The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

“Utterly without boxing skill!”

Periodically, I get a zesty yen to re-watch some of boxing’s classics off of youtube. It’s both a lot of fun and a nice reality check on where the present-day incarnation of the sport is at. Most recently I caught George Foreman-Ron Lyle, the 1976 Ring Magazine fight (and round) of the year. A few retrospective thoughts:

1. Whenever you’re inclined to doubt the ability of the Klitschkos given that all they seem to be called upon to do in their era is squash jobbers, no-hopers and men half their size, it’s worth going back to see a fight like Foreman-Lyle. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Vitali and Wladimir would have destroyed or devastated their predecessors (Wladimir in particular would have had issues dealing with the punching power and pace), but given the technical sloppiness and lack of conditioning exhibited in the 1975 fight for which both men were called out on air by Howard Cosell, it would not be at all unreasonable to pick Vitali against either of them. Even George, because….

2. It’s amazing in retrospect to see how much George Foreman achieved as a fighter with, at times, so little. In this fight he had ZERO head movement, zero trunk movement, not much foot movement… it was like watching Zombie George Foreman, which is actually a lot less cool than it sounds. He always fought this way to a degree, but this was one of the most exaggerated examples of it which I can recall. Defensively he was basing his game plan around his usual efforts at picking off punches with his gloves, an occasional flick-y jab which he seemed to throw either 4 at a time or not at all, and just hoping that Lyle would be too spooked of his power to plant and throw- which worked just great until George got blasted and hurt early by what was supposed to be a 1-2, but ended up as a simple barroom punch. 90% of fighters in history who fight this way are club-level guys at best; what made George special back in the 70’s was for the most part two things: his power which is justly considered to be legendary, and one or two technical areas- principally accuracy and maintaining of proper punching distance especially against a hurt opponent. In his second comeback he managed to offset the decline of many of his physical attributes with (believe it or not) superior conditioning and a much more determined approach to the sport as well as some refinements to the technical aspects of his defensive positioning, but for the most part he was always the same guy in there. He rather stands alone as the preeminent example of his limited style.

3. So how would 1976 Foreman vs. a Klitschko look? Believe it or not, both of the brothers list as 2 or 3 inches taller (with similar reach) and 15-20 pounds heavier than George who was a massive heavyweight in his day, and that would be a large part of the fight. Both Klitschkos have gameplans based around using height and reach with their power jabs, then either hooking off of that punch of coming in with a cross behind it against an opponent trapped at distance and trying to avoid being busted up. Foreman would have had less difficulty than most given that he wouldn’t be punching up or lunging, but his picking-punches-off defense would be all but useless against the Klitschko attack; the jab freezes George’s hands, and with no head movement behind that he’s a sitting target for the cross, as he was repeatedly against Lyle. For him to win he’d have to get off first and use the uppercut, force the Klitschkos into exchanges and out of their preferred strategy into the type of fight where he could land consistently enough for his power to tell. Against Waldimir, this is probably enough to get George the win; for all his improvements he’s less adaptable than his older brother, and I’m not willing to bet on his chin against Foreman Power. Vitali, though… that man can take a punch and he can deliver one, he can fight at a good pace for many rounds and he can fight more than one kind of fight. I’d pick him against 1976 George, figuring that he just outlasts some early trouble to pick up a decision win when Foreman runs out of steam. 1976 George by his own admission had the fire and desire beaten out of him in Zaire 2 years previously, and I don’t think he’d have had the mental fortitude to deal with the pressure Vitali would put him under.

4. Someone needs to invent appropriate computer technology to simulate that fight, because now I really want to see it.

5. The current heavyweight division and all of boxing really could obviously use more George Foremans; but it could also use a hell of a lot more Ron Lyles. He was never a great fighter or a champion, but he was the kind of tough, powerful, durable and extremely competitive contender which any boxing or MMA division needs to help fill itself out, make interesting and competitive fights, and define new up and coming contenders as ready for a title shot. Above a gatekeeper, below a champion, the sort of guy who loses for the most part only to the very best, and fights them and others often enough to be known to the public and recognized as an effective and respectable competitor. This is in modern times one of the areas in which UFC has a dramatic advantage over boxing: with the reduction in fight scheduling, explosion of weight classes and slow erosion in stateside popularity of the sport in the intervening decades, boxing has been largely purged of the Ron Lyle type fighters . It’s made it harder to make stars, led to the over-emphasis in boxing records on a spotless record and the tendency among (stupid) fans to write fighters off after one or two losses, and resulted in a boxing landscape largely composed of mega-stars and unknowns with a tiny middle class. Every so often you still get a glimmer of what fighters like this can offer- Paul Williams vs. Sergio Martinez was a great example.

UFC, meanwhile, abounds with this sort of fighter: name a weight class and you can come up with any number of them, the Nate Marquardts and Cheick Kongos and Keith Jardines of the world. Their presence allows UFC to give star fighters respected opponents against whom they can draw, allows them to build new stars by moving them upwards through the middle class of the fighting caste system, gives them a variety of strong options to fill out cards which allow UFC shows to do business for more than just their main events, and contributes to a commendable reluctance to write a fighter off after one or two losses among MMA fans (sometimes). What’s more, the recognition of the existence of this level of fighter, along with the inherently more unpredictable nature of MMA, helps the UFC get away with main events which are otherwise utterly ridiculous. Does anyone really give Dan Hardy a chance against GSP in March? No, but… well, I’ll be shelling out for a ticket anyway. Why? Many reasons, but one of them is that Hardy is a respectable fighter of meaningful ability, albeit not in GSP’s league. Boxing doesn’t have a lot of equivalents per division anymore, although ironically you could make the case that the exact boxing equivalent of GSP vs. Hardy will be happening in the same month with Pacquiao vs. Clottey.

Anyway, this may become a recurring feature depending on how often my ultra-sketchy computer wants to cooperate.


January 20, 2010 - Posted by | Boxing

1 Comment »

  1. Well, this is right up my alley! I think that Big George KOs Wladimir and probably wins against Vitali…but I would only put money on the Wladimir fight. The skill level of fighters in the 70s is so far ahead of today’s fighters, it’s embarrassing. So you have guys like Lyle, Bonavena, Shavers, Norton, Young and Chuvalo who never got to get to the top because the top was SO GOOD. But ALL those guys would’ve became champions in today’s age.

    With that being said, Wlad and Vitali would’ve also been extremely competitive back then and I think both would’ve had a better chance at beating Ali than Foreman. (I am also in the camp that Foreman got screwed in the Ali fight. The deck has never been so stacked against one fight, and it’s bogus that he never got a rematch…even if Foreman himself didn’t want one).

    Also, your 5th point was dead-on-balls accurate (not that your other points weren’t) though I think you’re stretching with the UFC example. Dana White makes names for these fighters, but I think that we’re going to look back at this crop of fighters and be embarrassed about their overall lack of skill level. The sport has only been around for about 15-17 years, so that means that no pros have yet to be born into the sport. Once that happens, the talent level is only going to get deeper and the fighters of today will be an after thought.

    That’s my two cents.

    Comment by Tony M | January 20, 2010 | Reply

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