Challenging Boxing Myths - The Fans Respond
By Doghouseboxing.com Readers (July 11, 2004) Compiled By Jim Cawkwell
Each topic of these discussions is intended to sew a seed in the minds of our readers, allowing them to decide how it will grow. This week as you will see, the seed quickly germinated into full bloom as I received some excellently detailed opinions and analogies which I am sure will expand your mindset on our subject. I would like to extend a big thank you to everyone who took the time to voice their opinion and I look forward to more of the same in the near future.
Read on and enjoy.
Gamesmanship - Believe it or Not?
I think psychological war directed at your opponent in order to improve your performance is perfectly acceptable, and it adds to the drama and entertainment value for the fans. Since so much of fighting is a test of wills, breaking your opponent's will to fight has to be part of your fight.
However, when a fighter such as Tyson acts in his usual stupid and bizarre manner, it isn't designed to improve his performance, but rather to avoid going through the hell of a fight. He bit Evander's ears to get out of the ring. He attacked Lewis in the studio because he knew he had only a puncher's chance in the ring. I think he hopes that if he acts insane enough, people won't fight him, and he'll still be acclaimed as a great fighter. But he's whistling past the grave, and everyone sees it now. That's more pathetic than impressive.
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Even worse, I think, is a fighter who directs his psychological war not at his opponent, but at the judges and fans. The prime example of this, in my opinion, was Ray Leonard. Leonard was a brilliant salesman, and he sold the idea that he was outfighting Hagler and Hearns (in the rematch), when clearly he was not. He demeaned what was happening in the ring by playing the judges and crowd. Leonard out-psyched Duran in their rematch, but he out-psyched the judges versus Hagler and Hearns II. The first is part of the fight; the second is marketing where it doesn't belong.
Mark A. Edwards
Gamesmanship and Boxing
Dear Mr. Cawkwell,
Your invitation to participate in a discussion of the effectiveness, legitimacy, and desirability of what you are terming "gamesmanship" in boxing is too tempting to pass up. For me, it cuts right to heart of what makes boxing so compelling. My view (as a casual fan of the sport for much of my 37 years, and as a more devoted follower over the last several) is that it is all three--effective, legitimate, and desirable. It is, however, above all, unavoidable. I will explain what I mean.
You rightly begin your examination of the issue with an attempt to clarify it. A boxing match is a competitive (as opposed to cooperative) venture. Two people are pitted against one another, in a rule-governed contest, in the pursuit of a shared, but exclusive (as opposed to inclusive), goal--the vanquishing of the other. You seem to wonder, however, whether in this effort, every possible advantage should be sought and taken (within the rules) if a match is to be contested at its highest possible level (this to include ethical and aesthetic considerations).
Such advantages are typically (and uncontroversially) sought, and realized, in more rigorous or disciplined training regimens, superior strategy, superior native physical ability, and superior courage and determination. Boxing, as a profession, one might even argue, is just the application of such efforts, with the match being just a test of their effectiveness, relative to those of another. Broad understanding of this is evidenced by the common interest by boxing fans in changes in a fighter's team and in the course of their training. Certainly, a much greater amount of time is committed to preparing to fight than to actually fighting.
All of the above mentioned efforts and characteristics might well be advantages also to firefighters. Those advantages would be sought in this latter case, however, in respect to a common foe, forest fires. I make this comparison, between boxers and firefighters, because it will perhaps allow us to better examine a distinction that your inquiry presupposes. This is that between what you term "physicality" and the "cerebral". It is clear that boxing involves intense physicality; speed, strength, coordination, and endurance are all justifiably prized by boxers (and firefighters), and are the main object of effective training. Also prized, but perhaps less easy to enhance by training, are courage, desire, and composure under duress, which you would presumably characterize as "cerebral".
The difference between boxers and firefighters, obviously, is in their respective foes. Boxers fight other boxers, that is, other people. Firefighters fight fires. In the former case, one is dealing with an opponent who is also equipped (or burdened, as the case might be) with a "cerebral" capacity, unlike in the latter case. Since boxing is a direct contestation of strengths (physical and cerebral), one's strength is equally another's weakness. One fighter's superior footwork is equally his/her opponent's inferior footwork. Just as much, one fighter's superior smarts, courage, and determination are equally his/her opponent's inferior smarts, courage, and determination. To diminish or compromise that in one's opponent is, in a very real way, equally to increase or enhance that in oneself. One only needs to be smarter or more courageous, than one's opponent to have an advantage, and gains can be made (and thus will be sought) on both ends (enhancing one's own v. diminishing one's opponent's).
