Why Old Gold Beats New Glitter

By Mike Casey on September 20, 2011
Why Old Gold Beats New Glitter
It has been said that Charley Burley could feint his opponent into fits with his eyes alone

Keeping the faith in what we have today becomes ever tougher when so many of boxing’s wounds are cynically and greedily self-inflicted…

All that glitters is not gold. It’s an age-old adage but still as true of boxing as it is of life. In this era especially, which I am now finding quite irksome for its perennial blue sky thinking and its arrogant denial of unpalatable truths, we are constantly doused in gaudy glitter that masks the scratches beneath. More insultingly, we are almost commanded to accept it as the genuine article.

Mediocrity by stealth is a dangerous and hypnotic animal. Too much of it and we start believing it is quality. Our expectations diminish accordingly, lowered in tandem with the quality bar. No need to get 10 out of 10 any more. Six will do. Vitali Klitschko, at 6’7½ ” and 250 lbs, thumps the living daylights out of another very ordinary and limited challenger and everyone gets excited and loses their sense of perspective.

We hear that no one out there can even reach Vitali or brother Wlad, never mind give them a seriously hurtful wallop. I couldn’t agree more. But is this really because the Klitschos are so exceptional? They have simply learned to be exceptionally good at what they do while they romp merrily in a woefully barren field of poor and unimagimative challengers. Most of these contenders plod and puff because of all the beef they are carrying and rarely come equipped with an alternative game plan or a even a rudimentary set of old-fashioned skills and smarts. How can you get inside another man’s reach if you’ve never been taught how?

I won’t dwell at length on the heavyweights in this feature, as I believe they merit a separate assessment in their own right. In a forthcoming article, I will discuss the big boys of today compared to their counterparts of the past. What prompted this little outburst was a refresher glance of the pound-for-pound rankings as we currently see them here at Boxing.Com. With the notable exception of Manny Pacquiao, I can’t give any man on that list an all-time Top 20 spot in his respective weight division. This doesn’t give me some kind of twisted gratification. It depresses me because I can’t see an end to the current and desperate dearth of talent.

I always feel the need to set out my stall before discussing current issues, since the unfortunately haughty term of “boxing historian” implies that I only have time for what has gone before. Not guilty. As a boy, I was thrilled by the ring exploits of the young Muhammad Ali, Dick Tiger, Bob Foster, Joey Giardello, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Vicente Saldivar and the wonderful Eder Jofre. Eager to know as much as I could about boxing’s rich history, I would also plunder my father’s vast collection of old magazines to read about the likes of Sam Langford, Jack Dempsey, Stanley Ketchel, Joe Gans and Harry Greb.

More recently, I have derived no less pleasure from the skills and fighting hearts of Shane Mosley, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and the human whirlwind that is Pacquiao.

I have nothing against the fighters of today. I have everything against the increasingly shrinking and tacky pool of talent in which they are required to prove their mettle. And that is why Floyd Mayweather is not, and never can be, a Sandy Saddler or a Sugar Ray Robinson. It is why the eternal Bernard Hopkins, who would be long retired if he were living in the 1940s or 1950s, is not Robinson or Archie Moore. How can Mayweather and Hopkins possibly rate comparison with these towering talents?

Look at Saddler’s mighty record, with more than 100 knockout wins against consistently tough opponents. Look at Robbie’s log and the men he beat on his stately march through the welterweight and middleweight classes. Robinson, Saddler, Willie Pep and others of their special ilk were men who operated in an era of eight weight divisions and were lucky if they got just one shot at the world title. And I do mean the world title, not a third or a quarter of it.

How can Mayweather possibly know as much as these vintage aces? We still don’t know how able Floyd is in a true crisis, because no one has yet had the guile and the smarts to fully extend him. One hopes that Pacquiao will get that opportunity, as long as he and Mayweather haven’t joined the seniors tour by the time it happens.

Put water in you whiskey and you weaken the whiskey. Boxing has now been watered down for decades, but it is a strange thing how even younger fans still use the original eight weight divisions as their grid when they are setting up a fantasy knockout tournament between the great fighters.

