Classic Column: What makes a good fighter?
Classic Columns by magazine founder Nat Fleischer and other RING magazine writers over the past 86 years are posted Tuesdays. Today's column was selected because of all the talk about the best fighter pound-for-pound and the fighter of the decade. W.C. Heinz provided his thoughts on what makes a good fighter in the July 1951 issue.
Joey Maxim was in New York to fight Olle Tandberg, the heavyweight champion of Sweden. This was three years ago, and we were sitting in the dressing room he was using in Stillman’s and he was telling us about the time Curtis Sheppard caught him cold in the first round and pinned him in a corner and knocked him out.
“Believe me,” Joey said, “there’s no other feeling in the world like the feeling of being knocked out. You can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“I can’t,” Francis Albertanti said. “You tell me.”
“I come to in the dressing room,” Maxim said. “Everybody is standing around with long faces and tears in their eyes. It’s like I just died. I start crying myself, I’m saying: ‘I’ll go to work. I’ll dig ditches. I’ll do anything.’
“After a while I feel better. I have my shower and I get dressed and I go up to the office to get paid. Sheppard is up there, and he’s a real good guy. He knows he was lucky and he won’t catch me like that again, and he tells me he thinks I got a bad break and I’m entitled to a return.
“Three weeks later I go back with the guy and this time I win it in 10,” Maxim said, looking at us and nodding his head “How do you like that? The guy knocks me out and he’s willing to take me back.”
Francis and I were walking down Eighth Avenue about a half hour later. I was thinking about what Maxim had said.
“He sits there,” I said, “and he tells us what a great thing it is that Sheppard, who has just flattened him, is willing to take him back.”
“I know,” Francis said.
“While he’s talking,” I said, “I’m thinking what a hell of a thing it is that Maxim wants to go back.”
“I know,” Francis said. “I am thinking the same thing myself.”
Joey Maxim is a good fighter. He is good enough to be a champion of the world. His fights do not inspire enthusiasm and his style appears controlled by his caution, and yet if you ask me to enumerate the qualities that go into the making of a good fighter I must give you Maxim and the way he went back with Sheppard. More than that, I must give you his casual acceptance of his own act, his amazement that Sheppard would take him back.
We are thinking about good fighters, the ones of our time, and so Joe Louis belongs in this. The things that make any fighter good, or great, are many, and in the days when Louis was great they analyzed this great┬¼ness as deriving from fast reflexes, fast hands, and proper schooling in the use of these gifts.
There was nothing wrong with this definition, except that it left those who knew Louis only from a distance perplexed. The placid, unchanging expression of his face, his slow, uninspired manner of speech gave rise to the opinion that his was only an animal ability, and some, at least, concluded that boxing greatness does not require agility of mind.
That is where they were wrong, and Louis proved it on a number of occasions. He proved it on a day in Pompton Lakes in 1946. He was training to meet Billy Conn for the second time, and we were all standing around, crowded, in the dressing room watching Manny Seamon wrapping Joe’s hands.
We were not saying much. We never did say much around Joe, but it had been written many times that Conn looked fast and that his speed might befuddle Louis, and then, as we all stood there, somebody mentioned this.
When he did, Louis said something. He raised his eyes slowly, from watching Manny, and then he came out with the best line that was spoken or written about that fight. Then he went back to watching Manny.
“Billy can run,” Joe said, simply, “but he can’t hide.”
Lines are our stock in trade, not Joe’s, but he did not surprise those of us who knew him as much as it was ever possible for us to know Joe. He had given us one of those rare opportunities to look into that mind, the mind that could recognize an opening and use it. He had explained, without trying to do so, the ability to take the single opening that Paolino Uzcudun gave him in four rounds, and with one punch, probably the most devastating single punch Louis ever threw, flatten Uzcudun.
It is generally agreed that Joe’s greatest fight was his second fight against Max Schme┬¼ling. Goaded by hurt pride he angrily annihilated in less than a round a good fighter who had previously knocked him out. Emotional excitement inspired his most creative performance and made it his best. Thus it comes down that the good fighter is the creative fighter, the one who is able to rise above the mech┬¼anical limitations of the sport.
Such a one was the Rocky Graziano who, on July 12, 1947, won the middle┬¼weight championship of the world. Far from a master of the moves of the sport, the Graziano of that time was a fighter whose creative ability, coupled with his right hand, more than made up for his lack of technical talent.
It was a few minutes after Graziano had knocked out Tony Zale in the heat of the Chicago Stadium and in one of the most fierce fights of our era, that several of us were crowding him in the closeness of his dressing room. His one eye was closed and a clip held together the flesh above the other, and someone asked him to try to explain how he felt during the fury of that fight with Zale.
“I wanted to kill him,” Rocky said. “I don’t know why. I got nothing against him. I like him. He’s a nice guy, but I wanted to kill him. I don’t know why.”
The greatest fighter of his time and one of the greatest of all time is Ray Robinson, the middleweight champion of the world. It is probable that in him, more than in any other fighter of today, are combined more of the qualities that go into the making of a great fighter.
Among the fighters of the present there is, for example, no more avid student of the sport. Robinson has been thus since the days when he started to box. As a four-round preliminary boy he made it a practice to sit at ringside in his ring clothes, before and after his own fights in order to study the others on the card.
One day we were talking in the Uptown Gym in Harlem. He was explaining how he had learned to fight by watching others and fighting others, and I asked him from whom, among those he had fought, he had learned the most.
“Fritzie Zivic taught me a lot,” he said, speaking of the former welterweight champion. “He was about the smartest I ever fought. Why, he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye.”
“How?” I said.
“He’d slip my lead, like this,” Robin┬¼son said, demonstrating. “Then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”
We were sitting one day in Robinson’s office on Seventh Avenue, just south of 124th Street. He had fought Kid Gavilan twice. The first time they had fought Gavi┬¼lan had given him trouble. The second time, for the welterweight title in Phila┬¼delphia on July 11, 1949, he had handled the Cuban with ease, and I wanted him to tell me at least one of the things he had learned about Gavilan in their first fight.
“Well, I noticed one thing.” Robinson said. “I noticed that when he throws his hook he’s not in position, so he shifts his right shoulder forward maybe an inch or two. When he does that you know the right hand is dead, and you how the hook is coming.”
I was not amazed by this, because I had ex┬¼pected some such revelation. I was merely im┬¼pressed that of the many who have fought Gavilan and of the many more who have watched him closely, this is the only one to find this weakness.
I was not amazed, moreover, when Robin┬¼son told me that he knows fear. I have never known a really good creative artist, whether he be a writer, painter, or boxer, who has not confessed that he often doubts himself, experiences nervous┬¼ness when the big project is at hand.
“Accidents happen in a ring,” Robinson said. “You can never tell when you’re liable to be hit with a good punch.”
He remembered the night he fought Artie Levine in Cleveland in November of 1946. Levine had a dozen pounds on him and so Robinson was fighting it the way you should fight it, moving and throwing no more than combinations and piling up the points.
“In the ninth round,” he said, “he started a right hand and I reached over to catch it. When I opened my glove it wasn’t there and I heard the referee say: ‘Four.’ I thought to myself, Man, he’s startin’ awful high.”
Robinson got up at nine, and in the next round he knocked Levine out. He has never forgotten this, however, but the fear that Robinson knows is the limited fear that inspires a degree of caution and out of this gives birth to inspired performance.