BOXING IN 2017
As it was for everything else, 2016 was for boxing a year of reckoning — one in which all involved parties were forced to look at the model that had evolved in the Haymon/Mayweather era and realize that this was not a sustainable way of doing business — a detriment not only to the future health of the sport at large, but to fighters’ fortunes in the short term. What once seemed smart/”real” (fighter’s leveraging their positions for more bargaining power) was carried out to illogical extremes, fighters of all levels muddying and holding up divisions with outsized contract demands. A shift — boxers no longer demanding what they’re worth, but what they want. Andre Ward carried this out to a most puzzling end, opting to sit out two years of his prime because he felt his promoter had not made him famous enough. Haymon-advised fighters like Keith Thurman and Jermall Charlo are frittering away their athletic and financial primes fighting once or twice a year, and startup boxing promotions such as Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions and Jay-Z’s RocNation have seen massive war chests hemorrhaged in order to meet fighters’ unwarranted guarantees. Long boxing’s premier network, HBO has seen its boxing budget slashed, as fights are simply not generating enough interest to pay the fighters what they demand. Alas — the Floyd Mayweather way of doing business was not working for anyone else because nobody else is named Floyd Mayweather.
The tide seemed to turn as we rounded the corner into 2017. With the ever stalled Canelo-Golovkin bout failing to come to fruition, and the disastrous Mayweather-Pacquiao fight to looming largely in the rearview, there came a sense of urgency — boxing needed to put on good fights to stoke public interest. The long-awaited Ward-Kovalev fight was the first domino to fall. The fight itself was dramatic, if not exactly exciting (Ward fights seldom are), but the disappointing Pay-Per-View numbers told the story — these two fighters, though universally regarded as two of the top ten fighters in the world, did not have the power to generate the kind of revenue their reputations suggested they could. Nearly double the amount of people paid to watch Canelo Alvarez overmatch an unknown Liam Smith, triple that double and you have the number who paid to watch Canelo-Chavez, a fight that was always regarded a skill mismatch, but was expertly sold as an All-Mexican Cinco de Mayo showdown. As in boxing as it is with anything else — to sell us a story you have to capture the imagination first, put us in a state of suspended disbelief. And you do that with stars. Boxing the sport doesn’t necessarily entice the public — only boxing fans watch boxing for the sake of boxing, some for the wars, others to watch skills. Guillermo Rigondeaux is one of boxing’s great practitioners, but is almost universally regarded as boring. A great action fight like Vargas-Salido is, to most, two nameless men beating the shit out of each other — a war, to be sure, but a platonic one.
While Ward-Kovalev didn’t quite do this business one might have suspected, the effect was felt — as long as Floyd Mayweather is retired, Andre Ward is the most high-profile American boxer, and so commands a certain respect and influence. The biggest American star defeats the biggest Russian star just weeks after the election in a controversial decision. A lightning rod at the intersection of race, politics, scoring and technique, the arguments surrounding this fight it became the dense center of the boxing world. As much as boxing is a business, as much as fighters want to capitalize on their brands and protect their reputations, you couldn’t help but think that they’d also want to become the center of their universe, if only for a week, by taking part in an event like this. Perhaps emboldened in the six months since, many of the sports biggest stars have taken their most clamored-for matchups (with the caveat being that biggest is a relative term — very few of today’s boxing stars have crossed over into mainstream familiarity). Yet in May already we’ve seen more consequential action than we did in all of 2016 — Joshua-Klitschko seemed to usher in a new generation of the heavyweight division, the long-awaited Canelo-GGG fight was finally announced, confirming the most salivating hypothetical as reality (the excitement for which saved what would otherwise have been a dreadfully disappointing and potentially damaging Canelo-Chavez broadcast). There is a palpable sense of momentum, and it seems that many fighters are willingly falling into its line — we’re rounding out the month with my pick for best active American fighter in Terence Crawford taking on his most intriguing available opponent in Felix Diaz, and almost definitely the next big American thing, Errol Spence, fighting Kell Brook for what could be an arrival-marking signature win. Is Errol Spence here? Can Ward put the doubts to rest? How good is GGG really? How good is Canelo against a man his size? For the first time in a while it seems our questions will be answered — instead of asking the same questions we’ll get answers and the chance to imagine new ones.
