Sergio, Julio and Basic Instinct
Reggie Gutteridege, the late and lamented commentator, once observed that seeing Leonard getting hit was like watching Bambi getting mugged…
We know instinctively why we like some people. We don’t always know why we dislike others. Their names make us grimace, their presence sets us itching. The devil within us all makes us think the most unpleasant thoughts.
Several years ago, the devil came out to play in the doyen of golf commentators, Peter Alliss. A colleague of Alliss in the commentary box complimented Japanese golfer Shigeki Maruyama on his eternally cheerful attitude to the game. Come rain or shine, good shot or bad shot, the bouncy and ebullient Mr. Maruyama always had a big smile on his face.
“Yes,” Alliss observed dryly, “makes you want to smack him in the mouth, doesn’t it?”
The remark struck a chord and I couldn’t stop laughing, even though Shigeki Maruyama does indeed seem the nicest of fellows. There is just a certain something about some people that makes us think, “Oh please, turn it off for a bit!”
Such feelings are strangely heightened when it comes to a fight, because we know that the guy we like will hopefully do the smacking on our behalf and save us the trouble. The man in the opposite corner, the subject of our indefinable frustration, might well be an upright citizen, an absolute pillar of his community and a tireless worker for numerous charities. But we still feel that curious sense of gratification when he takes a good one in the kisser.
I got to thinking about the not so better angels of our nature when somebody recently asked me if I wanted Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to beat Sergio Martinez in their much anticipated match-up on September 15th. “No,” I replied, immediately feeling a guilty compulsion to justify my answer.
I’m sure, or indeed I hope, that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is every bit as pleasant as Shigeki Maruyama. The young Mexican ace is doing everything asked of him and doing it efficiently. He can’t help his birthright. He can’t help the fact that his father is a living legend and the best pal of a living nuisance in WBC boss Jose Sulaiman, who has spent more than 40 years extolling the values of democracy and fair play under his richly ironic job title of “lifetime president.”
However, everything about this cosy, triangular relationship gives off a bad smell. Just how much is Junior protected beyond the bounds of fair play? It is not an unreasonable question to pose after all we have seen and heard. He has cruised to a very comfortable 46-0 record against very comfortabl and largely inoffensive opposition, yet still he appears to have required some highly dubious assists. He had “trouble” giving urine tests against Andy Lee and Marco Antonio Rubio. Junior also tested positive for Furosemide against Troy Rowland, sacrificing a unanimous points victory for a no contest.
When we get to the night of September 15, will the blue-collar fans in the bars of New York, Boston, San Francisco and London be pulling for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or Sergio Martinez? I suspect the latter in most cases.
It seems almost sacrilegious to question a Mexican’s street cred, but Junior to me always looks like a man who would be more at home strolling the streets of Monte Carlo. You do wonder if he secretly wanted to be a film producer, artist or architect and never dared tell dad.
Dad, of course was a great champion with a splendid record, winning “world” titles in six weight divisions. No doubting Chavez Sr.’s pedigree. Yet isn’t it strange how his controversial fights against Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker and Frankie Randall get the most airplay and the most discussion?
Chavez Sr. was a damn tough champion to dislodge in his latter days, his great talent and courage having a lot to do with that. But there was always Uncle Jose too, the godfather in the shadows, making one feel that the great Julio Cesar would always be helped to his feet if he stumbled and fell.
He is a hugely respected boxing legend and quite justifiably so. But he doesn’t evoke the gut affection we felt for Vicente Saldivar, Ruben Olivares, Chucho Castillo or Marco Antonio Barrera.
In the fourth series of the excellent TV series Mad Men, an ongoing saga of the New York advertising gurus of the sixties, one of the best episodes (The Suitcase) is set on the night of the return match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.
The office clears out as everyone goes off to watch the fight, leaving our hero Don Draper alone with assistant Peggy Olson. Halfway through getting ourtrageously drunk together, Don bunches his shoulders and makes motions with his fists as he tells Peggy why he likes Sonny. “Liston just goes about his business, works methodically. Cassius has to dance and talk.”
This was how most people felt in the turbulent days of 1965, and it had more to do with basic instinct than the political minefield that Ali had entered. Liston was an old-fashioned fighter. He got the job done. He was no longer the dangerous man killer, the street thug who had mugged nice Floyd Patterson. Now Sonny was the ex-champ, the guy who had paid his dues on the street, an aging rogue rather than a vicious villain.
