Old School

By Ted Sares on May 14, 2012
Old School
The fighters back then were hard and determined men, well schooled with great teachers

Old school was a behavior influenced by the mores and values of another era. If someone calls me a throwback, I kind of like it…

“There is an unspoken conduct that makes a good boxer. A good boxer will never mock and humiliate his opponent; but rather respect him at all times. That is the nobility of boxing.”—Miguel Jaime Ongpin (A Letter from Another Sports Fan)

Old school is a slang term referring to a way of thinking or behaving in the past within the context of current times. It is not meant to have a negative connotation; rather, it is often used to refer to a time of perceived higher standards or level of craft. Some might equate the term to “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore,” or “He is a throwback,” or “Back in the day.” However, it’s difficult to really pin down the meaning in concise terms. a

In boxing parlance, it’s kind of like referring to a Johnny Bratton, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, or Tony DeMarco. When someone refers to Arturo Gatti as “old Old School” they may be comparing him to guys like Fullmer, Basilio, and DeMarco. They were accessible, humble and engaging outside the ring but ferocious and vicious inside. Courageous, respectful, and hard working—their behaviors reflected the values that existed in the 1940s and 1950s. The men back then were hard and determined, well schooled with great fight teachers and trainers, and had far more fights to stay sharp.

When a boxer demonstrates uncommon courage and tenacity inside the ring, he is often labeled as a “throwback” to the golden days of boxing, but those who do the labeling seldom define what they mean. “Golden days” could mean the 1950s or the 1970s. It could mean guys like Fullmer and Olson, or Gatti and Micky Ward. There have been countless arguments about whether old school fighters would be able to handle modern ones, and that argument will not be taken up here. Everything is relative, but it is a tempting comparison to make.

Back in the day, Carmen Basilio would fight Sugar Ray Robinson; Kid Gavilan would fight Chuck Davey; Davey would fight Chico Vejar; Jake LaMotta would fight Robinson; and Gene Fullmer would fight anyone at any time, as would Emile Griffith and Johnny Saxton. These guys would fight each other, and if they lost, they would quickly regroup and get back into unofficial round robins. Guys like Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Teddy “Redtop” Davis, Art Aragon, Joe Miceli, Milo Savage, James “Spider” Webb, Harold Jones, Jimmy Carter, Lauro Salas, and Paddy DeMarco would fight each other at important times in their careers. Great matchups were the rule rather than the exception, as were strong psyches and little sense of entitlement.

However, an old-school mentality can sometimes lead to misconceptions about certain things. Take training. Myths like long road work can mislead when it comes to training. Suffice it to say that in boxing, like in every other sport, training techniques have improved. While boxers don’t fight as often these days, the improved techniques may keep them sharp enough to make up for the infrequency of fights. Modern boxers like to train about six or seven weeks leading up the fight, so they can peak at fight time. Old-school boxers fought every month, sometimes several times a month. They achieved and maintained their peak by fighting constantly. This is reflected by the great number of fights boxers had back in the day, not to mention their need to earn money. Participating in over 70 fights was not uncommon, and that probably did more than anything else to keep fighters fit and ready.

Few of today’s boxers chop wood to strengthen muscles; they use weights instead, but chopping wood was not unusual for throwback types. Why would boxers chop wood? To develop “quick muscle” as opposed to the slow muscle development of weight lifting according to their old-school trainers. Maybe so; after all, Jack Dempsey, George Foreman and Oscar De La Hoya did it.

Old-school fighters seldom had the cut bodies seen today; their muscles were natural. There were few Holyfields, Nortons, Mike Weavers, or Jimmy Thunders back then. There was an uncut smoothness that belied the power underneath, not unlike many of the Russian fighters today. An interesting and informative article entitled, “The Old School Guys: Priceless Training Lessons Of Yore,” by Mike Casey in the IBRO Journal dated June 18, 2007 deals with this subject in great detail and is highly recommended.