While smarts, courage, and determination will likely aid a firefighter, it is not the case that a firefighter outsmarts, or breaks the will of a fire. What cannot be a strength of a fire, cannot be a weakness either. While a sustained body attack can slow the movement of an opponent (thus robbing them of their previously superior footwork), a properly placed ditch can slow the progress of a fire. However, there is no corollary in firefighting to the intimidation of another boxer. Fire, again, does not have a will to be broken. If it did, one can be sure that firefighters would expend great energy in efforts to do just that. If fighters suspect that an advantage can be had by intimidating, agitating, or otherwise diminishing the cerebral effectiveness of their opponents, they are obligated by their commitment to their sport, and excellence in general, to attempt to do so, just as they are similarly obligated to muster as much courage and composure as they are capable of doing within themselves.
Fighters are people and people have minds. Any competition between people will, irrespective of the physicality involved, necessarily be also a battle of wills. If Mike Tyson had the courage, determination, composure, and intelligence of Muhammad Ali, he would never have lost to Buster Douglas (or perhaps anyone else). Boxing is as much to identify and exploit such cerebral weaknesses (and to develop cerebral strengths) as it is to, say, counter a lazy jab with an overhand right. This is, in fact, what makes boxing, in my view, so much more compelling than most other sports. Because the mutual effort of two people to impose their respective wills upon the other is so immediate, so is the role of their respective psyches. While the relative confidence levels of two basketball teams may have a lot to do with the outcome of a contest, the courage and determination it must take to simply climb through the ropes is nowhere in evidence.
Perhaps a somewhat different distinction, than that between the physical and cerebral aspects of boxing, might provide more to chew on, however. It seems that many of your examples really traded upon a distinction of efforts by fighters at gaining an advantage that are undertaken outside v. inside the ring. With some exceptions noted, this distinction will usually incorporate the one previously considered. Surely, Naseem Hamed was not trying to diminish the strength of his opponents' legs as much as of their resolve and concentration when he kept them waiting in the ring during his prolonged entrances (an effort which failed badly in his fight with the quite resolute Barerra). Your other examples, if examined, also suggest this is the distinction you were really after.
At first, it does seem to raise a compelling issue. After all, boxing is supposed to be a timed contest between two people that takes place inside the ropes of a boxing ring. One could regard the "mind games" and "tricks," such as you detail, since they take place outside of the formally structured event, as so many efforts to spoil an otherwise fair contest. Since we admit, as we clearly must, that boxing is as much cerebral as physical, should we accept, as part of the sport, a fighter undertaking to shake an opponent's confidence before a fight any more than we would accept punching an opponent before the opening bell? The answer is that we really have no choice, and should leave it alone even if we did.
This sort of "psychological warfare" simply permeates the sport, and likely always has. From the colorful nicknames ("executioner," "baby-faced assassin," "hitman," "the Hispanic causing panic"-my favorite) to the flexing and glowering at weigh-ins, boxers do what they can to project an aura of invulnerability and menace to everyone involved: to psyche themselves up, to psyche their opponents out, to "psyche" the fans. Some fighters are just way more subtle, and able, at it than others, making their efforts more effective and, thus, more remarkable.
You cited, as a case in point, Bernard Hopkins' comments regarding the prospective fairness of "fair but firm" Joe Cortez. You didn't note, however, the threats made prior to these comments by Robert Allen that it was going to be a rough and dirty fight. Hopkins was simply parrying Allen's lame efforts to intimidate him, and proved himself to be the superior competitor in this regard, as he went on to prove himself to be in all others. Similarly, while I am too young to know this firsthand, I have read that Sonny Liston was widely regarded as a bully and as an intimidator. Didn't Clay simply counter him? If Liston lacked the confidence not to be unsettled by Clay's antics, this was a weakness of his that compromised him as a fighter. That Clay (Ali) feared no one so much as to lose his composure and inner confidence was one of his great assets, as a fighter and a human being. That boxing provides such ample opportunity for such strengths to be revealed is a large part of what makes it so compelling.
