The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Fighting and Promotion

I’m not even going to attempt to say much about Marquez/Diaz over the weekend, other than that it was one of the best fights of the last few years and in my opinion would have won fight of the year for last year had it happened a few months earlier. It must be watched by anyone who enjoys any of the fighting sports genres. Marquez has become one of the best fighters of his generation, and the way he’s adapted over the years has been amazing- these days he wins with heart and power, giving up rounds and taking significant damage before he adjusts and uses his still excellent accuracy to pound guys out. He’s not half as quick or agile as he was 10 years ago and barely resembles the defensive wizard he used to be, but he’s lost remarkably little if anything from his overall effectiveness. He (and his trainer, Nacho Beristain) are sort of boxing geniuses.

I’ll never understand why that’s not enough for some people. For instance, Dan Rafael:

“Many believe he won both of his fights against pound-for-pound king Pacquiao despite winding up with a controversial draw and split decision loss….And now Marquez has designs on junior welterweight, where he’d love a crack at the winner of the Ricky Hatton-Pacquiao fight.

And later regarding Glen Johnson:

“…Johnson, ducked by too many top fighters to name… Johnson, the former champion with wins against Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver…came close to regaining the title in April, when he pushed Chad Dawson to the brink in a very, very close fight. But nobody wants to fight him….”

Rafael’s usually pretty good, but he’s founding these drums with an excessive fury, and he’s not alone. It’s amazing to me how hard it is for some people to let it go in these sorts of circumstances, or to develop a perspective about what actually happened. Pacquiao fought Marquez twice; both were very close fights; Marquez did not initially want the rematch over money concerns, while Pacquiao did; Marquez won more rounds in both fights, but did not win because Pacquiao knocked him down 4 times in 2 fights; these are facts. If you believe that Marquez won those fights, that’s certainly a defensible position- but why then are you obsessed with getting a third match between the two when you believe the results of the first two weren’t captured by the judging? The first two were very similar, and apparently the things judges look for were better exemplified by Pacquiao, whether that should be the case or not. Why would that change with a third fight? And if the first two were razor thin, why would a third fight make all the difference if, say, Marquez won by a point? It would just underline what we already know: both guys are utterly great, and essentially equal in ability. There’s a weird undertone from Marquez partisans which seems to indicate that they believe they’re being screwed by the system, that it’s unjust that Paquiao won’t fight their man until the stupid judges see it their way. And yet, the reason both decisions went the way they did is, ultimately, that Marquez kept getting knocked down; it’s not as though this is GSP vs. Penn, where there’s at least a specific incident to base a claim of getting screwed on. It’s very strange. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to watch the fight, but it’s not a black mark on either man or boxing history if it doesn’t happen; Pacquiao owes Marquez and fans exactly nothing over this situation, in my view.

If Marquez inspires thoughtless devotion, I’m not sure what Glen Johnson inspires- whole-hearted lack of perspective, perhaps? I like the guy- he’s incredibly hardworking and devoted to the sport, he produces very good fights, he’s competed at a world class level and has been a world champion, and honestly I’m a huge fan of reggae music and so end up rooting for Jamaicans on that basis. But seriously now- let’s look at his record: he fought Bernard Hopkins for a middleweight championship 12 years ago and was knocked out; fought Sven Ottke 10 years ago for a super middleweight belt and lost a decision, which came as part of a 4 fight losing streak to such names as Omar Sheika, Syd Vanderpool and Silvio Branco; fought Clinton Woods 5 years ago for a light heavyweight title, and got a rematch after a draw; followed that up with a 3 fight streak against Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver, and Tarver again- three big money fights including 2 for the legitimate light heavyweight title; fought Woods again for a lesser 175 pound belt 3 years ago; then fought Chad Dawson, exactly the sort of young fighter who’s supposed to be ducking him, last year and lost. Throw in fights here and there against guys like Montell Griffin and Eric Harding, and it’s really hard to find too many notable names who Johnson DIDN’T get a chance to fight who he deserved a shot at during his career- Except Joe Calzaghe, but you knew that already.

