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This article first appeared in June 2005 at Fightbeat.com



“The iron man has fought since time immemorial – with but one thought in mind – to get to his foe and crush him.” –From the foreword to Robert E. Howard’s “The Iron Man”


      The author and creator of Conan and King Kull, Robert E. Howard, was an avid fan of boxing. The introduction to his fictional book, “The Iron Man” noted that Howard’s interest in the sport of boxing was centered primarily on the idea of the “iron man”, that individual who could take any amount of punishment and stand up to it. The iron man of fact and fiction seems not unlike Howard’s superheroes of ancient and barbaric eras.

      Howard wrote in 1930, “What freak of nature makes an iron man? We know that the human skull was well built to withstand violence, and that the body’s muscles may be developed into steel-like toughness. But this alone will not explain the strange and incredible mortal known to the ring as an Iron Man.”

      In the late 19th and early 20th centuries times were much tougher than they are today. There were few automobiles so people walked instead of drove. There was no air conditioning, people suffered and sweat. The food was not hybrid, doctored, and sprayed with chemicals. The soil was richer with natural plant based minerals, not having been depleted through erosion from the constant tillage of farming land. There were no antibiotics to take every time one was sick. People had to sweat out toxins through a natural process and if they survived were stronger and resistant to the strains of virus and disease that afflicted them. There was no Novocain when teeth were pulled. The men who lived and fought in those times were simply tougher people who were conditioned through circumstances to endure more physical discomfort, pain and suffering than we are today.

      There were very few, if any, of the comforts of life that the people of modern times now enjoy. Most of the great turn of the century fighters had developed their strength through hard manual labor. Bob Fitzsimmons was a blacksmith whose work with a hammer and anvil built his dense back and shoulder muscles that contributed to his punching power. Jim Jeffries was a boilermaker who made furnaces out of cast iron, long before the age of power tools, which gave him his great stamina. In later times Joe Louis lifted ice in his youth hauling 75 and 100-pound blocks up three flights of stairs, which developed his rock hard muscles and built endurance that helped him keep his power into the late rounds of a fight.

      Jim Jeffries it was reported while training for one fight ran some 14 miles in the morning, alternating between a jog and a 100-yard sprint, without stopping to walk or rest. In the afternoon, he played three games of handball, punched the bag for 20 or 25 minutes straight, and skipped rope 1,500 to 2,500 times. He would then box from 12 to 16 rounds, and 'wrestle around' or toss an 18-pound medicine ball. Regardless of advancements in modern “sports science” this type of workout would make one tireless in the ring.

      To many of the old-timers heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was the epitome of what an “iron man” represented. Robert E. Howard wrote that Jeffries “combined real skill and cleverness with his toughness.” One of Big Jeff’s early nicknames was “The Iron Man of the Roped Square.” He was never stopped or knocked down in his prime. Jeffries wore down his opposition with his cast iron chin and his great endurance that surpassed all of his rivals. He beat tough Tom Sharkey in 25 rounds with a badly injured left shoulder. He survived the second Fitzsimmons fight where his opponent allegedly had “loaded” gloves. Jeffries face was beaten to such a frightening mess he was unable to fight for a year following the incident, yet he prevailed by knocking out Fitzsimmons with a single left hook in the 8th round. The ability to absorb tremendous punishment, legendary endurance and stamina are the hallmarks of boxing’s “iron men.”

      Boxers of the past were actually better trained than modern boxers in many respects. The most important of these aspects was their conditioning. By conditioning I do not mean cardio-vascular workouts, although Bob Fitzsimmons ran as much as 20 miles a day when training for long fights. By conditioning I refer to the body's accommodation to getting hit and not getting bruised. The old timers bodies were conditioned for the rigors of combat by practicing and continually fighting with slight injuries over long periods of time. Benny Leonard wrote in My Greatest Ring Battles that after having two of his front teeth knocked out by Lew Tendler in their first meeting, he was back in the ring to meet Ever Hammer a few days later. Hammer had given Leonard one of his toughest fights some years previous. Today a champion like Vitaly Klitschko gets a shoulder injury and quits while winning against Chris Byrd or postpones a fight with Hasim Rahman because of a “bad back.” Fighters just don't have the physical constitution that they used to

      The greats of the past fought often, sometimes 4 or 5 times a month. Many of them fought professional bouts sometimes day’s apart, and top-notch competition weeks apart. Welterweight champion Barbados Joe Walcott fought lightweight champion Joe Gans and the great Sam Langford within three weeks. That is the equivalent of Zab Judah fighting Felix Trinidad and Floyd Mayweather within a month. In the old days even inactive champions boxed exhibitions for financial reward on a continual basis. Because of their conditioning they fought with injuries, rather than whine about them.

      Toughness is just as vital an attribute in boxing as athletic ability, boxing skill, and punching power. One can have all the skill and ability in the world, but if one is unable to withstand a powerful punch and come from behind to win, then all of that skill amounts to nothing when faced with a determined opponent who is tough enough to keep coming.

      Another overlooked reason why boxers of the past were better trained than modern fighters - besides the greater experience and the toughness aspect - is the fact of how they trained. Since they did not use headgear and other protective equipment in the gym they had to be able to absorb the punches in training (physical and mental preperation to absorb punishment and fight with injuries) and learn defense to evade, block and parry opponent’s incoming blows while sparring.

      Abe Attell, featherweight champion 1901-1912, said in the Jan. 1949 Ring Magazine, “The way fighter’s train today is all wrong. They wear headgear in the gym. You never see one of them parry a left jab in training. They just duck their head and know it wont hurt them, but then they get into the ring with the same habit. That is why you see so many cut eyes these days. And you seldom see clever fighters anymore. I haven’t seen a fighter who knows how to feint a fighter out of position since Gene Tunney and Tommy Loughran retired.”

