FIGHT TOWNS—Reno, Nevada: Jack Johnson and the Powder Keg of Jim Crow America

920x920

(Photo: Associated Press)

“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” —Jim Jeffries before his match with Jack Johnson.

“Don’t rush, Jim. I can do this all afternoon.” —Jack Johnson taunting Jeffries during the fight.

Jim Jeffries’ nose was broken, his face was scrambled, and his body was covered in drops of his own blood. He was pulling himself to his feet—something he’d never had to do before in his career—to go back out to face a man faster than him, stronger than him, better than him. The almost entirely white crowd in Reno fell silent, having seen the former champion knocked down by Jack Johnson, the first black man to be crowned World Heavyweight Champion.

Some urged Jeffries to get to his feet. Others probably hoped the man they referred to as the Great White Hope would stay down rather than take any more punishment from Johnson. As Jeffries used the rope to help himself up, Johnson stood to the side, ready to resume his attack. As soon as Jeffries was vertical, Johnson laid into him, sending him through the ropes with a left.

Around the country, news of the fight was coming in over telegraph wires. White crowds received the news silently. Black crowds received it joyously. The fact of the result would soon sink in, and by that night, the country would be swallowed by a wave of violence, including some of the biggest race riots in American history.

*     *     *

IMG_0745

Site of the Johnson/Jeffries fight today.

The fight was never supposed to be in Reno. It was scheduled for San Francisco, which at the time (and in spite of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake) was still the boxing capital of the world. But rumors of a fix in the fight, national movements against the sport of boxing, and the controversy surrounding Johnson got the governor involved. The fight was banned in California.

The promoter moved it to Nevada, the only state where prizefighting was legal. Reno was chosen because it was a railroad hub. Construction workers had three weeks to construct a stadium that could hold over 15,000 people. Jack Johnson set up his camp at a resort called Rick’s Roadhouse, while Jeffries set up at nearby Moana Springs. The crowds that poured into Reno moved between the two camps to watch the fighters train, then spent the rest of their days drinking and gambling in the wide open town.

Few expected Johnson to win, and those who did kept their mouths shut. This was about far more than a boxing match for the spectators here. For many, this fight was about restoring what they saw as the natural order of the races.

Jack_Johnson_boxer_c1908

Jack Johnson

The man who had upset this order was a tall, strong, unbelievably fast fighter from Galveston, Texas named Jack Johnson. He began boxing in 1898, and within five years had won the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion. But the unified title eluded him. Not one of the white heavyweight champs would agree to meet a black fighter for the title. Not John L. Sullivan. Not Jim Corbett. Not Jim Jeffries.

Jeffries, an enormous boilermaker from Los Angeles, was the man holding the title in 1904. He was a brutal puncher, who broke the ribs of several men he fought, and was considered extraordinarily fast for a man of his size. But he refused to fight a black man for the championship. Johnson repeatedly challenged him to a title fight, and many newspapers supported Johnson as the number one challenger. But in 1905 Jeffries retired, claiming that there were “no more heavyweights left for me to meet.”

Johnson continued to win fights and waited for his chance. That chance finally came in 1908 when the new champion, a Canadian fighter named Tommy Burns (real name: Noah Brusso) agreed to meet Johnson for the title in Sydney, Australia. The fight was a rout. Johnson stood nearly six inches taller than Burns and outweighed him by 25 pounds. He battered Burns for 14 rounds until police stopped the fight.

With that victory, Jack Johnson became the first black fighter to lay claim on the title that many considered the greatest prize in sport. As such, he likely would have received massive backlash from the white public no matter what he did. But Johnson’s complete disregard for the demented social contract of white supremacy made him public enemy number one. Johnson made no secret of his numerous relationships with white women. He publicly flaunted his wealth, appearing in expensive clothes and speeding across town in fast cars at a time when few people even owned a car. Whites were outraged, and likely terrified of what Johnson’s reign as champion signified for the future.

They began asking, and then begging, for Jim Jeffries to return to the ring.

JimJeffries-1

Jim Jeffries

But Jeffries had retired to his alfalfa farm and ballooned to over 300 pounds. He was happy there, and asserted that he had no interest in fighting again. Promoters began training white fighters exclusively for the purpose of beating Jack Johnson. They became known as “White Hopes,” and Johnson dismantled them one after another. Still, many white fans, grasping desperately for a shadow to cast over Johnson, claimed that Johnson was not the legitimate title-holder, since Jeffries had retired undefeated. Until he beat Jeffries, went the argument, Johnson wasn’t really the champ.

The pressure kept coming down on Jeffries to take the fight against Johnson. “The White Man must be rescued,” wrote Jack London. Finally, after nearly two years of pressure, and with an offer of somewhere between 40 and 75 thousand dollars dangling in front of him, Jeffries came out of retirement and began to train.

Johnson wasn’t worried, claiming Jeffries would never be able to regain his fighting form of six years earlier. And despite Jeffries losing over 70 pounds and looking every bit the muscle-bound monster of earlier times by the day of the fight, Johnson would prove to be right.

*     *     *

Jeffries down

Johnson stands over the battered Jeffries in the 15th round of the fight.

Jeffries went down again, his third knockdown of the fight. Having been forced to his feet and pushed into the ring after the second knockdown, he’d absorbed more punishment from Johnson. When a hard right to the head crumpled him, it was clear the end had come. He was reaching for the ropes when his cornermen rushed into the ring, ending the fight and preventing Jeffries from being counted out.

There could no longer be any dispute. All the arguments were exhausted. Jack Johnson was undeniably the greatest fighter in the world.

The crowd shuffled out of the stadium and Johnson went to celebrating. Some toasted him, and even Jim Jeffries saluted his abilities, admitting that in his prime and at his very best, he could never have beaten Johnson.

But many whites around the country were less inclined to be so civil. Or even to be human.

The reports began to come in that night. 6a00d8341c630a53ef0133f20d5fcd970b-piThere was unrest spreading around the country, turning quickly into outright assaults and murder.

In Uvaldia, Georgia, a gang of armed white men opened fire on a railroad camp, killing three black workers.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, a white man shot a black man in the face after an argument over the fight.

In Houston, a white streetcar passenger slashed a black passenger’s throat after he shouted “Hurrah for Johnson!”

In New York, a white gang set fire to a black tenement and attempted to block the exits so no one could escape.

In Pueblo, Colorado, a riot between blacks and whites became so massive that the entire police force had to be called out to stop it.

And in Chicago, a white man attempted to break into Johnson’s home to kill him.

In all, there were riots in over fifty cities around the country. At least twenty people were killed, and possibly many more. Hundreds were injured. It was one of the largest incidents of mass rioting in U.S. history.

6a00d8341c630a53ef01348532d2f2970c-pi

From the L.A. Times

No American sporting event ever created such a catastrophic reaction. Across the nation, the fight had become symbolic as a battle between the races for control of the country. Narrow-minded blowhards shouted the news that this was the first salvo of a long race war. Those who had been on top for so long, who had enjoyed a position of privilege over their fellow man, were not only afraid of losing their status, but of the revenge that they were certain would be taken on them if the social order was overturned.

Jack Johnson’s life continued to be an insult to this twisted order.

