Monday, October 22, 2007

Boxing All Over The World

Good news for Canada. Lucien Bute just won a title fight this past weekend, making him the second Canuck to strap a belt around his waist in 2007. Until ESPN's Dan Rafael reminded me
that Joachim Alcine -- another native son from maple leaf country -- had also won a title belt this year, I can't say I'd spent much time thinking about Canadian boxers. Oh, in the back of my mind, I understood that Arturo Gatti was a Canadian. But in reality, he was an adopted Atlantic City-ian, because that's where he had a cult-like following, where he was treated like a rock star who belonged to the people of A.C. But suddenly I found myself pondering the boxing tradition of a country where the word "fight" is more commonly associated with hockey.

From there, my mind wandered. I recalled a piece written in August on called "Thank God for Mexican Fighters." And about how Great Britain is undergoing its own sort of boxing renaissance. And a few other countries whose boxers were on the rise.

And then I thought about the big picture. In boxing, more than any other sport I've ever followed, where an athlete is from matters tremendously. It is not, in my experience, a negative force. At least not now. It could be, and has been. Jingoism tends not to infect combat between athletes from other countries, as counterintuitive as it sounds. More often than not, showdowns between cherished fighters from rival countries have been cathartic events that ease tensions instead of build them. When Mexican fighters meet between the ropes with Puerto Rican fighters, there's a palpable sizzle, but I'm not aware of any outward nastiness between the people of Mexico and Puerto Rico -- the two areas just have a rich boxing tradition, steeped in machismo, that make fights between their boxers magic. Sometimes such meetings take on a greater meaning, most famously when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling did battle amid rising tensions between Germany and the United States. Nothing before or since matched that for global implications, but today, when two fervent fan bases from different parts of the world gather to cheer on their gladiators, it's electric -- I envy anyone who was ringside when Mexican legend Erik Morales and Filipino hero Manny Pacquiao fought for a third time. One writer said it felt like having his head stuck in a jet engine.

But I can't say my mind wandered much farther than feeling like this would be a good topic to explore. Maybe in reality it's more a good topic to explore on an individual basis, to be delved into in pieces elsewhere, perhaps as I move into the interview-people-instead-of-just-spouting-off phase of my modest fight game writing hobby.

That makes the below list of countries or regions and the status of the fighters who hail from there, plus the characteristics and traditions each possess, little more than a sketchpad. For those who don't follow boxing regularly, it could offer an education. And if anyone wants to offer their own thoughts about the countries I mentioned and the ones I should've included, please do, along with any deeper insights about the link between national identity and the sweet science. You'd be doing me a favor.

A disclaimer because I could be meandering into dangerous territory: No one country can be stereotyped as having one kind of boxer. Nor do I, personally, have hostility toward any particular country. Where I've listed criticisms, they are usually the criticisms of others, not reflective of my own point of view.

Why not start at home? No country is more neurotic about its place in the boxing world. That no American stands atop the heavyweight heap is a source of considerable anxiety for the United States, so much so that it's among the most commonly cited reason people give me when they explain that they don't follow boxing these days. It's true that the rich contracts of the NFL and NBA have robbed American boxing of its once-dominant heavyweight talent base, and in a country where bigger is better, being the best at being big matters here.

But if Americans could just look a little lower, they'd see that there's a considerable source of pride in our boxing ranks. It's admittedly easier for me since I became a fan in an era when American heavyweights have always been peripheral figures in the land of giants. But if we could set that aside, we could peruse Ring Magazine's pound-for-pound top 10 list of the best fighters around regardless of weight class and notice two things: 1., there are no heavyweights from any country there, and 2., there are more fighters from the the United States and Mexico -- three each -- than anywhere else. In other words, the heavyweights just aren't that important anymore anywhere, and America is still pretty good at being the best.

America's Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is the best there is to the Bible of Boxing. Bernard Hopkins is Ring's fourth best. Winky Wright is sixth. Other lists -- and of course pound-for-pound is a subjective measurement -- might squeak Kelly Pavlik up there, or move Mayweather, Hopkins and Wright into different slots. But the fact remains, these are some good fighters.

The Mayweather-Hopkins-Wright trinity has something in common -- they're all slick guys, heavily-skilled and smart as all get-out. That, more than anything, seems to be the characteristic of the best American fighters these days. Their tight defense and abundance of caution can make them a little boring at times, sure. But Chad Dawson is in that tradition, and he's not boring at all, nor is Shane Mosley. And we have our share of sluggers -- see the aforementioned Pavlik, plus Jeff Lacy, Andre Berto and Juan Diaz, for starters.

