Nobility is an oft-misused word, generally confined to tales of ancient Greek or Roman origin, to refer to deeds done in subjugation of the individual ego in favour of the greater good. Hercules performs 12 tasks to save a nation; Jason battles for the Fleece to preserve the future for his people.
I used to use the word in the seventies to refer to heavyweight boxers. It used to fit. One could write of Joe Frazier’s nobility in his three encounters with Muhammad Ali, or of Ken Norton’s noble efforts when faced with the same man: Ali’s ring exploits were undoubtedly noble, as were George Foreman’s and any number of great heavyweights from that era, from Ron Lyle to Earnie Shavers. These guys seemed to bring to the ring something more than a desire for wealth or fame – an intangible but no less glorious will to win that had more to do with self-respect, personal dignity and honour, rather than fame or money. They were gladiators worthy of the name, and prepared themselves for battle in the manner of gladiators who had more on the line than their bank accounts or their next TV appearance.
That said, it was the seventies that destroyed heavyweight boxing – the last great era of the gladiators. Perhaps it was Ali, who’s star shone with such brilliance that no-one has been able to match it since, who’s charisma and sheer personality even eclipsed his quality between the ropes, so that it spawned a generation of copycat pugilists who thought that style could triumph over substance, and a new class of audience who were less inclined to put their money down unless the show outside the ropes was as compulsive as the one inside the square. What they failed to recognise was that for all Ali’s razzmatazz he was at his core a fighter, and a prodigious one at that.
Of course our predecessors had seen it all before. When Jack Dempsey annexed the title in 1919, he ushered in a glamorous era for heavyweight boxing that moved it from the back to the front pages. In truth, Dempsey’s persona was more Tyson than Ali, but America, and the world, were still licking their wounds after a terrifying war, and Dempsey’s scowling, hard-bitten image perfectly reflected the new face the USA wanted it’s enemies to see, whilst the diplomats quietly went about the business of forging new alliances beneath a fractious surface.
Hollywood, America’s royalty, bought into the Dempsey myth, and Jack found himself courted in places he could only have dreamt of a few years earlier when he was riding the rails and punching men in the jaw for small change in shanty towns. He partied with actors and actresses (and married one), put on the greasepaint himself, and generally lived the life of a high society gent. Many believe that the lifestyle softened him up to such an extent that Gene Tunney was able to slap him around and take his title in 1926 – and they’re probably right – there was a world of difference between the shuffling fighter that lost to Tunney and the young tiger who smashed through the giant Jess Willard seven years earlier to become heavyweight champion.
After Dempsey, heavyweight boxing endured a ten year hiatus, in which the title changed hands often and the sport begged for a dominant figure to bring new legitimacy to the crown. Joe Louis was that saviour, a dour figure out of the ring, but so proficient at his art that his legitimacy was never in question. Louis defended his title 25 times, still a record in any division, and did so with such grace and economy of effort that a perceived lack of charisma was forgotten amidst the man’s sheer quality. America, anyway, was turning its attention across the sea to another war, and Louis offered the perfect soldierly face of sport to the perceived enemy – respectful, obedient, non-controversial, but fearsomely efficient. Of course it helped that Joe knocked out the German champion Max Schmeling in a single round in 1938, as the storm clouds in Europe were gathering momentum and Hitler listened in on the wireless. Louis lost only three contests in a 68 fight career, and two of those were to future world champions Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano, after his 36th birthday and in the last year of his professional life when his powers had significantly diminished.
Marciano, the next dominant force, was an enigma after the Louis years. A small man in the division at 5 feet 10 inches and at his heaviest no more than 190 pounds, the Rock was a blunt instrument to Louis’s fine scalpel. Marciano went through his career unbeaten, but only defended the title six times and not against great opposition (Ezzard Charles excepted, although it should be noted that Ezzard was an even lighter heavyweight than Marciano). The name of Marciano is often uttered in hushed tones of reverence as the greatest of all time, but I think he would have had trouble with some of the really good big heavyweights, like an in-prime Louis (who Marciano clubbed to an eight round defeat long after Joe should have hung ‘em up), or an Ali or Jack Johnson.
Of course after Ali, as so often is the case once a dominant figure leaves the scene, the landscape of heavyweight boxing changed forever. The star that was Mike Tyson flickered oh so brightly, but too briefly for Iron Mike to stand alongside the all-time greats of heavyweight boxing, although I suspect in time we’ll grow to realise that his talents would have taken him into the stratosphere had they not been cruelly exposed by indiscipline, a wrong-headed view of the world, and just plain dumbness. I suspect that had Mike stayed with Kevin Rooney for longer, the Douglas defeat would never have happened, and he’d have avoided some of the trapdoors in his personal life into which he fell headlong and ruinously.
Lennox Lewis presented well, and flattered to deceive, ushering in the era of the really big men, 6 feet 5inches and 250 pounds plus, but I think he benefited from poor opposition, and with Riddick Bowe succumbing to the same demons as Tyson, he was never able to cement his position with a defining fight. Some may point to his two contests with Holyfield, but Lennox took into the ring some thirty pounds advantage and still struggled to dominate a 37-year-old man who less than 2 years later would lose to John Ruiz.
So what now? The money-makers are clamouring for an American heavyweight to emerge and clean up a division beset by mediocrity and a lack of the kind of nobility that characterised boxing’s flagship division in it’s illustrious past. The Klitschko brothers have been decent fighters in this era, with this quality of opposition, but let’s face it – the fact that they have been the dominant force speaks more for the lack of heavyweights than it does for their ability. American heavyweights, long since the backbone of boxing and the driving force to bring the sport from the back to the front pages, have disappeared, allowing Eastern Europeans to rise, and the result? Poorly conditioned, lesser-skilled big men annexing titles that their qualities simply don’t deserve. 40 years ago, better Europeans were turned back by American heavyweights who were mere fringe contenders.
Wladmir, the world’s foremost heavyweight now that brother Vitali has moved on, is as robotic and predictable inside the ring as he is dignified and erudite out of it. He has a ridiculously padded record (62 wins in 65 fights, 52 of them inside distance), and he’s happily dieted on a steady stream of out-of-condition, here-for-the-cheque challengers who wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a championship fight forty years ago.
We finally have a title-holder from the Americas in Bermaine Stiverne, who has picked up the WBC title discarded by Vitali, but Stiverne is a journeyman at heart who will almost certainly hand the title over to this first challenger, which is likely to be another American, Deontay Wilder. The 28-year-old Wilder is 32-0, and is yet to be taken the distance, but he’s boxed poor quality opposition, and is going to find matters a good deal more difficult when he finally matches up with someone who’ll punch him back.
In the UK there’s some promise. Dereck Chisora and Tyson Fury will finally resolve their differences before Christmas, and British Olympic super-heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua has started professional life in explosive fashion – also, David Haye, who fluffed his lines when offered his opportunity to dethrone Wladmir in 2011, is talking about returning to the ring this year. Wlad, meanwhile, defends against Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev in November, in a fight he should, regrettably, win.
So the future looks bleak. For too long the world’s heavyweight hopefuls have floundered against the rock of the two Klitschko’s – and there aren’t many young tigers it seems hungry enough and waiting in the wings to light up the firmament in the way that Dempsey, or Louis, or Ali did.
I want to write about nobility again – and will keep a candle burning for the next great heavyweight to emerge. He’s out there somewhere.