Dempsey’s Arm and the State of Modern Boxing
I am still reeling from the experience of watching that awful exhibition (I cannot call it a fight) between Klitschko and Fury…
Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey’s punching power was legendary. At a body weight of about 190 pounds the Manassa Mauler’s punches could render unconscious opponents who outweighed him by 50 or more pounds. His left hook was often compared to the kick of a mule. The astonishing muscularity of Dempsey’s left arm, as revealed in this fascinating photo, is a sight to behold and bespeaks of an awesome destructive force.
Dempsey’s impressive muscular development was achieved naturally, without benefit of weight machines, supplements or steroids. It was the result of genetics combined with years of hard manual labor, and countless hours spent in gymnasiums training, sparring and fighting. His body was perfectly suited for the demands of his sport. Unfortunately, many of today’s boxers mistakenly believe that enhancing their muscularity by lifting weights (20 to 100 pounds, or more) and targeting specific muscle groups will improve their punching power and overall athleticism. But such irresponsible training techniques do not take into account that a properly trained boxer’s muscles are highly refined and uniquely suited for his sport, just as a ballet dancer’s muscles are highly refined and uniquely suited for his activity. Old school trainers understood that. As far as they were concerned adding weight lifting to an elite boxer’s training routine was akin to pouring sand into the gas tank of a Cadillac.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE DON’T FIX IT
Prior to the 1980s barbells or weight machines were never seen in a boxing gym. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” should apply to boxing. Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier said it best: “We teach old school boxing training. We train fighters the way Louis and Dempsey and Henry Armstrong trained, and Willie Pep and Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano, and all the other great fighters in history. Those guys were some of the best to ever fight, and if it was good enough for them it’s good enough for us too.”
Today’s boxers are not helping themselves by turning to fads that are not scientifically proven and serve no useful purpose. Any exercise or training routine that compromises the speed or reaction time of the boxer—be it hand speed or leg speed—should be eliminated. Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev, two of the sport’s hardest punchers, are not overly muscled. To their credit (or the credit of their trainers) it is obvious they do not incorporate weightlifting into their training routines. Hopefully it will stay that way.
Competent boxing trainers—the few that are left—are not close-minded. They are open to new ideas, provided they result in improvement to the boxer. Sadly, most of the people currently training and managing boxers have no idea what’s broken and what isn’t. As a result, they are incapable of showing the boxer anything that would school him in the finer points of technique. So they spend hours having the fighter perform useless “punch pad” routines or hire a strength and fitness coach from another sport and think it will make the boxer stronger and add power to his punches. They are evidently not aware that for a boxer strength and power are not synonymous.
COMPENSATING FOR A LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
Many so called trainers accept these unproven methods as a way to compensate for their lack of knowledge. Instead of concentrating on improving a boxer’s balance, timing and defensive and offensive techniques (which most are incapable of doing) they concentrate on conditioning. But it’s all a load of crap. Legendary trainers Ray Arcel, Jack Blackburn, Charley Goldman and Angelo Dundee would never have tolerated such nonsense. As Teddy Atlas says, “Without the fighter or his management realizing it, they are undermining their own fighter. Instead of making him accountable in the areas that he needs to improve, they go looking for shortcuts.” Some of these new age boxer-training routines are not just silly (you can see them on YouTube) but also damaging.
Over the past 20 years too many fighters have been victims of wrong-headed training techniques. The list includes Tim Bradley whose career was practically ruined by strength coaches who had no idea how to condition a boxer (see YouTube accompanying this article). Fortunately, he fired his trainers and brought in Teddy Atlas who retooled his style and banned weight training. But a lot of damage had already been done. Another victim was Jeff Lacy, once one of boxing’s hottest prospects. Lacy made the mistake of hiring a strength coach who decided this already very strong athlete needed to bulk up. His career quickly went downhill. Sporting huge pecs and even bigger biceps, Lacy became stiff and slow, and was no longer able to throw a straight punch. He was easy prey for the swift moving Calzaghe, a fighter whose natural speed was never compromised by unnecessary weight training.
The late Emanuel Steward, who came up during the 1950s, was also disdainful of the new methods. In 2008 I interviewed Steward for my book “The Arc of Boxing.” Current trainers should heed his sage advice: “Many weight trainers and conditioners confuse the training techniques needed for boxing with the strength training needed for football and other physical sports in which strength training has been utilized for many years. I am very upset with having these strength coaches involved with professional boxers. Fighters like Michael Grant and Frank Bruno are so tight they can’t get their punches off normally. And after about five or six rounds their muscles become fatigued. A fighter also takes a chance tearing his muscles by weightlifting…look at Tommy Hearns, Bob Foster, Joe Louis and all those great punchers. They are usually rangy guys. Even Foreman was a loose, naturally strong kid. They didn’t have these tightly muscled builds that came from lifting weights.”
OF MOUNTAIN LIONS AND BEARS
Compare Dempsey’s lean but muscular physique to the overly muscled anatomy of the recently dethroned Wladimir Klitschko. Who has the better build for boxing? Is it the slow moving, somewhat muscle bound 6’6”, 245-pound Klitschko or the 6’1”, 192-pound Dempsey, whose trip hammer punches were delivered with the speed of a fast middleweight? The answer should be obvious, irrespective of the fact that Klitschko is exactly the same height and weight of Jess Willard who Dempsey destroyed in three brutal rounds to win the title. I have no doubt that Dempsey’s superior speed and punching power would be the deciding factor in achieving the same result against Klitschko.
I find the argument that today’s giant heavyweights would be too big for Dempsey, Louis and Marciano ludicrous to the extreme. At 190 pounds both Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano could deliver a higher volume of power punches with greater speed and accuracy than any dreadnought—past or present. And they did it without becoming exhausted. No 250-pound slab of beef has ever matched the combination of speed, stamina and power of a hard punching quality heavyweight in the 190- to 210-pound range. Is a mountain lion too small to take on a bear that outweighs it hundreds of pounds? If you think so then I suggest tuning into cable-television’s National Geographic Wild for a reality check. What could a strength coach do for a mountain lion? Speed, cunning, strength and courage will determine the winner.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
A smaller but faster and smarter heavyweight will often prevail over an opponent possessing only superior size and strength. Any fighter who weighs between 190 and 210 pounds is big enough to handle a supersized heavyweight, providing he has the wherewithal and boxing smarts to know how to counter superior size and strength. In a battle between heavyweights survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean survival of the biggest. At least that’s the way it used to be. But things are different today because the current era of super-sized heavyweights exists in tandem with the era of super mediocrity. So, all things being equal, and taking into account today’s extremely thin and inadequate talent pool, size does matter.
If you remove the top talent from any group of performing artists those residing at the bottom of the barrel will rise up and take their place. But if you cannot tell who is good and who isn’t then you won’t be able to tell difference. That is what has happened to boxing over the past two decades as the sport continued its descent into ignorance and stupidity—at every level. Today the heavyweight division is so devoid of talent that what used to be found floating at the bottom of the barrel has now risen to the top.
I am still reeling from the experience of watching that awful exhibition (I cannot call it a fight) between Klitschko and Fury. I actually found myself yelling in disgust and disbelief at the TV screen. Over the past half century I have seen some horrendous matches, but this one was in a class by itself because someone had the gall to call it a fight for “the heavyweight championship.” The overall incompetence, amateurishness, and lack of fighting spirit of both contestants was astounding. I could not believe what I was seeing. That was the last straw for me. I figuratively threw in the towel on my once favorite sport. To be honest I really don’t care if I never see another contemporary boxing match again.
Mike Silver is the author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science, McFarland Publishers, Paperback, 2014.