The heavyweight division has long been known as boxing’s glamor division, and the reputation is deserved — boxing doesn’t get any simpler than it does at heavyweight. Gone are the technicalities and pretenses of weight — just as a fighter can’t hide in a ring, a heavyweight cannot hide by gaining or losing a few pounds. Purists and hardcore fans might find as much pleasure in Lomachenko stepping around his opponent to unleash a combination, or Golovkin hunting down his opponent, or a Kovalev jab, or a looping Canelo hook to the body, but it’s hard to match the drama of a heavyweight matchup, the men so big and the power so present that the stakes just seem that much higher. If you like wars you’ll love Chocolatito or Carl Frampton, but for most, watching two 120 pound men beat the shit out of each other in a war of attrition does not match the pins and needles drama of a heavyweight fight, in which any single moment can turn a tide and create history. A heavyweight title fight is boxing in its most accessible form
As we watch fighters like Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko weigh in it’s clear we’re in for something momentous — both are six-six, and look to be cut from marble. Klitschko comes in at 240, looking like sculpture of a Greek God; at 250, more top heavy, Joshua looks like the comic book version of that God. For smaller men ten pounds separates two or three weight classes; at heavyweight, weight is a tactical decision — Joshua comes in heavy, thinking this is his ideal weight to fight with power, Klitschko comes in lighter, leaner, his body what he thinks he needs it to be for a long haul fight. And as Americans, when we watch fighters like Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko we’re watching men the size of our most celebrated athletes. Longtime pound for pound number one Roman Gonzalez is closer in size to a jockey than an NFL player. Anthony Joshua weighs as much as two Vasyl Lomachenkos. At 6'6" and chiseled 250, he and Klitschko are in the ballpark of Lebron James and Rob Gronkowski, and it’s easier for us to picture them with the other great athletes of our era, for people to see boxing on the same plane. If parts of what make boxing compelling is toughness and power, it stands that the heavyweights have the most power and the most toughness (the ability to endure the hardest punches). While not always the most technically beautiful to watch, heavyweight fights are for this reason simply the most dramatic. There are no heavyweights in ESPN’s pound for pound top ten, but its hard to argue that heavyweight boxing is boxing at its most dramatic and visceral.
THE FIGHT ITSELF
The commonly held assumption was that Joshua would need to put Klitschko away early in order to win the fight — that the wilier, more tactically experienced Klitschko would win a longer fight. Tony Bellew, unabashedly rooting for Joshua, his friend and countryman, went as far as to say that Joshua could not win a fight that lasted more than four rounds. Hearing all this in the weeks leading up I had one question: why?
There seems to be a troubling trend in our current culture in which we simply accept assumptions and easily reached “conventional wisdoms,” regardless of where those wisdoms come from or whether they actually apply (they’re often simply fictional tropes) — if they present themselves a certain way, we simply cede all logical ground to them. For all the celebrating of Klitschko’s tactics and skill, the fact remained that nearly all his victories come by knockout, and that he knocks nearly all of his opponents out in one of two ways — with a lunging lead left that becomes a hook, and a straight right directly preceded by a feinting left. Klitschko’s reign was one marked by patience, those two punches his golden bullets. His much vaunted jab wore his opponents down, but in the end the fights he won were nearly always a direct consequence of one of those two punches. In other words, a completely known quantity. In his most recent fight he looked like he didn’t know where to unleash those three devastating weapons, and so was rendered bafflingly and embarrassingly ineffective.
On the other hand the tape of Joshua reveals a fighter with a much more diverse array of punches — straight rights, left hooks, body punches, combinations, and, in what seems to be separating itself as one of boxing’s most devastating signatures, an absolutely brutal right uppercut. Yet it was simply assumed that the more experienced Klitschko was the more skilled fighter.
The fight starts tentatively, with two mutually respectful fighters feeling each other out. In Round 2 its the young lion Joshua who makes the adjustments to take a two round lead. He’s up four rounds after four, and in round five, Joshua comes out with full pressure, hurting Klitschko badly just 5 seconds into the round. Though he gasses and allows Klitschko to roar back to end the frame, the fact remains that after five rounds, four of which were tactical battles, Joshua is up six points.
