Friday, May 18, 2012

Tarver's Time To Make Up For Lost Time

At 43, Antonio Tarver still remains relevant in boxing. That in it of itself is something of a feat. 43 is an age for trainers or commentators (Tarver's more regular gig, on Showtime), not for active fighters. But activity and Antonio Tarver do not necessarily mix. Verbally, Tarver has been one of the most loquacious and omnipresent fighters in the sport, crashing press conferences, making accusations of others, goading potential opponents and ruling the new social media, such as Twitter. However, Tarver's activity often falls short of actually appearing in the ring. In the nine years since Tarver won his first title, he has fought only 13 times – a paltry number even in modern boxing.

Tarver has never officially retired throughout his career but he has taken several long hiatuses away from the ring. At various points over the last five years, the accepted wisdom was that he was finished as a world-class fighter, and, quite frankly, that may be still be the case.

Last year's win over an aging Danny Green was unexpected, but perhaps not all that meaningful. Green had captured and defended a minor belt against ancient fighters and those who were unfit to appear on the world-class level. Tarver was supposed to be next on the list, but he bucked the odds and knocked Green out. The win was convincing, although his opponent was much closer to his way out of boxing than he was to the prime of his career.

Tarver arrived late to boxing (he had previous personal and substance abuse problems prior to his full-time commitment to the sport). He became one of America's top amateur talents in the mid '90s, but he was already in his late 20s by the time he won the bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics.

He ascended the prospect ladder very quickly as a professional. In just his 16th pro fight, he faced Eric Harding in a title eliminator. In a pattern that would establish itself throughout his career, he lost to a fighter who was a large step up in class. He would subsequently defeat him five fights later.

Once Tarver reached the world-class level, his record became spotty. He lost five times to top fighters, (Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins, Glen Johnson and twice to Chad Dawson). Most famously, he was able to avenge his loss to Jones with a second-round TKO, where he landed one of the perfect counter left hands in the history of the sport.

Tarver has often faced problems with motivation. He lost fights against Hopkins and Johnson in which he was heavily favored. (Again, he would defeat Johnson in a rematch.) He went to Hollywood after his second win against Jones to play Rocky Balboa's nemesis in the franchise's last installment. Ballooning well into heavyweight territory, he looked lifeless and listless when he finally returned to active boxing against Hopkins.

Instead of accepting his wipeout defeat to Hopkins, he blamed his loss on external forces, claiming he was poisoned; the two fighters still have a running feud to this day. Steamed that he never got a rematch with Hopkins, Tarver ironically refused to offer Johnson a third fight, which would have determined the ultimate victor in that series.

Tarver was one of the first big fighters to align himself with Al Haymon, one of boxing's most powerful managers or advisors (his official role can sometimes vary based on the fighter). For Haymon's prized, veteran boxers, he has stressed a strict adherence to never fighting "dark" – refusing to fight without being on premium TV. In Haymon's mind, if a boxer fights dark, he dilutes his value. Instead of staying active, Haymon's boxers patiently wait for the opportunity for a premium slot on U.S. cable. If a fighter is not a top priority for the American boxing networks, those waits can become quite lengthy. Tarver waited a year to get back on TV after the Hopkins defeat. After his second loss to Dawson, he waited 17 months. You can bet that Tarver wasn't training religiously in the gym during these absences.

In 2010, Tarver fought once at heavyweight and then waited nine more months to take on Green at cruiserweight (a rare foray without U.S. television backing). He faces Lateef Kayode at cruiserweight next month – this time with a wait of almost 11 months. As usual, the fight will be on a U.S. premium cable outlet (Showtime), and he is expected to win against the crude but heavy-handed banger.

In evaluating Tarver's career, it's impossible to separate the results from paths not taken by the fighter. Tarver has only fought 35 times in his 15-year career (Jones appeared 52 times in his first 15 years, Hopkins – 46 times). When Tarver did get into the ring, he sometimes lacked the professionalism to come into fights in top shape. In addition, his reputation for performing well in rematches represents a tacit admission that he was underprepared or inadequately motivated for these first bouts against top opponents. 

Unfortunately, Tarver's inactivity led to a dulling of his skills and a loss of his natural athleticism. Today, he is a stationary fighter and he rarely features the incisive lateral movement and angles which were hallmarks of his earlier career. Some of this can be attributed to the natural aging process; but even as far back as the Hopkins fight six years ago, he looked like he was trying to move in quicksand.

Similar to a long line of Haymon-advised fighters, Tarver reached the mountaintop, but he was unable to maintain his lofty position in boxing. Due to ring rust and his own often cavalier attitude to the sport, he never was a dominant champion, despite having significant power, boxing skills and athletic talent.

Tarver is known for being a brash, boastful fighter but there are moments where he can be very introspective about the path of his career. Tarver realizes that this run is his last opportunity to make his mark in the sport. His grudge about being an underappreciated fighter, especially when compared to Jones and Hopkins, still permeates his essence; his repeated flare-ups with these legends are less about their successes than his own shortcomings, professionally or psychologically.   

In quieter moments, I wonder if he regrets some of the decisions in his career: the contentment of waiting around for big paydays, the time spent out of the gym and the underestimation of some of his opponents. In Tarver's mind, he is a Hall of Fame fighter, but his record is full of missteps and losses to the elites.

His recent opponents have been second-rate fighters, father time and the memories of opportunities missed. What would he have become if he had been a more dedicated fighter? Could he have taken down Jones or Johnson in his first battles with them had he been more active in the gym. And what explains his perfunctory efforts against Dawson?

Tarver's legacy is not yet complete and perhaps in his final run he can do something spectacular to make boxing observers remember his unique blend of talents. However, if his career ended right now, he would certainly be recorded in the annals of boxing as one of the many with potential unfulfilled, rather than a fighter who got the best out of his abilities.  

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