THE HIT PARADE
A Short History of Boxing Excuses
by Carlos Acevedo, Author of Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing
After a few months testing out the lost concept of “low profile,” former WBC heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder recently returned to the public spotlight, which invariably means saying something inflammatory, typically via (anti)social media. In a video posted on Instagram, and in a podcast interview, Wilder revisited/revised his pitiful alibis for being keelhauled by Tyson Fury en route to a one-sided TKO loss in February.
Excuses have always been a part of blood sports. As an individual pursuit, with limited variables involved, boxing produces solitary athletes whose very egos are at the center of each fight. What makes Wilder unique, however, is the assortment of out-of-this-world explanations he has offered to discredit Fury. First, Wilder blamed his Game-of-Thrones-inspired costume, which probably weighed more than a medieval suit of armor, for sapping his energy. Then he turned his ire to Mark Breland, whom he would eventually call a traitor for throwing in the towel when Wilder, virtually helpless, found himself shuddering beneath an onslaught of blows from the “Gypsy King.” His next conspiracy theories involved the poisoning of his water bottle and, finally, and most despicable of all, Wilder accused Fury of wearing loaded gloves, a charge that goes beyond even the usual mindless trolling that so often passes as wit these days.
Only George Foreman can compete with Wilder for the sheer number of plots he swore were arrayed against him. After losing to Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Foreman told anyone who would listen that he had been sabotaged—repeatedly. Not only had the ropes been deliberately loosened—allowing Ali to lean away from incoming punches—but Foreman had also eaten poisoned monkey fillet during his training camp. To top it all off, his water bottle had been spiked with a Mickey Finn while in the dressing room. Over the years, Foreman has flip-flopped on whether or not he believes skulduggery caused his downfall in Zaire, but he has never stopped hinting at having been poisoned. Naturally, his trainer-manager, Dick Sadler, took the blame for what happened in Zaire. Almost as soon as he touched down in the United States again Foreman fired Sadler.
In another era, trainers stopped matches (at the risk of becoming scapegoats) not only to keep a fighter from being hurt but also to prevent the fighter from having to shoulder the burden of a definitive loss. Trainers, as the sad case of Breland shows, are not always shown the same consideration. Even the kindly Alexis Arguello publicly rebuked Eddie Futch after losing a breathtaking encounter against Aaron Pryor in 1982. (Arguello, who had complained that Futch had overtrained him, eventually apologized for his remarks.) If a trainer manages to avoid open rebuke, he is often quietly replaced or demoted in the corner, but social media, of course, has made exhibitionists out of nearly everyone, and the likelihood of anything happening discreetly henceforth is minimal. Just ask Mark Breland.
But trainers could act as buffers only so often; the rest of the time, boxers worked arduously in the (self)rationalization mill. Sex, drugs, and a nighthawk lifestyle are evergreen excuses for fighters, ranging from Abe Attell to Lew Jenkins to Mike Tyson. The peerless Bert Cooper once wrapped all these elements together into a conspiracy theory worthy of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. From Sporting Blood:
Two sultry women—identical twins, for the love of God—had buttonholed Cooper in the lobby of the Macha Hotel and led him on a seventy-two-hour ménage-à-trois binge that left him spent on fight night. Not exactly Warren Commission material, to be sure, but the lurid details are pure Bert Cooper: “I didn’t sleep for three days,” Cooper told Ken Rodriguez of the Miami Herald years after the fight had taken place. “They set me up. I drank about a keg and had some mixed drinks and Long Island iced teas. I did about a quarter-ounce of cocaine.”
Partying sometimes yielded to far-fetched alibis verging on tall tales. One of the oddest excuses ever put forth by a fighter came from Jack Sharkey, whose June 1933 kayo loss to oversized mob-puppet Primo Carnera has long been shrouded in mystery. But Sharkey added a touch of the supernatural to the historical record in the early 1970s when he told author Peter Heller that Carnera had knocked him kicking because the ghostly image of the ill-fated Ernie Schaaf had materialized in the ring. Sharkey had managed Schaff and considered him a good friend; good enough, it seems, to be haunted by his death, which occurred after suffering a TKO against Carnera a few months earlier.