In 1912, with no prospects of defeating him in the ring, an effort was spearheaded to defeat him outside of it. Using trumped up charges of transporting a women across state lines for “immoral purposes” (a law known as the Mann Act ), the government launched two cases against Johnson. The first case, involving a woman named Lucille Cameronwhose mother claimed had been lured by Johnson’s “hypnotic powers”collapsed when Cameron refused to testify (she later married Johnson). The second involved a former lover of Johnson’s named Belle Schreiber, whose time with Johnson occurred long before the Mann Act even took effect. But the case came to court anyway, aided tremendously by Schreiber, who was threatened with jail time if she didn’t cooperate.

An all-white jury convicted Johnson. He was sentenced to a year in prison. The decision was handed down by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would later become Commissioner of Baseball, where he successfully prevented any black player from joining the major leagues during his lifetime.

Johnson fled the country, title in hand, and stayed on the run for nearly eight years. In the middle of this, he lost his title to a massive Kansas cowboy named Jess Willard, who didn’t beat Johnson so much as he stayed vertical until an out-of-shape Johnson wore himself out beating on him. No black fighter was given the right to fight for the heavyweight title for the next 20 years.

*     *     *

Decades after his legendary fight with Jim Jeffires, a play based on Jack Johnson’s life made its debut on Broadway. It was called The Great White Hope, and it was subsequently turned into a critically acclaimed film. Both the play and film starred a young actor named James Earl Jones in a star making turn. In the audience for the play one night was a fighter who, like Johnson, had become a social pariah for his refusal to follow the social mores of the time. His name was Muhammad Ali, and he would bring everyone he could to see the play in the coming weeks, apparently telling Jones, “You take out the issue of white women and replace it with religion, that’s my story!”

ap6911100128-4f9da20d12de0af236b415b47ebcaaf8d94338a6-s800-c85

James Earl Jones “spars” with Muhammad Ali on the set of the play The Great White Hope, 1969. (photo: Associated Press)

The play revived interest in Johnson’s life and career, and in the atmosphere of social rebellion of the late 1960’s, he came to be viewed as an anti-authority figure who took on a schizophrenic and poisoned establishment and, at least for a time, claimed superiority over all of them.

Reno’s history as a major boxing destination began and ended with the Johnson/Jeffries fight. While Nevada had hosted boxing matches for years, from brawls in its silver mining camps to major fights in towns like Carson City, Reno wasn’t a big enough draw for another major fight. In 1911, prizefighting became legal in New York again, and the big town’s population, proximity to other major cities, and status as a major center for an emerging medium called radio made New York the capital of boxing for decades.

In the early 1960’s, boxing started to make a comeback in Nevada, but this time it was in Las Vegas, as a larger part of the instant city’s overall spectacle. With multiple venues geared specifically for events like major fights and a built-in machine to turn over the gambling money that came flowing in for every match, Las Vegas soon became the most important city in the boxing world. Reno, which developed its own gambling-fueled economy, would never be able to match the revenues of its neighbor to the south, and therefore would never be a player on the boxing scene.

But for one day in 1910, it had the attention of not just sporting enthusiasts, but of the entire world. All of it fixed on two fighters in a hastily constructed arena who put on arguably the most socially significant sporting event in the country’s history. A fight we can look back on today as a symbol for the coming destruction of the Jim Crow social system in America.

Johnson999

Advertisements

FIGHT TOWNS—Detroit: The Resurrection of the Kronk Gym

IMG_1776

A visit to a legendary spot in the boxing community as it fights, once again, to hold on to tradition.

When I say it’s good that the Kronk is open again, one of the fighters shrugs his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says.

In Detroit, nothing gets taken for granted. And why should it? This town was the engine that drove the American economy, a city as grand and unstoppable as the massive finned machines it turned out of its numerous auto plants. This is where Joe Louis trained. Sugar Ray Robinson. Where Barry Gordy formed a tiny record label called Motown, whose driving, joyous sound blasted great music by great artists onto trans-oceanic airwaves.

Then, in July of 1967 the city burst into flame. Long simmering racial tensions exploded, then exploded again. Mitt Romney’s dad ordered in the National Guard and President Johnson called out the 82nd and 101st airborne. There were tanks in the streets and some 2,000 buildings burned. For five days a near state of war existed in this great city, and when it was over forty-three people were dead and over 1,100 were injured.

39083045E

National Guard troops and firefighters during the ’67 riots. (photo: Reuther Library)

The story for years has been that “white flight” from Detroit began with those riots. The reality is that, while the riots were certainly an accelerant, the process  was already underway in the years after World War II. In  1950, the population of Detroit was nearly 2 million people, with whites making up about 84 percent of that. By 1960, seven years before the riots, nearly 350,000 whites had left the city limits. By 1980, that number was over a million.

When people say Detroit was never the same again after the riots, it’s true. It’s also a way of deflecting the ugliness of what was already going down here long before 1967. 800px-White_sign_racial_hatred.What happened in Detroit that summer didn’t come out of a vacuum. Suburbs with “White Tenants Only” signs. Police carrying out indiscriminate raids in black communities. The long-standing segregation of northern cities did not escape Detroit, and despite the success of the auto industry, the city was already losing jobs to the suburbs. As the moneyed classes of the city moved into the outlying areas, they took pieces of the city with them. The suburbs remained affluent, and Detroit became a national punchline, an example of a city where everything was and would always be wrong.

So the noncommittal answer I get when I talk about the Kronk being back makes perfect sense. Detroit has been declared dead. Detroit has been declared reborn. Neither are really true. The city survives, just like the gym that produced one of its greatest trainers and one of its greatest fighters. And as for what comes next, well, we’ll see.

*       *       *

The third incarnation of the Kronk is located in the basement of the Fountain of Life Church on Mettetal Street, and from its fearsome reputation, it’s a surprise to walk into such a modest little space. You don’t get the sense of what’s going on in here until you look around at the walls, taking in the posters and the photos of famous champions. This gym wasn’t just a proving ground for the great fighters of Detroit, it was a beacon for champions from all over the country.

There was a reason for that, and his name was Emanuel Steward.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Detroit, Steward was a fearsome young fighter, winning 94 of 97 fights as an amateur and taking the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963. After passing on the chance at a professional career, he became an electrician for Detroit Edison, and might never have gone back to boxing if it hadn’t been for his brother James, who convinced Emanuel to take him to the nearby Kronk Recreation Center and show him some moves.

The original Kronk boxing gym was located in the recreation center’s basement. Built in 1921 and named after city councilman John Kronk, the old building sits abandoned today. The windows are knocked out and the brick is sprayed with graffiti. A playground behind the building is covered in overgrown grass. I stopped there to look at it and, to my own shame and discredit, I took a few photos. I’m not sorry I went to see the place, but it was wrong of me to take the pictures and I erased them minutes later. It’s not my place to show pictures of abandoned temples like this. I watched people do this for years in New Orleans, riding through the neighborhoods in air-conditioned busses with tinted windows, snapping photos of the New Orleans they saw on TV, taking home souvenirs of devastated neighborhoods as their driver droned on like they were doing a tour of the zoo.

The original Kronk Recreation Center is destroyed, and will likely never have the funding to get fixed up. If you’re a disaster pornographer, you can go take photos of it and post them on your Instagram and call them art. If you’re a boxing fan, stay away. Read about it. The old place, I’m sorry to say, is gone.

