Boxing is a combat sport. That means it's a sport, but something beyond a sport. There is a seriousness to it that doesn't exist in sports where you have two teams chasing around or contesting over a ball.
There's a reason people say, "You don't play boxing." It's a fight. There are rules and officials on hand to protect the competitors, if at all possible, from taking permanent damage.
But it's still a fight. That gives it a primal, universal appeal. Any time two guys start throwing punches at each other, no matter where or when, people are going to stop and watch.
But boxing as a sport is a lot more than just two guys trading punches. The subtle complexities of what is happening in the ring and behind the scenes often escape the general public, and in some cases even legitimate fans.
It's not like strength doesn't help. I certainly wouldn't want to get clubbed across the dome by some 375-pound strongman competitor.
But even so, I'd much rather take one from a guy like that than from a 250-pound Klitchko brother.
Real, pro-boxing quality punching power is the result of technique above all else. Even to the extent that muscles really matter, it's the big muscles of the lower body that generate the true force: the glutes and the quads.
A successfully executed punch transfers the power from the lower body through a fighter's torso and delivers it via the fist, like a battering ram. It's all about turning the body into a recoiling machine. And to turn your body into a machine requires a mastery of technique.
Sometimes you'll hear a fight commentator say a boxer is "sitting down on his punches." This refers to lowering his weight, loading all that power up, before unloading it into his opponent.
It takes some coaching to learn to do this properly to a heavy bag. Doing this to a moving target, in the middle of a boxing match, requires skill. Anybody who has sparred knows how tough it is to even connect with a punch on a moving opponent, let alone with a solid one.
Perhaps the most devastating non-heavyweight puncher of the past 40 years was Tommy Hearns. At 6'1" and between 147 and 160 pounds in his prime, he was built more like a beanpole than a bodybuilder.
But his wide shoulders and long arms were the perfect natural equipment for creating a big-time puncher. With the expert tutoring of Emanuel Steward, he became a murderous KO machine. The leverage he got when he sat down on his overhand right is legendary.
Forget the super-heavyweight Klitschko brothers for a moment. I'd rather take a punch from the strongman than a 154-pound Hearns.
There's no such thing as a lucky punch in boxing. But to somebody who doesn't really understand what they are looking at, sometimes a punch can appear lucky.
Say fighter A is getting the better of fighter B all night long. He's hitting him repeatedly without taking a shot in return, winning round after round. Then, late in the fight, fighter B connects with a big left hook or a huge overhand right, and fighter A goes down, defeat seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory.
When something like this occurs, it has nothing to do with luck. Fighter B has been studying fighter A the entire time he's getting his butt kicked, reading him and making notes. Eventually he recognizes a pattern, starts to see where the openings are and waits for his chance to spring.
One of the most famous examples of this in boxing history occurred in the first fight between Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano, in September of 1952. That night, the Rock got his lunch eaten for the first 12 rounds and was trailing on all three cards.
Then, in Round 13, he came through with one of the most iconic knockouts of all time. I suppose you could call it lucky from the perspective of the fight happening about 40 years before championship fights were shortened to 12 rounds.
But simply being in the ring after 12 rounds with Jersey Joe took a lot more than luck. For the Rock to be ready to beat him to the punch with his own lead right took elite boxing skill.
Ali might have a better chance hitting a field goal from the 20 today than Jim Brown had of hitting Ali with a solid punch in the early 1960s
A related myth to the lucky punch is the idea that "everybody has a puncher's chance."
No. They don't.
This usually comes up in conversations where sports fans are speculating about how some big, monster football player might fair against a boxing champion. The uninformed mook will inevitably say, "Well, everybody has a puncher's chance."
In the late 1980s, Tony Mandarich of Michigan State was being hyped on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the greatest offensive tackle prospect of all time, a snarling, super-intimidating man-beast.
At the time Mike Tyson was at the height of his dominant first run as heavyweight champion. Somehow a rumor started up that Mandarich was going to take an offseason detour before entering the NFL draft to challenge Iron Mike.
