10 Fighters Who Challenge Stereotypes About Professional Boxing
Boxing is a brutal and bloody sport, so it should be no surprise if boxers are cut from rougher cloth than the general citizenry. At the same time, to master the sport well enough to have any sort of professional career takes extreme self discipline and hours of technical training. So for a lot of reasons, a fighter is not your average cat.
At the same time, an individual sport like boxing attracts a wide array of personalities. True enough that a boxer is not your average type of person. But that doesn't mean there is any such thing as an average type of boxer.
Still, some fighters challenge the typical stereotypes about boxing more than others. Inside the ring they might be classic warriors in every detail. But away from the action, they have interests, or other careers, that you just wouldn't associate with a person who gets paid to beat people up.
Gene Tunney is among the most underrated heavyweight champions of all time. I routinely see lists where Jack Dempsey is placed in the top five, yet the man who thoroughly out-boxed him twice, Gene Tunney, is seldom seen in the top 10.
Dempsey in the 1920s was a popular star in the same way Mike Tyson was during the late 1980s: the iconic bad man with a belt.
Tunney was the heavyweight champion; everybody accepted it and respected him for it. But the bookish and respectable Fighting Marine could never achieved the Manassa Mauler's level of glamor.
In his important book, The Heavyweight Championship, boxing historian Nat Fleischer writes:
Gene Tunney, the new champion, was the complete antithesis of the man from whom he won the title. Tunney was essentially a ring scientist, Dempsey a ferocious slugger. Tunney was reserved in manner, self-contained, and self-sufficient: Dempsey was tempestuous, gregarious, and a complete extrovert.
Tunney retired from boxing as champion, still at the height of his powers. Shortly afterward he married Polly Lauder, an heiress to one of the nation's most prominent families. In his post-ring career, he was a very successful business magnate.
One of the saddest and most persistent boxing stereotypes is the fighter who mishandles his money and ends up broke, injured, retired and without other career prospects. Unfortunately, all too often, this one is true.
Then you have guys like former heavyweight contender Calvin Brock, the "Boxing Banker." While pursuing a stellar amateur career, which culminated in a trip to the Olympic Games in 2000, Brock also earned a degree in finance from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and started a career as a banker.
Brock focused on boxing full time after turning professional and developed into a respectable contender, with legitimate heavyweight power. He recorded victories over Clifford Etienne, Jameel McCline and Timor Imbragimov before getting knocked out by Wladimir Klitschko.
He was forced to retire from boxing after injuring his eye in a split-decision loss to Eddie Chambers.
Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz was among the most exciting boxing stars of the last decade. He was also something of a protege, a 2000 Olympic qualifier but disqualified for being too young. So instead of waiting four years for the next Olympic Games, he turned professional at 16, and before he could legally drink, he had already earned his first world title.
Meanwhile, Diaz remained a dedicated student, eventually graduating from the University of Houston.
Diaz was a popular champion, but he was badly roughed up in a Round 9 TKO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez. He also dropped fights to Nate Campbell and Pauli Malignaggi. He dropped a rematch to Marquez by one-sided unanimous decision.
In 2011, Diaz retired to attend law school at the University of Massachusetts. In a letter he published on Boxingscene.com to announce his retirement, Diaz noted that he had always considered himself a "student first and a boxer second," and that he had always promised his family that he would "retire when the time was right."
Benny Leonard is generally considered among the top few lightweights in boxing history. A product of the immigrant slums of New York's lower east side in the first decade of the last century, the Ghetto Wizard came up the hard way and developed an intelligent and savvy boxing style to survive and thrive.
Leonard debuted as a teenager in 1911. By the early 1920s, he was the recognized king of the lightweight division. In January of 1925 he retired, an unquestioned champion at the top of his powers.
The reason he gave for retiring? Leonard had promised his mother he would do it. The always affable Leonard had always joked that he was “really just a Mama's boy.”
When push came to shove, he made good on it, walking away from the ring to save his mother having to worry about him anymore.
Unfortunately, like many Americans, Leonard lost a large part of his investments in the crash of 1929, and he attempted a brief comeback after years of inactivity.
In 1982, Randall “Tex” Cobb sustained a 15-round beating at the hands of heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. The damage Cobb sustained in the course of that fight was so brutal that it prompted Howard Cosell to declare that he was done with calling prize fights.
But Cobb seemed to come through the storm with no lasting problems. He went on to campaign for another decade. To the end he remained a tough journeyman, capable of putting on a proper fight.
At the same time as his boxing career was chugging along, he was busy establishing himself as a working actor. In a career that has spanned over 30 years, Cobb has appeared in dozens of films and movies, including Raising Arizona and The Golden Child.