*     *     *

Six months after Emanuel Steward’s first session with his brother, James was a Detroit Golden Gloves champion. Shortly after, Emanuel was asked to be the head coach of the Kronk’s boxing program. He took the job at a salary of 35 dollars a week and began one of the most impressive runs of success of any trainer in history. He was named U.S. National Coach of the year in 1977. In 1980, he coached Hilmer Kenty to a title shot in the lightweight division, where Kenty became the first world champion boxer from Detroit since Joe Louis. Over the years, Steward would train a multitude of champions, from Lennox Lewis to Michael Moorer to current linear heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitchko.

But of all the champions Steward worked with, none was more closely associated with him, or with the Kronk, than Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

Emmanuel-Steward-and-Thomas-Hearns

Thomas Hearns with Emanuel Steward. (photo: Boxingfutures.com)

Tommy Hearns. The Motor City Cobra. The Hitman. A tall, wiry kid who didn’t look like a fighter when he first entered the gym. He came in because he wanted a way to fight back against bigger kids who kept stealing from him. His first day in the ring, a better fighter broke his nose. Hearns straightened it out and came right back. Eight years later, he won his first professional title.

He was an extraordinary fighter, preposterously tall and thin, with long arms that gave him a reach advantage over almost anyone in his weight class. A fighter with those natural advantages often develops as a pure boxer, a quick moving dart thrower who depends on outpointing their opponents and keeping them at bay with their jab. What separated Hearns was that, in addition to his boxing skills, he possessed a right hand punch that could separate any normal human being from the planet. It was brutal, demonic. He would hit good fighters, even great fighters, and they would fold like a tent. He scored one of the greatest knockouts in history when he floored Roberto Duran in Las Vegas with a punch you could feel through the TV screen. At the time, Duran (one of the five greatest fighters ever to put on the gloves) had never been knocked out in 82 professional fights. Hearns totalled him in the second round. The knockout punch is impossible. It’s the only punch I’ve ever seen that looks just as fast in slow motion as it does at regular speed.

The knockout punch comes at 0:35. It is not for the faint of heart.

It was the partnership of Steward and Hearns that made the Kronk an internationally recognized name in the boxing community, but it was the conditions that made the fighters who came out of it so strong. Steward liked to crank up the heat in the basement of the building to over 90 degrees. Fighters would pour sweat as they trained. Steward would move through the haze, offering encouragement, dispensing advice. It was the kind of place that fighters would call magic, and mean it.

And, as noted, the original is gone. Like the old 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where Muhammad Ali cut his teeth, like Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philadelphia, the original had to be replaced when the situation became untenable. In 2006, thieves stole the building’s copper piping. With no money coming in to replace or repair what needed replacing and repairing, the building closed, and the gym moved to a storefront in Dearborn, continuing with the original Kronk name.

That the Kronk survived its original shutdown was largely due to the force and reputation of Emanuel Steward. But when Steward passed away in 2012, the second location went with him.

It took three years to find a new home. Then, this past Memorial Day, with Tommy Hearns on hand, the Kronk quietly reopened in its new location at 9520 Mettetal Street.

When I walk in, four months after the grand opening, there are about five fighters working in the ring, including Lanardo Tyner, one of Floyd Mayweather’s top sparring partners. I ask Tyner if I can snap a photo of him at work for my blog.

“Yeah,” he says. “You come all that way you gotta get that shot.”

IMG_1849

Lanardo “Pain Server” Tyner works the bag in the new Kronk gym.

Also in the gym are a pair of brothers, Brandon Cayce and Tobias Wiggins, both of them fighters since they were kids. Cayce gets in the ring against Lanardo Tyner, and holds his own against the pro until he takes a big shot that puts him to one knee. He comes out of it fine, with a little blood on his nose, and a desire, like a lot of great fighters, to get back in the ring. He’s an amateur fighter, but here at the Kronk he gets to step in the ring with an established, title-winning professional who has sparred regularly with Mayweather, which puts him just one degree away from the man many consider the best fighter of his generation.

His brother, Tobias, is in the gym for the first time. He tells me he’s been fighting a long time, but never took it seriously. Today, he feels, is the beginning of a change in that mentality.

“My brother said he was coming out today,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything. So I came out.”

IMG_1842

Tobias Wiggins on his first day at the Kronk.

Sometimes it starts like that. Then the first day turns into the fifth day, which turns into the fifth week, and pretty soon you’ve built up a habit. Every one of the greatest fighters to ever put on the gloves had their first day in the gym, and something about that day made them keep coming back. They get beaten up and beaten down, and they walk right back in.

It’s impossible to separate the story of Detroit from that of the Kronk, but that story has taken on a familiar tone among the tellers. People like to espouse the popular narrative of the city that surrounds this gym: that it’s the tragic center of a tragic story, a once great city that will never be great again. But great cities like Detroit have much in common with the fighters they produce. They take their shots. They get off the mat. They straighten out their nose and they come back swinging.

This city, and this gym, have greatness in their bones. Only a fool would count them out.

IMG_1786

The Kronk Gym is located at 9520 Mettetal Street on Detroit’s west side. They have a website here and a Facebook page here.

FIGHT TOWNS—Denver: The Red Shield Gym and Remembering Ron Lyle

IMG_0554

As part of this road trip, I’ll be examining the boxing history of various towns, some of their great fighters and great fights. First up, the Mile High City.

The story Tialano “Tito” Tovar tells is a story you could hear in any boxing gym in America.

“I had four friends growing up in the projects. We all started boxing, but they didn’t stick with it. They’re all doing life sentences now. All four of them.”

Tovar is the boxing co-ordinater at the Red Shield Gym, part of the Salvation Army’s Community Center in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood. His career resume includes a couple title bouts and a fight with Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti, as well as a near miss with future Hall of Famer “Sugar” Shane Mosley, when an unscrupulous manager tried to match him up with the future Fighter of the Year. Today, his fighting days behind him, Tovar trains fighters, some of whom remind him of himself.

As we walk through the gym, he puts it bluntly: “Boxing saved me.”

With too much time to get in trouble and little to do in a rough neighborhood, Tovar found boxing as a way to stay occupied, and as a way to a better life. It was appropriate that he would end up working here, hand in hand with another man saved by boxing—an iconic Denver fighter once on the wrong side of the law, then celebrated nationally as one of the best heavyweights of his time: Ron Lyle.

IMG_0539

Tito Tovar poses in front of a photo of himself and Ron Lyle, back in the day.

Ron Lyle’s professional career is impressive not just because of the extraordinary circumstances he came from, but also because of how small a window he had. When many fighters would have been starting their careers, Lyle was doing time in prison after being convicted of second degree murder. While inside, he was stabbed in a brawl and was so grievously injured that one of the two doctors in the operating room signed his death certificate. The other doctor, however, continued operating. Lyle had 36 blood transfusions and actually died on the operating table before being brought back. Rather than stagger through a slow recovery, he began exercising to strengthen himself. In solitary confinement, he was eating a bowl of spinach daily and one full meal every three days, doing pushups to pass the time. He eventually reached a point where he could turn out 1000 pushups in an hour.

It was during his years in prison that he began boxing, and after some early success, he began to have dreams where he was fighting Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. When he was released from prison, he became a national amateur champion, but because he had lost so much time in prison, he didn’t turn pro until he was 30, an age when many fighters are thinking about retirement.

