The Sweet Science

John W. Pinkerton

When I was a young fellow, boxing--pugilism, prize fighting, the sweet science--was a big deal.  It was a time in which baseball and boxing dominated males’ psyches.

The heavyweights were my favorites.  All kids in the 50’s knew the names of the champions: Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries, Hart, Burns, Johnson, Willard, Dempsey, Tunney, Schmeling, Sharkey, Camera, Baer, Braddock, Louis, Charles, Savold, Walcott, Marciano, Patterson.  Floyd Patterson had become the youngest man to ever win the heavyweight championship and had been a gold medal winner at the Olympics.  He was also the first to lose and regain the title.  He was a well-liked modest sort of fellow.  He lost his title to Sonny Liston in 1962.  On February 25, 1964, Sonny “Sailor” Liston was still world champion.  He was seen as an unbeatable beast, snarling and ignorant and deadly.  He was scheduled that evening to fight a kid from Kentucky who was given slim to no chance of beating Liston.  I recall the moment I heard the news that Liston didn’t get off his stool after the sixth round, and Cassius Clay was the heavyweight world champion.  I was leaving the LSU library in the evening when I heard a portable radio gathered around by a few fellows wondering aloud who the heck Cassius Clay was and what happened to the unbeatable Sonny Liston.

Between the sixth and seventh rounds, Sonny had told his corner that he couldn’t continue complaining of a shoulder injury.  Clay began repeatedly yelling, “I’m the greatest,” and,  “I shook up the world.”  The next day Clay announced he was changing his name to Cassius X but rethought his decision and settled on Muhammad Ali.

Even as kids, we knew the terminology associated with boxing: out-fighter or boxer, brawler or slugger, in-fighter or swarmer, jab, cross, hook, uppercut, slip, sway or fade, duck or break, bob and weave, parry or block, the cover-up, knockout, knock down, standing eight count, and the one all fans hated, the clinch.  Ali introduced a new term in his Rumble in the Jungle against the then champ George Foreman when he allowed Foreman to beat on his body and arms to exhaustion.  Regardless of the terminology, a prize fight usually involves two fellows hoping to inflict more pain on the other fellow than they receive on themselves. 

As brutal as the game is sometimes pictured, it’s still not as brutal as mixed martial arts or ultimate fighting.  Ultimate fighting is a little tamer than when it began which included hair pulling and attacks of the groin area, biting, etc., but it’s still too brutal for me to watch.  It makes boxing look like a gentleman’s sport.

Speaking of a gentleman’s sport, since 1867 boxing has used the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. These rules set the number of three minute rounds with a minute between rounds.  At one time, championships were typically fifteen rounds, but as a safety measure, the number was reduced to twelve.  The typical match is ten rounds.  The match had a referee inside the ring to enforce the rules and protect the fighters, and usually three judges at ringside would keep scorecards based on punches landed and adept defense.  A fight could end by a knockout, a technical knockout determined by the referee, the three-knockdown rule, or technical knockout determined by a doctor.  If the fight goes the distance, the winner is determined by the judges’ scorecards.  The fight could be awarded to either boxer or called a draw.  Of course, a boxer or his corner could call an end to the fight by “throwing in the towel.”

After the Ali era, which included his losng his title three times, once by his decision to avoid the draft, twice by defeats, my interest in boxing waned for a couple of reasons: one, because it became an alphabet soup with the WBA, WBC, and the IBF each declaring its own champion; two, uninspiring “champions” like John Tate, Mike Weaver, Gerrie Coetzee, and on and on; and three, Michael Gerard “Mike” Tyson.

“Mike” was the youngest to ever win the undisputed championship.  His youth was not his problem.  Mike, frankly, was mentally unbalanced.  He became champion by knocking out Michael Spinks, not exactly a mental giant himself in 1988 in 91 seconds.  Mike defended his championship nine times finally losing to James “Buster” Douglas in the most surprising loss in boxing history.  Mike was sidetracked for a few years by a prison term for rape but made a comeback and lost to then champion Evander Holyfield.   I experienced this fight in an unusual way; the fight was a pay per view contest, and I hadn’t paid for the view, but I tuned to the station the fight was on and although I got no picture there was intermittent sound available.  I concentrated on the snatches of sound, and I thought I heard that someone had bitten someone.  I went to bed confused.  The next day I learned that Mike had been disqualified for biting Evander’s ear...twice. I saw a replay of the match: unbelievable.  Most champions have at least presented themselves to the public as gentlemen, Evander being one of them.  There was a sigh of relief from almost all fight fans when the saga of “Mike” came to an end.

