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How Good Were The Old Boxers? How Good Are The New?
By Steven Goldberg


The popularity of virtually every sport requires that it maintain interest when no major event is taking place. Boxing, like many other sports, does this through endless discussions of the relative merits of the old and the new that give historical continuity to the sport. In this process, contemporary fighters are inevitably compared with fighters who were contemporary long ago.

No argument is likely to dissuade anyone from the belief that the fighters of his time were the best, a fact that tells us more about people than about boxing. Nonetheless, many older boxing fans continue to hope to persuade those of a later era that more recent fighters do not compare with those who are now long gone. This piece addresses the arguments they use--not to demonstrate that their conclusion is necessarily incorrect (i.e., that the later fighters are as good or better), but that the arguments are faulty and do nothing to support their claim of the superiority of the older fighters.

It is commonly argued that poverty breeds great boxers. This is true. With few exception, all boxers have come from the lower economic ranks; few people with other options will choose to make a living by getting hit in the head. It is also true, as those who make this argument imply, that the older boxers fought in a time when a higher percentage of people were poor.

What is not true is that there were more poor people (in absolute numbers) in the past. Over the years the population increases faster than the percentage of poor decreases.

The reason that this is important is that, contrary to the arguments of the old-timers, the relationship of poverty to boxing ability indicates that later boxers should be better than earlier boxers; at a later date there is a larger pool of poor people to generate great boxers.

It is difficult for American boxing writers to accept this because boxing writers tend to come from the very groups--the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians--who have long since left poverty and risen to the middle class. What is true is that there are far fewer poor Jews, Irish, and Italians and, therefore, far fewer Jewish, Irish, and Italian boxers. Indeed, since 1959, there has been only one non-black, non-Hispanic boxer (Nino Benvenuti--an Italian--in 1968) named "Fighter of The Year."

Then there is the question of precisely what "old-time" boxers we are discussing. One often hears that "they don't make heavies like Louis of lightweights like Gans anymore. Well, they never did. There were no Gans's in Louis' time or Louis's in Gans' time. Louis was born over five years after Gans had hung them up.

The correct comparison is, for example, the current crop of boxers with those of a specific past year or the past twenty years with those of another twenty-year period. (This works both ways; if "current" is defined to include both Tyson and Ali, the past period used for comparison must be at least a twenty-year period.) This would seem too obvious to mention; I suspect that the reason incorrect comparisons are so often made is that in a sport like basketball it is at least arguable that nearly all of the very best of all time were playing in a single year (say, 1986) or a single period (say, 1972-1986).

I wasn't around sixty years ago, but I do remember that the top heavyweight challengers a bit over thirty years ago were Nino Valdes and Don Cockell and the top feathers included Shigeja Kaneko, names that do not flow from the lips of those who discuss the boxing greats. I doubt that all of those early-years "Sailors" and "Chocolates" were that much better.

The point is made if we do take a specific past year for comparison with today. So as not to risk seeming to have stacked the deck, I'll use a year picked at random by my computer: 1938.

Let us consider the typical boxing fan. This is someone who is somewhat less knowledgeable than is the average reader of this site, but far more knowledgeable than is the average sports fan. I would estimate that this boxing fan would recognize no more than twenty names of all the ranked fighters in all the divisions in 1938. And few of the recognized names would be of boxers anyone would call great.

Thus (and this is, obviously, only an educated guess), the average fan of today would know the names of six of the champions in 1938: Joe Louis, John Henry Lewis, Freddy Steele, Barney Ross, Lou Ambers, and Henry Armstrong. He would probably not have heard of bantam and flyweight champs, Harry Jeffra and Benny Lynch.

Of the eighty ranked challengers, the fan is likely to know the names of about twelve: Max Schmeling, Tommy Farr, Bob Pastor, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tony Galento, Arturo Godoy, Gus Lesnevich, Fred Apostoli, Billy Conn, Fritzie Zivic, Kid Chocolate, Sixto Escobar, and--maybe--Marcel Thil and Al Hostak.

I think that most boxing experts would consider the best-known twenty boxers of nearly any one of the past twenty years to have a higher average ability than does the group from 1938.

It would be very interesting to do a year-by-year analysis of this sort for every year of the rankings, comparing each year with all the others.

While this analysis would certainly not be free of subjectivity and opinion, it would likely be more objective than one-on-one comparisons of the "who was better, Ali or Johnson" type; emotional ties to an era would still be a problem, but sentimental ties to particular boxers would be drowned out by the sheer number of boxers. *

A second argument for the superiority of boxers of former times is the fact that these boxers had considerably more bouts and, therefore, a greater experience that made them better fighters.

It is undoubtedly true that most boxers had more fights in the past. It may be true that this tended to make them better than the boxers of today (though this factor may be balanced by others, such as the greater physical strength of today's fighters). But it is important to remember that, as they say in the sciences, nature takes priority over theory. In other words, it makes sense that added experience makes for better boxers, but this can not be assumed. The superiority must be determined by means independent of number of bouts and then correlation of experience and ability determined. Otherwise one is merely arguing in a circular fashion: fighters with more bouts are better; we know that they're better because they've had more bouts. (It may be, for example, that the old time fighters attained their greatest proficiency by, say, the thirtieth fight, so that all those additional fights are irrelevant in comparison to a current fighter who has had thirty fights.)

If the question of experience (may) tend to argue for the superiority of past fighters, the issue of size (for heavyweights) and strength-for-size (other weights) argues for the superiority of today's boxers.

In the case of many sports it is self-evident that virtually all of the best are performing today or have recently retired. Basketball is the most obvious example (would the "Original Celtics" hold today's pro teams under 200 points?), but a comparison of today's track records with those of a half-century ago would lead one to believe that in the old days they must have run the hundred meters carrying a rowboat. However, save for discussion of heavyweights, boxing is pretty much immunized here by the fact of weight divisions. (Though it is possible that the strength added by today's weight training makes the welterweight of today stronger than was the middleweight of fifty years ago.)

Where the greats like Louis and Marciano entered the ring in the 190's and 180's, virtually everyone who has fought in a championship bout since 1960 has weighed over 200 and virtually every winner has weighed over 215.

To be sure, the Lewis' and Marciano's defeated men of this size. But they did not fight men of this size regularly. The fact that a 195-pounder can beat a large man once in a while does not demonstrate that he could endure a career consistently enduring the punishment meted out by large men.

Moreover, the 215-pound boxer of today is not the rare exception who works his way up the rankings by sheer size, but the best of a large number of 215-pounders. He is muscular (usually), rather than just large and he is not merely strong, but a good boxer; he must be because the large pool of large men precludes any one of the men reaching the top on size or strength alone.

Putting this another way: Mike Tyson is as much larger--in absolute terms--than Joe Louis as Joe Louis was larger than a middleweight.

Of course, none of this demonstrates that the recent fighter would, in fact, defeat the past fighter. Even I think that Louis would have tracked down Ali and destroyed him by the thirteenth. I'm not so sure that Louis could have withstood an onrushing Tyson when both were in their primes, but I think that Ali probably could have.

Which means, as you knew all along, that time renders the current fighters vs. old fighters question unanswerable. But we have, perhaps, made some headway by realizing that the argument that there were more poor people in the old days is simply untrue and that the fact that past fighters occasionally defeated larger men does not demonstrate that they could do so with the regularity required today.

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How good were the Oldtimers?
by Monte Cox

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By Tracy Callis

Nino Benvenuti
John Henry Lewis
Lou Ambers
Benny Lynch
Kid Chocolate
Fritzie Zivic
Sixto Escobar
Mike Tyson
Lennox Lewis

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