Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Philadelphia-Part I

Cunningham-Mansour_Graessle

 

Thursday, April 3: When I became a boxing fan 40 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined a day when two fighters with a combined age of 78 could credibly headline a network boxing telecast. But 36 hours from this writing, 41-year-old Amir Mansour and 37-year-old Steve Cunningham will be doing just that and one look at their chiseled physiques is enough to persuade potential viewers that they at least have earned the right to make their cases. Because they can do lat spreads instead of sporting middle-age spreads – and because the NBC Sports Network telecast in Philadelphia begins at 10 p.m. – one can reasonably say Mansour and Cunningham are ready for prime time.

The notion of fighters 35 and older campaigning at a high level, much less populating the top rungs of boxing, was inconceivable back in the day. During past eras, age 30 was considered long in the tooth and age 35 was downright elderly. When Muhammad Ali turned 35 in January 1977, one of the boxing magazines painted a gloom-and-doom scenario for boxing because Ali was thought to be so close to “the end.” Ali himself was aware of this but always believed he had the right stuff to overcome anything, even “Father Time.” Three months before the 36-year-old Ali challenged champion Leon Spinks in their rematch in September 1978, Ali said he would win at an age when others could not because, “I am extra great.” But in the nearly 36 years since, the parameters that define “extra great,” at least in chronological terms, have widened and deepened.

The psychological barrier one’s 30th birthday once represented was so powerful during the 1970s that then-WBC welterweight champion Carlos Palomino declared he would leave the sport at that moment, even if he was still champion. Unfortunately for “King Carlos,” that part of the story didn’t come true as Wilfred Benitez dethroned the 29-year-old in January 1979. However, Palomino proved to be as good as his word as he stepped away 49 days before that milestone after losing a lopsided decision to Roberto Duran in June 1979.

That thought process continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. When 41-year-old George Foreman and 33-year-old Gerry Cooney topped a January 1990 pay-per-view card in Atlantic City, promoter Bob Arum derisively labeled their fight “The Geezers at Caesars.” But under today’s norms, Big George and especially Gentleman Gerry would be perceived as viable contenders with the potential of upward mobility. Here’s why:

Of the eight who have been major titlists past age 40, six – Foreman, Virgil Hill, Bernard Hopkins, Guillermo Jones, Vitali Klitschko and Thulane Malinga – campaigned during the last two decades. If one examines THE RING’s pound-for-pound rankings as of March 31, 2014, six of the 10 fighters are 35 or older – Floyd Mayweather (37), Wladimir Klitschko (38), Sergio Martinez (39), Juan Manuel Marquez (40), Manny Pacquiao (35) and Carl Froch (36) — and only one, 23-year-old Saul Alvarez, is under 30. When one takes the average age of the top 10, which includes 30-year-olds Timothy Bradley and Andre Ward as well as 33-year-old Guillermo Rigondeaux, it comes out to a geriatric 34.1 years.

The gradual graying of boxing’s elite can be illustrated by THE RING’s pound-for-pound lists over the past 25 years. Since these are year-end lists, the fighters’ ages are as of December 31:

1989: 1. Mike Tyson (23), 2. Julio Cesar Chavez (27), 3. Pernell Whitaker (25), 4. Michael Nunn (26), 5. Antonio Esparragoza (30), 6. Meldrick Taylor (23), 7. Azumah Nelson (31), 8. Raul Perez (22), 9. Virgil Hill (25), 10. Marlon Starling (30) – Average age: 26.2 years

1994: 1. Pernell Whitaker (30), 2. Roy Jones Jr. (25), 3. Orlando Canizales (29), 4. Ricardo Lopez (28), 5. Humberto Gonzalez (28), 6. Frankie Randall (33), 7. Felix Trinidad (21), 8. Gerald McClellan (27), 9. Miguel Angel Gonzalez (24), Kevin Kelley (27) – Average age: 27.2 years

1999: 1. Roy Jones Jr. (30), 2. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (22), 3. Felix Trinidad (26), 4. Oscar De la Hoya (26), 5. Shane Mosley (28), 6. Mark Johnson (28), 7. Ricardo Lopez (33), 8. Erik Morales (23), 9. Bernard Hopkins (34), 10. Stevie Johnston (27) – Average age: 27.7 years