471px-Ron_Lyle_boxer2

Lyle boxing in the Colorado State Penitentiary. (photo: Cliff Mattax)

Denver was always a wild town. A mining camp filled with saloons and gambling halls.  A haven for crooks and corrupt public officials. It was like any other town in the west in that it had dreams of becoming a cosmopolitan city. Unlike almost any of the old mining camps, however, Denver actually managed to make it happen.

Looking at the city today—clean, organized, and very healthy—it’s hard to connect it with its lawless past. Similarly, it’s not a town that has a wide association with boxing today. But it’s seen its share of wild fights, from illegal bare-knuckle brawls (standard fare in 19th century America) to legitimate fights among major contenders. Mike Alvarado, a current welterweight contender (and former junior welterweight title-holder) calls Denver home. “Denver” Ed Martin once held the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion when the twisted rules of white supremacy kept black fighters from competing for the greatest prize in sport. Colorado native Jack Dempsey scored a knockout at the Denver stockyards just one year before winning the Heavyweight Championship. The title even resided here when Charles “Sonny” Liston moved to Denver to get away from constant police harassment in Philadelphia, uttering the famous line, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.”

But Lyle had the chance to be the first man raised in Denver to hold the heavyweight belt when Muhammad Ali agreed to take him on in 1975. Lyle was brilliant in the ring that night, fighting a clinical fight that had him ahead on all the scorecards after ten rounds. Then Ali caught him with an overhand right, staggering him and sending him into the ropes. Lyle didn’t go down, but after being pummeled against the ropes, the referee stopped the fight. Lyle was furious at the time, but interviewed about it later, he was more philosophical.

“If there don’t be no Ali, you think you’d be sitting here talking to Ron Lyle? About what?”

Ron-Lyle-left-in-his-1975-007

Ron Lyle (left) fighting Muhammad Ali in 1975 (photo: Associated Press).

When people talk about Ron Lyle’s career today, it really comes down to three fights. The title fight with Ali, and his following bouts with two of the hardest hitters in boxing history: George Foreman and Earnie Shavers.

The Shavers fight was held at the Denver Coliseum. In the second round, Shavers caught Lyle with a punch that sent him ass-first onto the ropes. Considering Shavers is rated by many as the hardest hitter of his era (Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton all agree on this), Ron Lyle had no business getting up from the punch. But he did, rallying from that point forward, and finally knocking out shavers with a ferocious right hand in the sixth round. It’s a remarkable knockout. Lyle is standing at almost a 90 degree angle to Shavers when he throws the punch, and Earnie goes down like he’s just been shot. The hometown crowd went crazy, and Lyle booked a fight with former champion George Foreman.

The Foreman/Lyle fight was named 1976 Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine, and it was, in a way, Lyle’s swan song. His performance was extraordinary, even though Foreman eventually knocked him out. In the fourth round (one of the greatest rounds in boxing history), Lyle became just the second man (after Ali) to knock down Foreman. Foreman rose and sent Lyle to the canvas. When Lyle rose, he was dazed, barely hanging on. When you watch the fight, you’re certain Lyle is about to go down. Then, out of nowhere, Lyle comes back, hammering George Foreman to the canvas again, the first fighter to ever send Big George down twice in the same round.

But Lyle was spent. Foreman won the fight the following round. Ron Lyle, already late in his career due to the time he lost in prison, would never get another opportunity to challenge at the highest level of the heavyweight division. Like a lot of fighters, he launched a short-lived comeback later.

Tito Tovar understands this: “When I retired, I didn’t feel normal.”

IMG_0550

DVD’s of famous fights inside the gym. Tovar plays these for fighters to get them motivated.

There’s always the belief in a fighter that they can put it all together one more time. And when that dream finally ends, some, like Lyle and Tovar, turn to training. Ron Lyle ran a boxing gym for years, but came over to the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Gym around the beginning of the millennium. He loved training fighters, but unlike a lot of ex-boxers, Ron Lyle wasn’t too interested in training pros. He worked, almost exclusively, with amateurs.

“They pay you in tickets,” Tovar says. “The promoters…then you have to sell your tickets. So you have to be a trainer, a manager, a businessman…Ron didn’t like that.”

When Tovar joined him at the gym ten years ago, he wanted to train pros.

“Ron said, ‘I’ll work with your fighters, but you gotta help me with my amateurs.'”

The partnership lasted a decade. Then, three and a half years ago, Tovar came to the gym and didn’t see Ron Lyle. Tovar assumed he was just taking the day off. Then he read in the paper that his mentor had died.

“I couldn’t believe it. He was as strong as an ox. He was sharp.”

Lyle had been admitted to the hospital with a stomach ailment and had died in the night. Tovar thinks it was connected to the stab wound Lyle received in prison many years earlier. When Lyle died, his family asked that any donations in his memory be made directly to the Red Shield Gym.

And Lyle’s wife insisted that Tito Tovar take over the boxing program.

“He was the nicest guy you would ever meet,” he says about Lyle. “But he could intimidate you to motivate you.”

These days, running the gym, Tovar works with everyone. Pros and amateurs. Young and old. The gym even has a Parkinson’s Program, helping those afflicted with the degenerative disease by keeping their muscles strong and working with their reflexes.

In talking to Tovar, you can sense the weight of responsibility of keeping this gym up. There’s a debt of gratitude that underlines everything he says, not just to Ron Lyle, but to boxing itself.

He motions to a picture of Ron Lyle on the wall. Two Denver fighter, both trying to keep things going in their hometown.

“He believed in giving back,” says Tovar. “I’m trying to do the same.”

IMG_0543

The Denver Salvation Army Red Shield Community Center is located at 2915 High Street. The Cox-Lyle Boxing Bym is downstairs. They have a website here. The Facebook page for the boxing gym is here.

Donnie Walsh Departs in New York: Woe to the New York Knicks

In the middle of what looks like a very exciting NBA Finals, another storyline re-emerged over the weekend which didn’t make many waves outside of New York. Donnie Walsh, who took over as team president of the New York Knicks three years ago, has stepped down, citing age and health concerns.

The truth is this: Donnie Walsh, who took the Knicks from punchline to legitimate playoff contender in less than three years, lost his job months ago.

Three years ago, when Walsh took over as president, the Knicks were coming off their eighth straight losing season. Their closing record of 23-59 tied the worst record in team history. To make matters uglier, the team’s coach and general manager (Isaiah Thomas), owner (James Dolan), and parent company (Madison Square Garden Entertainment) were found liable in a sexual harassment lawsuit and ordered to pay 11.6 million dollars in punitive damages.

Put bluntly, the New York Knicks were the laughing stock of the league.

For most of the last decade, the Knicks were defined by losing seasons and comically inept trades and free agent signings arranged by owner James Dolan (who was ranked by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN among the worst owners in American sports) and president/GM/coach Thomas, which left the team with bloated contracts for ineffective players like Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Eddy Curry. The position of head coach became a carousel that included a one-year stint by Larry Brown (he was fired with four years remaining on his contract), and the debacle of Thomas’s tenure as head coach (he appointed himself to the position), which featured a brawl against Denver instigated by Thomas, historically poor season records, poor draft picks, and all of it while the team spent more money than any other in the league.

