Friday, August 3, 2007

Knock Off All That Cuddling, Professional Face-Punchers

On the long list of reasons a great many of my friends don't follow boxing is... All. That. Hugging. I don't mean after fights, when it never fails to pleasantly surprise me how two men can spend nearly an hour punching each other in the face, then embrace like old friends. No, the scourge I speak of is what in boxing terms is called a "clinch." It's when one fighter grabs the other and holds him, for reasons that vary from strategic advantage to salvation from a knockout punch for a boxer on the verge of hitting the canvas. Performed excessively, it is illegal, cause for having points docked for judging purposes or even disqualification. And yet, if anything, more -- not fewer -- big-name boxers appear to be relying on excessive holding as a tactic. It must stop.

The heavyweight division has, and always will be, marked by clinching. As this informative HBO article describes, even one of the most aesthetically appealing ring stylists, Muhammad Ali, held. All the time, in fact. It's the only thing about "The Greatest" that irritates me when I catch old Ali fights on ESPN Classic. Some of this is merely a question of size and space. Often, two giant men in a tiny ring will throw their punches and get entangled by accident. They have the option of trying to work their way out of this clinch or holding on until the referee separates them. Usually, alas, they take the latter option.

This heavyweight entanglement is in some ways understandable, but it also is one of the reasons I have never cared much for the heavyweights. Another kind of clinch is even more understandable: the aforementioned hold to avoid being knocked out. No one trying to maintain a grasp of his consciousness should be penalized for holding on for dear life. Sometimes it works and the fighter regains his senses, and the hold suddenly seems almost noble. On woozy legs, stars around his head, a fighter who manages to avoid the KO has done something dramatic. Especially since, quite often, the fighter on the verge of knocking out his man succeeds in wriggling free and putting him to sleep.

No, it is the strategic deployment of the hug that is a plague upon boxing. In the days of Mike Tyson, this strategic hold was more a matter of fright at being crushed by a sledgehammer uppercut. Tyson's victims entered the ring thinking survival, not victory. Fast forward to the 1990s: The most adept modern practitioner of holding is former heavyweight champion John Ruiz, and by my reckoning, he is to blame for the spread of clinching. Ruiz was an up-and-coming heavyweight before he was obliterated by David Tua. For anyone who saw Ruiz' fights with Evander Holyfield, notice in the Tua fight how willing he is to trade heavy blows compared to how he behaved against "The Real Deal." Ruiz realized after Tua that he could not compete in the heavyweight division on the strength of his punch alone, and began his patented "hit and hold" strategy. He would see his opportunity to land a blow, then let his forward momentum carry him into a clinch with his opponent. After the referee broke up the clinch, he would get into position to repeat this hit/hug cycle. If he did this often enough, and his opponent failed to hit him often enough, he would pile up points and win.

Lennox Lewis is the biggest-name fighter since to employ a similar holding-based strategy, but because Lewis had real power, it was never quite as boring as when Ruiz did it -- although it was boring enough to make Lewis an unpopular "baddest man in the world," as the heavyweight champ is sometimes known. For a very, very tall heavyweight, this strategy allows him to stay on the outside, jabbing his opponent at will and mixing in the occasional power punch; when he gets rushed by the smaller man, he grabs him, and that gives the bigger heavyweight a chance to reestablish his favorite distance. His successor as the clear-best heavyweight in the world, Vladimir Klitschko, has now adopted this holding style. That their trainer is the savvy Emmanuel Steward suggests a method to the madness.

But two big-name non-heavyweights now make holding a key to their strategy. Recently, all-time great Bernard Hopkins Ruized his way to victory over fellow future hall-of-famer Winky Wright, not the first time he has Ruized. Ricky Hatton, Great Britain's charismatic little Tazmanian devil, has hit and held his way to several frustrating-to-watch wins. Decades ago, Ali brought a little man's sweet science -- speed mixed with power -- into the heavyweight division and elevated the big man's game in the process. Why taint the little man's game with big man tactics?

This is not mere whining. My friends who dislike boxing are not alone in their disdain for holding. I've actually turned off fights when there was too much grappling. When a true fan of the sport can't stand all that wrestling, doesn't that suggest that this is a big problem? And excessive holding has arguably been the key to victory for several of the fighters I mentioned. Ruiz didn't have the talent to win against the best any other way. Lewis and Klitschko would still be excellent fighters without holding, but their opponents often didn't even get the chance to hit them because of all the copious hugging. Hatton nearly got knocked out by a body punch from borderline talent Juan Urango this year, forcing him to abandon a newly-adopted entertaining boxing style in favor of hit, fall in, hold. And Hopkins, 42, was able to keep Wright off-balance and prevent him from firing off his patented jab by hitting, falling in, then holding him. In these cases, cheating aided the winning, so the impact of clinching cannot be disputed.

The answer to this problem is a simple enough concept. Referees should enforce the rules. When a fighter is holding excessively, as the referee in Hopkins-Wright noted with repeated warnings to Hopkins, he should be docked points. This doesn't happen enough now. The referees need to get reacquainted with the rulebook, as the results suggest, but also as suggested by the HBO piece's quotes from referees. Richard Steele has always been a terrible ref, but his litany of excuses for why holding continues is laughable. Ruiz held and we let him get away with it, so he kept getting away with it, said Steele. Ali held, Steele said, but it was Ali and everyone liked him so he kept getting away with it. And sometimes, Steele said, he would let a hugger get away with it because the huggee was not struggling enough to get out of the hug! This rulebook makes no mention of the criteria proffered by Steele.

Given this, it looks like, barring a powerful public outcry, the best hope for ridding boxing of strategic huggers is individual vigilance. Light heavyweight great Roy Jones, Jr. defeated Ruiz despite a size disadvantage in part because the referee had been lobbied beforehand to be on the lookout for Ruiz' illegal tactics and warned him early and often. That nipped it in the bud. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Jones successor as the most gifted boxer in the game, would be wise to mimic the Jones team's [;pu when he takes on Hatton later this year. Otherwise, Mayweather might have his perfect record hugged right out of him. And any of my friends I recruit to watch Mayweather-Hatton will say, "See? What's with all that hugging? I told you boxing sucked."


JimPanzee said...

Rulebook, schmoolbook! I say we tether the fighters to their respective corners with enough rope to put nose to nose but not close enough for a hug. Ring the bell and watch the fun. Instead of the ref jumping in at the end-of-round bell, someone could just tug on the tether and haul the boxer in for his much deserved water and ice.

alex said...

I'm looking forward to my invitation to this Mayweather-Hatton matchup, so I can complain about how much boxing sucks.

More seriously, this is awfully good analysis -- love the bit about Lewis and Ruiz having the same trainer. Gotchya!

Tim -- said...

You're on the list, Alex.