2004: 1. Bernard Hopkins (39), 2. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (27), Kostya Tszyu (35), 4. Ronald “Winky” Wright (33), 5. Manny Pacquiao (26), 6. Juan Manuel Marquez (31), 7. Marco Antonio Barrera (30), 8. Erik Morales (28), 9. Glen Johnson (35), 10. Antonio Tarver (36) – Average age: 32.0 years

2009: 1. Manny Pacquiao (31), 2. Floyd Mayweather Jr. (32), 3. Shane Mosley (38), 4. Bernard Hopkins (44), 5. Juan Manuel Marquez (36), 6. Nonito Donaire (27), 7. Miguel Cotto (29), 8. Celestino Caballero (33), 9. Chad Dawson (27), 10. Paul Williams (28) – Average age: 32.5 years

If one adopts a half-glass-full outlook, one has to marvel at the fighters’ staying power. Including the 2014 list, Mayweather is mentioned four times and all four times, he's in the top-two. Pacquiao is included three times as is Marquez and Hopkins, who, at 49, must be considered the greatest "old man" fighter of all. It is obvious that advanced nutrition and improved conditioning techniques have played a major role in allowing the top fighters to remain on top.

But if one chooses to peer through a more negative prism, he can mention the far less demanding schedule the top fighters have taken in terms of average fights per year. A generation ago it wasn’t unusual for the very best boxers to compete four times in a calendar year and Chavez Sr. was the most ambitious of all. From 1985 to 1993, Chavez fought the following number of times: Five, five, three, five, six, five, five, six and six. That’s an average of 5.1 fights per year. Compare that to the 1.6 fights per year the current top 10 engaged in during 2013. Six (Mayweather, Klitschko, Froch, Alvarez, Bradley and Rigondeaux) fought twice while Martinez, Marquez, Pacquiao and Ward fought once. Thanks to pay-per-view, eight-figure salaries are the norm so there is little incentive for the top attractions to endure the sport’s ravages any more than necessary.

One part of human nature is the desire to take the path of least resistance and given that truth, one can assume that had today’s salary structure been in place during the Golden Era, the fighters so celebrated for their huge numbers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Harry Greb, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Archie Moore would’ve taken it far easier on themselves. That equation goes the other way, too; if today’s fighters were paid what their predecessors were, they’d be forced to fight far more often.

A skeptic would also say that younger fighters aren’t learning enough to unseat the elite. Hopkins has built his legend by schooling less educated foes and while there are a collection of excellent, experienced trainers, they are far fewer in number than in past generations. Therefore, the fighters who learned under old-school trainers are prospering far longer and reaping far bigger rewards. Also, the talent pool is thinner than in previous generations. Economic conditions were such that boxing was a viable way out of difficult circumstances but as conditions improved for more sectors of the population, other avenues beside the squared circle emerged. Again, when a path of least resistance is presented, most people end up taking it.

It’s difficult to tell how this trend will evolve in the next decade. Will a stampede of ambitious youngsters execute a massive flushing out of their elders or will the old dogs continue to beat them back with their collective wiles while further extending the barriers of athletic viability? Either way, it promises to be a fascinating time.

*

With a late-afternoon flight from Pittsburgh to Philly on the schedule, I left the house at a comfortable 10:45 a.m. and arrived at the airport at 1:15 p.m. After securing my parking pass, I ignored the “lot is full” sign in the extended-stay sector and began scanning those spaces nearest the terminal. The logic is simple: How could airport personnel possibly know that every spot is filled at any given moment? All I need is one, right?

Except this time, every space was filled. So I went to Plan B: scan the spaces on the other side of the lot. All of those were occupied too. Finally, I applied Plan C: scan the group of spaces the next level back. The outlook looked bleak until I saw a car pull out of a space just before I arrived. With another car trailing me, I smoothly snapped up the space, took note of its location (right of the 16C sign, seventh space beyond) and began the five-minute walk toward the terminal entrance.

After clearing security and taking the tram to the secured area of the airport, I glanced at the “arrivals” monitor to check the progress of the plane that would take me to Philadelphia. A pleasant surprise: the original arrival time of 3 p.m. was actually bumped up to 2:49. But the good luck didn’t last; although we boarded on time, the process of finding a spot in line on the runway caused us to depart approximately 20 minutes later than the advertised 3:37 p.m. High winds in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia caused turbulence during our ascent and descent but otherwise, it was a pretty good flight.

