Cox's Corner




Are Today’s Fighters Better Than The Great Fighters Of The Past?

By Monte D. Cox

Originally published in the Jan. 2000 CBZ Journal. Completely rewritten and revised Oct 1 2004


      Many boxing fans and sports writers today are taken by the idea that modern fighters are bigger, stronger, and better than the great fighters of the past. But does that mean that modern boxers are truly better fighters than their historical counterparts? Does athletic ability alone determine a great fighter? Are boxers of yesteryear under-valued because they are not as well known? Are modern fighters over-rated because they are better known?

      Tracy Callis, a historian who writes for a major boxing website definately believes so stating, “Most boxing publications do an adequate job of covering the activities taking place in the boxing world. However, the large bulk of this coverage is about contemporary pugilists with the result being that fans tend to exaggerate the skills of the fighters in their time in relation to those of other eras." --(Callis 1998)

      A constrasting opinion is given by Gerald Suster, (Lightning Strikes p 192), which is a typical example of the strong belief in the superiority of modern fighters, “The Olympic Games have given us scientific measurements of athletic achievements. Every time, records are broken. Men and women can run faster, jump higher, lift heavier weights and perform feats considered impossible, a generation ago. Are we seriously expected to believe that boxing is the sole exception to this rule?”

      In the “Super Athletes, Willoughby (p 585) tells us why this is so, "The reason why date of performance is important is because with the passage of time there is an increase in population, and the larger the population the greater the probability of an extraordinary record. In short, athletic records, like those of height and weight, or any other expressions of human diversity that can be measured, range in magnitude in ratio to the size of the population from which the record is drawn. Accordingly, in a large population of competitors (no matter what the events), the best performance should be expected to be of high caliber, and vice-versa."

      Consider then that there were a lot more fighters back in the early part of the century than there are today. Boxing was far more popular in the first half of the century, approaching even Baseball in popularity. Steven Reiss, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote, “By the start of 1913 there were 89 boxing clubs in the state of New York, including 49 in New York City” There were over 20 boxing shows a week in New York City during this period. In 1994 there were only 19 during the whole year (see Goldman 29). There were more participants in boxing meaning there were more talented athletes going into boxing rather than other sports such as baseball, football and basketball. There were a larger number of competitors therefore; there was a larger talent pool in boxing than there is today.

      The increase in performance, as Willoughby noted, is greater in the larger pool of talent in which the competition is drawn. Therefore, in boxing, the greatest talent pool was in the first half of the century because of the greater number of competitors. There were more boxers, more competition, and therefore a higher degree of achievement should be expected, in other words, more great fighters.

      Willoughby addresses the issue of greater performance based on records in modern times in relation to boxing - "... the matter of differing styles ... makes fighters (boxers vs. sluggers) so difficult to rate. Instead of more or less uniform techniques - such as apply in running, jumping, swimming, and other athletic events - that can be measured, in boxing (and for that matter wrestling, judo, etc.) no such exact measurement is possible. In these man-to-man encounters, unless a decisive victory - such as a knockout or a fall -is scored, the decision as to the winner rests with the referee and the judges. And, needless to say, the official decision is frequently rejected by the majority - sometimes the great majority - of spectators and followers." --(Willoughby 355 in Callis 1998).

      Callis (July '98 CBZ) concurs saying that, “In "Man Against Man" competition, big numbers do not truly indicate a superior athlete or better performance but just the opposite. It is easier to beat a weaker or lesser-skilled man than it is to beat a stronger or better-skilled man. It is easier to rack up numbers against lesser-skilled men than against higher-skilled ones. An athlete is more likely to break records against weaker opposition than against better opposition. Only in "Man Against Nature" sports does lesser time and greater height and distance definitely mean better.”