At the start of round six we hear more “conventional wisdom,” HBO’s announcers declaring simply that Klitschko is more motivated. The fact that Klitschko finds his range and knocks Joshua down in dramatic fashion is beside the fact that this declaration is utterly baseless. But back to the knockdown — HBO’s cameras catch Joshua from behind as he is rocked with by that Klitschko straight right and the picture is breathtaking, Joshua losing his footing and then simply crumbling, like so much brick into a sinkhole. He is incredibly wobbly when he gets up, and its a miracle he gets through the round. But when they show the replay you see something else — Joshua on one knee, exhaling as he comes to term with the power of that signature punch. He is badly, badly wobbled but in a way, this is as awake as he’s ever been, as far as he’s ever been pushed, and to date he knows that this is the limit of what he must endure to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. There’s a moment of realization and he smiles. In the midst of that eight count he seems to have dug into himself and found the version of Anthony Joshua that will come back and win the fight. The smile widens, he licks his lips, he rises and makes it through the round. Much was made of how Klitschko would be more experienced in getting off the deck and that this would work to his advantage. But again, a question — if Klitschko had gotten up before, why not Joshua? If this fight is a passing of a torch between generations, why was this, simply not Joshua’s turn to learn what it took to get off the canvas?
Joshua seemingly takes the next round off, all defense, is he preserving energy? If so, he’s adapting to the fight in ways that Klitschko normally doesn’t, Klitschko the machine, searching for the opening in which he can deposit his bombs. Joshua’s not throwing many punches, but he’s talking trash. And whether he is doing this to demean Klitschko or simply to pump himself up, he is staking his right to the rest of this fight. The next round is another slow one for Joshua but one look at his face and you can tell that he believes he’s found something. Klitschko is clawing his way back into the fight but his path to victory, as always still lies with those three signature punches of his. He’s as sharp as he’s ever been, but he’s an old dog who still only knows those same few tricks. For all the talk of “tactical genius” Klitschko taking a long fight, it’s Joshua who is making the adjustments, adapting, and perhaps even evolving before our eyes. At the end of round eight, Joshua seems to have all the confidence in the world, and why not — if he wins one of the next four rounds he can do no worse than a draw, and he’s already shown in round 5 that Klitschko has no answer for the hungriest and most pressuring version of Anthony Joshua. The only questions is if there is another spurt like this left in that enormous frame.
And indeed, round 11 starts almost exactly like round 5. Joshua comes out very aggressive and Klitschko is overwhelmed (as likely any fighter would be). He again hurts Klitschko in the first five seconds. He hurts Klitschko but doesn’t burn himself out this time (again, a lesson learned, an adaptation). He is more patient with his shot selection. He finds an opening — the uppercut, landing perfectly, snapping Klitschko’s head back and forth and back again, the replays hurt to watch, and you’re almost surprised that Klitschko’s head is not knocked clean off. Somehow he gets up. Can you believe this fight? Then he’s knocked down again. Somehow he gets up. Joshua closes in once more and the fight is stopped. It’s round 11. Even if Klitschko had survived the round, he would’ve had to recover and knock Joshua down in round 12 to tie it. Joshua could’ve have danced and held his way to a decision victory — which nobody even offered as possiblity.
So the young lion wins the fight, a long fight, in a way nobody expected. On top of it it’s left us with iconic images — Joshua crumbling under Klitschko’s right, Klitschko’s head rocked violently backward, Joshua standing over Klitschko after that third knockdown, shades of Muhammad Ali. To put it another way, this fight has exceeded the conventional imagination and thus became one of the most memorable fights in ages. And Anthony Joshua, its hero, exceeded what everyone imagined of him. Misguided and limited as that imagination was, he has become more than it allowed, and as he stands with his hands raised, he frees our imaginations again. It’s the most exciting thing in all of sports, opening yourself up to that kind of hyperbole. Of feeling like you have witnessed something truly great and unique. The magic lies both in the transcendence of this moment and the fact that it is repeatable. Anthony Joshua won a long fight today, and would have gotten the decision, though we’ve been told this whole time that this was impossible (it wasn’t really when you think about it, but we were told it was and we believed it was) .The impossible is possible, not just in this moment, but every day. The champion does fall and like so many waves the young lions do come and eventually recede themselves. A curtain is pulled back and there’s that ecstatic feeling of discovery — not because you’ve caught a glimpse into what life is capable of, but what it always is.