And, of course, the sexual harassment lawsuit.

Into this maelstrom of ineptitude came Donnie Walsh. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the sexual harassment suit is that it forced James Dolan, under pressure from the league, to hire someone not named Isaiah Thomas to run the team. One of Walsh’s first acts as team president was to fire Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was not allowed to have any contact with any Knicks players during his tenure, as many felt that he would attempt to undermine Walsh’s authority, as well as that of new head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Walsh spent the next two years drafting promising talent and trading away the bulky contracts his predecessor incurred. By the time this season rolled around, he had given his coach a solid team to work with. For the bulk of this year, the Knicks looked like not just a playoff team, but a team capable of contending in the league for years to come. The $24 million Walsh had cleared off the payroll allowed the team to sign superstar Amar’e Stoudamire, who stepped into a role as team leader under his old coach, D’Antoni. Raymond Felton, picked up from the Charolotte Bobcats, emerged as a stellar point guard and reliable force at running the offense, averaging 17.1 points and nine assists per game. Shooting guard Landry Fields was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie team. Italian forward Danilo Gallinari (whose drafting was booed by New York fans two years earlier) and Wilson Chandler both averaged better than 15 points per game and gave the team a defensive presence in the paint not seen since the days of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. The Knicks were young, talented, and on their way to the playoffs. And after nearly a decade of futility and the humiliating tenure of Isaiah Thomas, Donnie Walsh had returned the team to respectability.

Unfortunately for Walsh, he was never fully in control of the team’s basketball operations. James Dolan never wanted to fire Thomas, and only did so when the league leaned on him after the lawsuit. He continued, according to reporters such as Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, to rely on Thomas for advice. He even attempted to re-hire Thomas as GM while he was serving as head coach at Florida International University. Thomas even accepted a job as consultant, but was forced to give it up as it violated NBA rules.

For whatever reason (and it is hard to speculate with Dolan, who hasn’t spoken to the press in four years), Dolan seems to be constantly under the sway of Thomas. Last summer, when the most anticipated free agent class in NBA history came available, Dolan sent Thomas to try to recruit LeBron James to the Knicks. When that failed, Thomas still attempted to take credit for the hiring of Amar’e Stoudamire. Walsh apparently had a full out argument with Dolan for undermining him, but the truth is that Thomas had never really gone away in the first place.

Then, in February, came the last straw. All season long, the Denver Nuggets had been looking to trade Carmelo Anthony. For weeks, Donnie Walsh sat back, eyeing the field, offering Denver some of what they wanted, but not too much. He was convinced Anthony wanted to come to New York, and that if he couldn’t trade for him by the deadline, he’d be able to sign him when his contract came up at the end of the year. It was a shrewd strategy, one that had a very good chance of working, and one which would have left the Knicks with two superstar scorers without having to deplete their talented young core.

Then Dolan and Thomas swooped in and blew the whole thing up.

On the advice of Thomas, Dolan pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and Russian center Timofy Mozgov, a first round draft pick, two second round draft picks, and cash to Denver in return for Carmelo Anthony, point guard Chauncey Billups, and a few bench players, including Renaldo Balkman, an Isaiah Thomas draft pick from years before who never performed up to expectations.

In one move, nearly everything Donnie Walsh had worked for was wiped out. The Knicks lost three starters and three future draft picks for one big star, a once great but now aging point guard, and a few reserves. Gallinari (age 22), Chandler (age 23), and Felton (age 26) all have the potential to be solid players in the league for years to come, while Billups (age 35) is nearing retirement, and Anthony, despite his scoring prowess, is regarded as a liability on defense. The Knicks actually had a lower winning percentage with Anthony than they did without him.

Worst of all, the Knicks gave up everything they did for a player they probably could have landed if they’d waited until the season was over.

Donnie Walsh gave the Knicks back their respectability over the past three years. He built a solid team and attempted to separate them from one of the ugliest eras of their history. But he was undermined constantly by his boss, Dolan, and by the man who had nearly dragged the temple down on all their heads.

And despite all of his success, when it came contract time, Dolan proposed that Walsh take a forty percent paycut.

There are slaps in the face and there are slaps in the face. This was a slap done with a steam shovel.

What this means for the Knicks remains to be seen, but there are very dark clouds on the horizon. Donnie Walsh is a good man and deserving of respect for the job he did in New York. If he’s going to get treated like this as a thank you, what can his successor expect? Furthermore, what will happen to Mike D’Antoni, who has done such a good job as coach? And if Carmelo Anthony starts to act out like he did in Denver, what does that do to the team’s chemistry, not to mention the attitude of Stoudamire, who stepped up so admirably as a leader this season?

This should be a very interesting storyline over the coming months, and probably not in a good way. Pity the New York fans. They deserve better than this.

So does Donnie Walsh.

Anatomy of a Knockout—Tyson/Douglas-Part IV

Part IV—The Knockout Heard Round the World

There is all the difference in the world between an upset and an almost-upset. History is loaded with those who nearly pulled the upset, then faded at the crucial moment. People talk about Princeton’s near-upset of Georgetown in 1990 NCAA Basketball Tournament, how the Ivy Leaguers had the nation’s top team on the ropes into the final moments, before Georgetown squeeked out a one-point victory.

Likewise, Billy Conn’s near-upset of Joe Louis gained the fighter his greatest fame. Ahead on two of the scorecards (and even on the other) after twelve rounds against a tiring Louis, Conn foolishly decided to go for a knockout against a man who outweighed him by 37 pounds. He left himself open, Joe Louis landed a couple bombs, and Conn lost his shot at the title.

After the fight, Conn jokingly asked Louis why he couldn’t let him hold the title for a year. Louis replied, “You had the title for twelve rounds and you couldn’t hold on to it.”

The near-upsets have their place in history, but they are remarkable because they illustrate the difference between the champions and the challengers. History is loaded with underdogs who almost got away with it, only to have the champions wake up just in time, realize they were champions for a reason, and show the other gear that allowed them to stay in front.

As good as Douglas had been all night, there was still disbelief that this fight was going to go his way. The heavyweight division carries a greater possibility for big upsets because the size and strength of the fighters lends itself to more one-punch knockouts. As broadcaster “Colonel” Bob Sheridan put it, the heavyweight division was always “sudden death.” This was especially true with Tyson, who had made his reputation on such knockouts. Let Douglas have seven good rounds. Let him climb ahead on the cards. Sooner or later, Tyson would catch him. Everyone knew it.

What nobody knew was that Douglas still wouldn’t be stopped.

I want to bring it back to the sound of the fight, because that’s the reason I started writing this piece in the first place. Both HBO and Showtime broadcast the fight from the Tokyo Dome, but Bob Sheridan’s commentary for Showtime is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Here are the final three rounds. I’ll break them down, but listen to how Sheridan becomes a believer over the course of these rounds. In round 8, he’s admiring Douglas for having made it so far, but unsurprised when Tyson knocks him down. In round 9, he’s surprised when Tyson can’t finish Douglas, then shocked as Douglas comes back and takes over the round. In round 10, as Douglas sends Tyson out, he rises to the occasion, giving a spectacular call of arguably the most unexpected knockout in the history of boxing.

Let’s take it round by round.

