Many young boxers like myself, or even people who just follow combat sports have their fighting idols.
Vasyl Lomachenko is an inspiration to many, his exploits are motivational because he is so dedicated to his craft, he has become the best around. He has such a grasp on the sport that it looks more like art, a performance.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is another that is looked upon with starry eyes. Whatever you like him or not, it is objectively true that he is a habitual winner.
He has earned some of sport’s biggest pay-days and as co-promoter of his own fights, he had (has?) complete autonomy over his career.
Canelo Alvarez is also a boxing superstar. He is a fan favorite with his dramatic fights and flashy, Instagram-friendly style.
But what about the old boys?
There are many fighters in the deep annals of boxing history that endure as all time greats and yet, many of them are unrecognizable to a lot of people.
Chief among them is Willie Pep. The Connecticut born featherweight had such an elusive and technical style that he laid the groundwork for the likes of Lomachenko with his ghost-like vanishing act.
Pep racked-up an extraordinary record, his boxing brain carried him to 230 wins in 242 bouts. He also had an extensive amateur career, with only two defeats, one of which was to ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson.
Pep turned pro at 17, eventually winning New York recognition as world champion in 1947 and full honors in 1946.
Legend has it that he once won a round without throwing a punch. His footwork, movement and defense was so good that he out-classed his opponent without attacking.
These days, everybody in combat sports wants to be the champ-champ. Fighters have not even stepped out of the ring after winning a title before calling-out the champion in the next division.
Champion versus champion fights are something of a gimmick to sell pay-per-views in 2019.
Nevertheless, winning world championships in multiple weight classes is an incredible feat and Henry Armstrong is perhaps the most decorated multiple weight champions.
Using ferocity, inside fighting and head movement, he toppled world champions at three different weights. In 1938, Armstrong was a world champion at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight, holding all three belts simultaneously for a brief time. He even fought to a draw with the middleweight world champion, Cerefino Garcia.
Armstrong was a great fighter, staying in the pocket; slipping and rolling with his hands down, he would leap in with looping lead hooks. Thrilling to watch.
Although it looked scrappy, his style was imbued with an athletic understanding of movement, a violent grace.
Armstrong’s ability to mix it with any size opponent was a testament to how tough and skilled he was. A true fighter.
Joe Louis was one of the classiest boxers of the early years. Before Mike Tyson in the 80s and Anthony Joshua in the 2010s, Joe Louis was the heavyweight to transcend the sport.
Louis captured the imagination of non-boxing fans. Whether you followed the sport or not, if Louis was fighting, you were talking about it.
Muhammad Ali was a figure of black excellence and African American emancipation in the 70s but before Ali, Louis was that fighter.
When Louis fought Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936, the build-up was rife with rhetoric. The Nazi party used him as a source of propaganda, hailing the dominant fighter as an example of their supposed Aryan superiority.
Joe Louis was fighting for the rights of his people and to delay the spread of fascism. Schmeling was a crafty boxer though and stopped Louis in the 12th round.
Despite the fact that he hated the racist ideology of the Nazis, Schmeling returned to Germany as their hero. Louis went on to take the NBA and NYSAC belts from Jim Braddock but refused to be called “champ” until he beat the man that bested him.
In 1938 Schmeling and Louis collided again and this time, Louis was ready. He knocked Schmeling out, dismantling him within one round.
Armstrong, Louis and Pep are examples of true champions. We can still learn a lot from the classics.