A Defense Of Overhyped, Undeservedly Favored Boxers

When I was in high school, I’d long been a fan of what was then called “alternative rock.” I’d liked it because I was an outsider, alienated from the popular kids, and much of that music was made by outsiders who were odd in some way. I hated, in turn, all the things that the popular kids liked, as a matter of principle. So I found myself in a peculiar position when Nirvana crossed over and suddenly the most popular music was the music I had liked as an outsider. I struggled with this dilemma for years. For a while, I retreated further into the alternative rock fringes, but eventually most of those acts got discovered and became popular, too. For a while, I held it against the bands themselves: How could they sell me out like that by becoming popular, thereby making themselves no longer the outsider music I loved?

But, eventually, I figured it out: I would like what I liked, everyone else’s opinion be damned. What was “good” had nothing to do with how many people liked it, or didn’t.

That long anecdote is about something related to boxing, or I wouldn’t be sharing it. There are a number of boxing fans who automatically dislike a fighter the moment he becomes an “establishment” fighter, or a “hyped” fighter — usually, when he starts to get a ton of love from HBO, or when his promoter talks about him being one of the best in the world before he actually is, that kind of thing. And I won’t pretend I can disabuse someone of disliking a boxer for whatever reason they dislike him: Things such as “like” and “dislike” are often arbitrary and emotional, and while they might be founded on irrational notions, at a certain point someone’s feelings are what they are and you can’t argue them out of it.

Ah, but it’s a different thing to argue about whether the person they dislike is “good” or not. And, amongst the set of people who dislike a fighter because he’s overly beloved by HBO or whatever, many or even most of them also happen to think that the fighter is actively bad. That, I can argue with.

If this seems too obviously true — the notion that there is no connection between the quality of something and who likes it — then this blog entry isn’t for you. But I’m not sure you’re the majority. And it almost goes without saying that there’s no objective way to determine a fighter’s quality — it’s all subjective and only roughly measurable, same as music. (Time permitting, that will be the subject of another counter-counterintuitive rant in favor of the “establishment.”)

First, I’ll examine the conditions as I see them before making my case.

I have to say that I retain a fair amount of my empathetic allegiance to outsiders, something that extends to boxing as well as music. Hell, it’s almost un-American not to root for the outsiders. It’s a land of individuals, which makes everyone a kind of outsider, at least in theory, at least in the Platonic ideal of America that most hold. I love it when a boxing underdog pulls off an upset, even if it’s against a boxer of whom I’m a huge fan. It’s all very “Rocky” and this stuff all merges — America, boxing, outsiders.

As boxing has become a niche sport for the most part, I suspect it’s acquired the fan affection of more than a few outsiders, which exacerbates this phenomenon. I’d hazard a guess right now that Marvin Hagler is the favorite historical boxer of a huge percentage of boxing fans. And there are a ton of reasons to love Hagler: He was in one of the greatest fights ever, he had a unique kind of charisma, he was one of the greatest middleweights of all time, and so on. But I bet you a big part of this appeal is that he always was the outsider, even when he was on top of the world. He worked harder to get to where he was than fighters who were better connected, he got robbed early in his career and depending on who you ask, he got robbed in the final fight (and biggest fight) of his career, against Sugar Ray Leonard, himself the ultimate insider.

That’s all, as they say on Mr. Show, perfectly understandishable. It’s the next leap that is the problem I have.

Take welterweight Andre Berto. Right now, he is a tremendously unpopular fighter with a huge percentage of the boxing world. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which Berto has brought upon himself. But one of the most commonly-cited objections to Berto is that he’s an HBO favorite. You needn’t be in a conversation with someone who hates Berto for very long before he or she brings up this point. In the same breath, those people will say that Berto “sucks” and “hasn’t beaten anybody.”

These two things — HBO’s undue affection, and how good Berto is — aren’t connected in any way.

Ring magazine ranks Berto #3 at welterweight. I think it’s a fair ranking. If you considered Paul Williams a welterweight, maybe you’d move Berto down a spot, but Williams hasn’t fought in the division in forever. Miguel Cotto (#5) and Shane Mosley (#4) both have a longer resume in the division, but at a certain point you do have to knock a fighter for recent losses. Joshua Clottey (#6) hasn’t beaten anybody much better than Berto has — Zab Judah, when Judah was on a losing streak, is as good as it gets — and he too has a recent loss. Berto has beaten Luis Collazo (however narrow or disputed, he still beat him, and Collazo was a top-10 welter at the time), Carlos Quintana (coming off a recent loss of his own, true, but not a bad name), Juan Urango (a 140-pounder, but a good one), and a variety of trial horses and journeymen of decent-to-good repute for the designation (Steve Forbes, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, David Estrada, Cosme Rivera). Is that a pound-for-pound resume, or even THAT good a resume? Absolutely not. But it most definitely is a resume that is at least arguably good enough to put him at #3 for the division. He certainly is no “bum,” and he’s beaten a decent number of respectable fighters, enough to place him fairly high in one of boxing’s best weight classes.

Lest my biases seem to come into play in that assessment, I answer thusly: I am fond of his promoter, Lou DiBella, but right now I think what DiBella’s trying to do with Berto — get him fights against 140-pounders and turning down legit welterweights — isn’t terribly courageous. I otherwise don’t consider myself a fan or not-fan of Berto. I like his combination of speed and power and I think he’s generally in good fights. But I also think he’s stopped showing improvement, doesn’t fight often enough and probably wouldn’t beat Mosley or Cotto. I  think he’s more on the level of Clottey, Collazo or Kermit Cintron — fighters I think don’t suck, but whose potential I consider similarly limited. I’d probably favor him over those three, but not by much.