He threw punches and he knocked guys out. Everything was easy to understand with Sonny. But this guy Ali, with his mouth and his twinkling toes—what was all that about? Marciano didn’t do all that stuff, nor did Louis or Dempsey. Basic instinct forgives an awful lot when it is roused. Suddenly we like the guy who got into trouble on the Chicago streets and we turn our noses up at the Olympic gold medalist who moaned about getting his nice bicycle stolen from outside his nice house in Louisville.
Even from the comfort of your lounge, you could smell Liston’s sweat. Ali seemed to walk on perfumed water in the way that Gene Tunney and Jim Corbett did before him. Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De LaHoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. would later join the brigade of those whose boxing skills we admired but who we yearned to push into a swamp.
For Tunney, boxing was primarily a business and Gene couldn’t help the fact that he just happened to be a brilliant at it. He had his Plan A in place from the beginning, never required a Plan B and soared to the giddy heights fantastically. The highest of honors— the heavyweight championship itself—preceded a highly successful business career, marriage to a very wealthy woman and rubbing shoulders with the social and political elite.
But Tunney, who could never resist dropping the odd quote from the literary greats to remind people that he was much more than a pug, wasn’t as loved as Ronald Reagan would be. Whatever your politics, there was always something reassuringly homespun about Ronnie. He loved jelly beans, didn’t pretend to be Einstein and you could imagine him talking sports with your pals and getting the giggles over something silly.
You couldn’t really imagine Gene Tunney dropping into your local bar, sinking a few beers and gobbling peanuts. He would always have that certain look of disdain on his face that so enraged Tommy Loughran. Basic instinct in boxing quickly sniffs out such people and does not take kindly to them.
Gene’s unfortunate habit of making a compliment sound like a thinly veiled insult never ceased to grate with Loughran. In 1928, former welterweight legend Jack Britton, considered to be an excellent judge of fighters, offered his opinion on Loughran. Said Jack, “There’s only one fighter in the game I wouldn’t bet against in a fight with Tunney. And you’ll probably laugh when I mention his name. Tommy Loughran. You know, you can’t knock out a fellow or beat him if you can’t hit him.”
To this, Tunney allegedly replied, “I understand that Tommy is a very nice fellow and a gentleman. But as to fighting—ah! That’s different!”
Loughran quietly seethed over the fact that Tunney had got to the fading and distracted Jack Dempsey first in 1926. Never shy in promoting his own credentials, Tommy said, “I licked Dempsey in his training camp and I know I could have knocked him out in a real fight, but Tunney had the jump and got the chance. I came near beating Tunney when I was just a novice and I know I can take him now because all he can do is back away and counter.”
As a person, Tunney impressed Loughran even less. “Who does he think he is?” Tommy barked. “He wasn’t born any better than I was. He never could fight and I can. He didn’t win the war and neither did I.”
It seems that Loughran’s nose was put out of joint when he clashed with Tunney at a classy hotel in Newark, where Gene believed he was the exclusive guest of honor. Tunney was shocked to see Loughran and a few other fighters in the lobby. The story goes that Gene approached Tommy and gave him a somewhat frosty handshake. The ensuing conversation reportedly went as follows:
“What are you doing here, Tommy?”
“Just waiting around.”
“I’m awfully glad to see you in a place like this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why, I mean that it is good to see some of the boxers in respectable places. It will help the public get a different opinion of the business if they see boxers in places like this.”
Loughran was apparently boiling by this point and replied, “You don’t know how to act in a respectable place and I do. If I didn’t, I’d let you have one.”
Today, De La Hoya and Mayweather Jr. view the sport of boxing in much the same cold and dispassionate way as Tunney did. Do they actually enjoy fighting? Yes, they very probably do in the sense that being number one at anything they do in life is an essential drug for them. All are very good fighters too, and, make no mistake, very brave. But you get the feeling it doesn’t come easy. It is something they have to do. They are naturally talented but not naturally enthusiastic. Having a fight is simply a means to an end.
Sugar Ray Leonard certainly slotted into this category. We were always made to feel hugely privileged when Ray signed for a fight, which he did with increasing infrequency as time went on. Reggie Gutteridege, the late and lamented commentator, once observed that seeing Leonard getting hit was like watching Bambi getting mugged. Reggie rated Ray very highly, yet plainly couldn’t resist saying what many others were thinking.