I just don’t get it- I look at Johnson and see a very good fighter who’s aged gracefully and had a long and successful career, who’s made the absolute most of his natural ability to overcome seemingly more talented fighters and eventually compete, and sometimes win, at the world title level. I see a man who’s gotten many chances over many years in big money fights, nationally televised fights, belt fights and world title fights despite being worth almost  nothing at the box office and having several bad-if-questionable losses on his ledger- and who has ultimately deserved those chances on account of his ability and overall performance. I just can’t find much in here to make me think Johnson is some horrible victim of the boxing game who’s being ducked by everyone, who’s never gotten his due or his fair chances. It’s true that lesser fighters have gotten more in some instances (Zab Judah, take a bow), but that’s just the reality of fight promotion: there’s more slack for the men who mean money. That does’t mean Johnson’s being screwed, just that for whatever reason- lack of charisma, wrong place at the wrong time, not a big knockout artist, whatever- he never mastered the art of breaking through into the public consciousness and projecting an image that would draw money. Maybe that makes him a more honest (sports)man, but it’s also almost entirely responsible for the difference between his career and, say, Tito Trinidad’s run post-Hopkins: Tito was a shell of himself and almost a fraud on the public in his comebacks, but he was a huge puncher and a superstar with his audience who paid money to see him; Johnson, despite being a much better fighter by that point, had appeal really only to hardcore fans.

Those hardcore fans, and every fighting genre has them, might prefer it if their sports were run purely as sports; but it’s never been done that way, it never will be done that way, and for the overall financial health of the sport it shouldn’t be done that way. Ask yourself what the boxing match with the most public appeal over the last year was- the answer’s Pac Man vs. De la Hoya, and the sporting rationale for that encounter was almsot nonexistent. There were well over a million other reasons for that fight however. And that’s the story for Johnson, to a lesser degree Marquez, and a lot of other fighters to learn: they may have a huge number of sporting reasons by which to demand chances and fights, but not nearly enough of the second to get everything they demand. Such is the nature of fight promotion, and because it’s grounded in the nature of human psychology, it’s unlikely to change soon or very much; better to recognize it and adjust than to complain.


Bonus rant:

When I was becoming a serious boxing fan, Max Kellerman was the lead analyst on Friday Night Fights on ESPN, and he did a lot to shape my understanding of the sport along with watching and reading guys like Teddy Atlas, Dave Meltzer, Al Bernstein, old AJ Leibling stuff, etc. I miss that Max Kellerman, and I really wonder who that look-a-like working for HBO is, because seemingly every broadcast these days he says at least one thing which is somewhere between highly questionable and utterly asinine. The one which caught me on Saturday was his throwaway celebration of the lineal title as the gold standard of recognition of fighting success. What a pernicious idea this has become, because it’s based around encouraging failure to recognize what titles are supposed to stand for: superiority. UFC titles these days mean a lot, because there’s only one, and the best fight for it; boxing titles mean nothing, because there’s 62 in each weight class and people who haven’t been heard of by their own families compete for them. In theory the lineal idea should cut through that; but the lineal title to which Kellerman was referring was the one held by Joel Casamayor, which perfectly illustrates the issue.

You may remember Casa as the guy who was handed the single worst decision of all of 2007 right after winning the title, as Jose Armando Santa Cruz knocked him down and pounded him relentlessly for 12 rounds only for Cepillo to be gifted the split decision. What on earth is a title worth after that performance? JASC was a peripheral contender at the time- am I as a fan supposed to give meaningful credit to a theoretical belt retained by theft against an average opponent under those circumstances? There’s just no way to maintain that Casamayor was the best lightweight in the world anymore, which is what that title is supposed to mean; treating Casamayor as better reduces the lineal title to just another trinket to be bandied about, the equivalent of the IBO Southern Hemisphere Under-18s Interim Heritage title or that theoretical World Cup title in soccer which gets traded in direct competition and currently resides with Scotland or Georgia or the like. None of this is to take credit away from Marquez, whose achievements speak for themselves, or from Casamayor who I believe is a hall of famer and a wildly underrated fighter who could easily have won some of the fights where decisions went against him (he beat Jose Luis Castillo, for example); but what makes those men great fighters is that they’re great fighters, not that they’ve held this or that theoretical title. You can see this in non-UFC areas of MMA as well: does Fedor make the WAMMA belt, or does the WAMMA belt make Fedor? Not a hard question.

UFC titles, because they’re protected and largely competed for on the basis of sport, mean something- they usually indicate the best fighter in the UFC (which is often the best fighter in the division), and champions can’t really get away with ducking opposition, while finishes are more common so there’s less of an opportunity for bad judging. In short, the title derives meaning from how closely it adheres to the sporting rationale for titles in the first place: to indicate the best. In boxing the profusion of bad belts, bad judging, and a tendency to think the possession of a belt or title matters more than what it signifies has eroded the credibility of almost every title. Put another way: does anyone think, after the Santa Cruz fight, that billing Casamayor as lineal title holder meant anything in a sporting or business capacity? Did it draw one eyeball or convince one person that Cepillo was the best?

I guess it convinced one person, but maybe that says more about him than anything else.


March 2, 2009 - Posted by | Boxing, MMA | , ,

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