They absolutely reviled Jack Johnson, possibly the greatest heavyweight in history. He was brash, drove fast cars, taunted opponents, defeated them with what seemed like relative ease, and laughed as he was doing it. His opponents could not touch him. By this I mean to say that they literally couldn’t put a glove on him. He moved about the ring with such ease, such fluidity, that his opponents were confused, frustrated, tired. Defensive fighting for Johnson was what made him the stuff of legend, and also reviled. In a day when boxing was crude and raw, Johnson, like Jim Corbett before him, mastered the defensive style that was to be his trademark. Opponents simply could not hit him. Johnson’s life outside the ring also contributed to white America’s hate relationship with him, but this blog entry is not about that part of his career. For a complete look at this rather enigma of a man, read Unforgivable Blackness. Another boxing legend, Jim Corbett, was before Jack Johnson garnering the moniker “gentleman Jim” for his defensive prowess as a fighter. Jack Johnson was to take the defensive style to the next level, becoming so good, no challenger could defeat him during his prime. The problem was that, among other things, Johnson’s style was not appreciated by the boxing public who gravitated to a more physical, bloodsport mentality. Johnson was not deterred. He could turn on the offense when he wanted, but chose to remain mostly out of harms way, surviving as a deadly counterpuncher. This was the “science” the sweet science.
Enter Gene Tunney, champion from 1926-1928. Tunney was another defensive genius of the heavyweight division. He, unlike his much more popular rival Jack Dempsey, was such a defensive genius that the public hated him as well. It is not as though he was as reviled as Jack Johnson, for Johnson was black, a fact that infuriated white America at the time. No, rather Tunney was not appreciated because of his defensive capabilities as a fighter. The cherry on top was that he was also a scholar, lecturing at various universities on Shakespeare. While the ever popular Jack Dempsey was charging at opponents, pummeling them from the beginning of the fight, Tunney was more calculating, preferring a defensive style to that of blind fury. Out of Tunney’s 65 wins, 48 were knockouts. This despite the fact that he was a defensive tactician, one of the best of all time and fighting in the heavyweight division while being a natural light-heavyweight. Muhammed Ali, who certainly needs no introduction, was also one of the great defensive fighters in the heavyweight division. The Greatest, understood the importance of not being hit while hitting, reminding everyone around him how pretty he was while fighting all comers in the period of the late ’60’s and 70’s judged by some to be the “golden age” of boxing.
To be sure, there were many others in the “defensive fighter” catagory with the likes of Benny Leonard, Willie Pep, and the greatest of them all, Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson’s case is unique in the annals of boxing history in that he was a natural welterweight, but fought all the way up to the light-heavyweight division. By that time, he was a shell of what he used to be, but the mere fact that he was able to compete at the upper weight classes underscores how great of a fighter, a defensive fighter, he really was. Robinson was also unique in that he had the ability to knock opponents out with either hand, something that separates him from the rest. During his career from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Robinson was the definition of the total fighter, with an emphasis on his defensive abilities.
The problem with defensive fighters is that they are not the type of fighters that are universally revered, especially if they don’t produce some offense. In the case of Jack Johnson, there were far more reasons why he was not revered in his own time, with rampant racism the main culprit, along with his affinity for being with and marrying white women during a time period in which that was not condoned at all. With that being said, fans were used to the brawling tactics of a John L. Sullivan of almost a generation earlier, the last of the bare knuckle fighters. Boxing history is littered with the brawler who endeared himself to the boxing populace, and they are revered. Rocky Marciano, aguably the greatest knockout artist of them all (although George Foreman might object) and the current record holder of an undefeated professional career at 49-0 (43 KO), sits at the pantheon of heavyweight fighters for his grit, determination, knockout power, and brawling style of fighting. The aforementioned George Foreman is also in that category due to his raw power. There are many more, from many weight divisions who hold a place in the hearts of many a fight fan for their fighting style, not boxing style. The great wars between Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, Henry Armstrong, Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano to name a few. In the more modern period, the HItman, Thomas Hearns, himself an excellent boxer when he chose to be, is most remembered for his fights with Sugar Ray Leonard that devolved into slugfests, and his epic three round loss to Marvelous Marvin Hagler, himself a great boxer/puncher. Who can forget the timeless wars of the late Aurturo Gatti and Irish Mickey Ward? These great fighters, with the emphasis on the word “fighter”, reside in the collective memory of fight fans because of the action, physicality, and bloodsport of their craft. Their demonstration of heart and sheer will make real the movies of boxing that Hollywood has regaled the populace with whenever they make a boxing movie. Name one memorable boxing film in which the protagonist is a defensive fighter…name one. The general public, the non-boxing public, wants action, wants the dramatic knockout such as when Julio Ceasar Chavez KO’s Meldrick Taylor with 2 seconds left in the fight after being behind the entire match.
This brings us to Floyd Mayweather. Whether one likes his braggadocio style or the flaunting of his vast wealth every chance he gets is not the point of this post. In addition, his domestic violence conviction is also not to be considered. This post is about style and Mayweather’s place in the history of boxing (this is a history blog after all). The fact that Floyd Mayweather dispatched Manny Pacquiao is not disputable…Floyd won the fight, as he has won all of his fights. He outboxed his opponent. He hit without being hit. To be sure, Floyd has changed his style over the years and has become much more defensive in nature. This style does not resonate with the general public and as a result, will always be a point of dispute for those who wish to exclude him from the upper, upper eshelon of great fighters. He will not be remembered, despite his record, as the greatest of all time as he simply does not win with the flash knockout enough that so many of the greats have in the past. He chooses not to stand toe to toe with his opponent, but rather use his defensive boxing skills to win his fights. We don’t know if he can take a punch or not as he cannot be hit. The few times that opponents have connected, he’s weathered the storm which proves nothing as no one has been able to sustain an attack, including Marcos Maidana. He is Gene Tunney. He is Willie Pep. He is Sandy Saddler. He is a great boxer who will be remembered as a great boxer, with no signature win that demonstrated his toughness, his ability to “come back from the dead”, his having to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to win a fight. There is no Joe Frazier for his Ali, no Hearns for his Sugar Ray, no LaMotta for his Robinson. He has not been willing to put himself in that position, but rather simply dance away and dare his opponent to catch him.
One final note on Floyd. The greatest mistake he’s made in his career is not being willing to lose. You see, the boxing public can accept the greatness of a champion in spite of the fact that he lost, not because he didn’t lose. Ali, Robinson, Duran, Hagler, Dempsey, all lost in their career, and all have been mentioned as possible all-time greatest fighters of their generation. Losing is not the criteria that keeps one from being an all-time great, but rather risking it all and overcoming the insurmountable, after sometimes being “surmounted” that determines that. While Marciano left as the undefeated champion, he was on the verge of loss more than once, most notably in his title bout against Jersey Joe Walcott. Even the great Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, lost to Max Schmeling in their first meeting. The record is not the thing, it is how that record is achieved.

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