Although I exorcised the ghosts of navigating the Philly-to-Atlantic City route, I couldn’t say the same for driving inside Philadelphia’s city limits, so instead of getting a rental car, I opted to take a taxi. The wait at the taxi station was longer than usual – the supervisor told us the congestion at the airport was such that she had to share taxis with those occupying other terminals – but aside from a white Volvo van cutting us off, the 15-minute drive to the Hyatt Regency was uneventful.

The production memo indicated the weigh-in was scheduled to begin at 5:30 inside the Hyatt’s Riverview Room but I wasn’t worried when I arrived at 5:40 because most weigh-ins do not start on time. Still, I wanted to get there as soon as possible, so I stayed in my room just long enough to unpack my bags. I rode down the elevator with one of the trainers (I didn’t get his name) and soon I was inside the Riverview room, already teeming with boxing people. I headed toward the back of the room to assume my “fly on the wall” position but as I glanced to my left, I spotted two familiar faces: former WBO and IBF heavyweight champion Chris Byrd and his wife, Tracy.

The last time I spoke to them was in April 2007 at the weigh-in for Byrd’s fight with Paul Marinaccio, which was staged in the Bahamas. Under bright sunny skies and temperatures that far exceeded those in my home state of West Virginia, the weigh-in took place outdoors under a beachfront shelter flanked by palm trees and swimming pools. It was only my third trip as a full-time punch-counter and I could barely believe my good luck. The band that played in the stands at Nassau’s historic Clifford Park provided a one-of-a-kind atmosphere at ringside and Byrd left the ring with a victory via seventh round corner retirement.

While Tracy pretty much looked the same as she did then, the 43-year-old Byrd’s appearance had changed radically. The dreadlocks were replaced with a conventional close-cropped haircut and at 195 pounds, his physique was far trimmer than during his heavyweight days. In fact, Byrd said that had he not wanted to become a heavyweight, he likely would have campaigned at 168 but the people around him at that time wanted him to box at middleweight.

But while the ex-champ's physique had changed, his personality, thankfully, had not. As he was then, Byrd was approachable, pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent and candid.

Wearing a dark blue T-shirt bearing the words “Team Lee,” Byrd is now a trainer and his fighter, light heavyweight and Subway spokesman Mike Lee was moments away from weighing in. According to Tracy, Byrd had taken a sabbatical from boxing following his final fight in March 2009 (TKO 4 over Matthias Sandow in Stuttgart, Germany) but was pulled back in last year when Andre Dirrell, a fellow native of Flint, Michigan, approached Byrd and asked for a look-see. The devoutly religious Byrd, always one to help others whenever possible, agreed.

Because of his fighter’s perspective – and because his defensive style helped preserve his cognitive skills – Byrd is able to spot and articulate facets that may escape others. The process of breaking down styles helped revive Byrd’s love of boxing and caused him to re-enter the boxing pool with both feet. Besides Dirrell and Lee (with whom Byrd is working for the first time), Byrd is also training light heavyweight Anatoliy Dudchenko (who is scheduled to fight Nadjib Mohammedi June 21 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) and Australian “World Series of Boxing” participant Trent Rawlins.

Lee checked in at 179.25 but his opponent, undefeated Cayman Islander Peter Lewison, was one pound over at 181.1. Despite the setback, Lewison was defiant. As he engaged in the customary staredown, he told Lee, “I’m going to f**k you up.” Lee took the taunt in stride but Lee’s father took umbrage to the point that he and Lewison had to be separated. A little less than an hour later, Lewison returned to the scale and weighed a satisfactory 180.4.

Mansour and Cunningham were the first to weigh-in and both hit their respective marks (222.5 for Mansour, 206 for Cunningham) as did Curtis Stevens (162.75) and Tureano Johnson (162.25). The heavyweights were mostly cordial with one another while Johnson tried to get inside Stevens’ head as they engaged in the customary face-to-face. The young “Chin Checker” version of Stevens might have taken the bait but the more mature 29-year-old model let it slide.

I hung out and listened to the scuttlebutt until almost the last person left, after which I ordered room service and watched the Fox Sports 1 card. And wouldn’t you know it? The main event fighters boasted a combined age of 77 – 35-year-old Luis Ortiz and 42-year-old Monte Barrett. Time indeed marches on.

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

 

Photo/Rich Graessle-MAIN EVENTS

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