Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reflections on Sugar, Winky and the Punisher

As a lightweight champion, Shane Mosley was a destroyer. In eight title defenses, only one of them made it to the tenth round. At the time, he was thought of as almost a perfect fighter. He had tremendous hand speed, boxing ability, power and real fighting instincts. Well-schooled by his father and trainer, Jack, as well as his extensive amateur career, Mosley seemed unstoppable.

Even after jumping up to welterweight, (he skipped junior welterweight), his momentum continued. He beat amateur rival and boxing's Golden Goose, Oscar de la Hoya, in a split decision. For a few moments, Mosley was arguably the top fighter in the sport.

Mosley did have some kryptonite though. He had problems with tall boxers with good jabs. He lost two matches to both Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright. Forrest was the boxer who denied Mosley a shot at the 1992 Olympics. At the time, Mosley had a lucrative offer on the table to fight de la Hoya in a rematch. Instead, he wanted to settle an old score. Forrest demolished Mosley in their first fight, although Shane was more competitive in the rematch.

He won another close fight with de la Hoya and instead of agreeing to a third match, he offered Wright a chance for a career-high payday. Wright was a stylistic nightmare for most fighters, but this decision illustrated so much about Mosley as a fighter and as a man.

To Mosley, boxing was supposed to be a challenge. The best should fight the best. It made perfect sense to fight Wright because he was an avoided great fighter. If Mosley could climb that mountain, even greater rewards would follow. And Mosley's notion of "rewards" was not money; it was glory. At heart, Mosley was an enormous fan of the sport. He understood history and knew that legends took risks.

Mosley's career path was not designed to maximize money or avoid tough fights. Instead, he sought them out. That spirit made Mosley unique compared to the modern boxer-as-promoter paradigm that defines the sport today.

However, there were bumps along the way, and not just losses. Mosley and his father had some serious feuds, leading to a number of confused performances in the ring. Mosley would jettison his father from his corner and would eventually bring him back, only to have him leave again.

Additionally, Mosley decided at some point that he had to get bigger. Watching the Mosley who fought Wright, he was so bulked up with muscle. He seemed to lack any upper body movement and was just loading up with right hands. Eventually, it came to light that Mosley was involved in the BALCO PED scandal, which tarnished the clean records of athletes in a variety of sports. Mosley denied knowledge of knowingly taking steroids or other performance enhancing drugs, but these facts forever alter any honest assessment of his career.

Mosley was a popular figure in the sport, a great interview and a friendly guy. As a result, he was treated with kid gloves by the boxing press, television networks and fans as a whole regarding the PED scandal. (Perhaps this is another example why it pays to be nice to people.) Mosley was given chance after chance on HBO, even when athletes in other sports who were contemporaneously implicated in steroid scandals were treated like pariahs.

Late-period Mosley was hit-and-miss. He performed courageously in a loss to Miguel Cotto. He had some awkward wins, most notably in his first fight against Fernando Vargas and his come-from-behind victory against Ricardo Mayorga, where he scored a 12th-round knockout to seal the win.

His last moment of glory was his utter destruction of Antonio Margarito, who was found to have loaded his gloves just moments before the match started. Mosley, a big underdog, came forward and landed thundering right hands. It was shocking to see him dismantle the fighter who was regarded as having one of the best chins in the sport.

His last three fights were all uncompetitive losses, where he seemed tentative and unwilling to engage in sustained action. He landed two cracking right hands against Floyd Mayweather. Perhaps a younger Mosley would have had the foot speed and athleticism to put Mayweather away. However, the older version merely followed Mayweather around the ring, looking for that one more shot that never came. In the meantime, he was peppered by Mayweather's full arsenal and eventually went into survival mode – which is where he remained for the entire Manny Pacquiao fight.

Shane was an "A," not an "A+" fighter. He has some great wins on his resume, but he lacked the creativity and the ability to make adjustments against the truly elite fighters, or ones who had those long jabs. Nevertheless, he provided boxing with many thrilling moments, making himself a fixture on Saturday Nights for well over a decade.

Ronald "Winky" Wright possessed none of the charisma or explosive hand speed that defined Mosley, but he did share Mosley's appetite for risk. Starting out in the boxing hinterlands of the west coast of Florida, Winky left America to establish his career in Europe. He fought 12 times in France (also not a boxing hotbed) and three times in the U.K. There were additional European stops in Monaco, Luxembourg and Germany; other international appearances took him to South Africa and Argentina. Most of the opponents in these fights were not world-beaters, but Wright learned how to deal with hostile crowds and he perfected his idiosyncratic defensive style.

He didn't return home to America on a permanent basis until his 41st fight. In the interim, he lost some debatable decisions on foreign soil. Ironically, it was a loss in America, to Fernando Vargas, that helped build his reputation. Vargas was one of boxing's shooting stars and, predictably, the aggressive superstar was awarded a decision over the defensive boxing nomad in a close fight. But Wright didn't embarrass himself and he proved to be a tough foil.