Not surprisingly, Sharkey was one of the most mercurial of all heavyweight champions, a basket case whose haywire nerves seemed at odds with the flintiness required to excel at a blood sport. But even stone-cold professionals occasionally lose their bearings in the boxing wastelands. Most famously, perhaps, it was Roberto Duran, a man who, for years, had epitomized the savage code of prizefighting, who shocked the sporting world when he turned away from Sugar Ray Leonard in their 1980 rematch. As he morphed from legend to laughingstock overnight, Duran found himself bewildered as to how he could explain his surrender. It was his co-trainer, hard-bitten Freddie Brown, who settled on stomach cramps as a dubious excuse for what was then considered inexcusable.
Art Aragon, the original “Golden Boy,” was always known as a prankster, but he was serious about how one loss wound up on his record. “Another time—this is a true story, honest to God—the night before a big fight I took the wrong pill. Instead of a sleeping pill, I took an awake pill. I didn’t sleep all night, so during the fight, I fell asleep in my corner. They had to wake me up when the bell rang. I was asleep between rounds, and I wasn’t doing too well during the rounds, either.”
Few fighters compare to Carl “Bobo” Olson in the imaginative excuses department. According to Bobo, he lost more than one fight because of nefarious doings. Olson once claimed that a gas leak in his dressing room left him woozy before a kayo disaster, and he blamed his annihilation at the hands of Jose Torres to having been poisoned before the opening bell.
A gas leak in the dressing room verged on surreal, but Olson has had more than his share of competition for the nuttiest excuse. Shane Mosley blamed a new pair of shoes for his whitewash loss to Manny Pacquiao. Humiliated by Lamon Brewster in 2004, Wladimir Klitschko claimed, among other things, to have been undermined by excessive Vaseline applied by his overzealous cornerman Joe Sousa. (The fact that Klitschko has a Ph.D. in sports science only made this claim more absurd.) In 2005, Roy Jones Jr. offered soap-opera rationale for dropping a decision to Antonio Tarver in their rubber match: a feud with his overbearing father. “If I go on and win that fight, who gets the glory?” Jones said. “Not me. Not God. All the glory would’ve went to Roy Jones Sr., and he didn’t deserve it.”
In recent years, the default setting for the poor sport who has dropped a decision is to insist on winning regardless of the judges and their tallies, no matter how lopsided they are. A perfect example of this unimaginative pseudo-vindication pops up every time Adrien Broner loses on points and, most recently, when Vasily Lomachencko embarrassed himself against Teofimo Lopez. When a somnolent Lomachenko finally stirred mid-fight, Lopez had already built an insurmountable lead on the scorecards. That hardly mattered to “Hi-Tech,” who insisted his low-gear style was more than enough to overcome the steady work of Lopez.
Like Wilder, Lomachenko is just another world-class fighter for whom an air of invulnerability is a prerequisite. Acceptance of uncertainty, of limitations, and, ultimately, of defeat is, in a sense, a professional liability. After all, a defeat in boxing often undermines the hypermasculinity central to the sport. Even worse, a loss doubles as public humiliation. “And what follows is a hurt,” Floyd Patterson once wrote, “a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt . . . and all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people . . . “As one of the riskiest pursuits in North America, boxing specializes in professional egoism. Doubt, fear, hesitation—there is no room for introspection in the ring. Outside of it, naturally, the soul-searching is nearly infinite.
(This month’s Roundup is curated by Hannibal’s founders)
A Star Bows Out, A Star Bows In―Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated
In 1977, after Carlos Monzon’s defeat of Rodrigo Valdes, Pat Putnam spent time with Monzon and wrote a profile piece for Sports Illustrated that projected his move from the looming prospects of retirement, to a career as an Argentinian movie star.
Being Tommy Morrison’s son―by Elizabeth Merrill, ABC News
“His daddy’s life was violent, disturbing and R-rated, and that was on a normal day, but Trey Lippe’s mom swore their son would live an average boy’s life. He’d play with Transformers, run through the aisles of Wal-Mart looking for Ninja Turtles and toss footballs in a fenced yard.”
Fighting Talk The History and Power of Trash Talk―by Tris Dixon, Boxing News
“When John L Sullivan boldly predicted he could “lick any sonofabitch in the house”, not even the heavyweight champion of the late 1800s could have thought he might have been setting in motion the wheels of a verbal train that has careered unevenly along for more than a century.”
IN THIS CORNER
“I didn’t fight this fight for the blacks, the whites or the Spanish, I fought the fight for the people. We’re all God’s children. I don’t see color. I’m not a racist. When I look at Gerry Cooney, I just see a man trying to take my head off.―Larry Holmes
Carlos Monzón – Highlights & Knockouts (more on Carlos Monzon)