For what it’s worth, I always believed that the traditional eight weight classes were a few too short. I think that the junior middleweights, junior welterweight and junior lightweights were justifiable additions to the set. But now we are lumbered with 17 official weight divisions in boxing and that goes beyond the farcical.This ridiculous profundity, along with the equally absurd number of “world” titles, has resulted in a massive dilution of overall quality. Being a multi-weight world champion now is nothing like the achievement it was in saner times. Oscar De La Hoya’s romp through the divisions pales into insignificance when stacked against Henry Armstrong’s straight jump from featherweight to welterweight when dethroning another solid gold great in Barney Ross.

And this is surely the point when we compare what we have now to what we had in boxing’s so-called “golden age.” Today’s boxers simply cannot be as skilled as their predecessors of 50 or 60 years ago, because they don’t compete at the same level or engage in anywhere near the same number of fights against top quality opposition. Nor do they have the same quality of trainers at their disposal.

The senseless proliferation of weight divisions and “world” titles has left us with a depressingly low depth of talent and has unrealistically prolonged the careers of many fighters who really aren’t that exceptional and never were. Nearly every fight now has to be for some kind of “championship” over the obligatory distance of 12 rounds, however worthless that championship might be. Nothing seems to scare promoters more than staging a good old-fashioned 10 round non-title bout. That obsession with the number ‘12’ has also been very destructive.

Limit

In the ‘80s, the classic championship limit of 15 rounds was abandoned by those who apparently care for the health of boxers, following a couple of high profile ring fatalities in Johnny Owen and Deuk Koo Kim. Johnny was knocked out in the 12th round by Lupe Pintor, while Kim was KO’d in the 14th by Ray Mancini.

Has that measure helped to protect boxers? Of course it hasn’t. Preliminary boys are now fighting gruelling 12 rounders after only six or seven fights because there is always some meaningless title up for grabs.They simply aren’t given sufficient time to accustom themselves to six, eight and 10-round fights and adapt to the longer distances. Many burn out long before they should. The great fighters find a way of plugging such holes in their education and flourishing on any given playing field, but these missing links can prove costly for lesser boxers who need more time to learn the ropes and progress.

We repeatedly hear of boxers approaching “must win” fights. Why must they win? With all those titles sloshing around, there is always another chance just down the road. David Haye will prove that depressing fact in the months and years ahead as long as he stays healthy and his toes don’t give out. The obsessive ‘0’ on a prospect’s record has assumed ridiculous importance. Even an educational defeat is deemed a minor disaster. Too much pressure is placed on young fighters to thrill and please, to the point where any tactical game plan goes immediately out of the window. All the time, I see potentially skilful boxers with good jabs and significant height and reach advantages becoming locked in punishing wars of attrition at close quarters.

There are other factors at play here, all driving down the quality of boxing and sucking it dry of all its erstwhile professionalism and gravitas.Whatever made the game want to imitate the crass and gauche circus of modern wrestling? Followers of the sweet science in my youth didn’t wish to be associated with a long devalued sister sport which had degenerated into a synthetic and largely pre-arranged farce.

They wrote in droves to Nat Fleischer at The Ring, pleading with old Nat to drop the wrestling section. Wrestling was about guys in silly masks and silly trunks making overblown entries to the ring and trading cheap and badly acted insults with their opponents. God forbid that boxing should ever go that way. Oh dear!

I don’t entirely blame today’s boxing fans for lapping up all this hokum. It is all they have ever known. But those who aren’t just passing through really should take the time and trouble to dig below the surface and compare what we have now to what we had in comparatively recent times.

Issues

I regularly discuss these issues with the erudite Mike Silver, whose knowledge of boxing and boxing technique is admirable. Mike has studied all the great fighters on film and in painstaking detail. Since penning his excellent book, The Arc of Boxing (a copy of which should be in every gymnasium), he has undertaken the author’s usual burden of being praised and pounded in fairly equal measure.

