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Does Size Really matter?
By Dan Hanley
Ah, the age old question which has nagged man for centuries. Do we deal with our shortcomings and compensate by giving it everything we've got in return, or...hey! Get your mind up out of the gutter, we're talkin' boxing here, baby!
The wonderful thing about this sweet science of ours is the fact that it was an equal opportunity employer long before the term became viable. For those 118 pound noseguards out there who, for some reason, could never cut the mustard at the NFL tryouts, or those 5' 2" rebound specialists ignored by the NBA, there was always boxing.
For those would be athletes in third world countries too tall on the soccer pitch, or those inner city youths lacking the brawn to put one out of the park, boxing has been the athletes alternative, which enables man to toe the mark with his peer within the confines of a specific weight class. So, my fellow fightnuts, in light of the recent Trinidad-Hopkins tete-a-tete, there is a question that requires answering. Why do fighters venture from their ruled kingdom into weight divisions yet untrodden?
To examine these fistic obsessions of greater glory, let us kick back, pop open that cold one and hunker down as only true fight fans can while I proceed to get a bit wordy.
To begin, what drives man, or in this case, a pug, to look beyond his physical boundaries? Should a lightweight champ not be content with his 135 pound kingdom? Why must he look beyond his structured weight class when he can rule with an iron fist? The answer is complex but, having narrowed it down to four key elements in the fighter's makeup, I believe we can attribute this to growth, laziness, shame and desire.
Growth, natural growth mind you, is as good a reason as any for moving north in weight. Fighters such as Jimmy McLarnin, Fidel LaBarba, Fighting Harada, Ismael Laguna and Ruben Olivares all achieved notoriety at a lighter weight while very young before giving in to their natural growing pains. McLarnin and Laguna for example, at the age of 18, were top contenders at featherweight and bantamweight respectively, before achieving ultimate glory several pounds heavier. Both these pugs had the physical framework to carry the higher poundage and grew into their natural weights gracefully.
LaBarba and Harada, at the age of 19, actually donned the 112 pound crown in their respective eras, yet, both made a fast exit when acknowledging nature's wake up call, with both realizing mixed results to careers in a heavier class. Harada, of course, had a truly remarkable career as he upended the great Eder Jofre at 118 and defended his crown five times before giving way once more, eventually fighting unsuccessfully twice for the 126 pound crown. LaBarba, on the other hand, saw his success muted slightly by an immediate two division jump. Yet, he was a top contender at feather and even fought Bat Battalino for his crown.
Although these pugs heeded nature's clarion call, there are those who suffered from their own fighting spirit. Flyweight champ Sot Chitalda comes to mind as a fighter who refused to admit when his day was done at 112. Chitalda's British trainer Charles Atkinson freely admitted that the Thai's walking around weight was 135, yet, with a title defense looming he would always manage to boil off the poundage in order to toe the mark on the prescribed date. Atkinson's concern of course was the dehydration factor as he stated that the last 2-3 pounds was a nightmare to lose.
Barring the removal of a vital organ, Chitalda did what he had to in order to make 112 and paid the price of his trade by entering the ring against Yong Kang Kim like a walking corpse. It can be said that Chitalda was a poster boy for one that missed the boat, for one can only ponder what he may have achieved at 118 or 122 by giving way to the outline of his DNA map.
On the other hand, we have Ruben Olivares, who had no such compunction of leaving his bantamweight division in the rear view mirror. Oh, Rockabye Ruben was indeed a growing boy. A top contender at 20 and a champ at 22, his loins were sprouting during a highly acclaimed reign at 118, but he was managing to hold his own on those menacing looking scales. Unfortunately for Ruben, his growth spurt was hastened by the bright lights and the cold cervezas which his stardom wrought. And with that in mind, let's segue into the next element for division hopping...the lazy fighter.
Laziness is not as prevalent in the lighter divisions due to the necessity of having to make the weight. It exists but not with the regularity of the heavies. Now, I'm sure there are those of you out there that will assume that I'm going to pull the obvious and attack the '80s heavyweights like LeRoy Jones would a Domino's pizza. However, I would like to think I'm above those sophomoric 'wonderbra' jibes and will avoid the obvious.