      Many fans today seem to be taken by the idea that many of the old timers were indeed tough, strong guys, but lacked the boxing skills to compete with more modern fighters. One might argue that an early 20th century swarmer like lightweight champion Battling Nelson might lose nearly every round in a 12 round fight against the fast and elusive Floyd Mayweather. But in fairness, how well would Mayweather do against Nelson if Floyd had to pace himself for a 45 round fight to the finish with 5-ounce horse hair gloves, no mouthpiece, no padded turnbuckle, no padded canvas, no protective cup and a referee who was liberal with fouls? Mayweather would never see the 40th round, he would never see the 30th round, he would likely succumb to Nelson’s fierce body punching as he slowed down and the rounds progressed.

      How tough was Battling Nelson? He went 42 rounds against Joe Gans perhaps the greatest lightweight champion of all time. Nelson took a fierce beating in the early rounds and it started at a fast pace. Gans hand speed was comparable to Mayweather, and he had the power to starch welterweights. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in their Goldfield fight Gans was “So fast that two-thirds of the time Nelson did not know where his opponent was” and that he rocked Nelson’s head “backward and forward and from one side to the other.” Gans dominated Nelson early just as Mayweather would. The Chronicle reported, “Dancing lightly in and away Gans hit Nelson when and where he pleased, and when the Battler swung, his gloves missed their hoped for destination by feet rather than inches.”

      Nelson could clearly be outboxed by a “marvel of speed” like Gans. But oh could “The Durable Dane” absorb a beating. Gans floored Nelson twice, once in the 8th and again in the 15th rounds and had him careening around the ring like a drunken sailor on two other occasions. At the end of the fight Nelson had one eye closed with the other closing. He had cuts on his face, his lips, and there was blood dripping from both of his ears. They fought 2 hours and 50 minutes the longest battle ever fought with gloves under Marquis of Queensbury rules. Nelson fouled out in the 42nd round to save himself from further punishment. Ringside observer Jack Welsh, a boxing referee said, “I watched the fight carefully and Gans had the best of it all the way. I think Nelson is the gamest and toughest man to ever step in the ring. There is not one man in a thousand who could have stood the punishment that the Dane took.”

      Stanley Ketchel is another example of a true “iron man.” Ketchel was a great middleweight champion, a tremendously hard puncher who exhibited heart, endurance, and great durability in the ring. He was a crude brawler stylistically, much like a modern Ricardo Mayorga but with far greater punching power. In his famous fight with Joe Thomas on Sep. 2, 1907 in Colma, Ca. he proved that he could fight at such a relentless pace and over such a great period of rounds that it would drain the imagination of a modern boxer.

      The recent May 2005 Diego Corrales –Jose Luis Castillo slugfest has been heralded as one of the greatest fights of all time. For 10 rounds they went at it from the opening bell, at any time it appeared that either man could fold from the blitz of vicious punching. The bout ended with seesaw fireworks that had the fans both stunned and screaming in excitement. Old time fight promoter Jim Coffroth described the Stanley Ketchel- Joe Thomas fight with the same kind of intensity, but for 32 rounds! Coffroth, an eyewitness, said, “They came racing out of their corners like madmen and never until the last blow was struck did either quit in the savage onslaught. I never took my eyes off that ring. I couldn’t! The sight of those men raining sledgehammer blows on each other and of both standing up when it seemed that one or both must collapse, fascinated me. For every second of every minute of the first 31 rounds I felt that the end must come. But it didn’t until after an hour and a half of the wildest fighting I had ever seen! I stood there petrified, but the crowd around me had gone crazy. The crowd was on its feet yelling and shrieking in wild delirium as the tide of the battle swept toward Ketchel, and then toward Thomas, and then back and forth again. It was a sight I couldn’t forget.” Ketchel finally knocked out Thomas in the 32nd round demonstrating the qualities of a real man of iron.

      There have been other such “iron men.” Middleweight champion Harry Greb fought 299 professional fights and was knocked out only twice, once in his first year as a pro, and the other time when he broke his forearm throwing a punch at Kid Graves. Jack Dillon is another “iron man”, in 248 professional fights was knocked out only once toward the end of his career. In like manner light-heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky had 291 fights, and claimed to have had over 400, he was knocked out only 4 times and not until his 11th year as a pro, and one of those was to future heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Pancho Villa, a little “iron man” was never knocked out in 109 pro fights.

      Some later entries also qualify for the title of an “iron man”. Tony Canzoneri, a triple-crown champion was stopped only once in the last fight of a 175 bout career. Barney Ross another triple-crown champion of the 30’s was never knocked off his feet in his entire career. Middleweight champion Jake Lamotta was as tough as they come. In 106 fights he was knocked off his feet only once near the end of his career. Marvin Hagler in 67 fights was never stopped or off his feet, save the knockdown against Juan Domingo Roldan which was incorrectly ruled. Amongst recent fighters Arturo Gatti has demonstrated the type of physical and mental toughness that is to be admired. Gatti showed tons of heart in his fights with Wilson Rodriguez and Mickey Ward, fighting with a broken hand in the second Ward fight. However Gatti stops just short of being considered a true “iron man” as he has been down, stopped and lacks the sustained durability and endurance of those named above.

What kind of a man is an iron man? A man of toughness, a man who is nearly impossible to stop, a man of endurance, a man of heart, a man of unbreakable will. A man of iron.