By Ted Sares
Back in the day, Joe Louis was everyone’s hero. When he lost to Rocky Marciano, many wept, for Joe had transcended the sport and was viewed as America’s fighter. Fact is, Joe Louis was neither brown nor white; he simply was the most beloved champion in boxing history.
Old school Boxing, thanks to television, was big in the ‘50s. Names like Stillman’s Gym. Whitey Bimstein, Fred Abatello, Arthur Mercante, Artie (counting at the bell) Aidala, Johnny Addie, Don Dunphy, Jimmy Powers, and Ruby Goldstein were hip. Unlike today’s motor mouths, Dunphy understood that his primary purpose was to describe the ring action and to do it with minimal intrusion Johnny Addis’s smooth tenor held court at New York’s Madison Square Garden. When he surveyed the crowd and declared, “everybody is here tonight,” shivers of anticipation go down spines. It never got any better.
Old school is a slang term referring to a way of thinking or behaving in the past within the context of current times. It is not meant to have a negative connotation; rather, it is often used to refer to a time of perceived higher standards or level of craft. Some might equate the term to “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore,” or “He is a throwback,” or “Back in the day.” No one can really pin down the meaning, though.
In boxing parlance, it’s kind of like referring to a Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, or Tony DeMarco. When someone refers to Arturo Gatti as “old school,” they may be comparing him to guys like Fullmer, Basilio, and DeMarco. They were humble outside the ring but ferocious and vicious inside. Courageous, respectful, and hard working—these behaviors reflected the values that existed in the 1940s and 1950s. The men were hard and determined, well schooled with great fight teachers and trainers, and had far more fights to stay sharp.
When a boxer demonstrates uncommon courage and tenacity inside the ring, he is often labeled as a “throwback” to the golden days of boxing, but those who do the labeling seldom define what they mean. “Golden days” could mean the 1950 or the 1970s. It could mean guys like Fullmer and Carl Olson, or Gatti and Micky Ward. There have been countless arguments about whether old school fighters would be able to handle modern ones, but everything is relative though it’s a tempting comparison to make.
Basilio would fight Sugar Ray Robinson; Davey would fight Chico Vejar in “White Collar vs. Blue Collar” classics, Kid Gavilan would fight Chuck Davey; Jake LaMotta would fight Robinson; and Fullmer would fight anyone at any time, as would Emile Griffith and Johnny Saxton. These guys would fight each other, and if they lost, they would quickly regroup and get back into the unofficial round-robins. Ezzard Charles, Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Tony DeMarco, Willie Pep, Sandy Saddler, Teddy “Redtop” Davis, The Moyer’s, Art Aragon, Joe Miceli, Milo Savage, James “Spider” Webb, Harold Jones, Ike Williams, Jimmy Carter, Lauro Salas, and Paddy DeMarco would fight each other at important times in their careers. Great matchups were the rule, as were strong psyches and little sense of entitlement. There were no whiners, no divas back then.
Ironically (because he usually comes in overweight), James Toney is a boxing history buff and an astute student of old-school techniques, likely resulting in his uncanny ability to use his shoulders to shrug off blows, deflect punches with his arms, and launch counters with deadly accuracy. That’s pure old school.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. also used old-school technique, but he did it so subtly he was seldom given proper credit for it. To borrow from the old-school lexicon, he was a cutie whose use of leads, shoulder rolls, feints, upward jabs, giving angles, crossover defense, strategic lateral movement, and deflecting punches was all part of the mix. Old school involves a mastery of the basics: slipping punches, counterpunching, parrying, pacing, ring generalship, and mastery of the different levels of defense. Mayweather’s fight with Phillip N’dou showcased these attributes. If a purist is one who appreciates the technical aspects of the Sweet Science, Mayweather Junior was a purist’s delight.
However, both Toney and Floyd diminished their otherwise old-school qualities by their propensity for trash-talking, though both toned it down at the end.
In short, old school was a behavior influenced by the mores and values of another era. Times change, and sometimes so do the values and the behavior behind those values, but not necessarily for the worse. Nevertheless, if someone calls me a throwback, I kind of like it. Hell, I like it a whole bunch.