Notwithstanding the TV wag who coined James 'Broadaxe' Broad as 'Broadass', it was an embarrassing time for promoters and announcers as they were forced to portray a monotonous 10 rounder between two boys jiggling their way into contention as an exciting slugfest. And without a structured weight class and no glossier division to aspire to, one might think there is no reason to dwell on these bad boys who ignored the salad bar, especially considering the main theme to this text. However, while addressing the element of sloth, one must take into consideration all parameters and, one glaring example does tend to stand out in the old Fightnut's memory.
In the late '80s I was impressed by a heavyweight prospect who appeared to possess all the necessary hardware to ascend to that top rung of the heavyweight division. Armed with mobility, a body sculpted out of stone, a fair punch and a searing jab reflective of his ring monicker, Eric 'the whip' Curry so impressed me that I labelled him a coming champ. Oh, man! Did I blow that one!
For some reason, which I was not privy to, Curry disappeared off the pugilistic radar screen. And, as unceremoniously as he blinked out, reappeared five years later. Excitement, as only a fight fan could relate to, ran down my spine as I heard of his impending televised bout for the NABF title against fringe contender Alex Garcia. And as I waited with bated breath for my boy to make his ring entrance, various scenarios danced through my noggin' of the tatoo, that the Curry jab was going to engrave upon the face of Garcia. Now, one can only imagine the look on my face as Curry, showing all the dexterity of a Himalayan Yeti, waddled into the ring that night. Displaying a waistline which would cause even Tony Tubbs to snicker, 'fatass', Curry huffed and puffed his way through the bout, eventually and mercifully getting stopped in the 12th round. To this day it is a mystery to me what happened to Curry as his career continued on a fast spiral downwards, eventually incurring the indignation of becoming an Everlast bag for upcoming prospects.
Of course, one could hide behind the 'glandular condition' theory. But, to my knowledge, the only fighter who could corroborate this condition medically was '50s British heavyweight Don Cockell. A world rated light heavyweight in the early part of that decade, Cockell's blossoming waistline suddenly got out of hand regardless of the training and dietary measures he would put himself through. And ultimately, was forced to ascend to the valley of the big boys. Speed of hand made him a top contender in his new weight class, but the ample target he offered Rocky Marciano in '55 for the heavyweight crown insured a painful 9th round exit for the now 205 pound roly-poly challenger.
Not to digress, the heavies are another matter and should be treated with kid gloves on anything other than the laziness issue I first broached. Therefore, rather than ponder that god awful decade of heavyweight 'training abstinence', let us get back on track and pursue the more adventurous subjects of sloth who cry out for public admonishment.
Back in the mid '70s, there was a 175 pound prospect out of New York that was so 'hot' he could send a geiger counter afluttering. His name was Pedro Soto and, if he appeared to have a shortcoming, it was that he was being rushed along a little too quick. Indeed, by his 18th fight he had already duked it out with veterans such as Mike Quarry, Billy Douglas, Eddie Owens and Gary Summerhays. However, he had a good team behind him and the future looked unlimited until dissention crept its way into camp. Now if you believe Soto, he could no longer make 175. If you believed his trainer, Gil Clancy, he would no longer make 175. Poor training habits, Clancy cited. A shame, because by the end of the decade Soto had put his career into a terminal nosedive. And those of us who watched in awe as his star shone so bright, were now forced to endure the sight of him getting pounded on by such ordinary heavies such as Alfredo Evangelista and Marvin Stinson. The gut hanging over his trunks of course, is what convinced me of the Clancy version of the tale.
And of course, how could any story of listlessness be complete without adding James 'Lights Out' Toney to the mix. After having successfully eaten his way out of two titles and four divisions, Toney, today lumbers his way through pointless 10 rounders against journeymen heavyweights. So, if you hear the appellation, 'Lights Out' spoken around Toney these days, it's probably his corner yelling for him to close the refrigerator door...between rounds.
Lest I dwell any longer on some of our chubby friends unwilling to make that lasting sacrifice at the dinner table, let us proceed onwards and upwards to the third element involved in division hopping. And that is shame. Note that I did not state pride, for, in this day and age of hype and trash talk, it has become an accepted practice rather than attempt to secure a rematch with the winner of a high profile match, to just high-tail it out of the division claiming an inability in making the weight.