ROUND 8:

Sheridan’s commentary here is complimentary to Douglas. But like everyone else who watched, there is a certain amount of disbelief that Douglas is going to pull this thing out. Even with Douglas owning the fight, there was still the sense that Tyson was ahead. No one could really accept that Tyson was going to lose. Most were just stunned it was taking him so long to rally that big shot that would send this pesky bastard down. Tyson drops a few good shots in the round, but Douglas keeps coming back, especially in the second half of the round. But Douglas gets sloppy, and at the 2:50 mark of the clip, Tyson lands an uppercut with enough juice that, even though it doesn’t land square, still sends Douglas to the canvas.

This seemed to be the moment everyone was waiting for. Douglas finally on the mat, Tyson finally himself. When Douglas clambers to his feet, Sheridan, like everyone else is surprised. And luckily for Douglas, the shot came at the end of the round, allowing him to take a seat and gather himself.

As a side note, it should be mentioned that Don King later protested the result, saying the referee had given a long count here; that Douglas was actually on the mat fourteen seconds, and not nine, as Octavio Meyran counted. This dispute was resolved in Douglas’s favor, as the official count always stands with the referee. And even if Meyran’s count was long, Douglas was clearly waiting to get up. Note how he strikes the mat in disappointment when he goes down. This is not a fighter struggling for orientation. If Meyran’s count was quicker, Douglas would still have been up on the number nine.

ROUND 9:

This was the round that really stunned everyone. As good as Douglas had been, now that he’d been knocked down, it was assumed Tyson would finish him off. And indeed, this is exactly what Tyson tries to do. Sheridan’s comments about how Douglas should be given “a lot of credit” point to the assumption that the poor sap is certainly on his way out.

That all starts to change at the 4:00 mark of the clip. Watch how Douglas lands the two jabs, then a right-left combo, followed by a left-right-left combo, to which Sheridan shouts, “Look at this!” Suddenly, it became clear that not only was Douglas not woozy and hanging on, he was actually, even after a knockdown, still the stronger fighter. This was the complete opposite of any other major fight in Buster Douglas’s history.

As the round progresses, watch the bounce in Douglas’s legs. Then watch at the 5:26 mark, as he stuns Tyson, driving him back into the ropes. I remember my jaw swinging open when I saw this exchange. At 5:40, Sheridan shouts, “Who would EVER have expected this?” No one would have. Douglas dominated the round, and it suddenly seemed that Tyson might not have another good chance to put Douglas away.

It is interesting to note that, after nine rounds, and despite completely dominating the fight, Douglas was only ahead on one of the scorecards. Another judge had it for Tyson by a point, and the third judge had it even. If the fight went to a decision, there’s a chance Douglas might have had the fight stolen from him.

That wasn’t about to happen, however. One minute into round ten, Buster Douglas finished off the greatest upset in boxing history.

ROUND 10:

I’ll stick to the knockout, and I’ll stick to the sound of it. It starts at the 7:47 mark of the clip. Douglas, after a couple jabs to get Tyson’s hands up, sneaks a massive uppercut through the hole that lands flush on Tyson’s chin. Listen to the entire Tokyo dome react, as Sheridan says, “OH! THERE’S A NICE UPPERCUT BY BUSTER!”

Douglas follows with a left, a right, and a hard left—“LOOK AT THIS! HE’S KNOCKED MIKE TYSON DOWN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS CAREER!”

The crowd in the Tokyo Dome erupts, aware they are seeing something they’ve never seen before, and Octavio Meyran begins his count. Four. Five. Six.

“HE’S IN BIG TROUBLE!”

The crowd. Listen to the crowd. As Meyran’s count progresses, they steadily grow quieter. It’s almost like you can hear them holding their breath. The air gets sucked right out of the arena.

Seven. Eight.

Tyson grasping for his mouthpiece, completely disoriented.

“HE MAY NOT BE ABLE TO RECOVER!”

Dead silence in the dome.

Nine.

Tyson staggering. Meyran waving his arms.

“HE’S NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!”

Meyran wrapping his arms around Tyson to keep him from falling.

Listen to the crowd. All the air that got sucked out of the arena as they collectively held their breath during the count comes rushing back out in what can only be described as a collective gasp of shock. Yells, shouts, but all of it registering the impossible. Sheridan screaming now.

“UNBELIEVEABLE!!! UNBELIEVEABLE!!! UNBELIEVEABLE!!!”

The crowd roaring. Douglas being mobbed with his hands in the air. Sheridan saying the most unthinkable of phrases.

“BUSTER DOUGLAS IS THE NEW HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD!”

 

THE AFTERMATH:

There wasn’t much more for Douglas after this fight. Galvanized by his mother’s death, he’d given the performance of his life. Afterward, he went back to his old ways. Poor conditioning, poor training. Because the Tyson fight was considered to be a cakewalk for the champion, no rematch clause was included in the contract. As a result, Douglas fought Evander Holyfield instead. He was paid 24 million dollars for the fight, showed up out of shape and sloppy, and was beaten to a pulp by the supremely conditioned Holyfield in three ugly rounds. He retired off and on for the next several years, and his heart was clearly no longer in the sport. He had all the money he’d ever need.

The luxury nearly destroyed him. His weight ballooned to 400 pounds and he went into a diabetic coma, from which he barely recovered. In recent years, he’s made public appearances and taught boxing around the Columbus area, generally keeping a low profile, usually only appearing when people want to discuss Tyson.

While that certainly is a decent enough ending for the fighter, it is a little disappointing for anyone who saw what he was capable of that night in Tokyo. Buster Douglas was a very talented boxer who simply did not have enough desire to become as great as his talent might have let him become. Had he applied the dedication to the rest of his career that he did to the Tyson fight, who knows how great he might have been?

Mike Tyson’s life and career, both rocky before the fight, began to spiral out of control after the fight. He won four more fights, and was ready to fight Evander Holyfield for the title in November of 1991, before a rib injury forced a postponement. Shortly after this, he was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison and four years of probation.

He was released after three years and began a comeback, winning two of his belts back quickly with victories over Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno. It seemed, at the time, that Tyson was back to stay. He looked every bit his old dominating self, and he finally faced off against Evander Holyfield, the man he’d been waiting to fight when he went to prison. The fight took place on November 9, 1996, five years and one day after their original fight date. For the second time in his career, Tyson suffered a humiliating upset, as a supposedly over-the-hill Evander Holyfield stopped Tyson in the eleventh round.

The two scheduled a rematch, in which Tyson bit a chunk of Holyfield’s ear off, but that’s a story for another post.

Anatomy of a Knockout—Tyson/Douglas-Part III

Part III—The Perfect Storm

The genius of fighters like Rocky Marciano, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler is not only in the ways they found to continually defeat their opponents, but in the ways they continually managed to avoid beating themselves. Even the greatest fighters occasionally leave themselves open to upsets. Some fighters underestimate their opponents. Joe Louis underestimated Billy Conn and would have lost the title if Conn had stepped back and let the fight go to the cards. Some fighters have problems with self-control. Roberto Duran frequently went on eating binges after his fights, and regaining his fighting form in time for the next bout became increasingly difficult as he got older. Some fighters don’t train hard enough, thinking they can walk through the fight. Sonny Liston did that in preparation for his bout with Cassius Clay. Clay knocked him out, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and nearly fell into the same trap eleven years later in Manila, when a supposedly washed up Joe Frazier gave him the most brutal fight of his life.