And yes, I'm claiming Diaz as our own because he's from America, even though his heritage is Mexican. Interestingly, that leads into the next country. That Mexican-American Oscar De La Hoya -- a native of the United States and the sport's biggest superstar, indicator yet again that American boxing is in fine shape -- never "fought like a Mexican" has been a knock on him with that very big constituency south of the border for years. Among his characteristics? Slickness, and, yes, sometimes, caution.

I really don't mind saying it: Mexicans have been among the best and most entertaining fighters since I started following pugilism. Nearly every one of them are tremendous boxer-punchers, terrors who have ample skill -- foot movement, counter-punching, all the tricks -- but just as often decide to practice what legendary boxing writer Budd Schulberg calls "the manly art of no defense," usually when someone knocks the chip off their shoulder and they want to brawl about it.

Yet, with the retirement this year of legendary rivals Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, both of whom have seen a decline in their abilities, I get the sense that Mexican boxing is moving on a slight downward slope. Yes, three of their own -- Israel Vasquez and the brothers Marquez, Rafael and Juan Manuel -- hold a place on Ring's pound-for-pound list. But while Juan Manuel is well-preserved, he's older than either Barrera or Morales, so the end of the road is not far off. Vasquez and Rafael have trended toward career-sapping wars, twice against each other this year and once more ahead in March, that they, too, may not last much longer. Jose Luis Castillo, he of the greatest fight of all time versus Diego Corrales, is still around, but a shell of his former self. Castillo is a literal link to the previous generation of Mexican fighters, serving as he did for so long as a sparring partner to Julio Cesar Chavez, the reason many of this generation of fighters, and even some from the one getting long in the tooth, fight at all.

There will, no doubt, be another generation of Mexican fighters on the way. Perhaps no boxing fans are more passionate than those who hail from Mexico, and inevitably among their ranks are those dreaming of becoming the next Marco Antonio Barrera or Erik Morales. But as the Barreras and Marquezes of the world fade away, budding talents or fan favorites like Jorge Arce, Fernando Montiel, Cristian Mijares and Daniel Ponce Deleon may have to prop up Mexican boxing until then.

The Philippines
The Philippines have to be considered one of the top two or three countries whose boxers are on the rise. Perhaps they've drawn their strength from siphoning it from Mexico. At times, they've done so directly. Manny Pacquiao, the most beloved person alive in the Philippines, has propped himself up on the scalps of legendary Mexicans, forcing Barrera into retirmenet and destroying Morales. In between, the "Pacman" has beaten enough other Mexicans to have earned the secondary nickname of "Republica Enemy No. 1." Meanwhile, Gerry Penalosa took a belt from Mexican Jhonny Gonzalez this year, not long after losing a decision that most thought he won against Deleon.

That Penalosa and Pacquiao took similar paths to glory in recent years is likewise fittingly symmetrical, since Penalosa was sort of the avatar of Filipino boxing who blazed the path for Pacquiao to make a name for Pinoy fighters. Penalosa may be getting old, but Pacquiao -- probably the second best fighter in the world, regardless of weight class -- and a bevy of other Filipino boxers are making their country as "now" as can be. Nonito Donaire scored what I considered to be the knockout of the year when he blasted Vic Darchinyan with a shot that proved boxing's little men -- even the 112-pounders -- have done away with the myth that there is no power in the lower ranks. Donaire won a title along the way. There are a handful of other Filipino fighters who are on their way up, and even the stray loss by Filipino boxer Rey Bautista to Deleon in a card this year pitting boxers from Mexico against their Pinoy counterparts doesn't diminish their accomplishments this year. The 21-year-old Bautista was way too green to be in against a murderous puncher like Deleon, and Rey will probably only get better.

Filipino fighters live by the mantra that speed kills.
A guy named Flash Elorde is one of their most celebrated fighters ever, if that tells you anything. That they often have some serious power, and the balls to stand on the inside to try and outlast their opponents with their quickness and fists of dynamite, makes them awfully dangerous. Just ask Darchinyan.

Great Britain
Stereotypically home to both ruffians and gentle tea-sippers, England has fighters who exhibit characteristics of both, often all at once. And like the Phillippines, they're in the elite of countries enjoying life climbing way up to the top of boxing these days.

