sometimes it’s hard not to be sickened by the sweet science.
i was slow to become a boxing fan. when i was younger, i expected all fights to be like the ones i saw in the rocky movies and raging bull — bloody, visceral battles with nothing even remotely resembling defensive strategy. yeah, rocky got smart in the third movie when apollo taught him how to be a technical boxer, moving and slipping punches…but when it came time for the next sequel, he conveniently forgot everything he’d learned about footwork and counter-punching, and reverted to blocking punches with his face.
of course, if people really fought that way, few fights would go past the second or third round, and most of the fighters would die or suffer serious brain damage before they succeeded in building much of a career. in real life, rocky would have been decapitated by the force of ivan drago’s blows in rocky iv. but try explaining that to a ten-year-old who just wants to watch two guys beat the shit out of each other.
though it took me a while, over the past few years i’ve grown to appreciate the way boxing, at its best, balances strategy and brutality. it’s a barbaric sport, to be sure, but there’s something strangely compelling about watching two skilled athletes try to wear one another down — a kind of violent poetry. i’ve enjoyed fights as diametrically opposed as the gatti-ward trilogy (three exercises in “how the hell are they still standing after what just happened?”, where technique is mostly thrown out the window in favour of a toe-to-toe slugfest) and the three fights between manny pacquiao and juan manuel marquez (veritable chess matches, in which you can almost see the fighters thinking in real-time, each of them making adjustments to try and nullify what the other is doing, and then reacting to the shifts in momentum created by those adjustments).
i used to find floyd mayweather’s fights boring beyond belief, but at some point something clicked, and now i think there’s something fascinating about what a profound contradiction of a human being he is. outside of the ring, he’s an arrogant loudmouth who does deplorable things and mostly gets away with them because of his celebrity status. it’s difficult to view him with anything but contempt. but then, when he steps inside the ring, all of that goes away and he becomes someone else. it’s as if boxing is the one thing that purifies and focuses him.
mayweather is most interesting when he’s fighting someone who’s able to throw him off his game, because you get to see him think on his feet, figure out what he needs to change, and then rudely rip his opponent out of their comfort zone. he disrupts your rhythm and makes you beat yourself. then he pours vinegar in the wound and toys with you, effectively defeating you twice in the same fight. as much as i’d like to see this fabled (and seemingly doomed) mayweather-pacquiao fight happen while they’ve both still got some gas left in the tank, i don’t think there’s any way floyd would lose unless he got old in the ring. he’s too smart, and too good.
the thing i’ve been wondering lately is this: is there a single honest fighter out there? someone who will actually tell the truth when a fight is over, even if it doesn’t flatter them? imagine manny pacquiao, after his third and possibly last fight with marquez, saying in the post-fight interview, “i didn’t win this fight. marquez out-boxed me almost every round and landed the cleaner, more effective punches. this is a gift decision, in case hell freezes over and the mayweather fight happens. marquez got robbed.” imagine how much more respect he would have gained for having the audacity to confirm what almost everyone who watched that fight was thinking. instead, he said, “marquez is a great fighter, but i clearly won. just ignore the fact that my trainer was telling me i needed a knockout, and forget about how deflated and discouraged i looked once the fight was over, before the decision was announced.”
nobody tells the truth in the heat of the moment. and i mean nobody. months or years later, maybe — oscar de la hoya eventually admitted that shane mosley deserved to win their first fight (which he did). at the same time, i doubt shane would ever tell you he robbed oscar the second time they fought, and he had no business winning that one, so thoroughly was he picked apart by oscar. shane got a boxing lesson that night, but the judges were on another planet. antonio margarito will probably never admit that he might never have built up a reputation as a terrifying human wrecking-ball if he hadn’t been fighting with loaded gloves (notice how he hasn’t won a meaningful fight since he was caught attempting to cheat before facing shane mosley, who brutally handed margarito’s ass to him after chewing it up and spitting it out in six different pieces). paul williams will never admit that erislandy lara made him look washed up in their fight, and you’ll never hear him say he had no right getting that decision after having the pants beat off of him (literally — the ref had to pull paul’s shorts up in the final round because of how low they were hanging).
it would be refreshing to experience the absurdity of post-fight interviews in which fighters are completely candid and don’t attempt to flatter themselves or make excuses. aside from chris arreola, who deserves to achieve immortality just for having the balls to call don king a “fucking asshole” on live television, i can’t think of anyone currently active in boxing who fits the bill. two fighters and the state of texas had a chance to surprise me last night, and they all came up short.
james kirkland fought carlos molina on the undercard of the erik morales-danny garcia fight. it was an important night, and a pivotal fight, for both men. kirkland got his career off to a promising start, racking up an impressive undefeated record, and then he was blown out in one round by an opponent who shouldn’t have troubled him at all. since then he’s regained his momentum, but that surprise loss raised some questions about whether or not he’s truly capable of competing as an elite-level fighter. molina, meanwhile, is a much better fighter than his spotty record suggests, having arguably been robbed a number of times in close fights. for him, this was a chance to show what he was really capable of with a decisive win. both of these guys are aggressive, they throw a lot of punches, and they come to win. on paper it threatened to upstage the main event.