      Training in boxing hasn’t really changed too much over the last 100 years. Jogging, jumping rope, bag work, sparring, and even rowing machines have been around since the late 19th century. What has changed is the use of illegal steroids and other performance enhancing drugs combined with more weight lifting, which is, in effect, cheating. Currently there are a number of steroid-use scandals. Reggie Jackson, in the March 12, 2004 USA Today newspaper, said, "Somebody is definitely guilty of taking steroids. You cannot be breaking records hitting 200 home runs in 2 or 3 seasons. The greatest (baseball) hitters in history of the game didn't do that." When a player equals three seasons worth of home runs in a single season and looks "bulked up" one can imagine that illegal steroids have played a part. In boxing such enhancements combined with weight lifting can add muscular strength but it can also lead to arm weariness in the later rounds. It is noteworthy that Evander Holyfield (Linear Heavyweight Champion 1990-1992, 1993-1994) who relied greatly on weight lifting to enhance his physique to compete at heavyweight, faded in a good number of his bouts and had they been 15 or 20 rounders like the "old school" fighters had competed in he most likley would have been knocked out, and it is noteworthy that he did tire badly in several of his biggest fights.

      Evander Holyfield once brashly claimed that he could beat all the heavyweight champions who came before him. "I know everything that they know plus more," he said. But surely the temporal succession of fighters in history does not mean an "adding up" of previous ability. If that were the case then all of the heavyweight champions who came before Holyfield could have made the same claim in their day, and have been equally correct. But even a cursory look at the facts, not to mention the logic of the claim, proves that such is not the case.

      Did Rocky Marciano, a strong but crude brawler, know all the defensive techniques of Jack Johnson? Was Sonny Liston a master of the feint, like Jersey Joe Walcott? Muhammad Ali never punched to the body, so he obviously did not "know" how to punch like previous champions Dempsey, Louis or Marciano. George Foreman (in his prime) was a brutal slugger, but he did not throw multi-punch combinations, so how could he have mastered the techniques of Joe Louis?

      Did Holyfield know how to bob and weave like Joe Frazier, or fight out of a crouch like Marciano? Did he ever have the footwork of Muhammad Ali or Gene Tunney, or the parrying skills of Jack Johnson? Of course not. Holyfield stands straight up and has gaping holes in his boxing knowledge. Holyfield throughout his career was particularly vulnerable to a strong jabber, and his fights with Holmes, Foreman, Bowe, Moorer, and Lewis amply demonstrated this fact.

      Experience is the great teacher. The way to learn at anything is by experience. In order to make progress in a game like chess, which mirrors combat strategy in the ring, one has to play many hundreds of games. The same is true for the "sweet science" of boxing. Today, top professionals fight up to four times a year, often less. Ray Robinson achieved a record in his prime of 128-1-2 (1NC) by fighting everyone and fighting often. This record included strong opponents such as Sammy Angott, Marty Servo, Fritzie Zivic, Jake LaMotta, Henry Armstrong, Tommy Bell, Georgie Abrams, and Charlie Fusari. How often do today’s top professionals fight, and what is the quality of their opponents?

      Willie Pep went 135-1-1 reigning as Featherweight champion for 6 years and had two reigns as champion. Sam Langford, Jack Britton, Johnny Dundee, Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, Ted "Kid" Lewis, Maxie Rosenbloom, and Kid Williams had over 200 professional fights. Many fought up to four times in a month rather than four times in a year. They fought with injuries rather than whine about them. The top fighters of today cannot match yesterday’s top fighters in terms of experience, and hence cannot match their understanding of the game.

      Evander Holyfield peaked as heavyweight champion at age 34 when he beat Mike Tyson. Why? Because of the amount of experienced he obtained as a fighter against a number of different styles. Jesse Ferguson, a heavyweight in the 90’s, was successful at age 40 against much younger, stronger, and more powerful men because of his level of experience. Larry Holmes and George Foreman are other examples of fighters who were successful against younger men, and sometimes better athletes, because of their experience. Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and heavyweight James Toney are both "old school" type fighters, but again they peaked in their mid to late 30's due to their greater experience.

      All of these modern examples of greatly seasoned professional fighters were past their physical peak. A fighter’s physical prime is generally between the ages of 24-28. There is a deterioration of physical skills after age 30, which accelerates after 35. Now, imagine a fighter who had the experience that the greats of the past had while still in his physical prime. Can you picture some of today’s champions with even a smidgen of the fighting experience of the greats of the past?