Some of the stupidest sports arguments I had in high school involved trying to explain that the big football meathead would get eaten alive against Tyson. The predictable retort from my football teammates was, "Yeah, but do you know how much Mandarich squats?"
The best story, by far, about this sort of hypothetical match up involves Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown isn't just arguably the best running back of all time, he's arguably the best lacrosse player, too. Everybody considers him among the 10 greatest athletes of the 20th century.
In the early 1960s, as he was preparing to leave football, Brown got the idea he might take up boxing as a sideline. He even talked to Bob Arum about setting up a fight for him with Ali.
As related by SI's Chris Mannix, Ali invited Brown to meet him one morning while he was doing his morning running. After finishing his workout, he invited Brown to do his best to hit him. The great Jim Brown failed miserably for about 30 seconds, and then Ali concluded the exercise by unloading with a lightning-quick one-two combo.
That was the end of Jim Brown's boxing aspirations. Instead, he went into acting, realizing that as a boxer, he didn't have a puncher's chance in hell.
First of all, there's nowhere to run in a boxing ring. It's a finite space, enclosed by four 90-degree corners. If a fighter is managing to constantly stay out of range of his opponent's attacks within that space, it is because he is executing superior footwork and control of distance.
In other words, he's outboxing him.
There's a reason people use the term ring generalship. Just as a great military leader will always try to control the terrain and terms on which a battle is waged, a smart boxer uses movement and elusiveness to make sure he closes into range with his opponent from the best possible angle to inflict maximum damage while sustaining as little as possible in return.
There are certainly boxers who feel most comfortable fighting a straight ahead, trench warfare style of fight. They'll take one to give one, confident that they have the resources to win a war of attrition in the end.
Everybody loves fighters like that, and for good reason. They make for very exciting fights. And I can't fault a casual fan who would rather watch a Ward-Gatti style battle than a Floyd Mayweather/Pernell Whitaker type of boxer who spends 12 rounds making the other guy miss while picking him apart with precision counters.
But I do think fans who learn about the sport enough to recognize what is going on when a fighter is being evasive will end up having a much more enjoyable fan experience in the end. They call it the sweet science for a reason.
This one drives me absolutely crazy, probably because I know a lot of professional fighters and I know how hard they work and what they are risking to earn their paychecks. Calling a guy who puts himself on the line as a prizefighter a "bum" is disrespectful of him as a person, and disrespectful of the entire sport.
I'm more than happy to give a free pass here to a guy like Mickey, an old-time trainer who has been around the sport for years and is trying to motivate his fighter.
But when I hear a so-called fan, often as not a beer-bellied schlub who wouldn't last four rounds with a heavy bag, lobbing the slur at anybody who doesn't quite measure up to world championship status, I do bristle.
There is such a thing as a professional opponent, a guy who routinely takes fights against guys who he just doesn't have the physical tools to beat. Often these guys are former prospects or contenders who didn't quite pan out.
They aren't bums, though. More often than not, they have a high level of boxing craft and IQ. Without this kind of guy, there would be no sport.
There are other guys who make an honest go of it and end up getting beaten more often than they win. Boxing is a brutal one-on-one sport and only one competitor gets to win.
On the non-televised portion of a Friday Night Fights card I covered last January, there was a four-round lightweight bout between a 3-8-1 fighter and a prospect who was 3-0 with three KOs.
The 3-8-1 kid was well conditioned and had clearly put in serious work in the gym. He sure didn't show up looking to drop to 3-9. He got knocked down in Round 3 but still fought well enough in the other rounds to only lose by split decision.
I know there are plenty of fans out there who would snicker at that kid's 3-9-1 record. And knowing that makes me a little sick to my stomach.
I'll certainly concede that sometimes you'll see a guy in a fight who is clearly just there to get beaten up and collect a check. A promoter who would knowingly load up a card with fighters like that is, to my mind, an exploitative creep. The paying fans would have every right to be mad.
But even then, I hesitate to call the fighters in question bums. I've been hit in the head enough times in my life to consider it an extremely tough way to earn a living, especially if you don't even have a chance to win.
I feel like any fighter who has gotten to the point where he feels like that's the best option he has left to earn a few bucks deserves empathy over contempt.