This is not to say, however, that absolutely anything should go when it comes to psychological warfare in boxing. Although it is hard to consider unacceptable anything one could say to or about someone before a fight, especially remembering that one will soon thereafter be engaged in the effort to separate the other from their senses entirely, but some of Ali's tactics in regard to opponents like Frazier and Foreman, for example, make clear that there are exceptions. Although they contributed greatly to the elevation of Ali v. Frazier I into perhaps the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, Ali's efforts to cast Frazier as a tool of the white establishment were genuinely rotten. While I credit Frazier for not letting it harm his ability to fight effectively, I also understand his lingering resentment of Ali. Shame on Ali for inviting it, and shame on all those who responded by baselessly reducing Joe Frazier to a vehicle for their misplaced political agenda.
Thanks for the invitation to comment. I apologize that this is so long.
How much of a factor do you think gamesmanship plays towards a fights outcome?
On Trash Talking and Flashy Ring Entrances:
Very little. Fighters are professionals. They have a right to be psyched out their first time sparring or when going against a "hard-hitting" opponent for the first time just like we got scared before a Peewee football game if the other team looked bigger.
Fortunately, with experience, we realize we are simply competing against other human beings and learn not to be intimidated. Boxers usually have extensive amateur careers, which allows them time to develop that confidence. If a boxer doesn't have the self confidence to compete against a "flashy" ring entrance, than he better consider another line of work.
Conversely, public complaints, like that of Jones and Hopkins seem to have a major effect on the results. Hopkins had a valid point, especially in a sport which is unfortunately notoriously corrupt. Jones complaint on the other hand affected Ruiz whole game plan. The bigger slower stronger guy has to bully the smaller man to win. When the referee warns Ruiz that he can't use his "size" advantage (which was actually just a strength advantage) where does that leave him? Style makes fights, and the referee hampered Ruiz style, which resulted in a fight that was less interesting than it should have been.
Anyone who disagrees, reference the Augustus-Burton fight on July 6th. Augustus was using his trademark "gamesmanship", which the judges and referee obviously did not appreciate. The result was a referee taking points away from Augustus for an imaginary low blow, disregarding a knock down as a low blow, and scolding him for rabbit punches that were thrown by the other fighter. The result was a split decision win for Burton that shamed the sport of boxing. Had Augustus not used "gamesmanship", and instead complained before the fight about a corrupt hometown referee, he surely would have won the fight by an impressive margin
Do you think it is fair for a fighter to employ such tactics?
If it's not banned in the rule book, then it's okay. If it's banned in the rule book, and you don't get caught, then it's okay. One loss in boxing, and you're thrown out with yesterdays trash. These guys have to and should use every angle.
Does a fighters utilization of gamesmanship add to the dramatic appeal of boxing and the general entertainment level of the sport?
It adds appeal and entertainment value for the casual boxing fan. Notice how charismatic guys like sugar ray leonard and oscar de la hoya become extra popular. This is actually good for a sport that is a shadow of it's former self in the 80's and 90's.
For the boxing enthusiast, however, "gamesmanship" is mildly entertaining, but nothing in comparison to witnessing the amount of skill and conditioning elite fighters exhibit.
All in all, "Gamesmanship" sells extra tickets by attracting casual fans, which helps promoters get into the "Black" and stage more bouts. If I was a promoter, I would certainly have a KO puncher, a flashy ring dancer, and a pretty face for the girls to come see in my lineup. Just get them to buy a ticket!!!!!!
Just a note on Clay-Liston. It's true Clay used probably the best gamesmanship ever in boxing, but he did carry it away and it did interfere with the fight. In the second fight, after knocking Liston down, (phantom punch) he continued to stand over him, run around him with his arms up, while the ref was counting. Liston later said he did'nt want to get up with a crazy man standing over him. The ref shoulda escorted him (clay) to his corner and began the count over..........
