselves entirely into living for attention. Both Tunney and Holmes may well have loved to fight _well_, in the way that a master craftsman loves to do a good job, but nobody jumped up and down declaring that they loved to fight. Certainly not Tunney and Holmes themselves. To counter the myth that fighters love to fight, they often _overstated_ their distaste for fighting.

I have no idea if Ward loves to fight or not. But from what I've seen of other fighters, Charles does justice to a thought process I've seen many of them go through. Of course it has to be important that people respect and admire you, and that you were tough enough and good enough to go into an unpromising matchup with your eyes open and come away mostly intact and with more money than you went in with. All sorts of fighters have made it clear to me that they love that they had the wherewithal to get up in front of the world and do what had to be done.

But that isn't at all the same as loving to fight. It seems to me that fans and reporters and others are the ones who insist on that rendering of it, and who penalize fighters who don't as easily lend themselves to supporting that fantasy.

That said, who _did_ love to fight? Duran, maybe?

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Richard OBrien said...

This topic came up originally in a discussion of Riddick Bowe and his failure to realize his seemingly great potential. It was prompted by Frank's posting in which he wrote, "And what Tyrone Booze said [about Bowe], he didn't like to Fight, is more than likely the reason," and then added the wonderful line, "They can make us do a lot of things in this world, however Fighting isn't one of them."

I have no illusion -- and no need to believe -- that all fighters "love to fight." But that's what made this an intriguing question: we can all agree, I think, that Duran in the ring exhibited a certain level of engagement and, yes, enjoyment that went beyond what many (most) other fighters did. (And I think that desire for the actual combat is different from-- though often paired with -- the sort of love for attention and stardom that Carlo addresses.) In citing a few other fighters I thought had that same quality of, well, enthusiasm, I included Ward, and Charles is right in pointing out that Micky's motivation was probably more utilitarian.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Frank Lotierzo said...

Although Ali loved the attention boxing brought him, in my years of observing him, I don't believe he loved to fight. Now, he didn't shy away from it, and was more than willing to oblige any opponent who pushed him to.

I've said for years had Ali been a meaner person down to his core, he would've been a greater fighter than he was. Ali didn't take the challenge the other fighter presented personally, say, like Holmes, Frazier or Hagler. With Ali, it was more of an ego trip. In the ring, he fought and projected to the crowd, look what I can do easily, that this guy in front of me couldn't do in a million years. Look, I'm not even trying and I'm making him look foolish, tell me I'm not great.

Look at his first and third fights with Joe Frazier. Was there a single punch thrown by him in anger; I didn't see one. Sure, he was fighting for survival in some of those rounds, but none of his punches directed at Joe carried the subliminal message that said, "I hate you, I want to kill you. What they were saying more or less was, I have to make them count now, because you can hurt and defeat me, I can't let you do that. IF you do, I have no bragging rights tomorrow, and I'll have none of that. Oh, but when the bell rings to end this thing, we're cool.

One more thing. What IF Ali trained and prepared for every fight like he did for his bouts with Sonny Liston and George Foreman? The he killed himself training wasn't so much because the title was on the line, as much as it was him believing IF he wasn't on his game, not only could he lose to Liston and Foreman, but they could hurt and embarrass him too. Sadly, him being without fear and knowing how tough he was, led him to cut corners in training.

A perfect example of this is his outlook and preperation for his first fight with Joe Frazier, correctly titled, "The Fight of The Century." Ali approached that bout like it was his official comeback celebration. Joe Frazier was nothing more than the perfect foil, whose undefeated record paper title made for a bigger party. That's not saying Ali didn't train hard for Joe, he did. What he didn't bother to take into account was Frazier might be really good, nor did he have any fear of being hurt by him, or consider that he could lose to him.

In fact, Ali made a monumental miscalculation in thinking Frazier had the perfect style for him to look good against. The reality was, it was the complete opposite.

Perhaps his biggest mistake leading up to his first fight with Frazier, was that the fight turned out to be ten times tougher than he ever imagined it could've been. Compare that to Frazier, who imagined the fight in his head to be ten times tougher than it ever could've been, just to insure he was ready. It was that mind set that pulled Frazier through that night. Just as it was Ali's mind set that left him with nothing to draw from once he found out that Joe Frazier was in fact, well, Joe Frazier. By the time Ali realized a couple rounds into the fight, he's much better than I thought, it's too late. A fighter can't all of the sudden turn it on and say to himself, I better step it up because he's really good. It's too late then. No way could Ali adjust to the same mind set as Joe. And that's because Joe built up to that mind set starting on December 30, 1970, the day they signed the contract to fight. By March 8, 1971, Ali could've never been the monster Joe built him up to be in his head.

