Boxing’s Greatest Underachievers

(September 8, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Andre Ward [red gloves] fights Chad Dawson [blue gloves] during the super middleweight championship at ORACLE Arena. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Underachievement is an emotive word in boxing, perhaps more so than in any other sport. After all, how exactly do you tell a guy he hasn’t tried hard enough when he’s just spent 48 minutes trapped in the ring opposite someone schooled since childhood in the art of punching others in the face? It is a pastime that, on many occasions, demands more of from its participants than is either reasonable, realistic, or even within the realms of possibility. There is, for example, no other sport where an athlete would be expected to soldier on with a broken hand or shattered jaw, let alone criticised for failing to do so.

Accordingly, things quite often boil down to a battle of wills when inside the ropes, with two opposing warriors almost transported outside their bodies, so entirely submerged in pain are they, and onto another plain entirely. It’s a brutal, lonely occupation — despite the modern fighters proclivity for bombast and an entourage the size of a private army — one with no room for ducking behind teammates or shirking responsibility. There’s nowhere to hide in the ring, so the tired cliche goes, but there’s really no finer way of putting it.

I suppose throughout history it has always boiled down to the fact that the whole spectacle is underpinned by a subconscious demand. A demand buried deep inside the audience. One that many don’t like to acknowledge, yet one that states its truth unequivocally. When we frequently trumpet the fighters who show no quit in the ring, who never give up and instinctively seek to fire back when hurt, all we are really doing is putting an acceptable face on the eternal unwritten demand posited by all spectators whenever two athletes do battle. The dictum is as old as the game itself — the one which states that, should it come to it, each and every boxer must be willing to die in the ring.

Now, some subsections of the boxing public are more vocal about this than others. In parts of Latin America, for example, willingness to sacrifice oneself is a trait lionised to the extent that those in which it is found to be lacking become pariahs virtually overnight. Think Roberto Duran after his infamous “no mas” outburst, or more recently the way Miguel Cotto has been demonised within certain circles for explicitly stating that he is not willing to risk his health for the sport. I believe in Britain we approach this troublesome point it in a quintessentially English way, with spectators paying lip service to the notion of protecting the fighters and avoiding any unnecessary barbarity, while simultaneously peeping through their fingers and relishing every second.

With that bloodthirsty caveat in mind, perceived underachievement in boxing can take many forms — from extracurricular activities leaving fighters distracted and lacking dedication, to promotional disputes and financial difficulties derailing career-making fights from ever getting made. Eventually, history has a way of tarring those who could have achieved more in their careers with the same brush, whether or not it was in or out of their hands.  Accordingly, I’ve selected five fighters below who, for reasons almost completely distinct from one another, never quite hit the heights they should have. Two of them fight this weekend. The last one no longer fights at all.

Yuriorkis Gamboa

Gamboa is a fighter blessed with almost supernatural athletic ability. Aggressive, quick, and vulnerable to a well-timed counter-shot, the phenomenally exciting Cuban gold medalist and former amateur star possesses arguably the fastest hands in the sport, and had previously racked up a string of impressive victories in the featherweight division when he signed to fight Brandon Rios at lightweight in April, 2012. However, due to a contractual dispute with Top Rank that would ultimately keep him out of the sport for 15 months, The Cyclone of Guantanamo now finds himself having fought just once since September of 2011.

Now 31, he finds himself still undefeated, but in desperate need to make up for lost time. Having signed with 50 Cent’s still-wet-behind-the-ears SMS Promotions, Gamboa fights for the first time in 2013 this weekend, against unheralded lightweight Darley Perez in Montreal. Should he win as expected, he will find himself again looking to move up through the divisions in search of bigger names and bigger paydays. However, at just 5’5″, it’s unlikely he will be able to pack on much more muscle before his short limbs become a problem and he loses the speed that made him so effective in his prime.

Zab Judah

Super Zab’s arguably the best example of unfulfilled potential this generation’s seen. It’s almost hard to believe now, but at one time early in his career he was thought to have it all. Power, dexterity, defensive skills, speed — he exhibited them all in abundance, and seemed well on the way to an all-time great career when he picked up his first world title at the age of 23. Then came Kostya Tszyu and the infamous chicken dance, on a night where Judah lost his undefeated record and no small amount of his dignity.

What followed was increasingly erratic behaviour by Judah and his team over the next several years, coinciding with an indifferent spell in the ring during which he developed a reputation for being a speedster who could be got at, a skilled opponent who would ultimately have his heart broken more often than not. A lacklustre performance against Carlos Baldomir, followed by quitting, or at the very least “creatively opting out” of bouts with Joshua Clottey and Amir Khan, cemented his reputation as someone who simply didn’t have the stomach for fighting.

Yet something’s evidently changed in Zab lately, and perhaps his semi-evangelistic spiel about finding God and seeing the error of his prior, sinful ways has some truth to it. When he fought Danny Garcia last month, a hard punching junior welterweight titleholder 11 years his junior, Zab didn’t wilt. He didn’t capitulate, despite taking several hard shots and being dropped at one stage, before dominating the closing stages of the fight and almost getting Garcia out of there. It was a performance that went a long way to salvaging Judah’s reputation, but regrets will always remain. On talent alone, he should have cemented his place in the Hall of Fame long ago.