Now, I could go into a litany of examples, which I am prone to do, on this subject, but I will hold my tongue and cite only the most glaring perpetrator of 'escape route boxing'. And that is none other than Meldrick 'the kid' Taylor.
Taylor, with a 1984 Olympic featherwight gold medal around his neck, made a meteoric rise through the lightweight ranks before settling into the 140 pound division. There, he lifted the IBF crown from the talented Buddy McGirt and proceeded to power share the division with his WBC counterpart, Julio Cesar Chavez, until the inevitable meeting between the two super powers. And when the bout came off, it was soon realized that any hype attributed to the prefight buildup was understated. For, what these two produced on that St. Patricks Day in 1990, was nothing short of breathtaking. The result aside, the blocks were in place for a mega-bout rematch. With the searing blend of styles, the controversial ending and the memory of these two warlords going at it, still in the mind of the public, the bout could have commanded untold millions. But it was not to be.
Perhaps smarting from the aftermath of the prefight hype, or losing his undefeated pricetag, or possibly unable to come to terms with one second from victory, Taylor discovered his escape route. Claiming to no longer be able to negotiate the 140 pound limit, he was moving up. The implication, of course, was that Taylor was dead at the weight and that was why he lost. He found his out, rather than regroup, gnash his teeth and savor the opportunity of revenge on his tormentor, Taylor chose to ride his excuse out of the division and into the night.
Taylor did achieve a measure of success in his new found 147 pound home, winning a share of the welterweight crown and defending it twice, all against modest competition. What struck me most at this point of his career was that he looked like a short pudgy welterweight, not a fighter incapable of making 140. With eyes bigger than his belly, Taylor even had the affrontory of making a play for the 154 pound crown, until having his dreams dashed via a painful hammering at the impolite hands of Terry Norris. Still wielding his portion of the 147 pound scepter, Taylor returned to welterweight only to take a similar beating from the Belfast based Venezuelan, Crisanto Espana, who possessed arms so long they could shame a Cro-Magnon. And the Taylor star was now beginning to dim.
With a career now going nowhere fast, compounded by reputed financial problems, did it really boggle anyone's mind to discover that, four and one half years after activating his weight problem escape hatch, that Taylor was somehow, inexplicably, a Jr. welterweight again? Pleading his case to anyone who would listen, Taylor whined his way into a belated rematch that had slowly gone off the boil. And, although he put up a fair attempt, Taylor had neither the skills nor the popularity he commanded in 1990, as he came apart in the 8th round against the still talented Chavez. His return only made his ego-sparing escape laughable, and left us pondering what might have been.
And finally, we examine the ultimate element. A complex human trait that has inspired man to reach for that which is slightly out of our reach. Desire. This raw ambition that gnaws at our loins has caused us to put asunder that which we are told is unatainable. And with that in mind, let us scrutinize the welterweight division.
The welters, those bridesmaids to the glamour division, have always looked at the middles with avarice. No less than 19 former or reigning welterweight kings mounted an assault for the title of middleweight champion of the world. Stretching the limit for what nature did not intend, only 9 of these pugs felt the euphoria as their arm was raised declaring them boss at 160.
These numbers of course, are not grand. Moreover, 3 of them did not cut it on their initial try for the title. Yet, they still come, and with a 147 pound crown on their head, it is still not enough. Felix Trinidad had a legacy to follow, and like so many before him, he came up wanting. It wasn't like Bernard Hopkins was more talented than Tito, but simply, too damn big. Even some of the success stories such as Basilio and Griffith never again realized the dominance they held at 147 once they entered this new battleground, but still they come. Of course, try telling Alexander or Napolean that the next hill is pure folly. For, it's enough that it is there, mocking us.
In regards to Tito, what will his future bring? Will he be content to plod along inauspiciously at 160, or reopen his greatness account at 154? Perhaps Tito should read 'Paradise Lost' and dwell on the fact that, with apologies to Milton for the bastardised quote, it is better to serve in heaven than rule in hell.
See ya next round
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