Boxing’s Best Smirks

I can’t say I really enjoyed HBO’s latest edition of World Championship Boxing. Carlos Molina’s style, while clinically effective, essentially threw a wet blanket on James Kirkland and any hope of an action-packed fight. Referee John Schorle’s indecisive, confusing and ultimately treacherous disqualification ruling was more of the same boxing nonsense that always seems to benefit the house fighter, in this case Kirkland, one of Golden Boy Promotion’s rising stars in the junior middleweight division. The latest testament to judge Gale Van Hoy’s awfulness, a downright impossible scorecard that showed Kirkland ahead after nine rounds, merely added insult to injury. And while I respect Danny Garcia and his hard-fought win over Erik Morales, there was a note of bitterness watching the old wizard get badly hurt and unable to fight fire with fire, as has been his trademark, in the final two rounds. It’s tough to root for a young, supposedly top 10 contender against a once-great legend fighting past his prime and several classes above his ideal weight. Go Danny, kick his ass! Kick this guy’s ass who’s given us one of the most exciting and memorable careers of the last two decades! No thanks. But lost in all the imbecilic judging and atrocious refereeing was a very brief moment I enjoyed thoroughly: a minute into the ninth round of the main event, when Morales slapped his hands forward like he was playing patty-cake, mocking Garcia’s punches with a condescending smirk.

It got me thinking about some of the masters of denigrating facial expressions and belittling antics. The following gents were all equally adept at throwing snide glances as they were sharp punches:

Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Mayweather’s methodical defensive style often frustrates his opponents. What better way to further damage the psyche of an offensively impotent fighter than flashing a shit-eating grin every time he does manage to land a punch? Mayweather embodies confidence in the ring, perhaps best portrayed in the middle of his fight with Henry Bruseles, when he was more interested in the conversation between Jim Lampley and Roy Jones at ringside and chimed in to offer his Super Bowl picks.

Roberto Duran

A slippery defender as a prodigious lightweight, as Duran got bigger and older, so did his propensity for getting hit. Luckily, his beard was as thick and dense as the Panamanian rainforest. More often than not he marched right into and through the heavy artillery and usually emerged with a derisive, sadistic glance that read “Are you *#&@*#&* kiddin’ me? That’s the best you’ve got?” When Sugar Ray Leonard suffered the first loss of his career to Duran in 1980, he offered a congratulatory embrace and Duran literally shoved him backward five feet, scowling in disgust. He might as well have shouted “Get out of here, loser!! Get the F*** out of my ring!!!”

Sugar Ray Leonard

Despite being bullied around the ring by Duran in their first fight, Leonard’s self-assurance could not have been higher in the rematch as he shuffled, danced, bolo punched, stuck his chin out, and unveiled an entire vaudeville act of mind games. Duran had seen enough midway through the 8th round when he threw up his frustrated hands and said “I’m done playing games with this clown,” later condensed into the more pointed “No mas” for storytelling purposes. Leonard’s famous fights with Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler also featured a lot of showboating. Hearns took it in stride, since he was having a lot of success himself, and even dished some out, at one point imitating Leonard’s famous bolo punch from the Duran fight. Hagler was less amused, reduced to muttering insults while Leonard continuously found unusual ways to entertain his adoring fans in their mythic clash.

Wilfred Benitez

Benitez was the consummate craftsman, almost impossible to hit with a perfect mix of supreme defensive mechanics and lightning quick reflexes. And he sure liked to rub it in his opponent’s face. Every time he dodged a punch or otherwise evaded an attack, Benitez would glare at his man with a beaming smile of utter disdain. He was one of the most confident fighters of his era, constantly straddling the line between “That guy’s awesome” and “That guy’s a dick.”

Pernell Whitaker

Whitaker’s impenetrable defense and dazzling movement befuddled every man to have fought him in his prime. And he was not above hot-dogging to prove a point. Side-stepping juke moves clearly designed to humiliate his pursuer were one common tactic. Facing unknown Diosbelys Hurtado in 1997, Whitaker was dropped just seconds into the fight. He popped up with the look of a man being honored at a roast, howling hysterically in disbelief and embarrassment. Whitaker went on to stop Hurtado in the 11th.

Dwight Qawi

Qawi was as hard-working as they come, woefully short for a light-heavyweight turned cruiserweight at 5’5”. He used his diminutive stature to his advantage, bobbing and weaving, making himself even lower and harder to hit. On top of that, he could take a punch. While his style was classic blue-collar Philadelphia, his attitude was that of a dismissive professor, scoffing and grinning smugly at his opponents’ futile efforts. He was also a master of the “Did you think you could hurt me?” shrug.

Ricardo Mayorga

Mayorga is one of the sport’s all-time great providers of comic relief. Leading into a fight, he crosses every conceivable line of sportsmanship and decency to unsettle his opponent, insulting family members and instigating press conference scuffles being two preferred methods of attack. During a fight, a favorite course is sticking his chin out, intentionally allowing his opponent to punch him, and chiding the guy for not being able to hurt him. He likes to jokingly buckle his legs to mimic a wobbly fighter. The only problem is, he usually ends up getting legitimately wounded and has been stopped in most of his highest profile fights. A classic moment from one of his victories: when Larry Merchant offered up a celebratory cigarette after the post-fight interview and Mayorga began puffing away right there in the ring.

Aaron Pryor

Pryor possessed two key qualities found in most showboaters: He could be speedy and elusive when he needed to and he could take a helluva punch. His entrance to the ring was inimitable — he would immediately begin skipping sideways, circling the ring and covering every square foot, including the ground occupied by his bemused opponent. Prior to his fight with Dujaun Johnson, as the two men awaited their ring introductions, Pryor began shadowboxing and flicked a jab that appeared to touch Johnson’s chin. Johnson, enraged, looked like he was going to charge him, but Pryor just smiled and unleashed another combination, thankfully in the air this time. Johnson decided to get in on the fun and launched a few mock punches himself, but Pryor just dismissively turned his back on the performance. It was the perfect note of cocky one-upmanship. Pryor also heckled and mugged throughout his famous first fight with the stately Alexis Arguello, dishing out a healthy dose of belly laughs and dubious eyebrow raises.

Emanuel Augustus

Augustus is half prizefighter/half performance artist. Mocking an opponent is as much a part of his game as a jab or a left hook. His antics include pounding on his chest, posing for the crowd, exaggerated shuffle steps, and a robotic movement he coined the “drunken puppet.” He stiffens his upper body and arms, moving very deliberately like a puppet on a string. The “drunken” part comes from pretending to be hurt and imitating a punch-drunk stumble. It’s all designed to amuse the crowd and grate on the opponent, which it does very well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always please the judges as Augustus has found himself on the wrong end of a number of close decisions.

Muhammad Ali

Any list of the sport’s great characters would be incomplete without The Greatest. Ali’s pre-fight routine walked a fine line between the hilarious and the offensive. He insulted a guy’s intelligence, fighting ability, looks, courage, anything he could get his hands on to manufacture animosity and build anticipation. In the ring, he was a constant talker. He told his foes exactly how little he thought of them, and sometimes didn’t let up even when the fight was well in hand. He was world-class athlete meets comedian/beat-poet. The confidence and swagger Ali brought into the ring makes a guy like Mayweather seem like your average, down-to-earth, regular Joe.

About Tim Starks

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