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.
“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.
“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.
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.