Joe Calzaghe is the current longest-running titlist in all of boxing. Ricky Hatton has an enormous following in part because of a run that began in 2005 when he was named Ring's "fighter of the year" after securing what some consider the greatest victory by a British boxer ever, over Kostya Tsyzu. Both draw on a core reactor in their chests that give them energy reserves that make it look like they could fight for a full week straight; forget an hour or so. They differ slightly, sure -- Calzaghe throws tons of fast punches, Hatton never stops hitting and mauling his man. All three are likable, genial chaps, particularly Hatton, who more than any boxer gives off an air that makes you think you'd really like to be one of his drinking buddies. You can even almost hear Calzaghe's Wales accent in the recent invitation of Pavlik to attend his upcoming fight, as if it was all designed to help hype some potential friendly "fisticuffs" between Calzaghe and Pavlik one day in the future, not an invitation for Pavlik to get his face bashed in.

Throw in the exciting David Haye, who does not fit so snugly into the mode of his fellow "now" British sweet science stars, along with Junior Witter and Clinton Woods, and things are mighty pretty for the boxing Brits.

Strangely, not that long ago, Great Britain produced one of its finest champions ever in Lennox Lewis. But hardly anyone looked at that as much like a big deal. First, Lewis was never terribly popular, owing somewhat to his style -- tending toward caution -- and the fact that his background of having lived elsewhere first made him less celebrated in Great Britain than he might otherwise have been. It's a shame, but either way, England now has fighters who are eminently British, and fun to watch to boot.

Hulking products of the Soviet boxing system completely rule the heavyweight division. They inhabit six of the top seven slots in the Ring rankings. Yes, a number of them actually live in America, and some of them hail from former Soviet Union countries, but we're essentially talking about Russia here. Throw in the Ukraine and they have seven of the top 10 slots, and throw in the oft-injured/recently-unretired brother of the best heavyweight, Vladimir Klitschko, and maybe they take eight of the top 10.

Most Russian fighters are a little stiff and robotic, but they hit really, really hard, so they manage. Think Ivan Drago "getting his punch pressure measured by a computer" hard. That hard. And yes, they've been dogged by allegations of steroid use. The aforementioned Klitschko brother, Vitali, has admitted as much, saying he used them as an amateur in 1996, although he's tested clean as a pro. That said, some of the best Russian heavyweights have mixed in some fancy business with their sledgehammer punches, with Sultan Ibragimov having counterpunched his way to victory over Evander Holyfield recently and Ruslan Chagaev having done the same to Nicolay Valuev this year. Hell, even the 7'0", 300 lbs.+ Valuev has a pretty nice jab.

There are other Russian fighters, of course -- the aforementioned Tsyzu, one of the greatest 140-pounders who ever lived, resided in Australia but hailed from the USSR -- but Russia is all about the heavyweights. And they will be for a while, the way things are going. That is, unless promising Mexican heavyweight Chris Arreola extends his country's dominance upward from the lower weight classes where they have long reigned as kings.

(Having hit the five regions that has the greatest and most multitudinous array of champions and amazing fighters, I'll now go more quickly through some regions that are players but that aren't as predominant for one reason or the other.)

Puerto Rico
Miguel Cotto is their current superstar, and one of the biggest in boxing. He shares traits with his predecessor in boxing-mad, hero-worshipping PR, comebacking Felix Trinidad: He comes straight ahead. He hits very, very hard, even ruinously. He has a modicum of skill. And he sometimes strays below the beltline. While Puerto Rico has had its share of similar types -- the Puerto Rican-ancestored Kermit Cintron is of that mold, minus the fouling -- others fall into the slickster category, like Hector "Macho" Camacho, and current boxers with Puerto Rican backgrounds, such as Luis Collazo and Carlos Quintana. And by the looks of that lineup, it seems like PR is pretty good at churning out fighters who kick ass in the 140-pound range. The future? A combo slickster/power puncher prospect named Juan Manuel Lopez who, from what I've seen, could be the stuff of nightmares for his opponents sooner rather than later.

At the tip of South America, they tend to make them one, uniform way perhaps more than any other country: Power punchers, power punchers, power punchers. Their KO ratios are pretty jaw-dropping. Sometimes, they are illusions. They hit hard, no doubt, but they are propped up on deceivingly good records. Other times, they are legitimate, and get tossed aside after a setback because of the sour taste left in the mouths of boxing fans -- boxing fans who lust for Colombian fighters' promise of breathtaking knockout but have repeatedly seen that promise vanish into thin air the first time they're in against anyone with some skill. In this category of legit fighters currently rebuilding from the stereotype after setbacks are Joel Julio, Edison Miranda and Ricardo Torres. But these Colombians are a force to be reckoned with no matter what; just check out how Torres nearly snuffed out Cotto's supernova and Miranda took down highly-touted American Allan Green.