At any rate, I think a sober, unbiased assessment of Berto should be in the range of “deserving of his #3 ranking at welter/arguably deserving of his #3 ranking at welter but maybe should be a notch or two lower/doesn’t ‘suck.'” Again, this is completely separate from the question of whether HBO loves him too much. They do. They have their reasons; if you look at most of the fighters they shower with attention regardless of how much they sell tickets, most of them are young Americans with some measure of talent and promise. Berto falls into that category. That doesn’t mean they should be paying out the wazoo for his fights the way they do.

Let’s take another example: Williams. His promoter has been hyping him for a couple years as the “most avoided fighter in boxing.” And for a while, it was kind of true — none of the big names at 147 would mention him, despite his credentials, including a win over Antonio Margarito. To a certain extent, it’s still kind of true: Williams is more deserving, from a qualifications standpoint, of a fight with Manny Pacquiao than Margs is, but it’s Margs getting the shot. But since Williams has shown some vulnerability, and since he’s got connections to Al Haymon (who has connections to HBO and therefore its money), he now offers a better risk/reward ratio, and plenty of people have been saying they want to fight him of late. Lately, with fans wanting a Sergio Martinez rematch, and Williams’ team seemingly resisting, it was looking like Williams who was doing the avoiding, not vice versa. So while I while I think it depends on your definition of “overhyped,” there’s a case there. And that has made some people hard on Williams.

But it’s not Williams’ fault how he’s promoted, and even if it is to some small extent, it’s certainly unconnected to how good a fighter he is. You can point to his close, disputed win over Martinez in the first bout as evidence that he isn’t good, or you could point to his struggles as evidence that Martinez himself is a bad ass. You can rightly say that he maybe shouldn’t have struggled with Cintron the way he did, and that’s fair — or you could say he had an off night, or was rusty, or Cintron was better than ever, or it was a difficult style match-up, or whatever you want. But I don’t think anyone who maintains a pound-for-pound top-10 list should have him on the outside of said list, or doubt that he’s arguably deserving of being ranked #3 overall. In this case, my bias is rather pronounced: Williams is my favorite fighter. But consider whether the man who would write an epically lengthy post about separating one’s personal feelings toward a fighter from an estimation of him — that is, me — is likely to have gone to similarly great lengths challenging whether that bias influenced his estimation of the overall quality of his favorite fighter.

What’s funny is how quickly in boxing a fighter can go from “underrated outsider” to “overhyped fraud” in the estimation of many. Williams is one such case. A more recent example is junior welterweight Devon Alexander. For a while, he couldn’t get a big fight (he wanted Timothy Bradley when he was Bradley’s mandatory title challenger, but Bradley dropped the belt), and Don King was sitting on him, and numerous members of the media said bad things about that. When he got a chance at fighting a few top-5 junior welters, he beat them both, and with relative ease, and earned the #2 spot at 140 pounds, and he started to get a ton of attention. The New York Times gave him front-page treatment. Then, when he struggled against Andriy Kotelnik, a ton of people claimed that was proof that Alexander never was very good all along. I don’t remember much of anyone disputing the notion that Amir Khan, Victor Ortiz and Daniel Jacobs were the Prospects of the Year over the last three years, but it didn’t take long after a loss from each to declare that they were overrated and sucked.

This doesn’t happen as often for fighters who have proven themselves over a greater span of time than Berto, Williams or Alexander. You’ll hear people say bad things about veteran Bernard Hopkins for any number of reasons today, but you’ll rarely hear someone say he’s overrated and secretly sucks. That makes sense. Hopkins’ career, like that of all veterans, has had its ups and downs, but at a certain juncture his year-to-year consistency earns him a shield against that kind of criticism. There are exceptions. I’m not sure what the rhyme or reason is. Ricky Hatton had his share of overrated/sucks detractors. Top Rank-promoted fighters don’t tend to run into this as much, so far as I can ascertain, although I’m not sure why. And I guess it happens to every fighter to some small degree — you’ll find people who somehow think Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather suck, when they are clearly the two best fighters, by a wide margin, in the sport.

There’s probably a corollary in real life here that explains some of this. I don’t want to say it’s “tall poppy syndrome,” because it isn’t exactly that. It’s more like when, in your day job, you see someone who quietly and effectively goes about his or her business being passed over for a promotion by someone who simply has better connections. What you tend to notice is that the person who got the promotion didn’t deserve it over the other person. Sometimes he or she does. Sometimes he or she doesn’t. But it makes it hard to objectively assess, because all you see is how it happened.

At any rate, that’s life. It’s an ugly and unpleasant aspect of life, sure, one that I suspect has bitten me personally at times, but it’s the way the system works. I’m not suggesting anyone accept it. In the boxing world, I try to avenge it as much as I can — on this blog I routinely highlight the fighters I think have been neglected or not given enough attention by the powers-that-be. And you should do the same with whatever megaphone you have. Sometimes, the powers-that-be are listening. But in the meantime, ask yourself next time you go to diss some overhyped, undeservedly favored boxer whether you’re only dissing him because of what his promoter said about him or because HBO put him on the air. You might be surprised to discover that your assessment is tainted by what a rebel you are, rebel.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.