Feature | Mar 21 2019

Boxing – the case for ‘the good old days’

Simon Euan Smith makes the case for why boxing was better in the good old days
sugar ray leonard
Sugar-Ray-Leonard  |  Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

BOXING, like everything else, has to change if it’s to survive. New discoveries are made (especially on the medical front), and these have to be acted on: new ideas are put forward to improve the sport in a number of different ways.

But not all changes are necessarily for the better. I’ve been following boxing seriously for more than 50 years, and I’ve seen changes come in where I’m far from convinced that there was anything wrong with the old way. (Or the traditional British way – in many cases the changes seem to have been made to bring us into line with other countries – especially America). Some of these changes are so widely accepted now that there’s no chance of their being reversed. But indulge an old(ish) man as I put the case for “the good old days”:

ANNOUNCING OFFICIAL SCORECARDS

Until 1966, the referee’s score (in this country) was kept secret. If the fight went the distance, the referee would raise A’s hand, and the MC would come into the ring and announce: “Ladies and Gentlemen, A is the winner.” Which I always thought was a bit superfluous, as the referee had already told us who’d won. In America (and other countries that used ringside scoring judges) the procedure was different – all the cards had to be checked, and then the MC would announce the scores AND the winner.

But the Board of Control decreed that, with effect from October 1 1966, the official score would be announced when a fight went the distance. The Midlands Sporting Club asked the Board to bring this forward by a day, as they had a show on September 30 – and permission was granted. The first two bouts ended early – but the eight-rounder between Bootle’s Johnny Cooke and Rhodesian Ernest Musso went the distance. And so, for the first time ever in Britain, the referee’s score was announced – Musso the winner by 40 points to 39. Which sounds very close – until you remember that in those days we scored in quarter-points, so the score meant Musso had won four rounds and the other four were even. The general feeling was that this was rather wide.

So we’d found a new stick with which to beat the referee – if we couldn’t fault his choice of winner, we could criticise the score (too wide or too narrow).

Really, boxing is one sport where the score is irrelevant. It’s vital in football, rugby, cricket, tennis and the like – it helps give a picture of how the match went. But boxing’s simply about who won and who lost. It’s rare for a score even to be remembered.

Also, a correct score can be wholly misleading. Boxing is scored round-by-round – if a round is very close it’s scored 10-9, and if it’s pretty clear it’s also scored 10-9. Only if there’s a knockdown, or one fighter really dominates, is it scored 10-8.

If a football match ends 8-0, that tells you all you need to know – it was a rout. But an eight-round fight can be scored 80-72 where virtually every round is competitive and the loser makes a thorough nuisance of himself – without doing enough to win a session. Do we really want to know he lost every round? We’ve had a good fight, with the right man getting the verdict – why not leave it at that?

American ring announcers, for instance, have turned the official announcement into an exercise in suspense – “Judge A scores the bout 115-113 FOR …” The only thing anyone cares about is what comes after the “for” – they’re not concerned with the judge’s name, or the score. But (as I’ve said before) the MC is teasing us, doing a kind of Dance of the Seven Veils – insisting on giving us pieces of irrelevant information so as to delay announcing the one thing we actually want to know. Look at it this way – if he did it differently (“Judge A scores for Jones, by …”) it wouldn’t work. No-one would listen to the score – they’d all be too busy cheering, booing, whistling, stamping their feet etc.  In boxing, scores are irrelevant – and often misleading. So why bother to give them?

WEIGHING IN THE PREVIOUS DAY

Fighters always used to weigh in on the day of the bout. Sometimes a fighter would come in overweight, which presented problems (especially for a title bout).

If a fighter is struggling to make the weight, then weighing in the day before is obviously an advantage. Losing weight quickly – especially by means of a sauna or similar – means dehydration, and that can be dangerous. But, with more than 24 hours to go before the bout, the fighter can rehydrate, and get his strength back. This change was made for health reasons – and a boxer’s health and safety are paramount.

But there are disadvantages too. Even under the old system, a fighter would put on weight between the weigh-in and the fight itself. With a longer interval, he’ll obviously put on even more. So if one man is tight at the weight, while the other is boxing in his natural division, there’s likely to be a huge discrepancy by the time the fight actually starts.

Boxing’s a dangerous sport. The point of the “day before” weigh-in” is, as we’ve seen, largely to deal with the problem of dehydration. But what about the danger to the one who’s made the weight with no problems? Going in with a much heavier man could be harmful to him as well.

I’d like to go back to weighing-in on the day. So much more is known now about diet and nutrition that there really is no excuse for a fighter coming in overweight. And I like the policy of “check weigh-ins,” whereby a boxer is weighed at intervals leading up to the actual weigh-in, and cannot be more than a certain amount over the limit – or the fight’s called off.