Chad Dawson

Dawson’s a funny one. Just ask the Mayweather family, whose patriarch has offered up rather colourful assessments of his character in the past. To put it bluntly, throughout his career Bad Chad’s been dogged by suggestions that something’s lacking inside his head. Despite being the light heavyweight champion of the world, and clearly the standout fighter of the division, he’s never truly convinced the boxing public that he’s committed to giving it everything between the ropes. It would be unfair to label his resume unimpressive, considering he’s briefly flirted with the pound-for-pound rankings and possesses a natural athleticism few others can match. However, he’s tended to coast more often than not, sleepwalking to victories in fights with Glen Johnson and Antonio Tarver, and really only appeared fired up on two occasions: against Bernard Hopkins, who he has an intense personal dislike for; and in the contest with Jean Pascal after it became clear that their bout, in which Dawson was considerably behind, would shortly be stopped due to a cut.

The uncertainty surrounding him came to a head against Andre Ward in September of last year. Bad Chad Dawson gave way to Awful Chad Dawson as he was dropped three times en route to expressing his desire for the fight to end in the 10th, prompting the referee to wave off the contest. Dawson appeared visibly drained after dropping down to make the super middleweight limit of 168, and tales emerged of his having been knocked down in sparring by Edison Miranda during the weeks prior to the contest, as well as a frosting over of his relationship with his team.

Since the Ward fight Dawson has ditched his trainer for the 10th time in 11 years, replacing John Scully with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, and has made numerous references to starting over. Only time will tell if he is sincere and can shake his reputation as a prima donna around camp. He’s a man blessed with every athletic talent going, but sadly he appears to be missing the mental strength required at the highest level, as well as the humility that feeds the burning desire inside all great fighters.

Adrien Broner

This is a controversial choice, I know, given that he’s only 23 and already a title winner in multiple weight classes.  But the fact is Broner is already echoing certain aspects of the guys listed above and demonstrating signs of ultimately falling short of the considerable potential he has. If he wants to be as great as his idol Floyd Mayweather, who is himself an underachiever in more subtle, opaque ways, then The Problem’s going to need to curb his bad habits and dig a little deeper in terms of his commitment to the sport.

Despite a hugely impressive win over Antonio DeMarco late last year, the fact is Broner skipped the 140 pound weight class went moving up and took the soft option in going straight for Paulie Malignaggi, a light punching welterweight in the twilight of his career. If he spends his peak years milling about in a division in which the star name is his best friend and the other top guys are promotionally forbidden from facing him, he will have wasted his talents. Presuming he is never given the chance, nor possesses the inclination, to take on Mayweather himself, chances are Broner will never be thought of as the top dog at 147. The challenges are in the division below, and if he could retrace his steps a little, before carving a path through the likes of Lucas Matthysse, Garcia, Mike Alvarado and Brandon Rios then he’d be well on the way to going down in history.

Nocturnal proclivities aside, I don’t have a problem with Broner. I dislike the way he so closely mimics Mayweather’s money-infused mannerisms, but I am content to ignore the videos in which he scatters $50 bills over a toilet bowl provided he performs in the ring. Ultimately the choice is his. Just as was the case with big brother Floyd, Broner is good enough to dictate the direction he goes in. Ultimately, I suspect he would be happy with the perfect record and enviable bank balance The Pretty Boy has built up, but that would still leave his position on this list open for debate. After all, even Mayweather, the pound-for-pound king and pay-per-view lord of the sport, has, somewhat strangely and entirely on his own terms, underachieved when you think on what could have been.

Prince Naseem Hamed (The Selection Among The Retired)

While it may seem odd to call a guy an underachiever when he won the lineal featherweight title and only suffered one loss in his professional career, a certain dissatisfaction has lingered since Naz packed it all in over a decade ago. Although his career was infinitely greater than most ever dream of, and he provided the British fans with many nights still vivid in the memory, the consensus remains that he could have gone even further had his dedication to the sport matched his natural athleticism and the power contained in his devastating left hand.

In truth, the rot had already begun when he stepped into the ring for his toughest challenge, against a murderous version of Marco Antonio Barrera in 2001. Hamed openly admitted he no longer enjoyed training, or working on strategy with his trainer Emmanuel Steward in the build-up to the fight. He missed his young family whilst away and fooled himself into thinking he could rely on one big shot, rather than devising a specific game-plan for his opponent. He fell in love with his own power, as the lyrical saying goes.

Years after the defeat, Steward talked candidly in a radio interview about Hamed’s preparation for the Barrera fight. He recalled sending him numerous tapes of Barrera’s recent fights, only to find them unopened when he visited Naz’s home. He was adamant that, with the proper preparation, his fighter could have beaten Barrera that night. And while I don’t think that’s an entirely convincing statement, one can’t help but wonder what might have been if the Prince had not fallen out of love with the sport so early.