Ironically (because he usually comes in overweight), James Toney is a boxing history buff and an astute student of old-school techniques, likely resulting in his uncanny ability to use his shoulders to shrug off blows, deflect punches with his arms, and launch counters with deadly accuracy. That’s pure old school.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. also uses old-school technique, but he does it subtly. To borrow from the old-school lexicon, he is a cutie whose use of shoulder rolls, feints, upward jabs, giving angles, crossover defense, strategic lateral movement, and deflecting punches is all part of the mix. Old school involves a mastery of the basics: slipping punches, counterpunching, parrying, pacing, ring generalship, and mastery of the different levels of defense. Mayweather’s fight with Phillip N’dou showcased these attributes. If a purist is one who appreciates the technical aspects of the Sweet Science, Mayweather is a purist’s delight. However, aside from their skills, both Toney and Floyd diminish their otherwise old-school qualities by their incorrigible propensity for trash-talking, though Mayweather seems to be improving.

A pier six mind-set involving an inclination to engage in brutal street-like brawls was also a part of the old-school mix, and, in this regard, for a pure, visual definition, it is recommended that you get a video of the Monroe Brooks-Bruce Curry fight in 1978 in which both fighters reflected the essence of what old school is all about: Here were two fighters who fought with both skill and savagery and let it all hang out. Both were willing to go out on their respective shields without regard to their welfare. Charley Norkus vs. Danny Nardico is another (though arguably a more extreme) example.

Kudos also are in order for the Prizefighter tournaments being held across the pound and for the unofficial heavyweight round robins between Audley Harrison, Scott Gammer, Matt Skelton, and Michael Sprott, all of whom seem willing to fight each other at any given time.

The Change

“Everything is relative.” —Albert Einstein

When football legend Jim Brown rumbled into the end zone, he simply handed the football to the umpire. No boogaloo or back flip somersault; he was old school. He adhered to a certain accepted behavior. When Billy “White Shoes” Johnson did a celebration dance in the end zone in the 1970s when he palyed for the Houston Oilers, he broke from the accepted norm and started a new behavioral trend. Not better, not worse, just different.

Watching Luis Manuel “El Feo” Rodriguez (107-13, 49 KOs) fight was an old-school experience. He was a stylist, like the great Sugar Ray Robinson, capable of accomplishing almost anything in the ring, but only aficionados knew who he was, as this Cuban slickster stayed under the radar for many years. Yet watching Floyd put on a clinic today is not much different. There is one difference, however, and maybe it touches on the nub of this article.

Trash Talk

“The right to speak must be earned by having something to say.”—Winston Churchill

Old-school guys never engaged in feigned prefight episodes; they did not insult their opponents, nor did they insult the fans’ intelligence by weeping and saying they would soon retire at a young age. There was a degree of mutual respect that was palpable. Of course, there were no mega purses to promote, and that may have something to do with this noxious and melodramatic modern behavior.

Watching Sugar Ray Leonard raise his hands as he went in for the kill against Tommy Hearns was modern, but it was real. Watching Sugar Ray Robinson dispatch his opponents in a stylish but workmanlike fashion was old-school stuff. Watching a deadpanned Joe Louis walk calmly back to his corner after knocking someone into another planet was old school, and oh did the fans ever love it. Listening to Shannon Briggs inexplicably insult Calvin Brock after Brock had been iced by Wladimir Klitschko was not old school; listening to a Klitschko praise his victim is.

The fans also loved watching a Fernando Vargas leap onto the corner ropes after a victory or an Arce ride in on a dancing horse. Watching Danny “Little Red” Lopez come up the aisle in the 1970s wearing an Indian headdress in honor of his Native American father (though he fought like a Mexican warrior, reflecting his mother’s heritage) bridged the gap between old school and modern. Indeed, televised fights in the 1970s seemed to have an influence on behavior inside the ring. Later, Chris Eubank’s and Prince Naseem’s walk-ins carried it to an extreme. Of course, Mike Tyson was old school by admission and intention, no robe, short black trunks, walk-in, and all. But when Sugar Shane Mosley or “Canelo” Alvarez wear short trunks for maximum ventilation and mobility, that’s neither old school nor new school; it’s just plain smart.