Gamesmanship is part and parcel of most sports nowadays, be it team sports or individual. When the skills between the two are only slight then gamesmanship becomes a weapon which when used effectively can make all the difference, the mind set of a fighter is the only thing that can be tampered with before a fight and if it succeeds then the skills that fighter possess becomes secondary......The body can only deliver what the mind tells it to and not the other way round. All the top competitors in all sports use it for example in the Seventies a Bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger used mind games on his foes when preparing for competitions, he would use little tricks to unsettle & make them believe that they were not quite ready for the upcoming contest. Such tricks would be to tell them they look great....even perfect two to three weeks before the contest began knowing that they would worry because to physically hit peak to early in bodybuilding means they have thrown away a whole year's preparation and it cannot be brought back. This would then cause them nervous tension and thus disconnecting the mind body link that especially in bodybuilding is very important, the guys confidence would dwindle & his competition is affectively over.....Arnold then goes into battle knowing one less rival has fallen to the wayside, job done! The top guys in any sport are so closely matched that any advantage must be found to tip the balance of power one way or the other, it is the difference in many cases between winning and losing and that's how important gamesmanship is.
From a different angle it also makes things much more exciting for us the spectators, we love all the talk and the opinions that such comments make, it brings us closer to the action and that can only be a good thing. We all love the hype that certain fighters bring to a fight, the comments Hopkins, Toney or the like make in the lead up to the event, it grabs our imaginations and pulls us in. Every time mind games are used in a top fight we all start talking about it, we discuss and share our opinions and we all get excited about what was said or what wasn't said. Tyson didn't become the star attraction he is by just being a normal fighter with great attributes he had and used his own mind games....the black shorts, black sock less boots and towel over his torso like a gladiator, his walk to the ring etc.....He become what all guys wanted to be.....Feared!! And all his opponents were.....and we all loved it, we bought the ticket on the Tyson express and enjoyed the ride during the eighties. Gamesmanship is great and it's what makes boxing what it is....The Greatest Sport on Earth. I just want to touch on the point of fairness, I believe it isn't an issue, this is boxing not croquet or cricket. Do what you want as long as you don't bite or hit below the belt, do an Ali and stand outside Frazier's house cussing him to make him angry so as to throw him off his game plan or taunt Liston into thinking he wasn't scared like everyone else and that in fact it's Liston who should be really afraid. Some fighters have great hooks or body shots, some have super speed or a fearsome punch and some have great gamesmanship skills. Would it be fair to tell Roy Jones to slow down or Tyson not to punch so hard or Lewis to lose some weight as he is too big as it isn't fair on the opponent??? Use what you can to win that's all any fighter can do.
Dear Jim Cawkwell:
I enjoyed reading your article and I think you have raised some excellent points.
How much of a factor do you think gamesmanship plays towards a fights outcome?
It depends on the level of confidence of the fighters. If a fighter is extremely confident in their abilities and knows that they will win the fight, I don't think any amount of Gamesmanship will effect that fighters psyche.
Conversely, if a fighter has some doubt in his mind that he can win the fight, then Gamesmanship can become a HUGE factor in the outcome of the fight.
I believe that TONEY is a very entertaining figure in boxing but I also believe he will back up what he says. I also believe that his opponents know that fighting Toney will be a very very difficult task.
On the other hand, I don't believe Joe Calzaghe is as fearless as he wants the boxing world and his opponents to believe. In fact, I interpret many of his comments to be in response to fear and not confidence.
Similarly, when a fighter like Syd Vanderpool offers to donate his entire purse to a Welsh Children's Charity in Calzaghe's name if he loses to Calzaghe, then you have to take a close look at that statement. That statement says that Vanderpool has absolutely no doubt that he can defeat Calzaghe and is willing to risk everything for it. If I was Joe, I would be worried about a statement like that. Calzaghe's continues to avoid Vanderpool and I think his silence speaks for itself. If they ever do fight, you know that there will be a lot of interest in a fight like that.
Does a fighter’s utilization of gamesmanship add to the dramatic appeal of boxing and the general entertainment level of the sport?
I think sometimes we forget that this sport is called "Boxing" and that it involves two people "fighting" each other. Fighting happens as much in the ring as it does out side of the ring. Trash talking, insults, bad blood, country vs country rivalries, pre-fight antics, elaborate entrances and politically INCORRECT interviews are an integral part of what draws many people to boxing and helps to sell this sport. If people don't like it then they are free to follow the sport of Golf.
Patrick B from Toronto.
Once again, thank you very much to all our contributors this week and I’d like to remind everyone to watch for the next installment of this series which will be available shortly.
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