as it turned out, it wasn’t an action-packed fight at all. to be honest, it was pretty boring to watch. molina fought an ugly, barely-legal fight, but it proved to be a smart tactical decision because it threw kirkland off something fierce. molina would nail him with combinations, and then as soon as kirkland would open up and try to get something going, molina would swarm him, tie him up, and fire off a few more shots. kirkland couldn’t get his punches off, and after a while he basically stopped trying. he looked tentative, like he was spending too much time looking for one big shot, while molina just kept on alternating between holding and using kirkland as a human heavy bag. between rounds, ann wolfe — kirkland’s trainer — was telling him to let his punches go, use his jab, and hammer molina when he came in, to discourage him from getting in close.
this was solid advice. but kirkland couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust, and coming into the tenth round molina was running away with the fight. at worst he’d lost one round of the first nine. even wolfe said, “he’s fighting dirty, but he’s winning. you need to get more aggressive.” finally, in the tenth round, after she told him to “act like this motherfucker got your kid and you’re gonna kill him”, kirkland found his motivation, turned it up, and caught molina with a punch that knocked him down right at the bell. molina was on his feet almost immediately, looking relatively unscathed. because the round was technically over, one of the guys in his corner started climbing into the ring as jon schorle was giving the eight count.
“are you fucking kidding me?” schorle muttered, and pushed the guy back out of the ring before he even got the lower half of his body through the ropes. he told both fighters to go to their corners, and then waved off the fight, disqualifying molina because a member of his team entered the ring before the round was through. even though the bell signifying the end of the round had already sounded. even though schorle pushed the over-eager corner man out of the ring before he properly set foot in it. the booing started up immediately. kirkland was coming on after looking lost for the majority of the fight, and he might have gone on to get the knockout (or a late stoppage). or maybe molina would have countered the aggression and continued to outwork him. the last two rounds could have been as exciting as the rest of the fight was supposed to be. we’ll never know now. both fighters were robbed of a clean win by a grossly incompetent referee who predictably beat a hasty retreat before any questions could be asked of him.
when asked after the fight why he looked so unimpressive until the tenth round, kirkland said his game plan had been to pace himself and wear his opponent down, and he more or less claimed to have been winning the fight. when your trainer is telling you between rounds that you’re blowing it, giving you good advice, and then you keep going out there and not throwing punches, somehow i don’t think you’re following any game plan, real or imagined. and you’re sure as hell not winning the fight. two of the three texas judges still had molina up on points after the knockdown, and he would have been leading even if he’d lost a point or two for excessive holding (which wouldn’t have been out of line). when the judges in texas are making good sense, well…it’s a little disturbing.
that would have been enough weirdness for one night of boxing, but there was more on the way. we still had the morales-garcia fight to attend to. again, this looked set to be a pretty entertaining battle in theory, but it also carried the threat of turning into a one-sided beating. morales, as tough and determined as he is (he was the last fighter to officially beat a prime manny pacquiao), has had a pretty spotty record lately, and after countless wars in the ring — three transcendent, soul-destroying fights with marco antonio barrera among them — it isn’t clear how much he has left in him. garcia is a cocky asshole who rubs me the wrong way in a number of places, but he’s young, fast, and thus far undefeated. as much as i wanted to see morales put garcia on his ass and wipe the stupid smirk off his face, it seemed like it would take a miracle for that to happen. more than anything, i really didn’t want to see the declining veteran get smacked around the ring the way de la hoya was when he fought pacquiao.
right off the bat, this was a much more interesting, entertaining fight. there was practically no holding at all, and the boxing skill on display was in a completely different league from what was offered by kirkland and molina. garcia, who promised to come out fast and embarrass morales, found himself being timed and outsmarted by the older man. they both took some good shots, but morales was blocking, slipping punches, and working effectively behind his jab. while not as fast or explosive as he was in his prime, morales had a few brilliant moments where he let garcia get him on the ropes, seemingly in trouble, only to reveal he had been laying a trap when he ducked and weaved out of the way of garcia’s punches and then smacked him in the face with jabs and uppercuts.
going into the ninth round, morales was clearly winning the fight to anyone with working eyes and a fragment of functioning brain tissue resting inside their skull. i say this with the caveat that, again, the fight was taking place in texas, where a whole lot of shady things have gone down.
open scoring allowed each corner access to the score cards after the fourth round, and then again after the eighth, when it became clear that the judges had garcia winning by a mile. morales’ father yelled at him, called him a bastard, and told him he needed a knockout. morales responded by coming out and throwing more punches. the ninth round was close and could have gone to garcia, but i had morales winning the tenth round pretty decisively.