He argues that the quality of boxing has regressed enormously over the last 30 or 40 years alone, and even more so over the span of 50 or 60 years. To this writer, these are indisputable facts and it is not as if we have to search long and hard for the evidence. Old fight films have been digitally remastered and online record databases are huge and plentiful. Compare the golden age to the glitter age and the gulf in class and quality is alarming.

Keeping the faith in what we have today becomes ever tougher when so many of boxing’s wounds are cynically and greedily self-inflicted. Now, we know that this has always been the case because of boxing’s uniquely roguish nature, but the escalation of blatant corruption and self-aggrandisement has been exceptional over the last few decades. As my fellow writer and friend Ted Sares reminded me the other day, “The sleazy underbelly of boxing is beyond logical thought.”

That sleazy underbelly has gobbled up quality and compacted it down into entertaining pulp, a trend that took root many years ago. In 1971, Mike Silver believed that Ken Buchanan and Ismael Laguna were a couple of hot lightweights. And indeed they were. But even the boxers of Ken and Ismael’s generation had already slipped a notch or two down quality street. The great trainers and the great ring competition had already been fading away for some time.

Here is how Mike explained it to me: “I think back to moments I realized myself that I had a lot to learn. I remember watching Ismael Laguna in the Garden beating someone on the way to the title. I was sitting next to my old-school trainer Willie Grunes and said something like ‘Wow, this guy is really good. Is he like Kid Chocolate?’ Willie’s response: ‘Nah, he’s not’, he said as he shook his head. And then, ‘My fighter Maxie Shapiro would have beaten Laguna easy. He would have beaten him with a left jab.’ 

“I could not fully understand that until a few years later I saw Carlos Ortiz completely handle Laguna in their third fight. His dominant punch? A left jab. I remember someone saying to Ray Arcel that Ken Buchanan (after an impressive victory over Donato Paduano) must have reminded Ray of Benny Valgar. Ray reacted like he’d tasted something rotten. In effect he said, ‘What, are you joking? There is no comparison. Valgar was a master boxer’. Boy did I realize I knew so little.”

It has often been said that Charley Burley could feint his opponent into fits with his eyes alone. Archie Moore, who was decked and outpointed by Burley at Legion Stadium in Hollywood in 1944, said of Charley: “That night in Hollywood Burley did things I’ve never seen anybody else do. He got away with things that would have got another fighter killed. He kept his hands low and could feint you with his head, his hands, his shoulders, his knees. But the thing that sticks in my mind the most about Burley is the way he defied gravity. He could lean way back on his heels, it just made you miss. You’d figure this man’s way off balance, he can’t break an egg from that position. Then you’d get the surprise. Burley could knock you dead from that position, and he could do it with either hand. I’ve been beaten in other fights—you look at my record, I’ve been in with a couple of hundred pros—I was bound to drop a few. But I never lost like I lost to Burley.”

Moore, of course, was a wonder in his own right, who was constantly held back by the politics of his age yet continued to hammer away at the door by defeating an extraordinary number of top quality fighters over the span of 36 years.

Tommy Loughran, the great light heavyweight champion from Philadelphia, was another scientist of the roped square who improved his already formidable talent by constant competition and rigorous self-analysis.

Unlike many fighters of today, who only seem to read half the instruction book before dangling their arms by their waists and getting smashed on the chin (a habit that Carl Froch has yet to kick), Loughran held his hands low because he first learned how to avoid being hit. He drilled himself tirelessly in his quest to become as perfect a boxer as he could ever be. He berated himself for his mistakes and practised even harder. You can see it in his great balance and skilful movement and the way in which he could move forwards, backwards, sideways or suddenly go on the offensive with equal ease and grace.

What made Loughran a boxing master was his ability to solve different problems with different solutions and revise his game plan accordingly. He was a master at slipping, feinting and tying up opponents. Jim Braddock, in his pre-Cinderella days as a light heavyweight sensation, got the boxing lesson of his life when he challenged Loughran.

Historian Mike Hunnicutt says of Tommy: “He was a phenomenon, who remained so due to his utter obsession to his craft. He truly did train as much as any fighter in history, with wall-to-wall mirrors to study himself, various diagrams for footwork, and analysing every single move and punch in constant preparation for his opponents and their styles, strengths and weaknesses. His trainer Joe Smith would throw fast punches at Tommy’s face, while Loughran stood near a wall, to master slipping and rolling.”

