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Looking for an Edge
By Enrique Encinosa
Everyone wants an edge.
Stockbrokers, lawyers, politicians, and rock stars all seek an edge. Whether by a crazy stunt, a marketing gimmick, a legal angle, or an outrageous behavior, everyone is seeking a sliver of advantage over the competition.
In the fight game, gaining an edge over an opponent can mean finding out about his strategy or messing with his mental focus.
James J. Corbett was a master at creating distress and insecurity in his opponents. Corbett knew how to upstage his opponent at public gatherings: for example, arriving late at public functions where John L. Sullivan was present, thus annoying the champion.
Gentleman Jim even boxed an exhibition with Sullivan in full tuxedo regalia. For Sullivan, seeking an edge meant to show disdain for the San Francisco upstart by insisting on formal wear, but it was Corbett who gained the real edge by studying John L's style. For his historic fight with Sullivan, Corbett further annoyed the Boston fighter by refusing to enter the ring first, playing a waiting game that upset Sully.
Gentleman Jim was a master of strategy in and out of the ring, yet some of his foes tried their own bag of tricks on the San Francisco fighter. British champ Charlie Mitchell, who held Sullivan to a draw, fought Corbett at the Duval Athletic Club in Jacksonville during the first month of 1894. Mitchell was not a smooth strategist of clever wit; his forte for shaking up opponents relied on traditional cursing, at which he was a reputed master.
Charlie would launch into an artillery barrage of curse words aimed at Corbett's Irish ancestry, his personal life, and his fighting abilities, making the usually cool Gentleman Jim lose his well mannered demeanor. Corbett did make a rare mistake by rushing at Mitchell and receiving a crisp blow that cut his lower lip. Charlie gained the edge but lost the fight. An enraged Corbett pounced on him, stopping the British fighter in the third stanza. "Trouble is," Mitchell said, "that I got him too damn mad."
The "let's annoy him into making a mistake" strategy does not work very well. Another case in point is Jorge Luis Gonzalez, whose marketing gimmick was being peddled as somewhat of a villain, complete with a Fu Manchu mustache and an odd hairstyle. The massive, mean-looking Gonzalez wanted to annoy Riddick Bowe and, among other comments, made one to Bowe's pregnant wife about making her a widow before her baby was born. If the strategy was to unhinge Bowe, all it did was to make the sometimes lazy or complacent Brooklyn fighter angry, which was subsequently expressed by Bowe pounding, drubbing, bruising, and chopping down Gonzalez, sending the brazen heavyweight's career on a downward spiral.
Subtler methods work better. Ramiro Ortiz, bank president and one of Miami's most influential power brokers, is a former amateur boxer, promoter, and manager who knew how to gain an edge for his fighters. Ortiz tells the story of showing up for a card and arriving before his fighter, a prelim junior-middleweight performer.
"I knew who Johnny was fighting," Ortiz said, "but the fighter did not know me. I'm standing with my back to him when a trainer named Rocky Golio approaches me. 'Hi, Ramiro,' Rocky says, 'who you got today?' and I answer loud enough so the fighter can hear me: Rocky, I got this animal named Johnny Goodwin. This guy had about 90 fights in prison and left a trail of broken jaws and he put four of those cons in hospital stretchers. Guys 20 pounds heavier refuse to spar with him in the gym because he is such a beast." The strategy worked. Goodwin's opponent was intimidated, coming out of his corner boxing timidly, certain that he was a condemned man on his way to the gallows.
Head games are part of the fight game. Former champ Alfredo Escalera entered the ring with a pet snake wrapped around his body. Psychologically, the snake trick worked on two levels. First, it scared the hell out of opponents who were afraid of snakes, totally preoccupying them to be in the same ring with a dangerous animal when they should concentrate on the fight ahead. On another level, Escalera was sending out a message to his opponents that said: Here I am, playing with this nasty looking animal that most people fear. If I don't fear this snake how can I fear you?
Some fighters -- the rare ones -- can't be psyched. Point in case is Carmen Basilio, who, when told that nine out of ten sportswriters picked him to lose to Sugar Ray Robinson, said, "Well, I guess, nine out of ten are wrong."
Harry Greb was another who could not be intimidated, but Harry knew how to play head games. He tipped bartenders to serve him ice tea or lime water at well known hot spots so his opponents would think he was undertrained and on a drinking binge, only to find a very fit Greb inside the ring.
