Arc of Boxing Interview with Mike Silver - On Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Oscar De La Hoya, Teddy Atlas, The Past and Present, His Book and More! By David Tyler, DoghouseBoxing (Jan 20, 2010)
Boxing Historian Mike Silver has written a masterpiece about the history of boxing. The book, The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science" covers boxing from the early 1900's until present time. It is a 'must read' for boxing fans. I hope you enjoy this very informative interview.
David Tyler Mike, welcome to doghouse boxing.
Mike Silver Thank you David. I just read your Teddy Atlas interviews and you did a very good job. Those interviews should be read by all boxing fans.
DT Mike, thank you very much, Teddy is not only a great ambassador for boxing but a great human being as well. In your book “The Arc of Boxing” you mention that Teddy is the type of person that you feel better as a person just because you know him. That’s exactly the way I feel! Mike, what prompted you to write “The Arc of Boxing”?
MS David, that’s a very good question. I would say about 10 to 15 years ago I noticed that when I tuned into the middle of a televised fight and did not know the participants what I assumed was a four or six round preliminary fight was actually the main event. This had not happened to me before. I could always tell the difference between a four round preliminary fighter and a ten round pro. I had been watching fights as a serious fan since 1959 and this had never happened before. I mean, if you’ve watched enough fights and understand something of the art of boxing and how a fighter develops you would be able to recognize a seasoned pro from a beginner. But then I would hear the announcer say “we are watching a 12 round USBA light heavyweight title fight and so and so is undefeated in 15 fights.” I would think, “my goodness, this is the main event?” This was happening more often than ever beginning in the 1990s. A decade or two earlier I could turn on a fight and would know immediately by the way the fighters were moving, the way they controlled their bodies, their rhythm and timing, that it was obvious they had more skills and seasoning than preliminary fighters . I came to realize that the art of boxing that I had been studying and exposed to as a young amateur fighter in Stillman’s Gym in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where I was being trained by an old school trainer named Willie Grunes, had degenerated to an alarming degree. I began to see that the fights were being determined more by superior athleticism or pure punching power and strength but not superior technique. And when technique deteriorates what happens is that physical qualities become more important in determining the outcome of a fight. The skill is lacking that would counteract the superior speed or strength of an opponent. In other words, say you have a basketball team of all seven footers and you have another team that has only one or two seven footers and the rest are all average size but the skill level of both teams is equal, then the determining factor will be the height of the opposing team. But if a team that doesn’t quite match-up physically to their opponents had superior technique and superior coaching, they would not only be competitive but the chances are good that they will win. So this is what has happened in boxing; technique was deteriorating and athleticism and physical qualities--size, speed and strength--was becoming more important in determining the outcome of fights. And what made it worse was that the TV commentators, ringside analysts and sportswriters didn’t seem to notice what was happening. Perhaps they did not consider it in their best interest to criticize the boxers or sport they were covering, which is understandable. But I believe it was more than thatI just don’t think they have the frame of reference or perspective to understand how the sport has changed over the past few decades and how these changes have affected the quality of today’s prizefighters. Many of the fighters that I saw winning alphabet world titles over the past 20 years would not have even been ranked among the top ten contenders during boxing’s heyday of the 1920s to the 1950s. So what I wanted to do with my book was to raise the level of awareness for boxing fans and put the current scene in proper perspective. I felt that the history of boxing was being distorted by people who really did not understand this sport or its history and the fans were being fed a lot of malarkey. For example, while we are praising today’s multiple belt champions no one brings up the fact that there are nine more weight classes than there were previous to the 1980s. And when you multiply those nine weight classes by the four or five sanctioning bodies you have at least 36 more opportunities to win a title belt. Before the alphabets took over there used to be only eight weight classes and generally one champion per division. And you rarely heard of a world champion winning a title with only 15 to 25 professional fightssomething that is quite common today. These things never get mentioned so my purpose was to set the record straight and to inform and educate about how boxing has become a lost art. I am not so pompous as to believe that I have all the answers, because I don’t. So what I wanted to present my case to the jury of public opinion. I knew there would be many people out there who would disagree with me when I wrote that Roy Jones Jr. did not prove himself to be a great fighter. But in the book I explain his technical flaws that were obscured by his superior speed, reflexes and sense of anticipationflaws that would have been exposed by the outstanding contenders and champs of the 1920s to the 1950s. Roy is a very good fighter, a tremendous natural athlete, but because of the mediocre quality of the fighters surrounding him, he appeared better than he really is. I wrote that as soon as he loses some of his speed, you will see his technical flaws exposed and as we also know, his glass chin was exposed as well. The point I want to make is that a lot of people are going to say “ah, another old timer, sour grapes, saying everybody today is lousy, nobody today compares to the old timers of his day, blah, blah, blah." I knew I would be faced with that kind of criticism. So, like when you present your case to a jury I sought out expert witnesses to bolster my