Dominance

In The Arc of Boxing, Mike Silver discusses ‘the dominance factor’ and why it was so much harder for the boxers of the golden age to reign interminably over their respective divisions. Very simply, there were too many other stellar men to keep beating off, even for the lofty likes of Mickey Walker, Henry Armstrong, Lou Ambers and Tony Zale.

Walker was considered to be past his best by the writers of the day before he even graduated to the middleweights, where he is best remembered. Zale had already fought a plethora of good men and rusted in the army before he won the middleweight title. Armstrong beat off a long list of challengers for his welterweight crown, yet all within the staggering space of two years before Fritzie Zivic bumped Hank off the throne. Ambers, a wonderfully talented boxer, just happened to share the same pocket of time as Armstrong and countless other superb lightweights of the day such as the remarkable Tony Canzoneri.

Look at some of the golden age fighters who occupied the middleweight ranks at one time or another and the sheer breadth of quality makes the head swim. They included Harry Greb, Mickey Walker Tiger Flowers, Ace Hudkins, Mike Gibbons, Jake LaMotta, Charley Burley, Archie Moore, Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Ezzard Charles, Jose Basora, Cocoa Kid, Marcel Cerdan, Bert Lytell, Tony Zale, Rocky Graziano, Al Hostak, the gifted Eddie Booker, Freddie Steele, Fred Apostoli, Teddy Yarosz, Georgie Abrams, Ken Overlin, Alabama Kid, Nate Bolden, Billy Soose, Steve Belloise, Jack Chase, Allen Matthews, Solly Krieger, Ceferino Garcia, Kid Tunero, Coley Welch, Jock McAvoy, Dick Tiger, Gene Fullmer, Joey Giardello, Del Flanagan, etc.

Look up the record of the brilliant Teddy Yarosz when you get a minute. If you know your stuff, you’ll be amazed. Not lightly do I believe that Yarosz would have beaten Bernard Hopkins and quite comfortably so; yet Teddy couldn’t win official recognition as the middleweight champion because he was too crowded out by other talent. Ray Robinson, the talent to end all talents in the opinion of most, once said that the task of merely hitting the clever and shifty Georgie Abrams was confoundingly difficult. Artie Towne, one of Ray’s sparring partners, could himself strike terror into most of his contemporaries. A would-be title challenger had to get past a host of other formidable boxers before even registering on the radar of Robinson. Robbie had earned the right to feel superior. By the time of his coronation as middleweight champion, he had lost just once in nearly 130 bouts against the finest men of his or any generation.

All that competition has now gone away and the required degree of dedication has inevitably dipped. With the dilution of quality comes the dilution of desire and hunger and the required urgency to push on. With all the baubles that are up for grabs now, most fighters of a decent standard can afford to cruise it or engage in the popular fad of “falling out of love with boxing.” A great many of today’s boxers have one, two or three-year gaps in their records. Where do they go to during that time? What do they do? We never seem to quite find out. Then they are suddenly straight back in the door and involved in a “title” fight of some sort.

Trainers

Some time ago, that wise and perceptive trainer Kenny Weldon quite rightly lamented the increasing invasion of the sport by self-styled managers and trainers. We see them all the time in the heat of battle as they flap and yell and contribute little in the way of sound and practical advice. A fighter’s corner should be a place of calm and reason, especially in a crisis. How many times now do we see three guys shouting different instructions at a troubled fighter in a scene of utter chaos? When Kevin Rooney was working the young Mike Tyson’s corner, the sense of serenity was almost palpable. Jack Blackburn, Eddie Futch, Yancy Durham and Gil Clancy were great and knowledgeable trainers who knew exactly how to motivate their fighters and moderate the corner.

When George Foreman deprived Joe Frazier of his title in Kingston, Big George’s corner was a sanctuary in all the bedlam. Small wonder, since it was inhabited by Dick Sadler, Archie Moore and Sandy Saddler. Prior to the fateful second round, Foreman rose from his stool with one quiet and simple instruction in his ear: “Drop that hammer on him, George.”