Wright went back to work after the Vargas loss and captured his second junior middleweight title a few fights later. After four defenses, he was handed a second enormous opportunity on American television to face Mosley.

By this time, Wright already had earned the reputation as a difficult defensive fighter who made opponents look bad. A southpaw, he had a shell-like, high-guard defense and was tough to hit cleanly. Wright was a master at blocking and deflecting punches with his arms and elbows. On offense, he was all about precision. He never overcommitted with his punches and almost always seemed to land with his jab and straight left hand. Although not a big hitter, Wright was a muscular boxer and wasn't afraid of inside fighting. As his bouts progressed to the later rounds, he would impose himself more forcefully and break down opponents. He had very little foot speed but featured some tricky upper body movement.

One of Wright's main strengths was that he, with the assistance of trainer Dan Birmingham, knew exactly what kind of fighter he was. He didn't let the crowd or the opponent's style change his approach. He was a cerebral and patient fighter who always knew how to break down his opponents.

Mosley looked woefully overmatched against Wright, who peppered Mosley with his jab and straight left hand. Mosley spent the whole first fight eating punches. Their second fight was more competitive, but Wright was never in any danger of losing the decision.

The Mosley fights made Wright some real money and he became one of HBO's core fighters. He was fed Felix Trinidad next, who, after coming out of a lengthy retirement, had just demolished Ricardo Mayorga. There was much talk leading up to the fight that Wright would struggle with Trinidad's power and explosiveness. However, the smart money was on Winky.

What followed was one of the most one-sided beatdowns in modern boxing. Not for one second did Wright show any hint of intimidation from Trinidad's large following nor did he give the fighter an ounce of undue respect. Wright stayed in the pocket and landed at will. Trinidad stood in the center of the ring dumbfounded and frustrated, eating blow after blow. Methodically, Wright stuck to his game plan and dominated. Trinidad quickly went back into retirement after his uncompetitive performance.

Wright's most controversial fight occurred in 2006 when he was given a crack at another one of HBO's sacred cows: Jermain Taylor. It was an excellent fight, with Taylor jumping out to a lead with his quick combinations and athleticism. Wright imparted his will on Taylor in the second half the bout and even uncharacteristically walked Taylor down in the championship rounds. Wright, a painfully quiet fighter out of the ring, went all out on that night. I thought he won the fight fairly comfortably by 116-112, but the two Vegas judges brought into Tennessee to score the bout (perhaps predictably) didn't award Wright, the counterpuncher and better defensive fighter, the decision.

The fight was ruled a split draw and the mild-mannered Wright was so incensed with the decision that he wouldn't give HBO an interview and left the ring. (Naturally, HBO's unofficial judge, Harold Lederman, he of the "when in doubt, score for the 'aggressor' school," saw the bout as a draw.)

Wright was offered multi-millions for the rematch against Taylor. Some reports said that he walked away from as much as $5M. In my opinion, Wright rejected the rematch because of his belief that fighting Taylor was too much of a stacked deck. I think that his displeasure with the financial terms of the proposed second fight was a smokescreen. Surely, he knew that that type of money wouldn't be on the table for other fights. But he saw how Bernard Hopkins was treated by the judges in his two matches against Taylor, and with his own experiences, he decided that enough was enough. Sadly, I felt that Wright lost his love for professional boxing that night in Tennessee. Within 13 months, he would leave the ring.

Once it became apparent that Wright would turn down a Taylor rematch, HBO gave Wright a gimme against Ike Quartey, another fighter who had recently returned to boxing after a lengthy retirement. Quartey had just lost a close fight to Vernon Forrest prior to meeting Wright. 

He defeated Quartey decisively and that win set up his last big fight on the national stage – a match against Hopkins. Now that was one rough fight to sit through. Hopkins essentially out-uglied Wright on the inside and neutralized his jab. Nobody except Hopkins was pleased with the fight. Wright didn't like the wide scores in Hopkins' favor and he decided to walk away from professional boxing (he never officially retired).

In five years, he fought two more times, losing convincing decisions to Paul Williams and finally to Peter Quillin. This week, at the age of 40, he officially announced his retirement. Don't expect him to come back to the ring at any point.

Despite his defensive style and aversion to publicity, Wright became a large figure in boxing. Aficionados of the sport, the media and fellow boxers realized how good he really was. Like Hopkins, he was a puzzle to be solved. And until his last two fights, you might win a decision, but you would never actually beat Wright. From a vagabond existence in Europe to the bright lights of Las Vegas, Wright carved his own path. His actions could be inscrutable. He could be overly prideful. But he made it, and he made it very tough for a host of great fighters.

At least Mosley and Wright had full careers; Paul Williams' ended last weekend from a motorcycle crash in Georgia. As of now, he has paralysis from the waist down and it is unlikely that he will ever walk again.