      There are other causes contributing to the decline of fighting technique in the modern era, other than lack of a large talent pool and lack of experience. Today, for example, there is a lack of great trainers. So many young boxing commentators simply repeat the blather of modern mythmakers. One such writer wrote, “In the old days, trainers knew the basics but none took the time to study it as a science as do so many today.” This is completely laughable. The contrary is actually true. Many of the great trainers of the past had been great fighters before they became trainers and they dedicated their entire lives to studying the techniques of boxing. Joe Frazier commented, (KO Magazine, March 1999) "These guys aren’t trained by real champions, by great ex-fighters." The best trainers in history were themselves fighters who knew all the ins and outs of the game, for example, Marciano's trainer, Charley Goldman, claimed to have had over 300 pro fights. Jack Blackburn, Joe Louis’ trainer, was one of the great fighters of the turn of the century (with over 150 pro fights) and had fought the likes of Joe Gans and Sam Langford. How many fights did Don Turner or Emmanuel Steward have? Steward is one of the best offensive minds among trainers today and is certainly a good one, but one sees the point. Many of today's trainers lack knowledge of many of the techniques of the great ring generals of the past because of a lack of experience as fighters themselves.

      Most trainers today fall into either the category of the motivator ("your blowin’ it son", or are conditioning experts ("no pain, no gain"). But they lack any real knowledge of the intricacies of the game, which is forged over many years of experience spent actually fighting. Ray Arcel, who learned from some of the greatest trainers of history noted, "Boxing is not really boxing today. It’s theater. Some kids might look good. But they don’t learn their trade. If you take a piece of gold out of the ground, you know its gold. But you have to clean it. You have to polish it. But there aren’t too many guys capable (today) of polishing a fighter" (Anderson 149).

      That’s why there are so few good defensive fighters these days, why so few can feint and counter. How many fighters today do you see who actually use head movement? Modern boxers do not know the techniques that made the fighters of the past great craftsman, as opposed to mere fighters. The modern boxer is a commercial product, manufactured by hype, a shill for magazines or cable channels or pay-per-view embarrassments. Fighters of the modern era are weak at counter-punching, defense, head movement, shoulder rolling, bobbing and weaving, jabbing with their chin down, parrying, feinting, etc. (you get the idea). They lack these skills because they lack experience.

      Recently (summer 2004) I received an e-mail from a source at Top Rank who said the following about their hot protege Miguel Cotto, one of the most skilled young fighters in the game, "We think that he will be at his peak in another 10-12 fights, which in today's market means about three years unfortunately. Cotto is a big fan of the older fighters, has a deep sense of boxing history, and is aware of how many fights it took his heroes Arguello, J.C. Chavez, Duran, and Carlos Ortiz to mature. He's not going to have that opportunity to gain as much experience as his idols, but he will continue to work hard to become the best fighter that he can." This hammers home the point that today's fighters simply do not fight often enough to match the experience of the greats of the past.

      Some modern analysts have said that fighters like Jack Johnson (heavyweight champion 1908-1915) only fought guys who threw one punch at a time. This is a modern myth. Of course one could not block Joe Louis combination against Jersey Joe Walcott, but the point is he dropped his hands to give the opening in the first place. Louis still had to throw leads to set up his punches the same as any fighter. The old masters knew how to block a jab and intercept an opponent’s leads and counterpunch. A lot of fighters today have no clue how to actually block a jab. Not just slip but also block. Knowing how to block and counter a jab is one of the primary reasons Ken Norton beat Muhammad Ali. Eddie Futch, (Anderson pg. 233), one of the great trainers said, “The jab was a big reason Muhammad Ali never figured out why he had so much trouble with Ken Norton in their three fights.”