Of course there’s the practice now where a world title fight can still go ahead if one boxer is overweight, but only the other one can actually win the title (if the champion’s overweight, and wins, the title is declared vacant). That can save a show. The first time I recall this happening was in 1972, when Jose Legra challenged Clemente Sanchez for his old WBC featherweight belt. Sanchez came in overweight, but the fight went on – and Legra stopped Sanchez in 10 rounds to become world champion again. That time you could say justice was done.

In October 2005 Diego Corrales was due to defend the WBC lightweight title against the man from whom he’d won it five months earlier – Jose Luis Castillo. That was a sensational fight, with Corrales down twice in the 10th but getting up to stop his man in the same round. Everyone was looking forward to the return.

boxing

This time, Castillo came in three-and-a-half pounds overweight. Corrales sportingly agreed to go ahead with the bout – and was stopped in four rounds. He was well-paid, and kept his world title. But he still had an inside-schedule defeat on his record that he didn’t deserve.

I feel that it would be best if weigh-ins reverted to the day of the fight – and if a fighter doesn’t make weight, the fight should be called off. I know this will bring howls of protest.

But if the governing bodies, and the TV companies, are strong, the chances of it happening will be greatly reduced. The governing bodies can, and should, discipline fighters (and their managers) – and discipline them with suspensions, not just a fine they can easily afford. It’s argued that the TV companies have too much power, but this is one area where they can use it for good. If a title fight is to be televised, but is called off because of a fighter not making weight, the TV company can say “We are not going to use this fighter/any fighter from this stable until further notice.” That would be a huge incentive to get it right. OK, there are several governing bodies and TV companies. But if HBO, say, were to ban a fighter for unreliability, would Top Rank risk using him? If the WBC were to ban a fighter from contesting a WBC title, would the WBA or IBF be willing to chance it?

CATCHWEIGHT WORLD TITLE BOUTS

This has been getting more and more common. To me, it’s a nonsense.

Of course there’s tremendous kudos in winning world titles in more than one division. But if a super-lightweight champion, say, decides to take on a world welterweight champion, and wins, he then has to make a decision – is he really a super-light or a welter? If he wants to hold on to the welterweight belt, he must be prepared to defend it against the top welters – at 147lb. To defend a title at a weight other than the official limit is not on.

Sugar Ray Leonard and Manny Pacquiao are great champions in anyone’s book, but they have both been guilty of this, and been allowed to get away with it – because they are megastars whose bouts generate terrific revenue, and huge sanction fees. The governing bodies should put greed aside (I can dream, can’t I) and insist that title bouts are contested at the proper weight.

I’m not against catchweight bouts as such, but they should not be billed as title fights. In my example above, if a super-lightweight and a welterweight champion agree to meet at, say, 145lb, that’s fine – but don’t call it a welterweight title bout. An intriguing match-up is an intriguing match-up – and it doesn’t need a “title” tag.

Back in 1977 we had only two “world” governing bodies, the WBC and WBA (we didn’t know when we were well off!) Rival bantamweight champions Carlos Zarate (WBC) and Alfonso Zamora (WBA) were exciting, unbeaten Mexican KO artists. They just had to meet.

The ideal, of course, would have been to match them in a world unification bout – but one or other of the governing bodies refused to allow this. So the bout went on as a non-title 10-rounder at 8st 8lbs (2lbs over the division limit). Did the fans care? Of course not – they wanted to see Zarate and Zamora, and they weren’t bothered about labels. It promised to be a sensation, and was – Zarate survived a torrid opener to knock his man out in the fourth. And the famous Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles was sold out. TV companies care about titles – fans don’t.

Of course this was an overweight match – as non-title bouts traditionally are. The reason is that problems can arise if a champion is beaten (certainly inside the distance) in a bout where both participants are inside the division limit. So a welterweight champion might well be reluctant to engage in a non-title bout at 145lbs, while a super-lightweight might not want to go up to 149lbs.

The answer, I would have thought, is to show some common sense (yes, I know this is boxing). For a world welterweight title bout, both fighters have to come in at no more than 147lbs. Therefore a fight made at, say, 145lbs cannot be recognised as a world title bout, and if the welterweight champion loses he should still keep his title. Insisting he come in at 145lbs is imposing an unfair demand on him – if his title is to be at stake. Make it a non-title bout at 145, and if the champion loses it can go on again as a title bout – with both being required to make 147. But no bout should be recognised as for a title unless it is made at the championship weight.

Ah, the good old days …

Boxing News Shop
GET 10% OFF TOTAL PURCHASE*
USE PROMO CODE: SUMMER10

*SALE ENDS 31 AUGUST