“This is a money opportunity sport.” — (Marvelous Marvin Hagler 1984)
I was going to head up this post with a quote from a certain Walter Sobchak; however, after thinking it through, I’ll keep it on ice (it’ll come in handy at the tail end of things). The one I’ve ran with rather handily fell from the lips of a man who symbolises everything the sport seems to be drifting away from.
The Brockton port-sider sat atop his middleweight throne for seven winters, turning back twelve different men who tried to rob him of his identity. As his two main rivals laid down the building blocks for the way in which elite fighters would operate in the modern world, he elected to look back instead of forward, choosing tradition and history over the multi-weight smoke and mirrors routine.
Whilst Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns pursued title belts in multiple divisions, Hagler didn’t flinch. Born a middleweight, he stayed a middleweight. If only elite fighters today found it so easy to follow his example.
After despatching Juan Diaz last week, lightweight king Juan Manuel Marquez spoke of fighting a junior welterweight and a welterweight. Should he grab himself the light heavyweight championship by finding a way past Jean Pascal this weekend, Chad Dawson has his eyes on a super middleweight. Welterweight Shane Mosley wants to be a junior middleweight then a middleweight whilst the best fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao, invents a new weight class each time he fights. I could go on.
Boxing today is as incoherent as it’s ever been. Almost every fighter’s achievements come with an asterisk. A virtually impossible task for them to round up all of the alphabet titles for any great length of time in order to proclaim themselves the “undisputed champ” at one particular poundage, they are left to chase the ace, hunting for a face to make money with north or south of them in the seventeen weight divisions currently on offer.
With boxing’s finest being corralled into patrolling any number of pools looking to land a payday, the task of rating a fighter’s accomplishments requires patience and diligence. In the case of the aforementioned Hagler, one could use the length and quality of his title reign as a jump off point and a measuring stick to compare him to his predecessors Ketchel, Greb, Robinson and Monzon. Things get a whole lot more difficult when you try to gauge a Paul Williams or a Manny Pacquiao, whose work spans umpteen classifications.
Imagine if Hagler had plied his trade in today’s climate. Might his middleweight reign have been prematurely curtailed as he found himself railroaded into a fight with light heavyweight boss Mike Spinks? What if Carlos Monzon had been pushed toward Bob Foster or Victor Galindez? Two of the greatest title reigns of all time may have been lost to history.
As Bernard Hopkins makes eyes at David Haye and “The Pacman” prepares to do battle with a man who once toiled nine divisions apart from him, is there a way out of this mess for men who are built for one weight and one weight only? One solution would be for television to get behind Ring Magazine’s stuttering championship policy. If HBO can decide to dispense with the heavyweight champ altogether, one would assume they’d have the stones to stick it to the alphabet squads. Prioritising their spending on Ring championship fights would be a sure fire way to fill up the current vacancies (there are at time of writing a paltry five from seventeen champions in situ) and would once again allow fighters to forge careers at masses which optimised their talent.
I feel real empathy for the dudes who have been lured away from their fighting weight (remember that term?) into dangerous bouts where no amount of skill can save them from a gap in weight which proves too far to bridge. It sucks to see a Mayweather slap a Marquez around like a journeyman pug. It’s hard to swallow when a Marco Antonio Barrera has his head opened by an Amir Khan. Yet, when opportunity knocks, how can they turn down the bounties on offer to them, ones they so richly deserve after a career spent swapping punches? When size becomes the overriding factor in boxing matches, though, the sport loses much of its lustre.
There are reasons standardized weight classes were brought into play, rationale why we pit men of the same dimensions agin one another. Fairness and safety is the primary aim of course but, there’s also a wonderful by-product from making matches in this manner. It’s how the very best battles come into being. In a cross or catch weight contest, when both men’s skill level, fitness and motivation are equal usually the naturally heavier man will prevail. When both combatants are equally matched physically, on the other hand, it goes a touch deeper and character becomes the river card, a deciding factor which can elevate a fight into a happening far weightier (excuse the pun) than that of a mere sporting contest.
Until fighters are rewarded for ruling a division more readily than they are for finding another accommodating weight sojourner to tango with, boxing will continue to confuse. It’s clarity which will bring the fans back. It’s certainty that they’re looking to hang their hats on. It’s the reason folk are comfortable with the rise of the tournament format featured in Showtime’s Super Six Classic along with Prizefighter events in the UK, competitions with clearly defined rules and regulations, beginnings and ends.
I’m arguing for a move away from the practise of pairing up “faces” regardless of their size, a pay-per-view ruse which may lure punters in over the short term, yet does nothing to enhance the long term prospects of the sport. Without a clear framework promoters can continue to sell us pups. They can carry on flogging us dodgy products which tantalise and tease, only to smack us in the kisser with disappointment when we unzip the wrapping.
Let’s embrace tradition and ensure that weight classes don’t go the same sorry way title belts did; how else will we define our champions? What use is a Hopkins-Winky Wright or a Roy Jones-Felix Trinidad, in all seriousness, and why the hell should fighters tread an even more dangerous line than they already brave just to get paid? Boxing needs lightweights fighting lightweights and light heavyweights fighting light heavyweights.
Back to ol’ Walter:
“Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?”
Read more from Andrew Harrison at Safe Side of the Ropes.