Kid McCoy was the master of the unethical edge. The Kid would tell opponents he was dying and plead with them to take it easy on him, suckering them into a betrayal and ambush inside the ropes. The Kid was probably the pioneer of the "your shoelace is untied" comment, followed by a solid punch to the distracted countenance of his foe.
Exuding confidence creates a psychological edge and unsettles an opponent. The legendary Sam Langford is said to have extended his arms, in a tapping-salute gesture reserved for the last round, in the middle of a fight. "It's not the last round, Sam," his opponent stated. "For you it is," Sam answered, knocking out his puzzled opponent as the words were followed by a left hook.
Ali's tactic of calling the round was not only a marketing gimmick, but also a clever way of psyching out an opponent, making him anticipate the exact time of his doom. It generally worked, except for the night the Great One tangled with a fireplug named Doug Jones, who lasted the full ten and gave the future champ a tight fight.
Archie Moore was another smooth talker. Former champ Willie Pastrano stated in interviews that when he fought a draw with Moore, the Old Mongoose almost sweet talked him to defeat. "He looked old," Pastrano said, "and he talked to me...he was saying things like looking good, Willie. You are the next champ, and then after a couple of rounds, he says, 'Stand still,' and I just said to myself What did he say? When I did that, that's all he needed. He hit me with a huge right hand."
Even religion plays a part in the quest for an edge. Evander Holyfield seeks an edge with religious hymns blaring as he pumps himself up, believing that God is in his corner, which is probably the ultimate edge of all time.
Religious sects and magic play a part in the fight game, as fighters try to place hexes on each other. Throughout the Caribbean and Central America, there are many believers of the Yoruba and Lucumi religions, often generically referred to as "Santeria."
Baby Coullimber, a man influenced by Santeria, was a three-time national champion in Cuba over a half-century ago, holding the same featherweight title as his father, Jack Coullimber, a Cuban boxing pioneer of the early '20s. Baby Coullimber was a good fighter who was petrified by his fear of Santeria hexes. Once Coullimber's opponents realized his fears, they capitalized on his weakness. The fighter would arrive at a dressing room in a fight arena to find someone had left a dead black rooster or red bandanas tied in knots in his dressing room - hexes that preyed on his fragile psyche. Baby Coullimber lost fights he should have won because of his fear of the hexes, his performances lacking in confidence.
Confidence is the ultimate edge. Fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco tells of giving one of Angelo's fighters a harmless placebo, making the pug believe he was getting a super-vitamin cocktail that would boost his energy. It worked on the fighter's mind, in his own belief.
In addition to head games, there are physical tricks that reflect a search for an edge. It has been said that Primo Carnera's corner made the giant heavyweight chew on green onions in the dressing room, so his breath would make the opponent's eyes water.
I knew a manager who hired call girls and sent them to seduce his fighter's opponent on the night before the fight. The girl was very capable, as the fighter, a well known local hero, had very little gas in his tank the following night, losing a 10-rounder in West Palm Beach. Florida.
A promoter I know wanted to give his challenger the edge against the out-of-town champion. As a result, the champ found himself coming into town on a late-night flight, being transported to his hotel through streets under repair, and assigned a room in a high-traffic lobby near the hotel's noisy nightclub. On the second night, after demanding a change of rooms, the champ was woken up twice at 2 A.M. by "a drunk calling the wrong number."
By the following afternoon, while the champ was preparing for his first workout at a local gym, a local prelim fighter, on orders of the promoter, stated to the champ that he should worry more about getting paid than winning the fight. On further prodding, the friendly pug described to the champ the quality of the rubber in the promoter's checks. This started a negotiation that dragged on for three meetings over two days, until the money was given to the manager of the champ on the very day of the fight.
By the time the title fight took place, the champion had been subjected to three days of bad sleep and constant stress due to the prospect of not being paid, factors that broke down his concentration. A new champ was crowned that night.
Throughout the '80s I spent a lot of time in the gym with Luis Sarria, the magnificent trainer who worked with Kid Tunero, Luis Rodriguez, Frankie Otero, and Muhammad Ali. During one of our many conversations, I asked Sarria about Ali's psyche jobs and about other fighters. "You know," he said as he lit his pipe, "Nothing you do makes a difference if you can't fight."
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