On the other hand, there is the inspirational story of George Foreman.  “Big George” earned his shot at the title by amassing a professional 37 and 0 record, 29 by knockouts.  In 1973, George fought the great Joe Frazier for the championship.  George knocked Frazier down six times; the referee finally called the fight.  This was the fight in which Howard Cosell uttered his famous, “Down goes Frazier!” There was a new champion.  No one really liked him.  He wasn’t very likable.

George defended his title three times, once against Kenny Norton.  He was now 40-0 with 37 knockouts.  Then in 1977 George fought Jimmy Young.  Jimmy was a good fighter and knocked the fire out of George, but George won.

Then came “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 in which Muhammad Ali was making a comeback.  This was the contest in which Ali introduced the “Rope-a-dope” to the world.   Basically Ali allowed the hard hitting Foreman to exhaust himself mainly with blows to Ali’s body.  In the eighth round, George went down, regained his footing in time, but the referee ended the fight as a TKO.  Years later, George would say of the fight that he had been the dope.

It was obvious that Ali ducked another fight with Foreman.

George beat Ron Lyle and Joe Frazier, but Jimmy Young, a skilled fighter, knocked fire from his butt and sent him into retirement.  George was lost.  He became a born again Christian, an ordained Baptist minister, and he opened a youth boxing gym in Houston, Texas.  We didn’t hear much from George for ten years.  I suspect that after he lost the championship, he thought of himself as a bum.

In 1978, at the age of 38, George announced his return to the ring.  His motivation was to raise money for his youth program.  Most folks snickered at the 38 year old.  I didn’t.  I remembered how good he had  been.  Each time he won a fight, his popularity grew although he was mainly viewed as a sideshow.  This was a different George Foreman.  He wasn’t surly any longer; he was personable with a big smile.    At first he was knocking off bums.  Then he was beating real opponents, Bert Cooper and Gerry Clooney.  In 1991 he was in line for a championship fight with Evander Holyfield.  He lost a close decision which went to the cards.  He fought twice more, winning one, losing one.

In 1994, Michael Moore had become champion beating Holyfield.  Only because of Foreman’s popularity, George was given another chance at the championship.  Losing on all scorecards, George knocked out Moore in the tenth round and suddenly won the title he had lost to Ali two decades before.  He fought a few fights as champion but finally lost to Shannon Biggs in a fight that went to the cards.  George was 48.  He retired.  The fight game hasn’t been the same for me since then.

George went on to be a boxing analyst for HBO.  In 2004 at the age of 55 he severed his ties with HBO, and George was no longer associated with boxing.  George went on to be the spokesperson for the George Foreman Grill.  It is estimated that he made over 200 million dollars for his efforts, more than he made in his boxing career.  People liked George.  People still like George.

George’s final professional record was 76 and 5.  Not bad.  In his salad days he only lost to Jimmy Young and Muhammad Ali, two pretty good fighters.

In case you’re interested, my favorite heavyweights were Frazier, Ali, Holyfield, and Marciano.  Marciano retired undefeated.  My favorite non champion heavyweight was Tex Cobb who was willing to take a beating any time for a payday.

I don’t watch boxing anymore although it’s readily available via television.  However, I’m still up for a good work of fiction or movie with a boxing theme.  A lot has been written about boxing and many films have been made about boxing.  My personal favorite work of fiction is the short story “A Piece of Steak” by Jack London which is about a courageous “club” fighter.  My favorite movie involving boxing is Raging Bull in which Robert De Niro portrays Jake LaMotta in the Martin Scorses’s film.

Bring back George and Ali and Frazier and Marciano and Tex, and I’ll be the first one to line up for a ticket. 


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