I'd like to start this fanpost by first thanking everyone that read and commented on my ongoing series of Scouting Reports , where we've been analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of some of boxing's up-and-coming fighters.
Now obviously every time we get into a discussion in the comments about how well a young boxer is coming along, the question always comes up: based on what you are seeing, will this young man turn into a long-time contender, world champion, perhaps even all-time great boxer?
Now, the thing is, in our Scouting Reports, we've taken a generally technical approach to judging boxing prospects. We look at how well they jab, how quick and tight their footwork is, how much weight they put into punches, whether they move their head or have a compact guard, whether they have a varied punch arsenal, if they alternate between body and head punching etc. If you just look at a fighter from this very technical perspective, you'd have the tendency to think that better 'grades' associate with better prospects. The more complete an arsenal a fighter has, the better the chance he grows into a great champion. Like standardized tests I hear everybody loves so much, if we assign grades to every category: footwork, power, hand-speed, head-movement, stamina etc., then the boxer with the highest overall grade is sure to become a great champion, right?
Except... not quite!
Personally, I think that there are several reasons why there isn't a perfect 1-to-1 connection between skills (ability and technical prowess) and success. I would like to explore two of them in a quick two-part series. In the first part I would like to enlist your help in together studying how fighters throughout history have managed to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses, or, conversely, have famously failed to do so. The second part I am a little more fond of, and it explores how stepping up in opposition can have the most unpredictable results for even the best looking prospects and how early bouts may not be the best indication of how a prospect will fare at the world level.
Now, regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each fighter, something we have been really fond of here in the 'Scouting Report' series, ideally you would like to see a talented boxer develop with perfect skills and little-to-no weaknesses. And there actually have been such boxers in the sports' history. Personally, I can think of a short list of fighters that seemed as close to perfection as you can get when you watch them on film, but I would like to encourage you to keep adding to this list in the comment section. Fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Pernell Whitaker, Sugar Shane Mosley (and feel free to add others to the list. perhaps Marvin Hagler, Ricardo Lopez?) all looked to have jawdropping qualities while exhibiting almost no weaknesses in their prime.
But fighters like that are the exception, rather than the rule. 99% of even the great boxers in history definitely had some form of weakness and to become great they had to find a way to overcome that weakness, either by successfully hiding it, or by being so good in other areas that their weakness never came into play enough to matter.
- Roy Jones Jr., who is possibly the most spectacular boxer to ever grace the ring, would sometimes let himself get pressed up against the ropes, would sometimes find himself off-balance and famously didn't really know how to execute a traditional defense because he didn't need to. But in his prime, those weaknesses were more of an afterthought because of the dazzling way he toyed with his opponents.
- Muhammad Ali would often arm-punch and didn't work the body as much as he perhaps should have.
- Joe Louis didn't have very good head movement, generally didn't punch unless he had both feet planted, and could be caught / counterpunched occasionally.
- Henry Armstrong would constantly get into brawls and suffered from a distinct lack of defensive slickness.
- Guys like Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan or Packey McFarland probably didn't have as much KO power as they would have liked but were supreme boxers.
- Ezzard Charles was probably insufficiently aggressive, didn't fight with passion or viciousness and was generally burned out at most times from his heavy schedule.
- Rocky Marciano was a crude brawler, with a weak jab, iffy range and a very ineffective right hand lead.
- Floyd Patterson, Wladimir Klitschko, Terry Norris among others rank in the long line of champions who had notably weak chins.
- Carlos Monzon was not flashy, didn't have spectacular reflexes or explosive footwork.
- Lennox Lewis was arguably slow-ish and maybe was a bit susceptible to a good jabber.
- Joe Frazier was undersized for a heavyweight, was pretty hittable and a slow starter.
But all of these men found ways to make their weaknesses mostly irrelevant.
On the other hand however, there are plenty of boxers who had loads of talent, yet let one glaring weakness prevent them from reaching the status of 'great':
- Herol Graham could get really untidy at times and probably didn't take power shots as well as he should have. He was an otherwise superb boxer with real power but never made it to 'great' status.
- Jerry Quarry, to the eye of the modern fight fan probably looks very good on film for a heavyweight, with good upper body movement, chin, footwork, strength, jab, stamina, heart. He was possibly unlucky to fight in an era when getting to be champion meant you had to defeat an all-time great heavyweight. But he was never able to get past his tendency of lowering his work-rate just below that of his opponent (and let himself be beaten up) whenever he met a really assertive fighter with talent and/or power.
- Tyrell Biggs carried his left hand too low and was susceptible to quickness.
- Howard Davis Jr. was immensely talented but his weak chin and reluctance to engage seriously when faced with tough opponents was his downfall.
- Not a lot of people have heard of Paul Gonzalez, but the diminutive light-flyweight was actually the recipient of the Val Barker Trophy as the Olympic Games’ most outstanding boxer in Los Angeles in 1984 as part of the phenomenally successful US team boasting Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Virgil Hill, an Olympic team we have discussed several times on this website. Gonzalez never broke through successfully as a pro, and by all accounts his lack of power was the main reason.
- A weak chin or a lack of toughness to take constant punishment is one of the most obvious flaws that usually thwarts a successful pro career and one of the victims of this was 1952 Olympic gold medalist Pete Rademacher.
- Canadian Olympic heavyweight silver medalist and world amateur champion Willie de Wit was too slow to avoid taking damage in the ring.