“I’m a baaaadd man!” exclaimed Muhammad Ali after the first Liston fight. Did the trash-talking and bad-mouthingl start then? Did Ali leave behind this unfortunate legacy? Clearly, he was one of the first athletes to assault an opponent. “I’m a baaaadd man!” exclaimed Muhammad Ali after the first Liston fight. Did the trash-talking and bad-mouthingl start then? Did Ali leave behind this unfortunate legacy? Often referring to opponents as “chumps” or “bums,” he strengthened the legitimacy and acceptance of this behavior by connecting it to his successes in the ring. This included the accurate predictions of when he would knock out opponents. When it comes to talking trash, Ali was definitely “The Greatest.” For all the good things he is perceived to have done, this is something that created a line of demarcation between old school and modern, and the dignity of the sport may have suffered as a result. Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell were among Ali’s victims. Curiously, however, Ali was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 1999.

The Eastern European fighters don’t engage in hyperbole and trash talk. The Klitschkos seldom if ever show disrespect. Maybe these guys are trained to speak respectfully of their opponents before and after the fights, letting their performances speak for themselves. Maybe they are trained to do their talking in the ring. Whatever it is, their modest behavior and humility may seem boring to some bit it has caused many others to embrace them. The same holds true for Andre Ward and Lucien Bute.

Staged and phony (or the rare genuine) press conference brawls or ugly trash-talking to stoke up interest and gate figures continues to wear thin. Such behavior does boxing no favors unless one accepts self-promotion as a requirement in the New School way of things. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a Quarry, Shavers, Chuvalo, or Floyd Patterson engaging in one of these brawls. Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti didn’t engage in trash talk. That they also were throwbacks is no coincidence.

Juan Laporte

There was one fighter who boxed from 1977 to 1999 but unlike many other modern fighters, Juan Laporte fought and behaved in the quintessential old-school manner. He fought often and he fought the very best. Incredibly, he fought Hall of Fame members Salvador Sanchez, Eusebio Pedroza, Azumah Nelson, Wilfredo Gomez, Barry McGuigan, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Kostya Tszyu. He did battle with former world champions Rocky Lockridge, John John Molina, Zack Padilla, Billy Costello, and Charles Murray. He also fought title challengers Ruben Castillo, Dwight Pratchet, Johnny de la Rosa, Lupe Suarez, Hector Lopez, Teddy Reid and many other tough opponents. He beat many and was never knocked off his feet. Juan faced them all and never had a bad word for his opponents nor did he engage in trash talk. Juan Laporte remains a positive influence and is the essence of class.

Old school was a behavior influenced by the mores and values of another era. Times change, and sometimes so do the values and the behavior behind those values, but not necessarily for the worse. Nonetheless, if someone calls me a throwback, I kind of like it. Hell, I like it a whole lot.

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  1. mikecasey 07:54am, 05/19/2012

    Tex and Charles: I had a message from my good friend Mike Silver the other night reminding me that the recently departed Eddie Perkins was a competent but not outstanding boxer until legendary bantam champ Johnny Coulon took over his training. Johnny turned Eddie into a pocket version of Harold Johnson - high praise indeed - and of course Eddie went on to win the junior welter championship (when it wasn’t split into 84 parts).

  2. CharlesN 05:28am, 05/19/2012

    To Bob M and Mike C- Thank You for your kind words. Along with Ted, all three of you capture the essence of a bygone era with much insight. I find myself in a comfortable room here when I’m reading your words and recollections.

  3. TEX HASSLER 04:28pm, 05/18/2012

    I do not think training, training methods or trainers have improved from what they were 50 years or more ago. We certainly do not see the highly skilled fighters of years ago. Boxing is best learned by doing a lot of it and having trainers that know what they are doing.

    I would like to be more positive but boxing is not at the high level it was from the 1920’s to 1950’s.

  4. Matt Mosley 08:50am, 05/16/2012

    It is a great point you make that how Ali acted may well have influenced this part of society in a negative way.
    He’s my favourite fighter and sports personality of all time, but i certainly see where you are coming from.
    No one is perfect, and Ali, like the rest of us, had his faults.

