A Sentimental Education: The Allure Of The Crossroads

For all their base, animalistic intrigue, professional prizefights are often the antithesis to idealism. Unlike virtually all other athletic endeavours, the grandest stage in boxing is not by default reserved for the best. The finest two entities do not necessarily face one another for the prize of global supremacy. In fact, this happens so rarely it is placed virtually out of mind for most fans, dismissed by nagging rationality as nothing more than a utopian dream, a fleeting mirage amidst a desert of stay-busy sandstorms and endless mandatory dunes. For a sport in which the truth is ultimately unavoidable, a near superhuman level of effort is devoted to its ongoing suspension. Managers work night and day to keep their fighters on the smoothest possible path, while promoters devise entire campaigns centered around fabricating an opponent’s reality to present them as a testing proposition for the A-side.

Too often we make do with the elite fighting the merely good. Or the average, on those rare occasions when they can get away with it and still remain profitable. Even at the times where a clear match-up for divisional supremacy is emergent, such as in the recent case of Sergio Martinez and Gennady Golovkin, or any number of past opponents and Roy Jones, nothing is taken for granted. Gratification is delayed at all times, shrouded in the disbelief of the fans’ until just minutes before the opening bell, when the two fighters become actualised to the point of staring at one another across the ring, and it suddenly emerges that there is no turning back.

As such, in lieu of the best eternally fighting the best, alternate scenarios spring up to provide compelling action for the fans whilst simultaneously failing to rupture boxing’s esoteric bond with veracity. Of these, my personal favourite is what’s known as the “crossroads fight,” in which two competitors perceived as going in drastically different directions meet, with much to gain on either side and potentially ruinous consequences in defeat. Predominantly, this involves a highly regarded young fighter making the step up, usually against an older, former star, who still possesses name value and represents a challenge, but is perceived as having slipped from their once lofty perch. Short of total transparency within singular ratings organisations, robotically impartial judging and unified laws that govern across the entirety of the globe, these are the types of fights that offer perhaps the purest sliver of truth in the sport today.

Recent, spectacular examples have taken place across the full spectrum of boxing’s weight classes. Last year, the much-touted American heavyweight prospect Seth Mitchell was dispatched by the tough but somewhat jaded Chris Arreola in a single round, in a fight that would have seen the Mexican-American former world title challenger fade into obscurity should the result have gone the other way. Similarly, in one of the most absorbing bouts of recent years back in 2012, Vic Darchinyan shut out the hyped featherweight Orlandito Del Valle over ten rounds, proving not only that the Puerto Rican youngster still had a lot to learn, but that Armenia’s own Raging Bull had lost none of the fury that made him so formidable in his prime.

I’m not much of a Darchinyan fan — I find such an ungainly style when paired with a terminator-like persona more than a little irritating — but this is a fight I never tire of sitting through. The truth which unfolded that night was captivating to the point that, during round 5 and in typically excitable fashion, HBO analyst Max Kellerman likened the contest to arguably the greatest crossroads fight of all time, Davey Moore vs Roberto Duran way back in 1983. It seems almost hard to believe now, but coming into that brutal encounter Duran was perceived as being on a rather rapid decline. Fighting well above the weights where he made his name, The Hands of Stone at age 32 was expected to be polished off by the undefeated Moore in some style. Yet what followed was one of the most infamous beatings in the sport’s history.

Channeling the spirit of the Pittsburgh Windmill, Harry Greb, who did much the same en route to handing the great Gene Tunney the only loss of his career in their first meeting, Duran employed every ounce of his cunning and experience to dismantle the younger champion. A whirlwind of thumbs and elbows, the Panamanian devil left the unprepared Moore a half-blind, bloody mess in the space of just the opening few rounds. Eventually stopping his bewildered opponent in the 8th, Duran emerged a fighter reborn, and would go on to compete at world level for the remainder of the decade. Moore, despite being only 25, left the ring entirely broken and would fight just 10 more times (losing four), before dying tragically three years later.

These instances, spanning the course of close to 100 years, are united by the shared realisation of truth at a given moment. Both the fundament and the underlying ideal at the heart of each contest, it is this emergence of sincerity that bestows such an aura upon the crossroads. ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas, so regularly perceived as the butt of the joke, has previous spoken with remarkable intelligence on the subject. Often, Atlas has explained, the more experienced fighter will seek to push their younger opponent early, to analyse the response their pressure elicits and determine whether or not the man facing them is for real. Deep down, they may well accept that the time has come to anoint a successor. They seek simply to ensure the torch is passed to a worthy recipient, to vet the credentials of pretenders and their ability to play the role as they once did. In most cases, having pushed and in turn been shoved back with greater force, the older fighter will accept the underlying truth embodied by their opponent and succumb in grisly fashion. However, there’s always the chance that they will expose a flaw in their counterpart, whether it be in terms of skills or heart, and it is this duel potentiality which renders the juncture so profoundly alluring.

On the one hand, victory by the prospect satisfies in two ways. Firstly, and often subconsciously, it bestows a glimmer of hope for the sport’s future — something that is perpetually sought, at least to an extent, despite the orchestrated hardcore consternation at the mildest suggestion that it might not be what it once was. Secondly, it allows us to indulge in boundless reflection on what might have been, that most famed pastime of the boxing fan, daring us to dream of how the older fighter would have fared in the contest were they still in their prime. It reminds us of their glory days with a coquettish flutter of lashes, heightening our appreciation and respect for all that the old-timer once was.

Conversely, the triumph of the veteran sates the fans equally well. Exposure of the prospect’s limitations plays not only on the clamour for truth that exists as a dormant well inside the dedicated public, but equally on the nostalgic tendencies that run so deep through the sport, the masochistic desire to look upon the contemporary scene with a faint shake of the head and the assurance that it all used to be so much better. The casual agent in the result can vary, from the up-and-comer overestimating the deterioration of the more seasoned fighter, to the prospect themselves being overrated, the beneficiary of the aforementioned smoothest possible path, which has left them unprepared for holes in the road and the dust that can so often be flung in the face. Yet regardless of the side on which the shortcomings lie, the results are hypnotic in their unabashed candour.

Ultimately, as with so much in boxing, the appeal of the crossroads boils down to cessation and the proximity of death. Whether in the form of the nostalgic hit offered by the veteran’s last stand, or the glory inherent in the bloody passing of the torch, the event sends a jolt to the heart. It might only be fleeting, but, for an instant, all seems right. Amidst the ever-growing swell of pyrrhic business deals and waves of short-termism that perpetually dilute the sport, this moment stands as a temporary bastion of hope, an oasis amidst the arid sands. Here we are able to witness the truthful path being chosen, and that’s something that cannot be said often enough.