In these cases, the fighters expect their talent to save them should they get in trouble. This is a form of hubris, and it is very difficult to defeat. If your fights consistently leave you going through the motions, it won’t be long before you stop thinking you can be beat. For these fighters, the saying goes, their greatest opponent is themselves.

Mike Tyson’s camp in Tokyo was in chaos. Tyson wasn’t training, wasn’t working hard enough. He was reeling from his brief marriage and highly publicized divorce from actress Robin Givens, who claimed he’d beaten her frequently. He’d severed ties with the last remnants of the camp of Cus D’Amato (the man who’d been like a father to Tyson in his formative years) when he fired longtime trainer Kevin Rooney. Now, he was surrounded by hangers on and yes-men, and paraded around as the prize pony in the stable of promoter Don King. It was Givens who had convinced Tyson to bring in Don King, and it was King who had convinced Tyson that he, and no one else, had the best interests of Tyson’s career at heart.

Tyson’s behavior was a whirlwind of bad omens. Car wrecks. Stories of him going on rampages. New people all around who seemed eager to fleece him for his money. Press coverage everywhere he went. He wasn’t prepared, and his lack of self-control was regular public fodder for a press corps that found their access to the champ severely limited.

Aaron Snowell, Tyson’s new trainer, was alarmed at how difficult Tyson was to deal with. He often refused to run in the mornings, and frequently ignored his trainer’s instructions. Oliver McCall, who had lost to Buster Douglas, tried to alert Tyson to the danger he was facing.

According to McCall: “I looked at Mike, I said, ‘Listen, don’t undersestimate Buster Douglas. I lost to Buster. You talking like…he ain’t nothing.’”

Tyson didn’t take Buster Douglas seriously, but he didn’t seem to take anyone or anything seriously anymore. With all the distractions and no one to hold his frequent mood shifts in check and keep him focused, Tyson was on his way to the worst night of his career.

And still, none of this would have mattered if not for the circumstances on the other side. Many assumed that Tyson, on his worst night, would beat Buster Douglas (or almost anyone else) on his best night. Add to that the fact that Buster Douglas never seemed to have a “best night” due to his frequent lack of training and preparation and, even with all the problems, Tyson still looked unbeatable.

Then, just over three weeks before the fight, Douglas’s mother, Lula Pearl, died of a stroke.

In interviews, Douglas referred to his mother as his best friend, and there were stories of how she would drag him off the basketball court and down to the boxing gym so that his father could continue training him. Douglas now had the title shot his father never got, and the opportunity his mother always wanted him to have. His trainer suggested canceling the fight, but Douglas refused. He dedicated his upcoming performance to his mother and locked in to his training. By the time the fight came around, Douglas was in excellent shape and more focused than at any other point in his career. He was determined to fight the fight of his life. Most importantly, when he entered the ring, he had no fear of the man in the other corner.

For Mike Tyson, fear was a powerful weapon. He’d grown accustomed to winning easily and quickly, due in no small part to the fear he inspired. Good fighters, even great fighters like Michael Spinks, came out flat footed against him. They weren’t fighting to win. They were fighting defensively, trying not to get killed. Douglas, on the other hand, came out those first few rounds in the Tokyo Dome, and came right at Mike Tyson. He went toe to toe with the champ. Even when Tyson finally started to get aggressive in the third round, Douglas refused to back down. And even with his reputation for fading in the later rounds, it became clear as the fight went on that Douglas was not only in to make a decent showing, but that he was about to give Tyson the fight of his life.

By the fifth round, Mike Tyson was backing down in the face of Buster’s powerful, loaded up shots, and his corner was shockingly unprepared to deal with the damage he was taking. Aaron Snowell hadn’t even bothered to pack and endswell (a piece of metal used to control swelling), and had to resort to filling a rubber glove with ice water and holding it against Tyson’s swelling eye.  The commentary went from surprise that Douglas wasn’t down, to admiration that he had come to fight, to a growing awareness that Tyson was primed to get knocked out. After seven rounds, Buster Douglas was winning nearly every round and showed few signs of slowing.

But before he could knock out Tyson, he’d have to overcome his long history of fading at the end, not to mention a monster punch that Tyson was keeping in the tank.

Sergio Martinez, and the Curse of Marvin Hagler

 

“Joe Frazier said (to me), ‘You got three strikes against you. One, you’re a southpaw. Two, you’re good. And three, you’re black.’”

–Marvin Hagler

There is such a thing as being too good in boxing. Unlike other individual or team based sports, boxing doesn’t operate on a schedule. There’s no season, no divisional playoffs, no major tournaments. The matchups are made when they are made. The fights happen when they happen. Promoters and managers work out the logistics, and the fighters show up and do their jobs. They might call each other out, but in the end, the fighters themselves have very little say.

Most of the fighters we hear about are the fighters everyone wants (or wanted) to fight: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Manny Pacquiao, and so on. Great fighters become targets for other boxers, and this is usually a good thing. In fight negotiations, one side always has more leverage than the other. One fighter has greater name recognition and will draw a bigger crowd. One fighter has a title, and the other one doesn’t. The leverage belongs to the fighter who can generate more attention, because that means more money and more prestige if the challenger pulls the upset. People might tell you that everyone was afraid of Mike Tyson, and that may be true. But everyone wanted a crack at him anyway.

There’s a parallel to this that has always existed in boxing. For every fighter everyone wants to challenge, there is a fighter nobody wants a piece of. There will always be fighters out there that nobody, or at least nobody with a big name, wants to fight. To say it’s because these fighters are “too good” is too simplistic, although that is certainly part of it. Fighters like Tyson and Louis were considered “too good” as well, but that didn’t stop the offers from coming. Those fighters represented, to the challengers, a high-risk high-reward proposition. And frankly, that’s what any title fight should be.

The fighters I’m talking about here are the fighters who are high-risk, low-reward propositions. They are fighters who are enormously talented, but who don’t bring enough to the table in other areas to convince big name fighters to take a chance on them. This usually applies to contenders, and that makes sense. After all, if you’re the champion, and you see a guy out there who has a real good chance of beating you, do you really want to risk your title when you could be getting a big payday fighting someone you know you can beat? There’s always another fighter out there to fight, and there’s always an excuse to avoid the one you’re afraid of. The champ will keep making money no matter who he fights, so negotiations can keep “breaking down.”

But the lack of a title belt is not the only reason to avoid a fighter. Some fighters become champions and still can’t get the recognition they deserve and, therefore, the fights they really want. These fighters are the truly snakebit of the boxing world. A title belt doesn’t mean as much as it used to, with all the additional divisions and separate commissions. The real challenge for these fighters is not to win their division, but to generate big money and big attention by fighting the biggest names out there. This is where certain fighters run into a wall. They become champions, they compile increasingly impressive records, and they hit the ceiling because the bigger attractions won’t let them in the door.

