Tracy G. Callis
Historian
International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO)
ibro71@aol.com

Athletes - Bigger, Faster, Stronger (from WAIL! - June, 1998)

INTRODUCTION

Are athletes of today better than those of the past ? Was Muhammad Ali the greatest heavyweight ever ? Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever ? Is Mark McGwire the greatest homerun hitter ever ?

The argument that athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger is heard frequently today and there is little doubt that this is true. It is also heard that because they are bigger, faster, and stronger - they are better - and many of the top performers in today's sports are rated better than their predecessors. But, are they really ?

One must be careful in making a judgment. Various sports require different skills, comply with different rules, and are played in different ways, In some sports, man competes against nature on a time or distance basis. In other sports, man competes against man on an action/reaction basis and style of play becomes more important than time or distance.

BIGGER, FASTER AND STRONGER

A magnificent book, The Super Athletes, written by David Willoughby and published in 1974, analyzes athletic performances in many sports and is referenced in this article.

Willoughby writes "... the records of modern athletes, sport, industry, and medical science combine to show that the civilized portion of the human race is bigger, stronger, and healthier in general today than ever before in history." (Introduction, The Super Athletes)

All one has to do is check the height and weight statistics to see that the athletes are larger. Perhaps, the strongest argument that modern athletes are better is the continuous setting of new records in track, field, and swimming events where precise measurements of performances can be made.

Willoughby states "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." (page 585, The Super Athletes)

Further, Willoughby contends "A second factor that should be taken into account in the "weight" events is the size of the performer. This means not only his bodyweight, but also his height. Since greater height and weight assist a performer in such events as weightlifting, the shot put, the hammer throw, the 56-pound weight throw, and even the lightweight javelin throw ..." (pages 585-586, The Super Athletes)

MAN AGAINST NATURE

In "Man Against Nature" events such as track, field, and swimming, the best technique coupled with specific athletic abilities bring about better performance. Judgment is clear on time and distance. Putting the shot sixty-five feet is better than putting it sixty. Running one hundred meters in 10.5 seconds is better than running it in 10.7 seconds.

As time passes and people get bigger, faster, and stronger and utilize better techniques, athletic performances improve. Times get lower and distances farther. So, do the athletes get better over the years in these sports? It appears that they do.

Yet, even in these "Man Against Nature" sports, there are rules changes and innovations which assist the human in his battle against the physical world - starting blocks, fiberglass poles, corked tracks and springy boards for launching broad jumps, etc. So, factors other than pure athletic ability creep into the picture and complicate the task of comparing athletes.

GENERALIZATION
 
A dangerous mistake in judgment may occur. A generalization might take place - since athletes perform better than they used to in "Man Against Nature" sports (i.e. a recent 65 foot shot put is better than the old 60 foot put), they perform better in all sports.

MAN AGAINST MAN

In "Man Against Man" sports or "Team Against Team" sports (which ultimately boil down to "Man Against Man"), performance is based upon a reaction by one competitor to an action by the other competitor (and not simply a case of running fast or throwing an object a great distance). Speed, power, and quickness offer advantages but often are not as important as "savvy", anticipation, and the correct action/reaction.

In baseball, a "Team Against Team" sport (really "Man Against Man"), when a batter faces pitchers, certainly sixty-one homeruns in a season is a better number than sixty. But, did the performer do better ? The number was not attained by strictly competing against nature so much as it was by a man competing against other men on an action/reaction basis. In boxing, a 75 percent knockout ratio is better than 70 percent but it is accomplished by a man competing against other men on an action/reaction basis too.

NUMBERS

It can be argued 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.

STYLE

In "Man Against Nature" sports, a change in technique can be an improvement in that it enables a man to do better in his quest for a faster time or greater distance. In "Man Against Man" sports, technique also can improve performance and is very closely related to the "style" of play.

Depending upon the sport, style can be a dominant factor. It often offsets "bigger, faster, and stronger".

As difficult as it is to compare athletic performances over the years in "Man Against Man" or "Team Against Team" sports such as boxing, baseball, basketball, and football, any comparison is confounded further by the styles used by the men.

Willoughby addresses this as it relates 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." (page 355, The Super Athletes)

SUMMARY (ATHLETES)

Today, athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger but it all depends upon the sport as to whether they are truly better than those of the past. Different sports have different rules and different objectives (jump, run, throw, etc.). One example was Michael Jordan in baseball. He was bigger. Was he better? Another example is Deion Sanders in baseball. He is faster. Is he better? What about Jorge Luis Gonzalez in boxing? He is bigger. Is he better?

The skills needed to succeed in a given sport must be such that they enable a man to compete successfully against others. A man who has an abundance of a particular skill may be better than others who possess better "all-around" skills. A standout athlete in one sport may be simply average in another. And, as strange as it seems, the daily activities of a particular period in past history may have equipped individuals better for a certain type of competition than today's activities.

It is the opinion of this writer that the best athletes of all-time could compete with each other on a "near-equal" basis with slight advantages "here and there" going to certain men who possessed "this or that" skill or attribute (depending upon the sport and how the various traits matched up). The modern athlete is not necessarily better than his predecessors.