It is so important that the good men of today like Freddie Roach and Teddy Atlas continue to prevail and pass on their knowledge to their successors, for men of their quality are now few and far between.

Many of the great secrets of how to box properly and effectively have already faded away into the mists of the past. The trainers of yore, many of them ex-fighters, were pricelessly knowledgeable. Late in their careers, they were still showing their successors how to do it. Did their successors not listen?

In the early ‘60s, George Chuvalo was a bruising heavyweight short on technique but big on heart and determination. After plodding along for some years, George broke into the rankings with a huge upset victory over Doug Jones. Chuvalo had Charley Goldman to thank for that. The old maestro, who had taken Rocky Marciano from rough diamond status to the heavyweight crown, had noticed that Chuvalo was punching too wide and losing power. We see this error all the time now.

Charley, who fought well over 100 times himself, showed George how much power he could generate by holding his arms close to his body so that his weight went into the punch. Not quantum physics by any means, but stunningly effective. These are the old tricks that seem lost on so many of today’s cornermen.

It is always hard to curb our enthusiasm and look at things in a cold light, especially when we want to be cheered and thrilled. But look at a great many of today’s fighters and you will see (hopefully) how the once vast chasm between amateur and professional has contracted. Too many never truly stop being amateurs, but they can get away with it because it’s OK to be an OK fighter in 2011.

One can now make a decent living at the sport without mastering the once essential arts of slipping, blocking, feinting and rolling with punches. I see countless fighters whose judgement of distance is woeful. I see many others who seem utterly oblivious of the destructive power of a correctly thrown jab. Joe Louis and Sonny Liston could knock men’s teeth out with that punch alone—and did.

Just recently, I was watching a documentary about the great post-war crooners. A talent agent who was interviewed clearly looked fearful at being perceived as a relic who couldn’t drag himself up to date. He was asked what made men like Sinatra and Nat King Cole so exceptional: “I’m sorry, but there’s no other way of saying it. You had to have real talent back then. You had to work your socks off and learn your trade inside out. The public was much more fickle. They expected a singer to be able to sing.”

Crowds

Boxing crowds of that era were more fickle and more knowledgeable too. They expected their boxers to be able to box. Audienes appreciated deft skills as much as explosive power. Vast crowds at Yankee Stadium and Chicago Stadium would sit in virtual silence until the contestants showed them something special. Applause would break out to acknowledge a clever move. A roar like thunder would accompany a knockdown blow or a duel of both grit and cleverness. When Harry Greb locked horns with Mickey Walker in the old fun city, the roars of the crowd were heard as far out as Coogan’s Bluff. But boxers had to earn those roars and cheers. Mediocrity just didn’t cut it.

Now we have the tiresome “warrior” mentality where every contest has to be a war. Boxers get booed by the Vegas set if they are not doing their best to knock each other’s brains out. Whatever would these crowds make of a maestro like Harold Johnson?

Let us pluck one name from our P4P list, a boxer I very much like to watch in Sergio Gabriel Martinez. Nothing amateur about the way in which Sergio goes about his business. He is very pleasing on the eye and has learned his trade as best he can. But we don’t have to venture back too far before his star begins to fade when compared to his predecessors.

Could he have beaten Hagler, Monzon, Griffith or a veritable box of tricks like Joey Giardello? Could Sergio have even beaten the so-so middleweight version of Roberto Duran? I wouldn’t even feel too confident in placing my money on Martinez to best Rubin Carter or the artful Joey Archer. And Martinez is one of the best we have right now!

As the old saying goes, “You gotta dance with who ya brung,” which is why we can’t berate the fighters themselves for the mess we are in. What we can and must do is face the hard fact that the quicksand is very nearly up to our necks. We can’t keep pouring more glitter on a cheap bangle and telling our dear old girl that she’s wearing real gold.

“The latest is the greatest” cry the defiant of today as they eschew history and reset the clock to zero. Sorry, but it just plain isn’t.

Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

Mike Casey (c)

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  1. nicolas 06:06pm, 07/23/2014

    I perhaps never read boxing.com back in 2011, I don’t know. However, this is a very interesting article, and makes some very valid points. I however would disagree somewhat with the heavyweight situation, I couldn’t see any heavyweight before the 1950’s beating the Klitschko’s except for perhaps Louis and Johnson. the size I think would just be too big a factor. However, on the other sand of the spectrum, the Flyweights are really a sorry group I think today. I myself think that perhaps the greatest era was really the 1960’s. But today, with the two classes below flyweight, and with only a little over a thousand occupying those weight classes, and once again the multiple classes, I just can’t see any of these men today to be considered as the greatest. I think I would even suggest that the greatest straw weight fighter, and greatest light flyweight were men who never held those title, but fought at those weights, and that being Jimmy Wilde and Pascual Perez. Greatest flyweight of all time is very difficult, though I would suggest that the greatest fighter ever to hold that title is Manny Pacquiao. Surprised that Mr. Casey is suggesting that Pacquiao was top 20, but not Andre Ward.

  2. Darrell 04:18am, 05/15/2012

    You make some valid points about the lack of activity & other facets of today’s game but…it is what it is & some of the fighters are still great & I would venture to say would beat many of yesteryear’s greats.

    I couldn’t take the comments of TEX HASSLER seriously though.  Greb would probably be right up there in the middleweight division today, I don’t doubt that but would have more than a fight with Martinez who is seriously underrated & underappreciated.  He wouldn’t survive as a heavy…silly comment really.

  3. Darrell 04:09am, 05/15/2012

    Rather overblown I believe.  Only Manny today would make an all time top 20 weight class P4P list?

    There are several who would get a look in, the obvious exception being the incomparable Floyd Mayweather Jr for starters.  I believe Sergio Martinez, Shane Mosley (as a welter) & both Klitschko brothers, Vitali especially would walk into any of their respective lists.  Others would be borderline as well.

    Let’s not get too misty eyed & romantic about the “good old days.” On old time footage I’ve seen from before the 60’s only Ray Robinson especially, Louis, Marciano & Archie Moore were superior beings.  Today’s best can live with yesteryear’s, of that I have no doubt.

  4. tuxtucis 05:09am, 12/17/2011

    Mike Casey: With the notable exception of Manny Pacquiao, I can’t give any man on that list an all-time Top 20 spot in his respective weight division
    Really i don t think Pacquiao is one of 20 best welterweights of all-time
    Opposite I think Wonjongkam is one of top 20 all-time flyweights and maybe Donaire a top-20 bantam…

  5. Mark A. Jones 11:30pm, 12/12/2011

    Thanks for this great article. In many ways, boxing has regressed.

  6. Cady 05:32am, 10/09/2011

    You couldn’t pay me to ignore these posts!

  7. TEX HASSLER 10:07am, 10/08/2011

    Mike Casey mentioned Mike Silver’s excellent book, “TheArc of Boxing.” I have read it a number of times and it is the best boxing book in at least the last 50 years. If you do not have it and you are a real boxing fan go out and get it. You can find in on the internet by punching in “The Arc Of Boxing” by Mike Silver. I personally treasure this book on boxng more than any other boxing book I have read going back over 50 years. It must be one of the greatest boxing books ever written.

  8. TEX HASSLER 10:19am, 10/05/2011

    I agree with Mike Casey and Mike Silver. I have studied boxing for over 50 years and the sport is not the same as it was 50 years ago. Harry Greb would easily beat all middleweights, all light heavy weights, and most all heavyweights today and might have beaten the Klitschko brothers as his defense would be something they have never encountered. His speed is something not to be seen today.

  9. mikecasey 09:42am, 09/21/2011

    You rascal, you!

  10. The Thresher 09:34am, 09/21/2011

    I’ll be stealing quite a bit of this, lad.

  11. mikecasey 04:26am, 09/21/2011

    True, alas!

  12. "Old Yank" Schneider 04:11am, 09/21/2011

    Mike—In a world of instant gratification it is not possible for talent to be developed today like it was in the golden age.

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