Perhaps no fighter in the last fifty years ran into this more than Marvelous Marvin Hagler. If ever there was an example of a fighter who was too good for his time, Halger was it. He had a fearsome, attacking style. He had an iron chin, with only one knockdown against him in sixty-seven pro fights (and that one “knockdown”—against Juan Roldan—was obviously because he slipped). He was strong, tactical, efficient, and nearly impossible to beat. Unfortunately for Hagler, he didn’t have the Hollywood style backing of the boxing industry (see: Sugar Ray Leonard), a loyal, multinational fan base (see: Roberto Duran), or the flash and pop of a big time star with a big time entourage (see: Thomas Hearns). Hagler was a brooding, menacing presence who inspired fear, but not terror. Who was admired, but not celebrated. As such, he was an easy fighter to avoid.

I’ve been thinking about Hagler quite a bit in the wake of Saturday night’s fight between Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams. Every generation has its fighter nobody wants to face, and up until Saturday night, that crown rested squarely on the head of Paul Williams. Williams reminds me a lot of Tommy Hearns. He has an extraordinarily long reach for a fighter his size. He is tall, wiry, and packs a shocking amount of power into his punches. Before Manny Pacquiao came up in weight, it was said that if there was one fighter out there who could beat Floyd Mayweather, Paul Williams was it.

Last year, Williams won a majority decision over an Argentine fighter named Sergio Martinez, who was rapidly becoming the most avoided fighter other than Williams. The fight could have gone either way, and was picked by Ring Magazine as their Fight of the Year for 2009.

Then, in the rematch on Saturday night, this happened:

That’s as impressive a knockout as you will ever see, particularly because of the level of the fighter it happened to. You could argue that it’s deceiving, that even a great fighter can get tagged by a lucky punch (see: Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman), but that is not the case here. Sergio Martinez is as good a boxer as there is in the world right now. He’s fast, strong, incredibly disciplined. He’s also left-handed.

In many ways, Martinez reminds me of Marvin Hagler. And it’s not just the nicknames (Hagler was “Marvelous”; Martinez is “Maravilla”). It’s not just the defensive style and strong chin. It’s not just that they are both southpaws. Perhaps the greatest thing Sergio Martinez has in common with Marvin Hagler is that he has reached the plateau just below the summit of the mountain, and now finds his options to get higher limited.

There is nobody in the middleweight division who can hold a candle to Martinez right now, and there are no big names who will draw better than him. He is a relatively new commodity in this country, and doesn’t have the rabid national support of other foreign fighters like Manny Pacquiao or Juan Manuel Marquez. Martinez is from Argentina, a country with a great history of fighters (Carlos Monzon, Luis Angel Firpo), but he has spent the last several years living in Spain, where boxing garners far less attention. Worst of all, he’s running out of time. At thirty-five years old, and with fifty fights already under his belt, his window of opportunity for legend-making fights is closing quickly.

Had Martinez beaten Pavlik two years ago, it would have made more headlines. But with Pavlik’s frequent health issues, his star had lost a lot of its shine by the time Martinez beat him. The two biggest names in boxing right now are Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, but both are from lighter weight divisions. A fight with Pacquiao might be possible at a catch weight, and Pacquiao has had no problem jumping weight classes to fight bigger and bigger fighters. But Martinez might finally be too big, and Pacquiao, who is still attempting to land a megafight with Mayweather, and who was recently elected to the Philippine Congress, is probably not going to be moving up in weight again. He’ll fight a few more times and retire as the best pound-for-pound fighter of his generation.

As I see it, Martinez has a few options, none of which involve Floyd Mayweather, who will never come up in weight to fight a bigger, stronger fighter. A fight with Pacquiao is a possibility, but not anytime soon. Martinez is going to have to wait, and while he’s waiting, he has a couple things he can do.

1) Unify the middleweight title.

I think this option might be the best one for Martinez. Not since Bernard Hopkins has the middleweight belt been unified, and doing it would garner Martinez a lot of publicity. None of the fighters would present much of a challenge to Martinez. Sebastian Sylvester, Dmitry Pirog, and Felix Sturm are all lower-tier fighters. But by the time Martinez is done mopping them up, he’ll have gained a lot more exposure without risking a whole lot in the process. A unified middleweight title belt might be enough to lure Pacquiao into jumping weight classes one more time.

2) Exact revenge.

One of the things I’ve always respected about Marvin Hagler is that he went back and beat the fighters who had put blemishes on his record. He avenged losses to Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, as well as draws to Vito Antuofermo and Sugar Ray Seales, knocking all four fighters out in later contests. It could even be argued that the Watts and Seales fights weren’t necessary, but Hagler gave them another crack anyway. The only fight he didn’t avenge was the controversial loss to Sugar Ray Leonard, and that’s because Leonard wouldn’t give him a rematch.

Martinez has suffered two losses and two draws, and avenged one of each (a draw in his third career fight, and the loss in the first contest against Paul Williams). He suffered an extremely controversial draw to Kermit Cintron last year (a fight where the ref originally ruled that Martinez won by knockout, then changed his mind), and a knockout loss to Antonio Margarito in 2000. Both Cintron and Margarito are still names, although well past their prime. But Margarito just fought Pacquiao, and Martinez taking the time to go back and beat both fighters would send a message that he serious about leaving a lasting legacy. While neither fight would be that impressive, they would almost certainly generate more interest than a fight against any of the other middleweight title holders.

3) Move up in weight class.

While Showtime’s Super Six tournament has been riddled with problems (fighters dropping out due to injury, and so on), it has also been enormously successful at highlighting the top contenders in the super middleweight division. Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, and Andre Ward (who are all still in the tournament) are enjoying greater name recognition than ever before. Even those on the fringe of tournament, like late arrivals Sakio Bika and Glen Johnson, as well as Mikkel Kessler and Andre Dirrell (who both dropped out), could also make for interesting contests. For all its problems, the Super Six Tournament has at least made the super middleweight division feel like the place to be. Adding Martinez to the mix would generate a lot of interest. But Martinez just moved up to middleweight last year, and risking another jump this late in his career might not be worth it, not least of all because it would deep six any chance of a future meeting with Pacquiao.

Of course, Martinez could always fight Paul Williams again, but I think that would be a mistake. He has nothing left to prove there. The first fight went to Williams on a majority decision, but many people thought Martinez deserved it, and even more thought it was a draw. As for the second fight, there wasn’t much doubt there.

Obviously, none of the options I’m presenting are as interesting to Martinez as fighting Mayweather or Pacquiao, but Martinez and his camp need to accept that neither fight is likely to happen. There’s a slim chance of the Pacquiao fight, but only if Martinez stays in his same weight class and does something to gain himself greater notoriety. Unifying the belts and/or beating Margarito and Cintron would do that, but Martinez needs to act quickly.

Martinez has a lot going for him. He’s an extremely talented, charismatic fighter with an unusual style (he generally keeps both hands hanging down until he moves in), movie-star good looks, a title belt on his mantle, and likely Knockout of the Year and Fighter of the Year honors coming his way soon. He could be a bankable star in the sport. But that may means he has to fight smaller fights for a while that will, when considered cumulatively, be greater than the sum of the parts. Like Hagler, Martinez has to play a waiting game even as he fights. Hagler was eventually rewarded for this, with highly publicized fights against Duran, Hearns, and Leonard. But Martinez may not have that much time. He is thirty-five years old, and he may never get a crack at the biggest names in the sport. His best bet is to forget Pacuiao and Mayweather for now, and start thinking about the legacy he wants to leave behind, even if that legacy is that that of a truly great fighter who came along at the wrong time. The legacy of the fighter nobody wanted to face.