case. I sought out the three top trainers in professional boxing: Teddy Atlas, Freddie Roach and Manny Steward. They are the last of a breed of teacher/trainers that were mentored by the great old school trainers of the 1920s to the 1950s. Freddie Roach was mentored by the great Eddie Futch. Teddy was not only exposed to Cus D’Amato but when I first met him he was being tutored by Freddie Brown, co-trainer with Ray Arcel of Roberto Duran. Of course Manny Steward came out of Detroit in the early 50’s, a city with a fabulous boxing history. I explained to these experts that I was writing a book to put boxing’s current scene into perspective and give today’s fan a better understanding and appreciation of the artistry, talent, and competition that was part of this sport during its Golden Age. In terms of talent, activity and popularity the 1920’s thru the 1950’s was boxing’s Golden Age. You’ve had some great fighters since then, but the depth of talent and the refinement of the art of boxing reached its apex during those years. You’ve heard of the phrase, The Greatest Generation, well the greatest generation of boxers, in terms of quality and quantity, were active from the 1920s to the 1950s. I only ask that before people reflexively disagree with me that they read my book and then state their case if they differ with me.
Not only did I interview Atlas, Roach and Steward, I also interviewed 19 other trainers, historians and ex-champs including the great Carlos Ortiz. I also interviewed a wonderful 86 year old former journeyman lightheavyweight fighter, Ted Lowry, who fought virtually everyone from 1939 to 1955, had 141 fights and is the only fighter to go the ten round distance twice with Rocky Marciano. What he has to say about the state of boxing from his perspective is so enlightening. I spoke to people who are experts in weight training and respected historians such as Hank Kaplan, Dan Cuoco and Chuck Hasson. I interwove the interviews with my own thoughts and theories. My intention in all this was not to add fuel to the ‘old school’ vs. ‘new school’ boxing debate, my intention was to end the debate and I honestly believe I have succeeded. I really feel it is ridiculous for someone to vehemently disagree with me without having read the book. Before you place Floyd Mayweather Jr. among the all time greats I ask you to read why I do not and then present your evidence. My arguments and those of my panel of experts are compelling and based on the knowledge and experience of real experts, some of whom are actually old enough to have seen in person the great fighters of the past 70 years. If you read the book with an open mind I don’t say you will necessarily agree with me 100%, but I guarantee you will never look at a boxing match the same way again.
DT Mike, I could not agree with you more. As I read the book it occurred to me that there is an underlying theme that has been studied by other books. That theme is that you need to have 10,000 hours of experience before you become very good at anything.
MS I have graphs in my book which I use to chart the activity of boxers over the past 90 years. I feel that today’s fighters are not really learning their craft the old fashioned way when you really had to earn your stripes. Today we have boxers fighting for titles that have had maybe 15 to 20 fights. Back in the days that I write about if you had 15 to 25 fights you were just ready to step into eight rounders. The learning curve today is completely different. Today we have what I call the "must win" syndrome. I have never seen so many undefeated records and such high knock out ratios in my life. When you see such records on fighters coming up you know that they are being maneuvered to win fights. If you look at the record books you have a whole segment of fighters that have a lot of losses on their records and a whole segment of fighters who have a lot of wins on their records. That wasn't the case years ago. I compute the average number of fights from 1925 to 2007. I include four categories in the graphs: the average number of fights a professional had before he won the title, the average number of rounds he fought before he won the title, the average knockout percentage, and the average number of years to a title. Boxing is not a game of statistics, a lot of people make that mistake, they start talking like its baseball. But my statistics are part of the argument that I put forth that basically proves the old time fighters were far more experienced and overall more well rounded. So the average number of fights in 1925 before the fighter won the title was 84 fights and 644 rounds. Now, just to give you an example, 30 years later, 1955, the average number of fights before a fighter won the title was 70 fights and the average number of rounds was 417less than in 1925 but not to a tremendous degree. In 2007 the average number of fights to win a title was 27 and average number of rounds was 143. Most fighters today are never given a chance to develop through their flaws. So, lacking the activity, competitive fights and quality training today’s champions and contenders never get a chance to develop through their flaws. Every other sport today has a longer season and more games than it did years ago; we have a longer baseball, football and basketball season. And we also have more athletes playing these sports. Today there are less than half the number of professional fighters that there was in 1955. In the 1920's there were more professional fighters licensed in New York City than there are licensed in the entire world today. So the numbers today mean something, it's an element in itself, it means that we are dealing we a far less talent pool, fighters are fighting less fights, less rounds, and I explain all this in my book in greater detail. Boxing is the only professional sport that has gone backwards in this regard. It is a sport that has devolved. Boxing has always reflected the society that surrounds it and, like many other activities outside of sports, boxing has been dumbed down. The training and instruction fighters receive has deteriorated, you can hear it in the instructions that the fighters are given in the corners between rounds. How many times do you hear a trainer implore the fighter 'throw more punches'… 'what are you waiting for'… 'let's get going'. It’s all like a pep talk, and not much else. There is very little sound technical advice being given.
