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Lyle cannot be counted out. Though in '73 he lost once and drew once, the latter on a questionable decision, he also won seven times, keeping busy and in fighting trim. Jeff Merritt has impressed some as an exceptional puncher; he is 26 and may have any kind of future. Joe Bugner, the British fighter, put up a good showing in losing a 12-round decision to Frazier in July; he, too, may have possibilities. Earnie Shavers was disposed of last Friday by Quarry.
And then there is Duane Bobick, the hope of the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics. Many around boxing thought Bobick looked just about as good in the Olympics as Ali, Frazier and Foreman had before him. He is big (6'3", 210 pounds), strong and quick. As a professional, he has not done much as yet. His handlers have brought him along slowly, and all his 1973 schedule called for was a succession of bouts (15) against unknowns, all of whom he knocked out with ease. Now just 22, Bobick is one of the very newest generation of fighters who may be making news in 1974 and in the years after.
Mention Bobick's name to anyone in the fight business, however, and all you are likely to hear is a great and anguished sigh. What fight people remember best about Bobick is how decisively he was beaten in the Olympics by the Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson. If Bobick is good, Stevenson is just several times better—or at least was several times better on one particular day.
Alas for boxing, Stevenson languishes behind Fidel Castro's brand of the Iron Curtain. He is a happy captive, a thoroughgoing Communist who recently told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that he sought only to uphold the honor of the people's republics and wanted no part of capitalist professionalism. As for Castro, he was approached not long ago by some U.S. boxing representatives who pointed out how many lovely capitalist dollars might flow into Cuba if Stevenson turned pro: but Castro said he preferred to have his fighter win another gold medal in 1976.
Stevenson, of course, is not the only potential titleholder hiding his wares. As one promoter said recently, more in sorrow than in anger, "You want to know where the best heavyweights in the world are? They're playing basketball or football."
A few decades ago, fighting was about the only way an athlete could hope to make money, unless he happened to be good at hitting a baseball. And a heavyweight can still make more money faster than any other kind of athlete. Ali and Frazier, though neither is champion, should take down about $2 million apiece for their January bout. But there are only a few top contenders in any generation, and besides, boxing is hard and dangerous work. Some of today's young athletes still opt for boxing—but a lot more choose the generally safer and surer pastures of basketball and football.
Which brings up the debate: How do today's fighters—in this affluent period when no good athlete has to get his head knocked off to make a living, in this period of expansion that almost guarantees any good athlete a long and prosperous career on the playing field or the basketball court—compare with the fighters of yesterday?
When a fight person talks about the old times, he often sounds like a self-made businessman citing his own rigorous, paper-route childhood to a flower-child son. Says Cus D'Amato, the trainer and sometime manager, "When I was a kid it really meant something to be a boxer. If there was a fighter in the neighborhood, just any kind of a fighter, we followed him around like puppies. If anybody had asked us, would you rather be heavyweight champion or President, we wouldn't have hesitated for a minute.... And the fighters lived up to their position. They were tougher and better conditioned: they had more pride in what they were doing. Sometimes they'd get knocked down 10 times in a fight—and come on to win."
Says Harold Conrad, onetime boxing writer and now a promoter, "The training methods used to be much more rugged; there was total concentration on the fight. I remember Marciano's training camps, which were of the old school. His trainer never called him by name; he'd say, 'Where's the fighter? Get the fighter in here.' It was as if the boxer were just a robot, being programmed for the fight."
Nat Loubet, editor of The Ring magazine, says, "A lot of the oldtimers spent hours soaking their hands and even faces in brine to toughen them; you could smell some fighters coming down the street, like a pickle factory. Can you imagine trying to get a young fellow to do anything like that today? Also, there were more fight clubs in those days, and a boxer had more chance to learn his trade; his manager could line up a tour taking him to a dozen different cities or more. A boxer used to have 30 fights a year, where now he's lucky to get a dozen."