Breaking the rules: Boxing
Despite reputation, fighting relatively clean in ring
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:13PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:13PM
Boxing has long been regarded as, in the words of Jimmy Cannon, the red-light district of sports. In the popular imagination, the Sweet Science is anything but: it is widely viewed as a shady game run by mobsters and sharps, corrupt officials and snakelike managers, a morass of mismatches and fixed fights, in which the principles take more dives than Greg Louganis. Such Hollywood-fueled melodrama aside, however, boxing is a remarkably straightforward and transparent sport.
Think about it: two guys, stripped to the waist under the lights in an elevated 18- to 22-foot-square ring, never more than a few feet from an official and constantly under the gaze of three judges. Nowhere to hide, no signals to steal, no balls or bats to alter. You certainly never see anyone throw a spit-glove.
No, despite its reputation for prefight dirty-dealing ("It's not your night, kid.") and bought-and-paid-for decisions, boxing remains relatively untainted by out-and-out cheating during the actual competition.
There have been some legendary shenanigans: Jack Dempsey supposedly encased his hands in plaster of paris before donning the gloves to take on Jess Willard for the heavyweight title in 1919. (Willard, down six times in the first round and stopped for good in three, certainly took a plastering, but the loaded gloves story has since been proved to be a fabrication of Dempsey's manager, Doc Kearns.)
And didn't Sonny Liston's cornermen put some sort of substance on his gloves that blinded Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) for a round during their '64 title fight? Well, maybe. Perhaps Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee knows for sure. But then wasn't Dundee the one who, after Ali was knocked down and almost out by Henry Cooper, bought time between rounds for his fighter by "finding" (read: tearing) a hole in Ali's glove and stalling while a replacement was produced?
Such instances are more myth than reality, part of the colorful history of the sport. There have, alas, been some concrete examples of cheating; most notorious being trainer Panama Lewis' removal of padding from the gloves of his fighter, Luis Resto, in '83, leading to Resto's opponent, Billy Collins Jr., taking a fearsome beating that left him unable to fight again. (Lewis served time and is permanently banned from working in a professional corner.) But in general, any boxer seeking to bend the rules to get a slight edge in a fight is limited to more subtle methods.
Consider Bernard Hopkins' victory over Winky Wright on July 21 in Las Vegas. The 42-year-old Hopkins, a veteran of 53 fights over a 19-year career, is a brilliant and eminently resourceful fighter. Against Wright, an equally skillful defensive master, Hopkins had to use every trick in the book. This is not to say that the third-round head butt that opened a nasty gash next to Wright's left eye was anything but an unlucky collision. (The butt was immediately ruled unintentional.) However, a charging, head-down style can often force an opponent to alter his game plan -- to guard against not just left and right hands, but also that big shiny dome coming at him. If a few extra bumps and cuts result along the way, well that's just part of the game. Obviously, Hopkins, as smart a fighter as any in recent years, learned long ago to use his head in the ring -- in more ways than one.