      Some analysts mentions "old-time" fighters and point to guys like Lamotta, and Basilio, who were brawler types. Styles make fights so yes those guys would be "cut to ribbons" by a superior boxer just as they were by an aged Ray Robinson. However, there were boxing master’s pre 1920 like George Dixon, Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, and Sam Langford who had speed, power, skills, and experience to be great in any generation as well.

      Boxing, above anything else, is a game of mental energy. It's the ability to out-think the other guy. It's brains over brawn and athleticism every time. The ability to feint the other guy out of position, the ability to make him do what you want him to do. The old masters would use their mental energy and experience to out think you. That is what boxing is all about. If you were a counter-puncher they would make you lead. If you were aggressive they would make you back up. They knew where to hit you, the solar plexus, and the liver, behind the ear. The old masters, for the most part, because of their great skill and experience could out-think and out-fight today's relatively inactive boxers.

      Skill wise, many of the old time greats were just as sharp, and skillful as technicians as those of modern boxing masters, while exceeding them in experience. Some fans are under the impression that the post 1900 to Pre WW 1 era did not produce fighters who excelled at combination punching. I saw one fan post that all such fighters were "crude." This is simply not the case. This era saw all major styles of boxing, slick and clever boxers like "dancing master" Phildelphia Jack O'Brien (light-heavyweight champion 1902-1912), boxer-punchers like Sam Langford (career 1902-1926), swarmers like Battling Nelson (lightweight champion 1908-1910), and raw sluggers like Stanley Ketchel (middleweight champion 1908-1910) and not just the latter type. Boxers with skill to match and indeed surpass those of modern fighters were men like Joe Gans (lightweight champion 1902-1908), Abe Attell (featherweight champion 1901-1912), and Sam Langford.

      One cannot judge entirely on the available film as Randy Roberts wrote speaking of the classic period, (Papa Jack p 60), “Watching the films of (Jack) Johnson is like listening to a 1900 recording of Enrico Caruso played on a 1910 gramophone. When Johnson fought Burns film was still in its early days, not yet capable of capturing the subtleties of movement. Nuance is lost in the furious and stilted actions of the figures, which move about the screen in Chaplinesque manner, as if some drunken cutter had arbitrarily removed three of every four frames. When we watch fighters of Johnson’s day on film, we wonder how they could be considered even good. That some of them were champions strains credulity. They look like large children, wrestling and cuffing each other, but not actually fighting like real boxers, not at all like Ali captured in zoom-lensed, slow-motion, technological grace. But the films mislead.”

      I have the rare Gans-Nelson 1 film and it is apparent, even on this old silent film, that Joe Gans throws lightning-quick combinations. Joe Louis was one of the best combination punchers in history the films prove that. Where did he learn them? Jack Blackburn, his trainer, who had over 150 pro fights and fought in the 1900's and 1910's. I don’t agree, as some claim, that the pre 1920 fighters didn’t throw "sustained combination punching." It's a matter of style. George Foreman never threw "sustained combination" punches in his life but he won the heavyweight title twice in modern times and was very successful with other skills such as power, setting up his punches and punching technique and the older George had some defensive ability as well. Imagine Foreman with the experience, defense, and boxing ability that he had when he was old at the age of 25 when he destroyed Joe Frazier. He most likely would never have lost to Ali. Combine the old and new Foreman and you have a picture of some of the greats of the early century-except men like Johnson, Gans, Langford etc. also had great hand speed. To insinuate that the "old masters" wouldn’t be successful today is a grave error.

      There are certain modern fighters that would be competitive in any period Julio Cesar Chavez at his peak is a good example, Oscar Delahoya is a complete fighter who was successful in several divisions, Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright are "old school" type fighters and they are a pair of the best fighters in the world in 2004. Floyd Mayweather is one of the few great fighters left who has it both offensively and defensively. These guys would be good to great fighters in any era. But overall skills are on the decrease not on the increase.

