When is a boxing demonstration not enough?
Chris Arreola couldn't figure out a way to get to Vitali Klitschko, which made for a monotonous fight. Bryan Crowe / FightWireImages.com
Floyd Mayweather’s ridiculously one-sided victory over Juan Manuel Marquez on Sept. 19 was met with two distinct reactions.
Mayweather’s fans, those who worship the art of boxing, celebrated his brilliance. The rest of us, frustrated because of an utter lack of drama, applauded Mayweather’s performance but were bored by the monotony.
The same can be said of Vitali Klitschko’s demolition of Chris Arreola, who couldn’t touch the big man if someone gave him a bat.
So who’s right? The art lovers? Those who crave action? Well, they’re both right. It all depends on what brings you to boxing.
RingTV.com talked to four observers of the sport — former boxer Genaro Hernandez, boxing historian and author Mike Silver, broadcaster Larry Merchant and trainer Joe Goossen — to get their perspectives on the issue.
All four said they appreciate sublime technique but also understand that most fans are more interested in seeing a fight than a demonstration of skill — even unusual skill, like that of Mayweather and Klitschko.
As the famous matchmaker Teddy Brenner once said: “There’s no room for perfection in boxing.”
“Times and tastes change,” Merchant said. “There was a time when Benny Leonard was celebrated because he didn’t get his hair mussed in a fight. Willie Pep was celebrated even though he didn’t land a punch because he was so beautiful to look at. I’m not interested in looking at that type of fight any more. It’s something I admire; I respect a good craftsman. People go to the fights basically to see drama, though, to see guys taking risks, to see guys dealing with adversity.
“That doesn’t mean every fight should be a brawl. For example, I don’t think what Shane Mosley does is brawling. He’s a boxer-puncher. He fights in a responsible, defensive way but also takes risks. To me, that’s what a fighter is.”
The defenders of Mayweather responded to criticism of their man by saying collectively: “What do you want him to do? Stand there and brawl?”
Of course not. Mayweather’s natural gifts — speed, athleticism, a sharp boxing mind — lend itself to the style he employs. He’s a born boxer if there ever was one. As Silver put it, “He’s what we call a natural.”
Hernandez, a friend of Mayweather, was asked whether pure boxers — if that’s what Mayweather is — are under appreciated.
“I think they are,” said the former titleholder, an exquisite boxer in his day. “I think people are putting too much pressure on a lot fighters. And maybe that comes from the UFC way of thinking. Everybody wants to see a knockout. People have to understand that boxing is a science. You can’t go to war every time; you can’t just shoot everybody up like Rambo.
“You take your time, use your skills, execute your game plan. That’s boxing. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that.”
That said, Hernandez, the least critical of Mayweather and Klitschko of the four interviewed, joined the rest to acknowledge the fans’ frustration.
No one is asking Mayweather or Klitschko to fight like Arturo Gatti or Mike Tyson. They would have to give up the distinct advantages they have over most opponents to do that, which makes no sense.
However, as Merchant suggested, it might not be unreasonable to ask such boxers to take more risks in the interest of drama.
The most-avid fans invest a lot of emotion and hard cash in boxing and deserve some satisfaction, as Hernandez pointed out. Clearly, even if they appreciate sublime skills, they crave some kind of drama. Neither Mayweather-Marquez nor Klitschko-Arreola was destined to be competitive, which is one form of drama.
That left only the possibility of a dramatic knockout, which neither winner was willing to pursue — at least not overtly — because of the risk.
“There’s definitely a place for a guy with exquisite skill, a calculating, chess-playing boxer-mover-puncher like Mayweather,” Goossen said. “I would love to have a fighter like that. But when you’re in there with a guy who is 36 and basically a 122- or 126-pounder and you play it cautious ÔÇª c’mon. I just feel that at a certain point, when you bang a guy around like that and you know he can’t hurt you, how the hell do you not try to take him out? At least show us you’re trying to do that. ÔÇª
“And it took the corner to stop the Klitschko fight against Arreola. You mean to tell me that at one point in that fight he couldn’t have turned it on and finished the job? He was content to back pedal and let Chris come to him all night.”
Silver said the great ones of the past generally tried to stop their opponents when they had a chance.
To be fair, in the old days, there wasn’t as much money at stake and losing wasn’t as taboo as it is today. Mayweather, who is undefeated, probably would be risking more than they did.
Still, for generations, that’s what the legends of the sport did. And they didn’t do it like Rambo; they used their abilities and a little bit of what Goossen called “intestinal fortitude” to give the fans their money’s worth.
It was the norm at one time.
“Mayweather should’ve been able to take out Marquez,” said Silver, author of The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science. “And he could’ve done it with skill. Sugar Ray Robinson was a master boxer but he took chances to knock out opponents. He did it with finesse, with superb savvy. ÔÇª
“If you’re going to say you belong up there with the greats, you have to behave like one. They took chances.”
Hernandez, who lost to Mayweather in his final fight, acknowledges the sentiments of Silver, Goossen and Merchant but understands Mayweather’s approach to the sport.
Mayweather, he said, is thinking long term.
“No, he doesn’t always take chances,” Hernandez said. “I believe that’s why some people don’t like him (as a boxer). He doesn’t want to go all out. When he has somebody hurt, he really doesn’t go for the knockout. He’s satisfied with what he’s doing in the ring. And it’s not hurting him. He’s still making a lot of money and he’s not getting hit. He’s fighting the way he loves to fight and doesn’t care what people think.
“And at the end of his career, the one with the money in the bank will be him. And you know what? You can’t satisfy everybody.”
True enough. The question is: Can fighters like Mayweather and Klitschko satisfy more fans than they do now?
It’s up to them. If they’re content to make good paydays but fail to stir the masses, then that’s understandable. If they want to do a little bit more — just enough to add some intrigue to their predictable fights — then they’ll win more hearts.
Simple as that.
“The way I look at it, if a fighter comes out of the dressing room and his first priority is not to be hit, I know I’m not in for a thrilling night,” Merchant said.
“If he says to himself, ‘I’m a fighter. I’m going to hit him more and harder than he hits me; I’ve signed up for a tough and often dangerous game and that goes with the territory,’ that’s a fight I’m interested in.”
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]