DT - Fans today seem to like the concept of match-ups at catch weights. Manny Pacquiao is a great example as he has climbed the ladder in recent years by being carefully navigated against fighters that suit his style and he is not the only one.
MS - Yes, good point, many of today's fights are like the old 'strongman contest'. I think that has a lot to do with the big controversy about the proposed Pacquiao / Mayweather bout that recently fell apart. What was the big controversy? His opponent says Pacquiao may be taking steroids or even growth hormones and he will be 'too strong' for me. He'll be strong! Again, its this emphasis on strength and weight and size that was never talked about as much in the old days. If you go back in the history of fighters you had guys weighing 160 or so fighting a heavyweight who outweighed him by 35 pounds, and you saw that all the time. Now it's like we have gone full circle and back to the primitive days of boxing. When boxing was in the bare knuckle stages weight and strength meant a lot because wrestling was part of it and they actually trained as wrestlers in addition to boxing. So you now have this emphasis on strength and weight training because boxing has become a lost art in so many ways. I have heard commentators say 'look at how he is cut' 'boy, look at that body'-- that's not what boxing is about. Boxing is not a body beautiful contest or a strongman contest. I have a whole chapter on weight training and how it is misused in boxing. You see fighters today who look like they could enter a body building contest but they can't break an egg with their punches.
DT - Mike, your book is full of statistics, was there any one stat that simply had you spinning?
MS - David, good question again. Yes, the only statistic that has gone up over the years is the knockout percentage, especially over the past 30 years. Fighters are knocking out more opponents than any other time in the history of boxing. It was very rare prior to the 1980's for a fighter to have a greater than 50% knockout ratio. In other words if he had 30 fights and won 15 by knockout, then you knew he could punch because fighters weren’t being navigated the way they are today. Nowadays, virtually every fighter has a 50% knockout ratio or higher. It is common today to see fighters with an 80 to 90 percent knockout ratio. And most of them are arm punchers with just average power. When his handlers finally let him fight someone who is a little bit more competitive, you end up saying 'where's the punch?' The point being is that many fighters today are pumped up and built up to get those knockout percentages. David, the average knockout percentage in 1925 was 25%. Up until 1965 the knockout ratio never went above 43%. Since 1975, it's never been below 64%. The average today is between 65 and 80%. As one of the experts in my book put it, “it’s all flash over substance today.”
DT - Mike, I do believe that fans today would love the old strongman contest. We may already be there with UFC and MMA. Let's change courses a bit and talk about a recent event. Why do you think the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight fell apart with all those millions of dollars on the table?
MS - I think it fell apart because basically Mayweather never wanted to fight Pacquiao. I really believe that's the reason. I can't get into the man's head and I'm sure it would be a horror show if I did but I think as much skill as this man has and he has so much natural skill, speed, reflexes--sort of a welterweight Roy Jones, Jr. But as much as he has going for him as a boxer, somehow, somewhere the confidence is not there to match that skill. I think he is on top of the world and I think he is so sorry that a guy like Pacquiao came up. Because he had been basically going along by avoiding some of the tougher guys out there and he got out physically intact with some money and he is afraid that Pacquiao may beat him and there goes the undefeated record and along with it there goes the aura of Floyd Mayweather Jr. I know that Pacquiao would have fought him, the thing we the blood test was created. I don't blame Mayweather for not wanting to fight Pacquiao with drugs running through his body but I don't feel that is the case with Pacquiao, although I could be wrong. If Floyd truly had the pride of the great champion that he says he is--and he says he is better than Ali or anybody else--if he truly had that pride then he would say, 'this guy can be pumped up on as many steroids as he wants, just let him make weight and I will kick his butt'. That's the way a champion talks, that's the way the fighters used to be. There has always been cases where the manager did not want a guy to take a fight but in this case I think the fighter is the one trying to avoid the fight. When they announced this fight, I told people that I do not believe this fight will ever take place. I just felt it in my gut, and I felt it because of Mayweather. He wants to continue and fight guys he can beat and fool the public. But the public can only be fooled to a point. This cancellation is the worst thing that could happen to boxing. I am absolutely thoroughly disgusted that this is taking place. It only continues the trend of boxing kicking itself in the head. This is one of the biggest, most highly anticipated fights in the history of this sport. The fact that boxing could not make this fight happen is an indictment of the entire sport. I don't put the entire blame on Mayweather, I blame the people running the sport, I blame the promoters. It feels like an unreal situation. This would have never of happened years ago. Two fighters in their prime, ready to make the most money they will ever make, the most money for one fight in the entire history of the sport and it comes down to this? This is absolute bullshit because the entire sport is bullshit today. Remember you’re talking to a guy whose whole life was boxing. I’m very passionate about the sport but this is just bullshit. Can you imagine this happening in baseball, football, or basketball? No way. Boxing has the most abused fans in the history of sports.