  5. Matt Mosley 08:44am, 05/16/2012

    I forgot the Klitschkos too. You mentioned them and i see them as great role models for young kids.
    There aren’t enough of those kind of guys around nowadays.
    I tend to agree that Ali may well have started the trash talking.
    The only thing i would add is that he was great at it (although did at times go too far). Everyone else pales in comparison and/or makes a fool of themselves.
    Why did they have to try and copy him?
    Ali was an original and should have been left as a one-off, instead of being poorly imitated, imo.

  6. THE THRESHER 08:40am, 05/16/2012

    Irish, those times are gone but not the memories. Overdone Political Correctness has replaced many of the Old SChool behaviors but dammit, I still like trans fat in my food and loud exhaust pipes on my cars. I also like to pack a switchblade which is legal in NH.

    New Hampshire is a tad Old School and maybe that’s why I live here.

  7. the thresher 08:36am, 05/16/2012

    Thanks Matt. Appreciate what you say. I feel the same way about this era. A lot had to do with the men who came back from WW Two and Korea. They were a tough breed.

    Also, those who grew up during the Great Depression. Boxing was easy next to that stuff.

  8. Matt Mosley 08:34am, 05/16/2012

    Great article Ted. This is right up my street. Not wishing to sound holier than thou, but i have always thought that i should have been born in a preious generation, as a lot of my beliefs and the ethics that you allude to seem lost in much of today’s society.
    The boxers back then seemingly reflected the way of life, as some of them do today.
    There are a few humble and gracious ones out there nowadays, Andre Ward, Juan Manuel Marquez, Sergio Martinez, etc, but they are in the minority, imo.
    I really enjoy reading stuff like this, even when i’m pushed for time.  :)

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:43am, 05/16/2012

    Ted Sares-“the mores and values of another era”....there was a time when the whole of our great country was “old school”, but that time is long gone. Guys like Micky Ward remind us of how it used to be….he fought like those tough kids that came of age in the Great Depression.

  10. mikecasey 06:31am, 05/16/2012

    Lovely observation on Norkus and Nardico, Bob!

  11. Gordon Marino 07:46pm, 05/15/2012

    Thanks for still another lesson in boxing history. You are The Professor!

  12. Bob Mladinich 07:36pm, 05/15/2012

    Watching Norkus vs. Nardico is like watching a great film noir movie from the 1940s. It’s hard to believe boxing (and filmmaking) could be so good.

  13. Bob Mladinich 07:33pm, 05/15/2012

    Charley Norkus was old school all the way, such a tough competitor and a great sportsman.  He treated me like gold as a young, unknown writer, and other amateurs from 30 to 40 years ago said he’d come to the gym and treat them with such respect. Watch his fight with Nardico on You Tube.  Now that’s old school boxing at its best. Breathtaking.

  14. the thresher 05:55pm, 05/15/2012

    Great post Paul.

  15. Paul Magno 03:16pm, 05/15/2012

    Great stuff, Ted…I was brought up on the old fight films (real film, not video tape)...The boxers of today are better athletes, but the game is not the same…Fighters are forged from the heat of combat…Nowadays, kids are brought up in the horrible amateur system (which has changed boxing to something more resembling fencing) and then carried, piggy back to a world title…As a result, we get guys who are two and three-time world champions but don’t have any idea how to fight on the inside or, worse yet, get spooked when they get a cut over the eyebrow…and enough with the grunting when someone punches! Might as well hold up a sign saying, “I’m going to throw a punch now.”

  16. the thresher 09:36am, 05/15/2012

    Pug, yes, part of it, but mostly I’ll steal from Mike Silver’s book which is spot on re the subject.

    Micky was kind of his own man when it comes to new school vs. old school. He didn’t have a lot of fights but he fought at an extremely high level and never left anything in the ring. He also was a well-schooled amatuer and knew what to do in that ring. That was more old school I reckon. He also was a great sportsman. Who could ever forget what he did after a round against Shea Neary where he hugged him OUT OF RESPECT? That moment was pure old school. It was pure gold.

    His Gatti fights were, of course, right up there with Graziano-Zale.

    I’d classify him as Old School, but I’d be interested in what others think on that score and why.

  17. pugknows 08:33am, 05/15/2012

    Loved this article Ted. Will you be using it in that speech you will be giving in Micky Ward Month in Lowell? Seems a natural fit.

