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Just winning isn’t good enough

07
Apr

No one can criticize Winky Wright’s accomplishments in the ring. One of the best pure boxers of his generation is a four-time world titleholder and has beaten the likes of Shane Mosley (twice) and Felix Trinidad.

The impact he’s had on boxing fans might be a different story.

Yes, Wright – who faces Paul Williams on Saturday on HBO – has fought the best and won consistently. However, his tactical, defense-oriented style is more likely to please boxing purists than fans who crave action. Thus, he’s respected but has never been a major attraction.

Wright (51-4-1, 25 knockouts) and those with a similar style prove that just winning in boxing isn’t enough. A fighter must also stir the masses to maximize his name recognition and earning power. It’s what broadcaster Jim Lampley called, “Half competitive sport and half entrepreneurial entertainment.”

“Without question, you have to perform,” said Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the sport’s greatest fighters and performers. “The ironic thing about Wright is that he’s one of the most economically proficient fighters, bar none. I appreciate his art. I watch and I respect what I see. But for the fans ÔǪ it’s not always pretty. There has to be something different about you, something that stands out.

“ÔǪ People want to be entertained. It didn’t matter who Mike Tyson fought; a knockout was inevitable. Fans came out because they wanted to see how he’d knock ’em out. You can’t be ordinary and be a star.”

The fact boxers must do more than just win to enjoy maximum success might not seem fair. After all, athletes in major team sports and other individual sports – tennis, golf – can make a ridiculous living simply by being productive.

Lampley called this unusual aspect of boxing “one of the greatest indicators going that life is unfair.”

He pointed to the frustration of those few fighters who were just as talented as Oscar De La Hoya – or maybe even better – but made only a fraction of De La Hoya’s income. Bottom line: “The Golden Boy” packed ’em into the seats, the others didn’t.

“I think this is an experience that drove more than one person crazy,” Lampley said. “Roy Jones was thoroughly befuddled, I think, by the time and effort it took him to develop even a consistent identifiable following much less the audience De La Hoya was able to generate.

“Pernell Whitaker was at the height of his career when this young fighter came along and began to attract that kind of audience. I think there were a number of fighters who wanted to be derisive of De La Hoya’s success.”

Promoter Bob Arum, who helped build De La Hoya’s career, sees it differently.

He said the need to do more than simply win is perfectly fair because he knows who pays the bills – the fans. He acknowledges Wright’s ability but said he’s made a good living only as a “B side” to big-name opponents.

He put Bernard Hopkins, another technical boxer, in the same category. Hopkins made two of his biggest paydays as the “B side” to De La Hoya and Trinidad.

“The customer is always right,” Arum said. “If this were a college basketball tournament or something, it’d be different. But it’s not. It’s an individual sport where people have a right to chose who they want to watch and who they don’t want to watch. It’s as simple as that.

“I wouldn’t spend five cents to watch Wright fight. I wouldn’t. Others may feel differently. I would pay to see Manny Pacquiao [Arum’s fighter] because you know you’re going to be entertained. That’s the key: Are you going to be entertained?”

Eddie Chambers’ victory over Samuel Peter on March 27 was a recent example of winning a fight but not doing enough to make an impact.

Chambers, a slick, once-beaten heavyweight out of Philadelphia, cleverly out-boxed the former titleholder from Nigeria to win an important majority-decision but left onlookers unsatisfied. They might’ve appreciated his skills but bemoaned an almost utter lack of action.

He did enough to win but took few risks, which is required to create the greatest drama. He played it safe and, with the possible exception of those purists, he undoubtedly made no fans as a result.

Even he recognized he could’ve – should’ve – done more. And he promised that next time, he would.

“I wanted to impress a little bit more than I did,” Chambers said immediately after the fight. “I think I hurt him a few times. He may have wobbled a few times when I hit him right. So I think I should have been more aggressive. I boxed well, defensively, but I still played around too much.”

Dan Goossen, Chambers’ promoter, defended his fighter by saying he also received positive feedback after the fight. And he raised the question: Could it backfire trying to be something you’re not just to please the fans?

If Chambers were to become a slugger, he might not remain a contender for long.

“You don’t have your 6-10 center try to win the game from the three-point line,” Goossen said. “ÔǪ You don’t send up a singles hitter to pinch hit when you need a home run in the 9th. I’m not being critical of that type of player; it’s just not their strength.

“Eddie’s strength is the type of performance he gave against Peter.”

Still, as Arum pointed out, people don’t want to pay to see singles hitters in boxing.

Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, Wright’s promoter, also defended his fighter. He expressed admiration for Wright’s sublime kills – as anyone would – and said he has been more willing to exchange punches late in his career.

Even Schaefer, though, recognized that there’s more to boxing than having your hand raised after the final bell.

“I think if you look at the way (Wright) fought Hopkins, you’ll see that he came to fight,” Schaefer said. “He was pretty marked up afterward. I think he’s recognized that to go all out and make it a fight is important. I think he’s adjusted to the new world order.

“Winning is important, of course. But it’s the way you win that gets you fans.”

Michael Rosenthal's column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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