- Philadelphia's light heavyweight Billy Fox had one of the most spectacular winning runs in ring history - 43 consecutive KOs but was found to be badly lacking in the technical department by Gus Lesnevich at Madison Square Garden in February 1947.
- Chuck Davey is probably a prime example of why a highly-touted prospect can never be taken at face value despite his strengths, especially if just relying on media reports. The New York Times described the southpaw welterweight as "fast afoot and with his hands. He punches with damaging effect to the body." But when he was matched with Kid Gavilan at Chicago Stadium on Feb. 11, 1953, he simply had no answer for Gavilan's quickness.
- Canadian Egerton Marcus was also an Olympic medalist (silver in 1988) but as a pro light heavyweight, he proved to be too slow and especially unable to get inside on his opponents.
- And of course, I think no discussion about a supreme boxing talent who was expected to be great and turned out to be merely good can begin or end without mentioning Mark Breland, a fighter whose enormous talent and skill was thwarted by his lazy jab and tendency to keep his head up and hands low.
... And all of this doesn't even mention the dozens or perhaps hundreds of fighters in many eras that never made it to 'great' status because they fought in a division devoid of interest or of quality, and who were forced to seek money and recognition in higher weight classes, where they were perhaps ill-suited or just plain undersized (think Yuriorkis Gamboa). Or fighters who were never great because of bad matchmaking, mismanagement or promotional issues, irrespective of talent (how about Riddick Bowe for an example?).
But there is a flipside to this story as well. We look at high-profile prospects, who get a lot of press, along with top-notch training conditions and careful matchmaking because of their vaunted skills. But just as having talent and skill doesn't guarantee a great or even good career, sometimes even fighters without versatile talents or impressive flashy skills can become great. Sometimes, a fighter who has one great asset can turn that one asset into a very successful career even though if you were to grade him according to our previously discussed standardized system, he would probably get low marks for many of his other habits. So here they are, fighters who would have scored low in most of our categories that ended up having pretty darn impressive careers.
- George Foreman is the first example that comes to my mind. Compared to other all-time great boxers, Foreman was plodding, had visibly slow hands, technically wasn't very great, but he managed to make the most out of his size and frightening punching power. Especially since he fought in an era of fast, technically proficient heavyweights.
- James J. Braddock is surely not one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and his story is probably more memorable for the emotional factor rather than his in-ring achievements. But the fact that he is still remembered and mentioned today, along with his victories over Max Baer (no mean feat, given that Max Baer was viewed as a GGG-like affable assassin at the time), John Henry Lewis, and Jimmy Slattery make him a more than memorable boxer, despite his lack of finesse, his very slow feet and lack of grace and technique. What he lacked in talent and skill, Braddock made up in sheer grit and stamina.
- Ingemar Johansson. The former European and World heavyweight Champion was famous for 'Ingo's Bingo', his thunder-like right hand. He was a crafty boxer, but his defense was bad and he was a head-hunter and a one-handed fighter. Still, he is celebrated as a great fighter and well-known to most hardcore boxing fans more than half a century after retiring.
- Julian Jackson might be one of the hardest-hitting punchers in the sport's history pound-for-pound and to be honest I don't think he would have had half the career he had if not for his power. Because to my eyes, he rated as average at best in other categories.
- Nicolino Locche. I know a lot of people will disagree with me on this one, but I think Locche was not as technically gifted as people paint him to be. I often hear him described as a defensive master in the vein of Willie Pep, but when I look at film of Willie Pep, I see footwork, crisp movement, counterpunching, inside figting. Locche simply dodged his opponents' punches with his phenomenal head/body movement but was slow on his feet, had poor punching power and form and a lazy, impudent style which, granted, he enjoyed employing to frustrate his opponents.
Feel free to add to this list yourselves. My point is, an incomplete arsenal is not a sure sign of doom at the world-level, much as a very broad arsenal of skills is also no guarantee of success.
As far as scouting prospects, even that is not a sure-fire exercise in observational ability. Usually, a young boxer's strengths are more likely to be seen in his developmental bouts. And whether he is to become a versatile technician or he will start relying on one devastating strength, you can probably say there were signs of it in his early bouts. A while ago I did a piece on Evander Holyfield. Although I managed to pick out most of his strengths from his early bouts, the one thing that defined him throughout his career, his immense heart and just flat-out refusal to submit, irrespective of punishment, was not immediately visible before he stepped up to fight Dwight Muhammad Qawi. There were signs it existed, but no reason to suspect it would become the defining trait of his career.
This is why one can't say for sure:
1) How effective a young fighter's strength(s) will be when stepping up to the world level
2) How devastating his weaknesses will become
3) Whether there might be some hidden weaknesses that were not exposed by the gatekeeper-type opponents he has been facing.
There is a reason why there is this difference between what is visible in early developmental bouts against fighters who are brought in to test the prospect and teach him (but ultimately lose) and fights where the opponent is himself used to winning and is coming in to win. But I will leave this discussion for the second part of my rant, which will hopefully be posted tomorrow.
In the meantime, I encourage you to contradict my ideas in the comments below, or contribute with examples of fighters who seemingly had all the skills in the world, yet failed to become great, or on the contrary, had few skills yet managed to become great. I'm sure there are dozens of examples I am missing in all categories. How about some fighters who never had any skills and as a consequence never succeeded at all in the ring, like, say, Mickey Rourke? :)