WE build monuments to honour our all-time favourite fighters, not physically — that would be odd — but in the terrain that makes up our mind. The greatest of them stand taller than all others, casting a shadow over the personal picks like the mavericks who we have a soft spot for, those cult figures who never quite made it but we love anyway, and the fighters we like and enjoy for reasons known only to that deep recess of consciousness that makes us either adore or loathe a piece of art — and boxing is art.
Our favourites are not always the most complete fighters, but when they are both they stand much taller than any others. In my mental mountainous landscape the likes of Marvin Hagler, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali tower over my beloved James Toney.
Then you have the smaller, more personal mental monuments to men like Richard “The Secret” Williams, Michael “Disneyland” Dokes, Mark Breland, and any number of names that mean something to you. Fighters you enjoy watching more than some of the all-timers yet who never quite hit the same heights.
Every generation has or hopes for the big ones, the names that will ring out across boxing for generations to come. If, say, Floyd Mayweather can stand tall with the names mentioned above — he can’t and doesn’t, I’m not five-minutes into this game — then our generation means something, we have borne witness to something special. It what we hope for as fans and what we hope to see fighters strive for on our behalf — that special fighter, preferably in a classic division, who stands the test of time and reminds us why boxing is great, rather than grating.
On Saturday night, Gennady Golovkin and Saul Alvarez took part in a fight that, on paper, was one that elevates the winner to another stage. Not quite the Valhalla of Hagler et al, but, perhaps, gets them well on the way to rising in the way that the Marvelous one did during the 1980s heyday that this writer is too young to have lived live yet feels lived in via VHS/DVD boxsets from Steve Baldry and, recently, the World Boxing Video Archive.
It should have been the crowning glory of this era, our big one, the one denied to us by the preening peacocking of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who were both at fault for failing to deliver their fight to us on time and when it was historically relevant. Instead, the saga between Golovkin and Alvarez is more likely to go down in history as the “Proviso fight”.
Proviso One: Alvarez waited until Golovkin was old.
Proviso Two: Canelo is a cheat, no ifs and buts — it is simply a matter of fact.
Proviso Three: Las Vegas, baby.
The third proviso is the most pertinent and to understand it in any depth you have to go back to September 2013, Mayweather against Alvarez at the MGM Grand in “Sin City”. As Alvarez trundled to what looked like a wide decision loss. Heads were nodded, final tallies were totalled, and green was the colour not only of the money that went into the fight but Alvarez’s style — he simply lacked the nous or tools to hang with Mayweather.
Or so we thought, a routine win turned in an irregular card; when handing in a 114-114 score that no one could fathom, judge CJ Ross also handed Team Canelo the equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail Free card.
There was a lot of sound and fury about how the score came about, but, looking back, it was not just a case of one judge misreading the fight itself. It told Canelo that he was the new poster boy of boxing, ordinary rules no longer applied and he could do what so many superstars had done in the past by engaging in the dark arts of handicapping while safe in the knowledge that there would invariably be at least one “Wait, what?!” card or moment whenever he fights in Vegas.
Ross’s tally gave Canelo carte blanche to do things differently. “You have just engaged in a fight with Erislandy Lara that was at best a couple of points either way? Don’t sweat it, here is a 117-111 card from Levi Martinez that makes about as much sense as a nun at a death metal concert.”
“You want to win the middleweight title but don’t want to fight at middleweight? OK, you can fight at around 155lbs, blow up to light-heavyweight on the night and we will celebrate a win, rather than what is in essence an act of legal cheating.”
“Tough first fight with Golovkin? Not to worry, the entire world had it close yet here is Adalaide Byrd with a 118-110 card in your favour. There is no point even trying to hide it anymore.”
A small semblance of balance was restored courtesy of the much more palatable cards of 115-113, twice, and 114-114 from Dave Moretti, Glenn Feldman and Steve Weisfeld at the weekend. It was that type of a fight, no robbery here, yet going in there was a distinct sense that Golovkin was already done. Any route that led to the cards would result in a win for Alvarez*. And so it came to pass.
All of the blame for the above cannot be laid at the feet of the 28-year-old, who is now genuinely the middleweight Champion of the world, no one else has a right to claim that title, but we can point to his six-month suspension for the use of clenbuterol when assessing his career and this fight. Like many others, the contamination was linked to meat, tainted Mexican beef in this instance, yet it is so hard to give Alvarez the level of reasonable doubt afforded to some.
In the minds of many, the use of a PED was and is a natural extension of the years he has spent handicapping opponents via the artificial weight limit that made a mockery of the division that Golovkin was busy trying to redeem. A huge, pulsating asterix over the win in a situation made all the more ludicrous by the decision to hand a six-month ban to a man who only fights twice a year. In real terms, it just meant that the rematch was delayed. It was never in danger, it drew too much water, just put on ice while the former WBC holder fulfilled the terms of his derisory “punishment”.