By outpointing Marvin Hagler in 1987, Leonard defeated a massively respected five-star general of the blue-collar regiment. The decision in Ray’s favor was seen as fair by many and unfair by many others. But there was no doubt which of the two men touched our hearts and became the enduring hero for all seasons. Private, dignified and fiercely dedicated to his trade, Hagler imprisoned himself in the same spartan training conditions as his spiritual Brockton brother, Rocky Marciano. Leonard glittered for the glitterati and traded in gold, but boxing fans in general preferred Marvin’s uncut diamonds.
I phoned my father after that fight and we disagreed on the decision. I had been a big Hagler fan all the way through his career, but I believed that Ray had edged him. “Tell you what, though,” my father said, “in 20 or 30 years from now, it is Hagler who will be most fondly remembered. Leonard will be respected but grudgingly so.”
Now think for a moment about all those classic battles posted by your favorite fight groups on Facebook and other social websites. Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns keep coming up. On the rare occasions Leonard makes an appearance, it is usually his losing fight against Roberto in Montreal.
De LaHoya and Mayweather similarly raise our hackles. Oscar, before taking a walk on the wild side, was the perfectly packaged product of our slick and synthtic age, a company press release brought to life, impossibly appropriate and obliging in every way and no doubt smelling of roses when he broke wind. In corporate mode, he was drilled not to offend, not to utter one mildly controversial opinion.
I am reminded of a comment by David Crosby on why he was never a great fan of the Eagles. “Because they never took a chance,” Crosby replied.
Is it any wonder that a “product” like De LaHoya for that is effectively what he was and is—eventually implodes? Whatever we thought of him before as a person, we think less of him now. A bad boy who gets caught wearing his girlfriend’s lingerie might just get away with it with the aid of some quick thinking bluster. A “good” boy caught doing the same thing is going to get ribbed about it for the rest of his days. Never tell people you’re teetotal if you keep a bottle of whiskey in your bedside drawer.
Basic instinct isn’t always right. It can often make us nail our flag to the wrong mast and pledge our allegiance to a guy we would never invite over for Sunday lunch. But it’s there inside us all and it’s what makes us human.
My basic instinct makes me greatly admire Sergio Martinez, not merely because he will start as the underdog against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Sergio is no poster boy and nobody’s favorite son. He is a throwback pro’s pro, a dog with a bone who won’t let go of it. I admire his like, because not being a spectacular fighter means putting in a lot of extra work and grinding all the time. Knowing that the seas weren’t going to part for him, Martinez went on the road and broadened his ring education against a variety of opponents.
Sergio wouldn’t have been a world champion 30 or 40 years ago, which reminds us of how far the quality bar has slipped. He would have been one of those nuisance contenders who would have always been capable of springing an upset. Henry Hank, Joey Archer, Jose Gonzalez and Mustafa Hamsho were never world champions, but nor did anyone want to fight them.
Honed in the tough Argentinian school, where young fighters are carefully nurtured but expected to learn their trade thoroughly, Martinez went on to make a major pest of himself in European rings before moving to the States and completing his methodical climb to the top. In the UK, he showed his ability to exploit a weak link in an opponent when he twice defeated the highly touted Richard Williams.
Londoner Williams was a nice looking stylist who seemed to play most of the right notes, but there was clearly something missing in his attitude and application. He was quite painfully exposed by Martinez. In the States, Sergio continued his workmanlike progress, losing a majority decision to Paul Williams, besting Kelly Pavlik and then blasting out Williams in the second round of their rematch with a terrific bolt from the blue.
In his recent and almost surgical dismantlings of British challengers Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin, Martinez has served notice that he has no intention of lightly surrendering everything he has worked for.
Basic instinct, of course, should never be allowed to corrupt the integrity of one’s judgement, which is why I would love to spin this story at its conclusion by predicting a Chavez victory. Writers rather enjoy doing that. Junior is the younger man and the bigger man. According to recent reports, he is still walking around at over 180 lbs. The amount of beef that boxers are allowed to carry into the ring on fight nights has a bad whiff all of its own and simply must be addressed sooner or later.
However, it is my belief that the man from Argentina will defeat the man from Mexico. Junior is not a major league hitter at this level, while Sergio, like most world-class Argentineans, does not get knocked out. He certainly has more ring knowledge than his youthful opponent, which is why I believe Martinez will gather more points over the 12 rounds than Chavez Jr.
My fervent wish is that Sergio will be awarded the official decision for doing so.
Mike Casey is the Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).