Busting The Modern Myth!

By: Monte D. Cox

What makes people believe everything new is better?

Go to a store, everything’s “new and improved”, “now with added,” and blah, blah, blah… Some products have improved taste and texture. Mostly, it’s the same ol’, same ol’.

Filtered cigarettes were supposed to reduce health risks. More smoke and mirrors, but they’ve been the biggest sellers since they were introduced.

Boxing’s just as fallible. Jake Wegner, a boxing historian and researcher, wrote in the IBRO Journal # 82 in June 2004 about the difference between a boxing fan and a boxing historian: ‘A boxing fan is content with just watching fights; a boxing historian needs much more. He needs to get access to the fighters and get inside accounts. Historians ask questions.

‘A fan will read that Willie Pep once won the third round of his fight with Jackie Graves without throwing a punch and believe the myth. A historian will read through the reels of newspaper microfilm from the city where the fight took place, interview spectators when possible and compare newspaper accounts.

‘This is important because history becomes heresy if the facts are not reported and spoken of in an accurate manner.

‘Would it make a difference if you knew that the newspapers of the time never reported a story about Pep winning a round in such a manner and that the fable did not emerge until decades later? Or would it matter that the actual newspaper accounts state that the third round was the most rabid of the night, saying, “A clicker couldn’t count the blows.” Would you still believe the tale? You would if you were a person eager to spread legend and predisposed to accepting stories because they agree with your particular ideas. You wouldn’t if you are a historian. You would want to know the truth and once presented with the facts would accept them as such.

The myth most often foisted today is: Fighters are “bigger, faster, stronger and better” than ever. Do they have superior fundamentals? Do they throw more punches? Are they “new and improved” and better than the legends?

The new breed spouts off about the sport’s “evolution” But the old-time greats were just as skilled in the lower weight classes as the moderns.

A swarmer then is a swarmer today, and they were much better at in-fighting. The slick boxers of that era had an even bigger bag of tricks than the TV darlings. They were better at feinting, trapping, and glove blocking.

What makes a complete fighter? Speed, power, precision punching, combinations, footwork, toughness, durability, endurance, and boxing skill. In the last 60 years of “evolution,” how many fighters have been better overall than “Sugar” Ray Robinson?

There are many myths perpetuated on boxing boards about the great fighters of the past.

“No fighters before 1980 were any good.”

“No fighters before 1970 were any good.”

“No fighters before 1960 were any good.”

“No fighters before WW2 were any good.”

“No fighters before 1930 were any good.”

“They didn’t throw sustained combination punches before 1920.”

“All fighters from the early 20th century were crude, with no semblance of skill.”

“The old-time fights were very slow-paced.”

“Because of superior nutrition and training, today’s fighters are better than those of the past.”

Why not add: The world is flat – all are myths!

Boxing training hasn’t changed much in over 100 years. Jogging, jumping rope, medicine balls, bag work, sparring, and even rowing machines have been around since the late 19th century. While there have been advances in nutrition and supplements, this hasn’t helped today's crop fight as many rounds or as often as those of the past.

One often sees fighters – especially heavyweights now -- tire before the 12th round.

Training hasn’t improved. If anything there are less qualified trainers than ever before. Joe Frazier commented in KO Magazine, March 1999, ‘These guys aren’t trained by real champions, by great ex-fighters.”

The best trainers in history were fighters who knew all the ins-and-outs of the game. Rocky 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 and had over 160 pro fights. He fought the likes of Joe Gans, Sam Langford, and Harry Greb.

Ray Arcel, who learned from some of the greats, like Benny Leonard and Whitey Bimstein, noted shortly before his death, ‘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.”

The only significant change in the game is fighters box fewer rounds. Styles have remained consistent

By the early 20th century, there were four basic styles: the out-boxers, like Jim Driscoll, Abe Attell, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and Benny Leonard; the well-balanced boxer-punchers, like Joe Gans and Sam Langford; swarmers, like Battling Nelson, and crude sluggers like Stanley Ketchel.

Early 20th century boxers were much better infighters than the current breed. This is due, in part, to Muhammad Ali, who rarely went to the body, and amateur rules that don’t give sufficient weight to body blows.

Some modern referees will separate fighters as soon as they get close. The John Ruiz-Roy Jones fight is an example: Every time Ruiz got close, the referee broke them, stymieing Ruiz’s ability to deal with the much-faster Jones.

With the disparity in talent, it may not have made any difference.

Boxing historian Michael Hunnicut is an avid collector of vintage fight films. He used to trade films with Jimmy Jacobs of Big Fights Inc. He’s painstakingly researched and studied the punch stats of the earliest fights available on film.

Here are some of the surprising results that will be published in a future issue of the IBRO journal:

The notion that fighters of the early 20th century fought at a slow place and their punch stat numbers were not equal to those of modern fighters can be verifiably proven false. It’s a myth!