Cobb was a hard-headed free thinker. As this list of quotes from Boxrec.com makes clear, Cobb was something like an early 1980s version of Forrest Griffin.
In a sport like basketball, it's pretty much impossible to imagine a female head coach for a male team, even though there are unquestionably females with the knowledge and skills to perform. In my entire time as a sports fan, I don't think I've ever heard a serious discussion about a female becoming a professional coach, or even a major college coach.
Even at the high school level, it's just a Goldie Hawn movie and not real life.
But in professional prize fighting, the most macho sport out there, you've got the case of James Kirkland, the hard-punching junior middleweight contender handled by Ann Wolfe.
And the thing that is unique about boxing is that a woman training a man isn't even viewed as much of a story by serious fans. Wolfe was a world-class professional during her own career and clearly knows the sport. It's been obvious that Kirkland responds well to her and the importance of a good trainer-fighter relationship makes it a no-brainer that he should work with her.
This is a way in which an individual sport like boxing is different than a team sport. A qualified coach like Wolfe just needs to get one athlete to buy into her. In a team sport, a coach would need an entire team of athletes to go along.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
While there are exceptions, boxing is largely a sport for poor kids, and it always has been. And the exceptions are pretty much blue collar and middle class. Boxing is like the army: you don't run into a whole lot of people who grew up with genuine privilege.
But for as long Julio Cesar Chavez can remember, his father has been one of the greatest stars in boxing history. So he grew up in luxury. And on the HBO 24/7 series leading up to his fight with Sergio Martinez, he did sometimes come off more as a rich college kid than a world champion boxer.
Chavez was portrayed sleeping until mid-afternoon, lounging by the pool and skipping his scheduled classes with Professor Freddy Roach. As post-fight drug tests revealed, he was even smoking weed.
In the ring, nobody can question JC Jr.'s heart. When things are really on the line, it's clear Chavez's sense of personal pride and desire to live up to his revered old man are enough to fortify him. But to reach his fullest potential, he might need to leave the spring break lifestyle behind.
The oldest Klitschko brother is approaching the end of a career that has to be regarded as among the most dominant in the history of the heavyweight division. He has already begun a second career, serving in the Ukrainian Parliament.
Unlike Manny Pacquiao's political career, Klitschko's move into public service seems to have developed more organically, and is more consistent with his family background. Klitschko's father was a high ranking officer in the Ukrainian military during the Soviet era.
I don't mean to discredit Pacquiao's amazing achievement when I say that I don't believe he ever could have been elected to the congress without being a superstar boxer. Klitschko, by contrast, seems like he might have ended up holding office either way.
Like any educated Eastern European, Vitali Klitschko speaks somewhere around four or five different languages. An agile giant like Klitschko, with an intellectual mind and a warrior's heart, could have led great armies across the Baltic region in another historical epoch. In today's world, unfortunately, it's a struggle to get his fights on HBO.
A Puerto Rican who grew up in New York City, Jose Torres won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympic Games and as a professional captured the unified light heavyweight championship from Willie Pastrano, in 1965.
Torres is that rare bird that boxing writers love so much: a boxing champion who is also one of our own. Torres was even a boxing tutor and pal to the legendary novelist Norman Mailer. Partly through his association with Mailer, he became a kind of zen boxing guru to an entire club of artist/writer/intellectual types, as described in this great essay by Jeffrey Michelson in The Mailer Review.
Torres began his own career as a writer while still an active fighter, contributing columns to newspapers. He is most noted for his biographies of Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali.
Torres was also an active, engaged citizen and community leader following his boxing career.
Juan Manuel Marquez
At 39, Juan Manuel Marquez remains near the very top of the sport's pound-for-pound rankings. Fans now debate over who deserves to be regarded as the greatest Mexican champion of all time: Julio Cesar Chavez or Marquez.
In so many ways, he seems to perfectly embody the ideal fighter in 2013. He is as gritty and resilient as a fighter could be, not only within single rounds, but also throughout his entire career. He is calculating and explosive, a perfect ring tactician, but able to deploy fireworks in an instant, if the instant requires them.
But outside of the ring, this action fighter for a long time supplemented his fighting income with a job in that most unglamorous of professions: accounting. Of course, being an accountant takes a fairly high level of intelligence, and Marquez has always been known as one of the smartest fighters in the sport.
I suppose if you were going to randomly guess which fighter was an accountant, Marquez might be your pick. But it's still hard to imagine that one of the toughest battlers in the sport once doubled as a number cruncher for the Mexican government.