So far this all looks like yet another attack of Alvarez, a refusal to acknowledge what he has achieved, yet it is not quite that. In the movie Godfather II, Michael Corleone is strong-armed by a corrupt senator, Pat Geary, who also insults Corleone’s family, prompting the response: “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator, but never think it applies to my family.”
The boxing family, though, is part of a wider turning away, a situation in which gamesmanship is rife yet permissible and viewed as part and parcel of the sport. Winning fights at the negotiating table is seen as a necessary evil or even a good thing, a sign that canny fighters who get to the top surround themselves with people who not only secure big money but can bring in home advantage, favourable poundage limits, and the other things that work in your favour.
At the top-level, it is pretty much a case of “Everyone is at it” so it slides by as just a factor of the sport, another weapon to be used. Yet throw in the word “drugs cheat” and the wailing and gnashing of teeth begins. A person who abuses PEDs is the lowest of the low, right? They put their opponents at risk with their actions.
The ladder to the top takes fighters through some murky lower levels. If taking drugs is outright cheating, and in some cases it evens out as the opponent may also have juiced when out of competition or be able to afford the expertise required to do it and not get caught, then why does this not apply to other, legal forms of cheating?
To “cheat” means to ‘to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something’. Can you really tell me that, say, a prospect who is training full-time meeting an opponent who has a job at a weight conducive to the prospect and over a distance, at a venue and at a time at their choosing is not stretching the definition we have just read? Aren’t those poor, overmatched souls at a greater risk than someone who is at the higher-level and has access to all manner of advantages? A moral law is broken by handicapping of this type.
We are told “No” or asked not to mention it, that a prospect beating up someone who has been brought in to take a beating, and take it well, is a different thing altogether. Still, the pain and danger is still very real. In some cases, the higher a fighter goes the more they and their team have to lower the threshold for what is considered right and wrong.
It can be the little things mentioned above, more strategic things such as a titlist identifying an opponent then holding back a fight offer they know that opponent will have take so that they can train while the other man enjoys an upcoming festive period or the like. A two-week head start is still a head start, and it has happened.
Sugar Ray Leonard is an all-time great, of that there can be no doubt, but he will glibly and cheerfully admit to handicapping Donny Lalonde with the poundage so that he could use his star wattage to get two belts on the line. Boxing history is full of fights in which the seesaw only lifts in the favour of one fighter, the opponent remains rooted to the floor looking up in envy.
The Corinthian ideal is dead, we all killed it, as we are all part of the same hypocrisy, and genuinely even fights such as Tony Bellew’s challenge to Champion Alexander Usyk for the cruiserweight crown are eye-openers rather than what we can and should expect.
To return to Alvarez, and to mangle another gangster movie quote, his failed test means that we can point to him and say: “There goes the bad guy”. In reality, what he does is all part and parcel of boxing, a great sport in which mostly good men have to do bad things to ensure that edge. Obtaining legal advantages that are the result of hard, often bitty and bitter, negotiations, and that turn most big-fight negotiating periods into an unedifying spectacle of millionaires arguing over money while striving for any and all added gains.
The outrage that still surrounds him and others underlines the unusual attitude towards the use of PEDs in boxing. Cheating of this type is universally condemned by many only for the odd exception to creep through this wall of disapproval.
There have been many examples of these double standards, with some fighters being given a pass by fans and pundits alike while others have had to forever live under the cloud of the label ‘drugs cheat’. This attitude is only to be expected in a sport in which fighters employ experts to help them come in at a low weight then hydrate to the point where they can out-weigh opponents by over a stone, where mismatches are dangerous and commonplace, and in which the ‘away’ corner is handed a stack of handicaps. The house always wins.
At times it seems that in boxing the line between “gaining a fair advantage” and outright cheating often depends on how far up the food chain you are — the ones who get to the top of the ladder invariably pull it up after they get there to prevent others ascending — and how much power you wield.
Those at the bottom look up, seething with what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment, a feeling of hostility directed towards those at the top, who we blame for our own inferior position and, in the main, we are all prepared to do what it takes to get to where we feel we deserve to be. In the process we have been handed the sport that we deserve.
Boxing is like the weather, glorious sunny patches of hope and optimism followed by pissing down rain. We are all “deep into our addiction”, though, so the funfair will never end. All we can hope for is that should Alvarez one day stand proud and monumental in our collective minds the others, the Haglers etc., will turn their backs on him. He has achieved a huge amount, however he still has a lot to prove after an eventful 2018.
We are all hypocrites in our own differing ways and, like Senator Geary and Corleone, all form part of the same hypocrisy, only this one does extend to the entire family, the boxing family, and it goes all the way from the bottom to the top and then back again.
*The win took Alvarez to 50-1-2 with 34 KOs and a whole host of provisos.