Consider the curse of the Pugilist Specialist.
The curse of the Pugilist Specialist (hereafter referred to as PS) being the ability to win fights, at the highest level, without taking unnecessary risks, and therefore in the eyes of many without providing sufficient entertainment.
It came to mind at the weekend when I was watching Billy Joe Saunders make easy work of Willie Monroe Jr. The talk on Twitter and elsewhere was that the challenger should have done a lot more and that, equally, Saunders, against a lack-lustre opponent should have won in more emphatic fashion.
Now I understand all of that, and I also understand that boxing is the entertainment business and that winning the crowd as well as the fight is the ultimate goal.
But it’s also the hurt business and the cash business. Boxing’s dangerous and precarious, one slip, one lapse of concentration and a fighter can suffer injury and defeat; health can be ruined, as well as future financial prospects. It’s only ever one swing of a glove away so if you’re a PS, one of the few who can hit and not get hit, who can win comprehensively on points and live to fight another day, then you’d be mad not to wouldn’t you?
Most fans will never love those kinds of fighters as much they’ll always love the likes of Gatti and Ward, for example, and I have no problem with that. It’s inspiring when you see people push themselves to the limit and achieve things they’d never dared to dream of through pure determination to succeed, and it’s easy to identify with their limitations when they come up short, and to take pride in the courageous manner of their defeat. And that doesn’t just apply to boxing it applies to anything.
It’s generally less easy to love competitors who don’t seem to have to dig that deep, who don’t need to give as much of themselves, for whom a life and death struggle is just not their modus operandi. Those kinds of boxers will have fewer fans, their fights will get fewer views on YouTube, but they’ll always have a lot of admirers within their own profession, amongst their fellow pugilists they’ll always be the subject of great envy. Why? Because they’d all fight like that if they could. They might not all admit to that on the record, but privately they’ll all tell you the same thing, which is that of all the things boxers miss about the sport when they hang up the gloves, the one thing that none of them miss is getting hit.
But if you don’t get hit then we don’t see you get hurt, we don’t see you bleed and if we don’t see that then how do we know you really have what it takes, how do we know you’re a true warrior and someone genuinely worthy of our admiration? We’re suspicious of fighters who like to avoid being hit, we almost seem to disapprove of those who view being punched in the head as something that should be avoided rather than embraced.
I think that kind of unconscious disapproval is why, when a PS wins comfortably and unspectacularly when we were expecting or hoping for high drama, we tend to criticise the PS’ opponent for not doing more rather than praise the PS for not allowing him to.
For years people kept saying that Mayweather’s opponents had to put him under pressure and rough him up to beat him but nobody ever managed to do it. Marcos Maidana had a modicum of success with that strategy in their first fight and it provoked a hysterically disproportionate response. The Argentinian came nowhere near to winning the fight but people seemed to feel vindicated somehow, as if the fact that the PS had had his rhythm disturbed for a couple of rounds before adapting and conquering proved that he wasn’t that good after all. It was insane.
I can’t wait for Rigondeaux vs Lomachenko because what we have there, I believe, is a new kind of match-up, maybe the first of its kind. A pure PS in Rigo vs a crowd-pleasing PS in Loma. The notion of a crowd-pleasing PS is one that blows my mind because it contradicts almost everything I’ve written here but the Ukrainian is one. He proved his minerals by insisting on taking on an over-the-weight Salido in just his second fight and yet his PS credentials are there for all to see. I expect Lomachenko to win because he’ll be too big for his fellow double Olympic gold medallist, who has been the same weight since he was 17. But I expect it to be a significant night for Rigondeaux on December 9 nonetheless because I believe it could be the night when this superb fighter, booed by crowds and shunned by TV, will be embraced like he has never been before and receive the wider recognition he’s been long overdue. I believe that because I think he will lose and I think he will bleed and that, if you’re ever going to be accepted and admired, is what has to happen.