DT Mike, why do you think Pacquiao did not call Mayweather’s bluff and take the blood test?
MS That’s a good question, I’m not sure I can answer that, it’s a tough one. Maybe there are two explanations, one being that maybe he is taking drugs and he is afraid that if he doesn’t continue to take them he will shrink back down to 130 pounds. The other thing is that it is a matter of pride and he doesn’t want to be dictated to, or maybe he was trying to play with the other guy’s head and maybe Mayweather is trying to play with his head. It puzzles me a bit. I still believe Mayweather claiming his greatness should have backed off the blood test demand and said okay take the standard urine test and I will still beat you just like De La Hoya beat Vargas when Vargas was pumped up on steroids. I will beat you because I’m tougher, better, faster, and a better boxer than you. That’s the way I honestly feel about it. As for Pac I would assume that his promoter, Bob Arum, would have said to him, you have nothing to fear, you’re not taking drugs, take the blood test. Bob Arum and others involved will be out large sums of money if this fight does not take place. They must have been encouraging Pacquiao to take the test? There is no way that Arum would say don’t take the test, unless he knew also that Pacquiao would shrink to 130 pounds if he didn’t keep his weight up because he was taking steroids or growth hormones. The point is that decision had to come directly from Pacquiao. Maybe it’s some superstition, maybe he feels that drawing any blood two weeks before the fight would weaken him, who knows? I wish we knew the answer. David, why do you think he didn’t take the blood test?
DT Mike, this is such an emotionally charged issue for all involved. I don’t know why he doesn’t take the test, like you said only he knows the answer to that question. I will say that I’m in favor of blood testing for all athletes, Olympic style. There is way too much money involved in all sports for an athlete not to try for that extra edge, be it legal or not. That’s why I feel that every boxer should be blood tested for performance enhancing drugs. I tend to go with the Teddy Atlas view on the situation which he expressed in his last interview for doghouse boxing.
DT Mike of today’s fighters is there anyone that would have become a champion in the 1950’s?
MS- No, none that would be champions. A fighter like Bernard Hopkins has picked up a fair amount of boxing knowledge. He is defensive minded, a thinking fighter, he attempts to box but again he would never stand out the way he has during his time. He came along during a time when the middleweight division was at its weakest and it doesn’t take much today to shine above the general level of mediocrity. If you have some ability and talent that is the exception to the rule today. A fighter like Bernard Hopkins did not have to contend with the likes of Bobo Olson, Gene Fullmer, Henry Hank, George Benton, Hurricane Carter, Joey Giambria, Florentino Fernandez, Holly Mims or Joey Giardello, instead he had to contend with a group of fighters that would have never been rated in the top ten middleweights of the 50’s or early 60’s. People point to his 20 successful defenses and holding the title for 10 years. That’s more of an indictment of what the sport has become than a tribute to Hopkins. That shows us how far down the sport has come because if you take any great middleweight champion from years ago; Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Freddie Steel, the great Frenchman Marcel Cerdan, Jake LaMotta, Ray Robinson, none of them could have possibly been dominant for 10 years against the type of top competition that made up the middleweight division during the golden age. I’m not knocking Hopkins, he would have certainly been in the mix in the late 50’s and early 60’s but would not have stood out. He would not have been champion. I don’t think he could have beaten Carlos Monzon. Again we are talking about a sport that has devolved instead of evolved. Today the average or better than average fighter is being hailed as greatness in our time because of a lack of perspective, frame of reference, and an understanding and knowledge of the true art of boxing.
DT Any other current fighters?