Take a look at a well-known modern-era classic: Ray Leonard versus Roberto Duran, June 20, 1980 Montreal, Ca. Duran averaged 90-92 punches for 15 rounds -- a sizzling pace – a classic war.

A recent, more familiar fight, Gatti-Ward three in 2003, Arturo averaged 71 punches a round, according to Compubox, which is still a very fast pace.

In comparison, Henry Armstrong’s Nov 15, 1938 welterweight title defense against Ceferino Garcia, Hammerin’ Hank averaged 70 punches a round, to earn a 15-round decision.

His punch output was very good, but fell short of the torrid pace he set at his peak.

Shane Mosley threw an average of 41 punches a round in his return 12 with Oscar De La Hoya that he won by a shade in 2003. ODLH, who some ringsiders had ahead, averaged 51 a round.

Did past greats fight slower than moderns? Consider the following: One of the most action-packed battles of recent memory was the 2003 Fight-of-the-Year candidate, Vassily Jirov versus -James Toney. Jirov lost a hotly contested nod, but was the busier man, averaging 86 punches for all 12 rounds.

There have been fights in the past just as heated over greater distances.

The Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast lightweight championship held on Feb 22, 1910 was called “for concentrated viciousness... the most savage bout I have ever seen” wrote W.O. McGeehan in the New York Herald Tribune.

Michael Hunnicut agrees, saying it is “the best fight I have ever seen on film.” They fought to the 42nd round. Nelson, a swarmer, like Ricky Hatton, averaged 85 punches a round. He threw 90 in the 30th round.

They slowed in the 39th. Nelson, the loser, threw 70. These guys threw just as many punches-a-round as one sees in a 12-rounder today, but they did it for over 40!

Here’s another myth buster. The Willie Ritchie-Joe Rivers July 4, 1913 lightweight championship match, featured a whopping 95 punches-a-round from Ritchie -- 3-5 punch combinations – before stopping Rivers in the 11th – clear evidence, he could match the intensity of anybody currently.

The final myth: fighters back-in-the-day didn’t punch as hard or as cleanly, and scored fewer early-round KO’s. Not true.

Three things must be considered. The vintage fighters fought more scheduled rounds, so the average fight lasted longer.

Fights are stopped much more quickly now. The Joe Gans-Battling Nelson fight in Goldfield would have ended in the 15th round under modern conditions. Nelson had been down twice, was bleeding and was careening around the ring, hands down, like a drunken sailor.

No way that fight would have continued today. We don’t allow people to take that kind of a beating.

Now, if a fighter half staggers when asked to walk forward after a knockdown, the fight is stopped. That’s why there weren’t as many early stoppages.

There were plenty of great punchers and boxer-punchers in the early 20th century. It was the norm, not the exception.

-Terry McGovern knocked out 10 men in a total of 17 rounds, the victims included top ranked contenders like Pat Haley, Harry Forbes and bantamweight champion Pedlar Palmer, who was undefeated.

-Joe Gans was one of the greatest fighters of any time. The San Francisco Chronicle, Sep. 28, 1904 wrote of his marvelous speed and skills, “Those who have watched Gans go through his work every day are amazed at his wonderful agility, his speed and his clean hitting ability.”

In his career, Gans scored 70 knockouts that were 10 rounds or less, and 27 knockouts that were three rounds or less, and the victims included hard hitting left-hook artist Dal Hawkins, lightweight champion Frank Erne, and the usually durable Elbows McFadden.

-Bob Fitzsimmons had 47 knockouts in his 54 wins, and although not much more than a middleweight, he knocked out heavyweight contenders Gus Ruhlin in six, Peter Maher in one, and Tom Sharkey, whom some old-timers compared favorably to Rocky Marciano, in two rounds.

-Stanley Ketchel was a murderous puncher, who scored 50 knockouts in his 54 wins, 19 were three rounds or less, and the victims included top men, like Mike “Twin” Sullivan and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien.

- Sam Langford had more knockouts than Mike Tyson and George Foreman combined. His 138 career knockouts (research by historian Tim Leone) are second only to Archie Moore on the all-time list.

These guys could punch cleanly, and with great fundamental mechanics. One can’t score so many knockouts otherwise.

To under-estimate them because they weren’t on HBO or ESPN does them a disservice. To say men are are “better” because its now, instead of then, doesn’t hold water. It’s a myth!

I recently watched a very good technician Winky Wright struggle with Sam Solimon. Soliman looked goofy on modern zoom-lensed HBO cameras. Can you imagine how funny he'd look filmed with 1910 technology? Don't look at the speed of those hand cranked films and get mislead. And most of those guys were much better at infighting than the tough Aussie, who showed how guys with amazing stamina like toughman Battling Nelson had such success.

Legendary fighters could compete with the moderns. They could fight at just as fast a pace for more rounds. This is fact.

On any playing field, the legendary fighters are the equal, or better, than modern ones. Just keep thinking Ray Robinson.