Rules of the game, mental discipline, and style affect outcomes of competition as often as size, speed, quickness, agility, strength, and stamina do.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO BOXERS ?

Boxing is a "Man Against Man" sport in which being bigger, faster, and stronger offers an advantage. But, style offsets this physical edge. So, in this sport, those who combine physical advantages with good technique have the upper hand.
 
Is the modern fighter the only man to possess the physical advantages or the skills ? No. There have been men with size, speed, and strength throughout history. In addition, various styles have been developed and utilized. Many exceptional fighters have appeared over the past 120 years.

Could Muhammad Ali of the 1960s fight the athletes of today? "Yes" - and be better. Go back thirty or forty years before Ali. Could Joe Louis of the 1930s or Jack Dempsey of the 1920s fight with the men of the 1960s or 1990s? Again, a resounding "yes" - and be better! Go back further. Could Jim Jeffries of the early 1900s or Jack Johnson of the teens fight with men of the 1930s or 1960s or 1990s ? Once more, "yes" - and be better

Two recent examples of older fighters proving their merit against the modern men are George Foreman and Larry Holmes (of the 1970s and 1980s). They held their own against the fighters of today and pounded most of them.

For style to offset the physical advantages, one must possess the technique, mental discipline, and physical conditioning.

TECHNIQUE

Technique is the better (or best) way of doing this or that. It came about as a way to use an individual's particular combination of height, weight, speed, and strength in an effort to beat the physical advantage or skills of an opponent. Foot movement, head movement, bobbing-and-weaving, crouching, hand feints, doubling up on jabs, straight punches, etc. are examples of technique.

Most techniques used by today's fighters were well-known by the 1920s and used regularly by fighters since then. Little if any advantage is seen here for the modern fighters over the early fighters.

WEIGHTS

Weights are utilized by boxers today in training much more than ever. A strength advantage is seen for the modern fighter due to his more frequent use of weights. But, care must be exercised to prevent the fighter from becoming too heavily muscled or "stiff" because limber arm and shoulder movement is a valuable asset which a fighter does not want to lose.

Weights were used in the old days too as evidenced by many old films but not to the extent that they are used today. However, years ago much manual labor was carried out by everyone, including boxers who worked at other jobs. So, hard work, chopping, digging, moving, lifting, carrying, positioning for leverage - on a daily basis - provided skills which those boxers utilized in the ring. This fact might serve to counter the strength advantage of the modern fighters.

SOCIO-ECONOMIC "HUNGER"

The "hungry" athlete is a worthy adversary and is usually a product of the "have-not" environment from which he comes. A study conducted by Weinberg and Arond and reported in The American Journal of Sociology (1952) states that most fighters (and, consequently, most good fighters) are likely to come from poor families which are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

The modern fighter who comes from this background possesses this "advantage". But, as one looks back through history, it is seen that more and more families - black, white, and otherwise - came from poorer socio-economic levels. So, it seems that the earlier years of our history produced more "hungry" fighters and provided this advantage to its fighters.

MENTAL DISCIPLINE

The society of earlier years in this nation (and most other nations) insisted upon strict adherence to its rules. This attitude prevailed in athletics as well. An athlete who was trained in a certain manner to fight a certain way generally followed the rules while in training and fought his fight as planned.

"Absolute" insistence to follow the rules by those in charge developed an "absolute" resolution to do so on the part of the fighter. This, in turn, cultivated an "absolute" will an indomitable will - in many cases. So, it seems that an earlier time in our history produced men of a greater "will" and has the advantage here.

Furthermore, many of today's boxers fight "dumb". They follow their opponent around almost in a straight-line, they do not cut off the ring, they fight in a straight-up stance, they hardly ever crouch, and they position themselves at a range which is perfect for the opponent to strike. No wonder Ali was able to jab his foes so easily (which is not a putdown to him).

PHYSICAL CONDITION

The rather lax mental attitude of today's society has affected its trainers and boxers. Many boxers today fail to train adequately and abandon their fight plan in the course of a fight. Many times, the poor physical condition is obvious. Many trainers do not insist upon rigid adherence to his rules of training. Many give in to the whims of the lazy or rich or ranked pugilist.

Consequently, the men are not as well conditioned physically as they could/should be. Those who are in good shape usually win. If an athlete is bigger and heavier and not in condition, he will be a sitting duck when he becomes tired. Many boxers have fat bellies hanging over their trunks and, consequently, they tire after three or four rounds.

SUMMARY (BOXERS)

Boxing is a sport in which "bigger, faster, and stronger" provides a definite advantage but does not necessarily equate to being better. As useful as height, weight, speed, and strength are, they are not as important as the correct action/reaction which is generally associated with style and technique.

A fighter needs savvy, mental discipline, physical conditioning and stamina. The modern fighters seem to have an edge in strength and a slight edge in technique. The fighters of the past appear to have the advantage in mental discipline, physical conditioning, stamina, and hunger.

It is the opinion of this writer that fighters of the past were better.

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