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Charles Farrell said...

Frank makes an interesting distinction between wanting to look good--to shine--and wanting to engage in warfare. Ali had the wherewithal, as he eventually was forced to prove, to engage. But I think it's true that he preferred a one man show, or maybe more correctly,to be a star with someone functioning as a foil. In hindsight, that was probably true for Roy Jones too.

So who else besides a young Duran loved to fight? Johnny Tapia, Vinny Pazienza. Ismael Laguna. He may be wearying of it now, but I believe Manny Pacquiao loved to fight, as did Tony Ayala (who also wearied of it.) Until the Paret tragedy, Emile Griffith loved to fight. When he was young, Billy Conn lived to fight.

But I've known a lot of club fighters and worse who were crazy about fighting. They were fearless (if such a thing actually exists) and seemed to relish their brave, competitive kayo losses to better-known fighters more than they did their wins.

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Mike Ezra said...

I'm wondering if comebacks are indicative of a love for fighting. Of course it is hard to separate a love of fighting from a love of being in the game/spotlight. Did Sugar Ray Leonard com back all those times because he loved to fight or did he love being in the game/spotlight? Certainly he did not need the money.

Does the distinction even matter between loving fighting as a sport and loving it as a profession? After all, what person who loves their job would do it for free? I think that separating a love for fighting from the other benefits that come from boxing success is dubious.

With all of this said, I think that Jerry Quarry was a guy who loved to fight. All the stories of his gym wars with his brother Mike indicate that these guys needed neither money or glory but combat to motivate them.

It is easier to identify the fighters who hated to fight. Gerry Cooney was one, I think. Pernell Whitaker was probably another.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Charles Farrell said...

I spent a little time hanging around with Jerry Quarry in Las Vegas after his career had ended. There’s no question that he loved to fight, but it showed itself in some frightening ways. In general, Jerry tended to be cordial and easygoing, however when there was a major fight in town he’d grow increasingly tense and uncommunicative. By fight time, he would seem almost dangerous.

One night we were talking about a fight that was scheduled to take place the next night (it may have been Leonard-Duran 3.) He had been sullen and borderline argumentative most of the evening.

Apropos of nothing, he began talking about his fight with Earnie Shavers. He’d surprisingly knocked Shavers out in the first round. I think I said something about how impressive that victory was.

“He brought me yellow women’s panties at the weigh-in”, Quarry said. I could barely hear him. His face turned red and he began to shake.

“Yellow. Like I was yellow.”

Quarry wasn’t a big guy by heavyweight standards, but at that moment he looked huge. He dropped his voice to a croak and whispered, “Brother, nobody calls Jerry Quarry a coward.”

It was as if the weigh-in had taken place fifteen seconds earlier.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Mike Ezra said...

What is the connection between loving to fight and loving to train? Can one exist without the other? Are we really asking, in the end, about fighters who love to train?

To link with the post about toughness, I think of a guy like Riddick Bowe, who was tough as hell, but definitely hated to train and probably hated to fight.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Brian Moore said...

Not to be excessively clinical, but I wonder if the idea that there are boxers who love to box isn’t better expressed as there are boxers who are compelled to box. It would help explain Charles’s point that fighters with losing records love the sport every bit as much, and often more so, than fighters who win, as well as the fact some fighters feel out of sorts when they’re not preparing for a fight. The repetitive nature of training would certainly reinforce this compulsion.

There’s a single-mindedness to love and compulsion which often makes people confuse the two. Maybe there’s a little of one in the other.

If this seeming love is really a compulsion, then money and success merely add a new wrinkle to the fundamental relationship between boxer and boxing. This added nuance may not explain Larry Holmes fighting Mike Weaver at a Mississippi casino in 2000, but it helps explain Roberto Duran fighting there in the 1990s.

I can see how the balletic nature of Duran’s style would make someone think he loves boxing, but I wonder if this is a flamingo’s smile kind of observation. Just as a flamingo cannot be happy in any sense we understand even though it looks that way, Duran’s constant footwork may be simply style manifesting itself in an ostensibly exuberant way.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Charles Farrell said...

Not to hammer the point beyond recovery, but boxers who box compulsively, as Brian puts, often do so because there’s no provision in either their social structure or personal histories for them to do much else.

Of course this has nothing to do with lack of intelligence, talent, work ethic, or even imagination. It’s about class restrictions, about where a fighter can possibly go after having done one largely culturally devalued thing for ten or fifteen years.

When their careers are done, fighters initially move elsewhere, find that there’s nothing for them, then drift back to the last place where what they did had meaning.


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