The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

 

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Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Two: Getting Acquainted with the Late George Kimball (Revisited)

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Every so often there is a confluence of events that, if you’re lucky or perceptive enough, leads to a revelation. Other times there are just the happy accidents that function like electrical storms, intense and unforeseen. Back in December I saw a story on Deadspin, a site I do not frequent, about a man called George Kimball. If I had not checked that site, it’s possible I never would have seen the piece, (an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Belth, entitled “The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.” It’s highly recommended and can be read here.)

Kimball passed away (another casualty of cancer) last December. Google him and you’ll quickly see that everyone adored this dude. So much that it makes you think: “How could I not have been familiar with him, and what the hell is wrong with me?” That moment passes and is outweighed by the gratitude you feel for finding him, finally. Here’s a representative sample from fellow Boston scribe Bob Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Beantown, sports and writing:

But the reason why so many of us will miss George Kimball is, shall we say, his off-the-field self. If one were to conduct a poll of local writers, broadcasters, team officials and even players who have worked in Boston during the last 35 years or so, the question being, “Who is the most absolutely memorable personality you have encountered in the writing business?” the runaway winner — perhaps even the unanimous choice — would have to be George Kimball.

That is, unless you know of some other bearded, one-eyed, chain-smoking, beer drinking, pot-bellied (I say this lovingly) vegetarian writer friend of Hunter S. Thompson who never saw a party he didn’t like. (more here.)

The more you read about him the more you ask yourself: How in the fuck was this guy not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week? And then you remember, it’s ESPN, and the reasons are self-evident. (In case you think I’m being too oblique let me put it this way: the reason a man like Kimball was not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week is the same reason a man like Mike Lupica is on every week.)

I was, obviously, sad to think that we were robbed of another few decades, or even days, of this man’s writing, but the pain was significantly mitigated when I discovered he had written an in-depth study of an era many consider the pinnacle of the sweet science: the ’80s and the ceaseless rivalry that existed between Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, a rivalry that produced some of the best fights in boxing history. That book is called Four Kings.

I have read the book, and not since I enjoyed the fascinating story of Percy Fawcett’s life (in the enthusiastically recommended instant-classic, The Lost City of Z: read my review here) as well as the indescribably awesome Hellraisers (the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers, the full title of which is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My giddy celebration of that tome can be found here) have I known, while reading, that I not only would write about the book, but quote extensively from it. An entire post, coming soon, will be dedicated to some of the funniest, most enlightening and unbelievable sentences I encountered. And that should only be a taste, a teaser of the goodies that await you when you get hold of it and see for yourself why this guy (Kimball) and these guys (the boxers) are so universally beloved.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

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It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Two: Getting Acquainted with the Late George Kimball (Revisited)

Every so often there is a confluence of events that, if you’re lucky or perceptive enough, leads to a revelation. Other times there are just the happy accidents that function like electrical storms, intense and unforeseen. Back in December I saw a story on Deadspin, a site I do not frequent, about a man called George Kimball. If I had not checked that site, it’s possible I never would have seen the piece, (an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Belth, entitled “The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.” It’s highly recommended and can be read here.)

Kimball passed away (another casualty of cancer) last December. Google him and you’ll quickly see that everyone adored this dude. So much that it makes you think: “How could I not have been familiar with him, and what the hell is wrong with me?” That moment passes and is outweighed by the gratitude you feel for finding him, finally. Here’s a representative sample from fellow Boston scribe Bob Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Beantown, sports and writing:

But the reason why so many of us will miss George Kimball is, shall we say, his off-the-field self. If one were to conduct a poll of local writers, broadcasters, team officials and even players who have worked in Boston during the last 35 years or so, the question being, “Who is the most absolutely memorable personality you have encountered in the writing business?” the runaway winner — perhaps even the unanimous choice — would have to be George Kimball.

That is, unless you know of some other bearded, one-eyed, chain-smoking, beer drinking, pot-bellied (I say this lovingly) vegetarian writer friend of Hunter S. Thompson who never saw a party he didn’t like. (more here.)