MS I like Pacquiao but again he has not faced the type of competition that made up the ratings, in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, he did not have to contend with Ike Williams, Carlos Ortiz, Freddie Dawson, those type of tough seasoned guys.
DT Mike, many fans believe that Pacquiao is the greatest fighter ever in the history of boxing. I get these type e-mails everyday and they simply amaze me. As much as I enjoy watching him blow away shot fighters, I have got to believe that Bob Arum has used the current system of boxing to navigate him to the perfect fighters who fit his style. In the glory days he would have to pick a division and work his way up the division. He would certainly run into boxers who had some boxing skills, much like Mayweather, who would easily beat him. Not to knock Pacquiao, he is just an example of how boxing has deteriorated to the point that someone can circumvent the system by fighting catch weights and make millions of dollars to the point that he can laugh at a 50 million dollar purse and say NO! Agree or Disagree?
MS I agree. He has the advantage of being an awkward southpaw which is a big plus in his favor. Years ago there were six or seven Manny Pacquiao’s floating around in the lightweight division. I like his work ethic, he has the heart of a champion, but you are right his skills leave something to be desired. He does not move his head, which makes him very hittable, and when pressed backwards, he moves straight back, he doesn’t move side to side. He has picked up some experience. Many boxers in the old days would have said this is what I have to do to handle that type of style. If you look at his past few fights, he beat Hatton who I never thought was better than an ordinary club fighter. De La Hoya--the fight which brought him to the attention of the public--was forced to make a weight he had not fought at in seven or eight years, he was dehydrated, he was rusty, and over the hill. He should have never been fighting then. To call Pacquiao an all time great is over the top in my opinion. To mention him in the same breath as a fighter like Henry Armstrong, is way out of line. When Armstrong won the welterweight title by defeating Barney Ross, he defended that title 19 times over the following 23 months. And he’s beating up some pretty good fighters. Your readers will think that’s a misprint when you write this article. It’s not, I say again 19 defenses over the next 23 months! I don’t care what you think of Pacquiao, it’s hard to even imagine him doing something like this, it’s hard to imagine any boxer doing this. You’ve got to be careful when you start making comparisons when you don’t really know what you are talking about.
DT I agree. Mike, your thoughts about the fighters in the super middleweight tournament and would they have been competitive in the glory days of boxing?
MS I have to admit I haven’t seen every single one of them but I can tell you that basically no matter who you watch today, they are basically tough physical club fighters. Some have a little more skill than others. The talent is so ridiculously thinned out with all the divisions, the competing sanctioning organizations, it just compounds the problem. You have some tough guys who are a little better and tougher than another tough guy but they are not showing me any real skills. It would be a better situation if we could consolidate the ratings where the fighters who were ranked at the top of the divisions were the best because they had fought the best. You would have a much better handle on a confusing situation.
DT Do you think that boxing will ever be consolidated under on organization like golf or tennis?
MS No, I don’t think it will happen because boxing never goes to improve itself it always goes in the way to destroy itself. In the entire history of the sport there is never a graph to show that it went down a bit but then it went back up again. It only seems to be the nature of the sport to implode or destroy itself. There is the ways and means for boxing to recover and I discuss this in my book.
DT - Anything else about current fighters versus the fighters from the glory days?
MS - Just one more thought. In Mayweather's tough fight with De La Hoya replace the 35 year old De La Hoya with Kid Gavalin, Emile Griffith or Luis Rodriguez in their primes. What do you think would happen? I think anyone whose seen those fighters and understands what boxing is knows the answer to that. In Mayweather's tough fight with aggressive club fighter Ricky Hatton, replace Hatton with aggressive pressure fighters like Carmen Basilio, Gil Turner, or Beau Jack. If Hatton and De La Hoya could give Mayweather problems these far superior fighters would have made things even more uncomfortable for Floyd. My money is on the old timers.
DT - Mike, if I were to write a book, The Arc of Boxing would be the book I would write.
MS - Thank you so much. I hear that from many people and I take that as high praise.
DT - Mike, do readers have to order your book directly from Amazon.com?
MS - No, they can also order it directly from me and I will personally autograph each copy ordered. My e-mail address is : MSilver33@gmail.com.
DT - Thank you very much for the interview which is a boxing lesson from a true boxing historian. Hopefully we can do this again as I would love it if you would update "The Arc of Boxing" every five years.
MS - David, it's been my pleasure. Let's do it again and good luck with your interviews for doghouse boxing.
Readers: Mike Silver is right when he says that you will have a whole different perspective of boxing after reading "The Arc of Boxing." I consider this a work of genius from boxing's foremost historian.