Perhaps there's no sadder feeling than youth being struck down. Although Williams had been a major fixture in boxing for a number of years, he was only 30. He was set up in a winnable fight against Saul Alvarez in September. Yes, Williams was no longer the dominant boxing force of his past, but certainly the Alvarez bout could have been the perfect opportunity to jumpstart his career.

There are two main thoughts I have about Paul Williams.

1. He was from Aiken, South Carolina.
2. For a time, he was one of the top-ten boxers in the sport.

The Aiken, South Carolina bit is important to me because that area of the country is a boxing wasteland. Across the river from Augusta, Georgia, Aiken is an area without a boxing pedigree. Williams did not come from a famous boxing lineage and growing up where he did, there were no expectations that someone from his part of the country would make it in the sport, let alone to rise to the elite level.

His improbable ascension in boxing was all the sweeter due to the presence of his trainer and father figure, George Peterson. Together, they aligned themselves with a big-time boxing manager and got a real promoter. Sure, Williams had impressive physical dimensions, but it took tenacity and incredible self-belief to reach the levels he did from where he started.

The second point about Williams being a top-ten fighter in the world is important for a number of reasons. As Williams' star shined on the national stage, his flaws became more apparent. He would give up his height. He jab would get lazy. He would resort to brawls instead of winning decisions with more ease by boxing. His defense was mediocre. He never seemed to make adjustments against even decent southpaws.

However, despite these flaws, Williams was one of the sport's best. On a July night in 2007, he snatched his first title belt from one of the true beasts in the sport: Antonio Margarito. At the time of the fight, Margarito was imparting a wave of destruction on the welterweight division. Margarito called out Floyd Mayweather, who showed no interest in fighting him. In stepped Williams, who was thought of as an exciting but protected prospect.

What followed was sheer bliss, with the two fighters slugging it out. Williams started out with an early lead and had to absorb enormous punishment (and perhaps loaded gloves) to eke out a close, but deserved decision. In the 12th round, Williams brought the fight back to Margarito and closed the fight like a true boxing warrior. That moment might have been his best as a professional.

He quickly lost his next fight to Carlos Quintana, a lightly-regarded spoiler from Puerto Rico. Williams, who had moved with such grace against Margarito, seemed stuck in quicksand against Quintana. He couldn't figure out Quintana's lateral movement or defend himself against Quintana's overhand lefts.

Williams went right after Quintana in the rematch and destroyed him in the first round; it was perhaps his most dominating performance.  Williams then spent the next few years picking up belts and scalps against unimpressive opposition. It's true that few wanted to fight him but Williams was unwilling to commit to a division; he and his team were always trying to cherry-pick big fights in multiple divisions. These potential big fights never materialized.

Finally in 2009, Williams met his great foil in Sergio Martinez. The two southpaws waged an epic battle in their first fight (I was privileged to be there live), where both fighters were knocked down in the first round. It was a hellacious fight with both boxers absorbing enormous punishment and dishing out pulverizing blows. Williams had success with his straight left hand and short uppercuts. Martinez landed with his own left hand and right hook.

Williams won a decision that could have gone either way. After a bizarre match with Kermit Cintron, which ended with Cintron falling out of the ring, Williams – after much cajoling – agreed to fight a rematch with Martinez. Here, the party was over. In the second round, Martinez landed one of the best left hands in boxing's history and Williams collapsed to the canvas. It was a devastating knockout. I watched that knockout live in Atlantic City and wondered if Williams would ever fight again; it was that stunning,

However, he soldiered on and maintained that Martinez's knockout was nothing more than a lucky punch. A little more than nine months later, someone from Team Williams forgot to do their homework and they matched their fighter against Erislandy Lara, another tricky, counterpunching southpaw with real power. Lara put on a clinic, landing thudding left hands and right hooks. Williams won the decision, but the three judges who scored the bout in his favor were all suspended and haven't worked since that night. Live at the fight, I found only one guy in my section who thought Williams won the match. There weren't two – just one.

By now, the bloom was completely gone from Williams. He wasn't making changes. He defense had seemed to regress and, most concerning, his legs no longer looked fresh. A comeback fight against Nobuhiro Ishida did not re-establish momentum for his career. The Alvarez fight would have given him the opportunity to show the boxing world that he had something left. More than a few experts thought that he had a chance to be very competitive with the young Mexican star.

Throughout his career, Williams had an affable manner outside the ring. He could be shy and was a gentle giant at heart. Williams loved boxing very much and it was important for him to be thought of as a top attraction in the sport. But, he wasn't an overly boastful fellow. He made it to the highest echelon of a brutal sport and he took pride in that accomplishment.

In addition, his loyalty to Peterson, despite his losses, was admirable. Williams never seemed to think that anything was amiss. He was not the world's best student of the game, but he loved the competition. And frankly, with Peterson, his family and some decent money by his side, what was the problem? He was from Aiken, South Carolina. He had been one of the top-ten fighters in the sport. He had already won.

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