then morales just kind of went away. he stopped throwing so many punches. he abandoned his jab, which had been a very effective weapon and one of the best punches throughout the fight. people who write about boxing with some regularity and consider themselves students of the sport will probably tell you garcia was too fast and he was hurting morales, but i didn’t see that, and i won’t buy it no matter how you try to sell it to me. morales, for being older, slower, and supposedly not carrying his power with him above his natural fighting weight, opened a pretty nasty cut above garcia’s left eye and broke the younger man’s nose. by the end of the fight, the towel in garcia’s corner was almost soaked through with blood. morales, on the other hand, barely looked like he’d even been in a fight when it was all over.
but he did give those last few rounds away by not doing nearly enough. garcia caught him with a left hook in the eleventh for what looked like a questionable knockdown; to my eyes, morales was off-balance but didn’t go down until garcia gave him a shove with his right hand. and i thought it was interesting how HBO cut off the slow-motion replay of the camera angle that would have shown the push most clearly, right before the knockdown. strangely, garcia didn’t go in for the kill or do much to capitalize on the damage he’d done. he didn’t knock morales down again, and he wasn’t able to stop him. i figured morales simply got tired, after being pretty cagey and effective for the first three quarters of the fight, and ran out of gas down the stretch. at most, he lost by two or three points. i didn’t see garcia winning too many rounds before the eighth. but as expected, the scores were disgustingly wide in garcia’s favour.
he may have added another win to his record, but garcia didn’t look the least bit impressive against a man twelve years older than him (maybe more, in terms of punishment absorbed and dished out in the ring), and an opponent many expected him to dominate with ease. i think it speaks both to garcia’s lack of top-level quality, and to the fact that erik morales is still a smart, tough fighter, even with all of the wear and tear he’s accumulated. he didn’t embarrass himself by any means, even in defeat.
later, it occurred to me that morales might have intentionally given those last few rounds away. he was told between rounds that he was too far behind on points to ever win the decision, and he needed a knockout. he also knew he didn’t have a knockout punch in his arsenal against garcia, who for all of his lack of any other spectacular qualities seems to have a solid chin. i think morales decided there was no point in laying it all on the line in the championship rounds and potentially taking a beating in retaliation, when he was never going to get the win no matter how well he fought. the judges saw the fight they wanted to see, as seems to often be the case. so, in the final rounds, morales let them have the fight they had been scoring all along, and he walked away relatively unblemished when it was over, still on his feet, still clear-headed.
i could be wrong, but that’s what i think happened here. he saw the futility of his efforts and chose to stop trying. part of me respects that. there’s another part of me that wishes he had gone out on his shield, knowing he couldn’t win, but extending his middle fingers through his gloves as he lost, just to show everyone one last time what he’s really made of.
now there’s a great expression i’d never even heard of before i got into boxing. going out on your shield. it derives from the latin e tan, e epi tan, which loosely translates to: “either bring this back, or be brought back dead upon it.” this was supposedly spoken in roman times by a spartan mother to her son, as she handed him his shield before he left for battle. the sentiment is, if you return home alive but without your shield, it means you threw it away so you could run faster and avoid injury. it also means you’re a coward. if you’re carried off the battlefield on your shield as a casualty of war, at least you fought bravely and died a man. in boxing, it means fighting your heart out and going down hard even when you know you have no chance of winning. and it might gnaw at morales a little, knowing he didn’t do that this time, even if what he chose to do was ultimately the more intelligent way to end a fight he knew he was going to lose.
easy to say when you’re not the one eating punches.
garcia cried when the fight was over. sometimes that seems like a genuine expression of joy, surprise, and exhaustion. in the case of buster douglas, who broke down after he knocked out mike tyson in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, it was something deeper and more meaningful. this time, coming from a guy who mimed cutting his throat as a show of disrespect toward morales at the weigh-in, it rang pretty hollow for me. he offered no real comment on the fight itself or his performance, only babbling some drivel about dreams coming true. again, here was an opportunity to give his opponent his due and say, “morales was tougher than i expected, and he made me really work hard to win.” but no. there would be none of that.
there were two moments, one in each fight, that made watching the whole debacle worthwhile for me.
in the main event, before realizing he was never going to win the fight no matter how effectively he jabbed garcia’s face off while making him miss a lot of his big shots, morales did something kind of beautiful. a lot of garcia’s punches were sloppy, looping shots, not very accurate or powerful even when they did connect, in stark contrast to the precision punches he kept getting hit with. after slipping two of these looping punches in a row, morales stopped, stared at garcia, and did a hilariously exaggerated little impression of the two punches that had just missed him with a deadpan expression on his face, looking like he was trying to swat at a fly with broken arms. i burst out laughing. it was a pretty decent fight most of the way through, but that taunt really put it over the top for me. it felt like a nice little moment of moral victory for morales, and a welcome bit of unexpected levity.
the other moment came after the absurd disqualification that brought the first fight to a premature close. carlos molina, to his credit, didn’t pull a zab judah. he didn’t throw a childish tantrum when it became clear he’d lost a fight that should never have been stopped at all. he didn’t even appear to get angry. he just looked shocked, and disappointed. ann wolfe hugged him and said, loud enough for everyone in the ring to hear, “you were winning the fight.”
the most honest person in boxing’s boys club just might be a woman. that seems fitting somehow.