      Look at the sad state of today's heavyweight division. Vitaly Klitschko appears to be the best of a talentless crop of heavyweights. Vitaly looks amateurish at times, he shows no head movement and is straight up. He often throws punches out of position exposing himself to lethal counter-punches. How many good counter-punchers are there around today? (Answer: Perhaps Toney). How many counter-punchers who are in their primes and carry a devastating punch? (Answer: zero). Klitshcko makes too many mistakes to be considered a great fighter. When he gets hit he backs straight up so he can be hit again. He doesn't know how to duck and stay in punching position when avoiding punches and instead he leans away from punches which is a tactical error. Vitaly doesn't have the speed of Muhammad Ali to get away with such a maneuver and he is fortunate that he fights at a time when feinting is a lost art. Klitschko blocks but doesn't counter, neither does he have a complete aresenal of punches- he did not throw one uppercut against Sanders. He panics when he is attacked as in the Sanders fight, and he doesn't clinch well and looks awkward when he does. Further he appears to tire in the later rounds of a 12 round fight. He was winded in the Sanders fight and this against an opponent who was dead tired himself after 2 rounds of boxing. I doubt Vitaly could fight a hard 15 round fight like most of the great heavyweights were able to do. Vitaly is already 32 and yet he still has a lot to learn. Jack Johnson would have taken Klitschko to school and made him look like the advanced amateur that he is.

      Another typical example of a "modern fighter" is Zab Judah. He is fast, has good movement, has a decent punch and throws combinations well. Judah was described by some writers- as he rose in the rankings -as one of the best fighters of modern times, and one young fight announcer had the audacity to say the great fighters of the past could not compete with him. But against Kostya Tzyu, (Nov 3, 2001), he backed straight up with his hands down as Tyzu kept firing at him and he was badly hurt and stopped. This is a mistake the old masters would not make but would certainly take advantage of.

      The great fighters of legend would use such a fighter for target practice. They would make him miss and make him pay, they would keep him off-balance, upset his timing and rhythm, feint him out of his shoes and counter-punch with authority. The "old-timers" threw textbook punches, straight, short, and accurate, and knew how to pace themselves by wasting as little energy as possible. Joe Louis and the fighters of the “black dynamite” era (Joe Gans, Joe Walcott, George Dixon, Sam Langford, etc.) were prototypical of the great boxer-punchers of history. Those of the succeeding generation (Benny Leonard, Johnny Dundee, Tommy Gibbons, etc.) were completely "modern" in their mobility, and footwork. Admittedly, the footwork of the "black dynamite" era was engineered for a lengthy fight, but they still could spring forward with explosiveness, and kept their defense "tight" while doing so. They stepped and jabbed, set up their punches and worked the body far better than most of today’s fighters. Their style was a far more polished professional style than the top "amateur style" fighters of today.

      One of today's more physically gifted athletes is Fernando Vargas (who has allegedly been caught using illegal performance enhancing drugs). However, he too stands straight up, shows no head movement, and can be countered by a smart, technically proficient puncher, as Ronald "Winky" Wright demonstrated, and Oscar Delahoya aptly exposed in beating him. Felix Trinidad looked like an amateur for most of his fight against Delahoya. He missed badly, and had not a clue as to how to cut off the ring on the dancing Delahoya. David Tua is a heavyweight with one of the most powerful left hooks I have seen. But he does not have the ability to effectively fight on the inside; and appears to lack the commitment to work the body (the bobbing and weaving movement of a Joe Frazier or a Jack Dempsey could teach him a thing or two). Recent heavyweights champions such as Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis are notorious for dropping their left hands after jabbing. Holmes was nearly knocked out by both Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes after making such a mistake. Oliver McCall knocked out Lewis, after Lewis continually dropped his left. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

      Some modern boxing analysts have commented that Pernell Whitaker was the greatest lightweight because he was unhittable. But so was Benny Leonard. Benny was a true boxing master with much greater experience than Whitaker. He too rarely lost a round in his prime and bragged, "I never even mussed up my hair." Even a faded Benny Leonard was still a highly intelligent fighter. Former welterweight champion Jimmy McLarnin said of Leonard, (Heller 167), "I had a bad habit of leaning under a right hand, and the very first punch he hit me, I saw a million stars. I made a mistake and you couldn’t make a mistake with him." The great fighters like Leonard had the experience to find the weakness in an opponent’s style and capitalize on it, with devastating efficiency. Ray Arcel, (Anderson 148-149), was asked who was the greatest fighter he ever saw. He replied, (Benny Leonard or Ray Robinson), "I hate to say either one but Leonard’s mental energy surpassed anybody else’s."