  18. mikecasey 08:14am, 05/15/2012

    Credit to the Klits too. Ted is quite correct about the sportmanship and they way they carry themselves. These things ARE important! Dempsey would knock guys through the floor, but he would also help them to their feet when it was over.

  19. dollarbond 06:16am, 05/15/2012

    Ted, you ARE old school to the core.

  20. Robert Ecksel 06:14am, 05/15/2012

    A tip o’ the hat to Ted Sares for a really fabulous article.

  21. the thresher 06:03am, 05/15/2012

    Bob, that’s the best compliment I could ever hope for—to be called an Old School writer…

  22. the thresher 06:01am, 05/15/2012

    Charles, your dad was about as Old School as it could get. The photo of him in front of the poster in Cut And Shoot Texas before the Roy Harris fight was a classic. It’s on my Old School page on my site.

  23. CharlesN 05:28am, 05/15/2012

    Fine work, again Ted. What’s most a tell tale sign of “old school” is the on-going custom of the losing fighter going over to the man (or nowadays women too) whom they just beat to acknowledge the victors win.
    Depending on the severity or extent of any serious beating to an opponent, the winner surely goes over to see his opponent in his corner.
    Though a few times today, we occaisionally see that wonderful act not performed at all, or its seems like “just going through the motions because it has to be done” attitude. Old school fighters made sure it happened.
    I also witnessed countless foes from yesteryear as well as todays fighters, become friends outside the ring. They left any ill will between the ropes, knowing full well the entertainment value of their work has left an indelible mark on boxings history, and it is there that both victor and loser can bathe in the limelight of a job well done and hence the comraderie has come full circle. That is as “old school” as it gets.

  24. the thresher 05:07am, 05/15/2012

    Thanks mates

  25. Pete The Sneak 04:53am, 05/15/2012

    Great write up Thresh…Old School indeed..In additon to some of the names you included in your article (loved Juan Laporte, by the way), I was always amazed at the old school humbleness of guys like the late great Alexis Arguello, Gerry Cooney and such. Mark Breland was also a very Old School cat who’s soft spokeness and aw shucks demeanor totally belied his ferocity in the ring, particularly in his amateur Golden Glove days. Would also like to include the Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on that list. Yeah I know, he plays baseball, but if he were a Boxer, you couldn’t get any more Old School than Mo. So keep on bringing that throwback writing Thresh.. Peace.

  26. Don from Prov 03:03am, 05/15/2012

    As indicated, times do change, and the sport has changed as well—whether for better or worse might be predicated on who is judging, but maybe a sign of the times passing one by is the nagging feeling that if judged from a purely objective, outside source, a viewer would have to say of boxing that much—too much—has been lost.  Nicely written article.  Good stuff.

  27. mikecasey 12:31am, 05/15/2012

    Lovingly written and full of home truths. No sentimental, rose-tinted nonsense here. The modern game has forgotten a lot of valuable lessons in the past 30 or 40 years. Athleticism, suppleness, punch snap and natural power are essential ingredients and always will be. Dempsey, Louis and Robinson were beautiful just to look at, never mind the fact that they could fight like hell. Basilio looked as if he had been chiselled from a mountain. Now we have cartoon muscles, too much arm punching and too few boxers who know how to throw a jab. Small wonder that today’s stand-out fighters often look like Superman to younger fans.

  28. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 08:59pm, 05/14/2012

    The photo above is Pulitzer Prize quality “old school”....looks to me like Tony DeMarco down for the count with Carmen soaring above.

  29. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 08:46pm, 05/14/2012

    Ted Sares-Just might have something to do with character….good character that is…something that comes through loud and clear in your writing. “Purists”....ah yes…those that worship at the altar of technical brilliance.

  30. Bob Mladinich 06:57pm, 05/14/2012

    Great piece, Ted. Old School is such an overused and under-appreciated phrase. Toney and Mayweather could be old school if not for their big mouths. Miguel Cotto would have been old school during any era. You can’t ask for more in a fighter than what he gives you. If Andre Ward fought more often, he’d be old school because he makes very good fighters look so ordinary in a subtle manner.  And you are an old school writer. Wear that monicker like a badge of honor. You earned it.

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