The diversity of African fighters is such that it's not possible to pinpoint a distinct African style; any attempt to do so is as foolish as thinking that all of Africa's countries are the same. That said, African fighters are not so much a force when you take them country by country, and only when you take them as a continent on the whole. Sam Peter of Nigeria is the second-best heavyweight around, and he's raw punching power incarnate, albeit one that is improving his all-around skills. Uganda's Kassim Ouma is merely the most prolific puncher in boxing, someone who wears down his opponent not with power but with sheer activity. Ike Quartey of Ghana, who made his living off a beautiful jab, is a force still. If there is one link, it's that African fighters tend to be smiling warriors -- on the way to the ring, you'll rarely see anyone grinning from ear to ear, but when you do, it's almost always a fighter from Africa.

(And now, no more than a sentence fragment for a few others)

Germany is home to bad boxing judges and over-protected fighters, but Arthur Abraham is for real... I wish I was able to see more fighters from Japan and a number of other Asian countries on TV, because they are all over the lowest weight classes... Yes, there is a good French fighter, and his name is Jean-Marc Mormeck... Australia actually has a number of quite good boxers, like Paul Briggs and Michael Katsidis, but I've not seen enough of each of them outside of Briggs to know first-hand... There are pockets of recent good boxing traditions in South America outside of Colombia, like Venezuela's Edwin Valero... Around Central America and Cuba, they make good fighters, but they seem to make them mean, too, like Panama's Roberto Duran from back in the day, Nicaraguan foil Ricardo Mayorga or Cuba's mouthy Joel Casamayor... I'm not even going to try to get into Poland or Italy, where they range from good when they leave to questionable and staying put... And, apparently, there's something good in the water in Canada these days.

CORRECTED: To reflect the actual nationality of Michael Katsidis.


JimPanzee said...

Another great post. Not just because of its well-written-itude and its appeal to a more general, non-aficionado crowd, but for honest-to-god fun-osity.

I think you're right too about this being a sketch, albeit a good one, something to be fleshed out fight-by-fight. I would imagine that talking to boxers pre-fight about the nationalism behind their sensationalism is bound to get you more sensationalism, but after they're retired...or by talking to could be enlightening.

One of my favorite aspects of boxing is the lack of homerism that pervades other sports. Don't get me wrong, I'm still spending most waking hours trying to convince myself that the Colts _will_ beat the New England Awesomes* in a couple of weeks (so I'm no stranger to homeristic fantasies) but I love that to love boxing you have to put your nation aside and root for the Japanese fighter because he's good, or likable, or both. Pacman is a favorite to boxing fans all over the world because he's just a freaking dynamo. Boxing fans, it seems to me, are in love with quality demonstrations of their sport, more than with lesser aspects like fatherland.

Tim -- said...

Thank you, Mr. Panzee.

I think it depends on the boxing fan. Some of them are just flat fanatics for their countrymen. Observe the way Filipino boxing fans lashed out at me in the comments section from that Pacquaio piece on, accusing me of being biased because I loved Mexican boxers (which I do, but it's not as if I don't love Filipino boxers, too, and it's not as if my article at the time even hinted at some bias).

Me? You? We just love Pacquiao because he's awesome. And he wouldn't be such a big star if his only fans were in the Philippines.

Anonymous said...

katsidis is australian not english!

Tim -- said...

Great thanks, anonymous. I shall correct. My mistake was that Katsidis was in that fight in England with Graham Earl, plus I made the foolish mistake of not being able to place the accent.

Sean A. Malone said...

Great post Tim! I personally believe that Ghana should get seperate mention given the quality fighters to have hailed from that country. Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey, Joshua and Emmanuel Clottey not to mention Ben Tackie. Ghana seems to produce rugged, granite chin bangers that take on all commers. Again great read man!

JimPanzee said...

Oh I know there are there but they seem to be of a different nature than hometeam fans of say, football. In football, your team loses, you cry and moan, you call foul play, you might light a S-10 on fire and flip it over. But to mention that maybe...just maybe...going for it on 4 and 4 deep in enemy territory with a mere 2 points separating you from a playoff might have been a bad idea and you're immediately marked as a traitor and why don't you go back to Tampa you queer! But in boxing...your boy decides to play it safe, backs himself in a rough spot and generally put on a lousy show and your hometown crowd will turn on him in a second. In his poor performance he's shamed the crowd and himself. Football homerism=pride equals team/ Boxing homerism=pride equals hometown. Where in the latter the boxer represents a kind of medieval champion rather than the bearer of the standard.

Tim -- said...

Sean: Thanks, sir. You are utterly right about Ghana. I stand corrected.

Jimpanzee: Understood.