The more you read about him the more you ask yourself: How in the fuck was this guy not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week? And then you remember, it’s ESPN, and the reasons are self-evident. (In case you think I’m being too oblique let me put it this way: the reason a man like Kimball was not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week is the same reason a man like Mike Lupica is on every week.)

I was, obviously, sad to think that we were robbed of another few decades, or even days, of this man’s writing, but the pain was significantly mitigated when I discovered he had written an in-depth study of an era many consider the pinnacle of the sweet science: the ’80s and the ceaseless rivalry that existed between Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, a rivalry that produced some of the best fights in boxing history. That book is called Four Kings.

I have read the book, and not since I enjoyed the fascinating story of Percy Fawcett’s life (in the enthusiastically recommended instant-classic, The Lost City of Z: read my review here) as well as the indescribably awesome Hellraisers (the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers, the full title of which is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My giddy celebration of that tome can be found here) have I known, while reading, that I not only would write about the book, but quote extensively from it. An entire post, coming soon, will be dedicated to some of the funniest, most enlightening and unbelievable sentences I encountered. And that should only be a taste, a teaser of the goodies that await you when you get hold of it and see for yourself why this guy (Kimball) and these guys (the boxers) are so universally beloved.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings

Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Two: Getting Acquainted with the Late George Kimball

Every so often there is a confluence of events that, if you’re lucky or perceptive enough, leads to a revelation. Other times there are just the happy accidents that function like electrical storms, intense and unforeseen. Back in December I saw a story on Deadspin, a site I do not frequent, about a man called George Kimball. If I had not checked that site, it’s possible I never would have seen the piece, (an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Belth, entitled “The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.” It’s highly recommended and can be read here.)

Kimball passed away (another casualty of cancer) last December. Google him and you’ll quickly see that everyone adored this dude. So much that it makes you think: “How could I not have been familiar with him, and what the hell is wrong with me?” That moment passes and is outweighed by the gratitude you feel for finding him, finally. Here’s a representative sample from fellow Boston scribe Bob Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Beantown, sports and writing:

But the reason why so many of us will miss George Kimball is, shall we say, his off-the-field self. If one were to conduct a poll of local writers, broadcasters, team officials and even players who have worked in Boston during the last 35 years or so, the question being, “Who is the most absolutely memorable personality you have encountered in the writing business?” the runaway winner — perhaps even the unanimous choice — would have to be George Kimball.

That is, unless you know of some other bearded, one-eyed, chain-smoking, beer drinking, pot-bellied (I say this lovingly) vegetarian writer friend of Hunter S. Thompson who never saw a party he didn’t like. (more here.)

The more you read about him the more you ask yourself: How in the fuck was this guy not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week? And then you remember, it’s ESPN, and the reasons are self-evident. (In case you think I’m being too oblique let me put it this way: the reason a man like Kimball was not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week is the same reason a man like Mike Lupica is on every week.)

I was, obviously, sad to think that we were robbed of another few decades, or even days, of this man’s writing, but the pain was significantly mitigated when I discovered he had written an in-depth study of an era many consider the pinnacle of the sweet science: the ’80s and the ceaseless rivalry that existed between Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, a rivalry that produced some of the best fights in boxing history. That book is called Four Kings.

I have read the book, and not since I enjoyed the fascinating story of Percy Fawcett’s life (in the enthusiastically recommended instant-classic, The Lost City of Z: read my review here) as well as the indescribably awesome Hellraisers (the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers, the full title of which is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My giddy celebration of that tome can be found here) have I known, while reading, that I not only would write about the book, but quote extensively from it. An entire post, coming soon, will be dedicated to some of the funniest, most enlightening and unbelievable sentences I encountered. And that should only be a taste, a teaser of the goodies that await you when you get hold of it and see for yourself why this guy (Kimball) and these guys (the boxers) are so universally beloved.

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