      Joe Gans would have beaten Whitaker as well. Gans was considered to be nearly impossible to hit with a clean punch and his defense so superb his opponents thought he was reading their mind in his ability to anticipate their every move. Further he was a devastating puncher, something that Whittaker was not. Gans, in fact, hit like Felix Trinidad, although he was only a ligthweight. Gans knocked out fighters that were much bigger than anyone Trinidad has beaten and he had nearly 90 career knockouts. Gans knocked out welterweights for 10 counts and then they had to be carried back to their corner to recover. Remember, those old-timers had to fight almost anyone and regularly ventured up far beyond their "normal" weight. Today's fighters are protected by business interests and the big money pay-off of a pay-per-view extravaganza. Don’t try and convince me that they are "better" because they fight today, as opposed to yesterday, and that Gans wasn’t as good because he fought "along time ago". That has nothing to do with it.

      Most boxing fans are only knowledgeable of the fighters of their era (the ones they have seen), and are ignorant of history. If they really knew what those men could do they would fully comprehend that boxing skill does not accumulate like facts in science – that today’s theories are better than yesterday’s. It is not an adding up to of anything – it is a science in the sense that the strategies and tactics of hand-to-hand combat are principles that form the basis of the sport, which are ignored at the fighter’s peril. Boxing like the ancient art of the Samurai is a dying art form. The art of feinting is all but lost, body punching neglected, good defense and countering a rarity. The days of battlefield swordsmanship are gone. So too are the days of the great trainers and the great experienced fighters of old.

      In conclusion we can say with clarity that while in some instances, today’s boxers are physically stronger athletes, they often lack the endurance of the old time fighters because they fight fewer rounds, and they lack the experience and skill of the great ring generals of the past. The fighters of today are sometimes artificially enhanced with performance increasing drugs and train for shorter fights. The rugged, “old time” brawler type fighters relied on durability and wearing their opponents down, while the boxing masters of old relied on a fight plan that took into account the fact that they had more rounds to work with than today’s fighters. Roberto Duran, for example, showed in his rubber match with Esteban DeJesus that he learned how to apply pace and strategy in the ring. He tempered his aggression and took apart a man that was considered a superior boxer. The Jan. 30, 1978 Sports Illustrated stated, “Moving fluidly and jabbing, slipping punches and countering rather than swarming over DeJesus, he stalked him, relentlessly wearing him down and coolly destroying him with savage punches to the body. For 11 rounds Duran bested the classic boxer at his own game, robbing him of his speed and his will to fight, and only then did he permit himself the luxury of putting DeJesus away.” Duran that night proved he was an all time great fighter and the old masters would have approved.

Today’s fighters, for the most part, tend to be over-rated while the fighters of legend are ignored, largely because so few know much about them.


References:

Anderson, Dave. 1991. In The Corner. NY. William Morrow and Co.

Callis, Tracy. 1998 July. Rating the All Time Greats, Cyberboxingzone Journal http://www.cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/box7-98.htm#callis.

Goldman Herbert. 1996 March. Boxing Illustrated March 1996. p 29. Reiss quote in "In The Ring and Out: Professional Boxing in New York", 1896-1920", a 30 Page chapter in Sport in America: New Historical Perspectives, edited by Donald Spivey, published by Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn. 1985.

Heller, Peter. 1994. In This Corner 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories,. Expanded edition. Da Capo Press. NY, NY.

Roberts, Randy. 1983. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of the White Hopes. Free Press. NY, NY.

Suster, Gerald. 1994. Lightning Strikes: The Lives and Times of Boxing’s Lightweight Heroes. Robson Books. London pg. 192

Willoughby, David. 1970. The Super Athletes. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc.