The missing generation of boxers
Why did so many of the fighters that emerged in the early 2000s fail to dislodge Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Wladimir Klitschko and Bernard Hopkins to become all-time greats?
What if an entire generation of boxers went missing? Imagine a world where the sport’s salivating spectators were left buying tickets to see ageing wonders whose first major wins came a decade before. What if nearly every promising pugilist that began their career between 2000 and 2005 faltered and fell off the map before their stardom matured them into venerable veterans capable of carrying the sport onwards.
If you caught 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins’ light heavyweight championship unification bout versus Sergey Kovalev recently in what many experts called the most significant fight of the year, or Manny Pacquiao as he demolished young upstart Chris Algieri, then there is no imagining required.
Every five years marks a roughly hewn stanza that produces a class of pugilistic contemporaries who fight and face the generation before and after, but mature together and forge their legacies. The old must make way for the new. The torch must be passed, seized by force by the hands of the waiting youth. Bathed in blood, scrabbling over the worn bodies of elder champions, the ascending kings of the sport take their place. This intrinsic rule of the ring has been broken and the fallout is just becoming apparent.
Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
Viewing the sport of boxing is like watching the waves come in from the ocean. Each surge of fighters that crashes on the beach does so on the back of those that landed before it, overlapping, overtaking, falling back, rushing ahead. In a sport whose history spans centuries, the cycle is clear to see, repeated again and again. One need look no further than just before the turn of this century to see a prime example.
In the early 1990s a bounty of superstars arose, fighting their way into the spotlight and seizing the sport’s imagination. Big box office boons like “The Golden Boy”, Oscar De La Hoya, who invited rivalries with his contemporaries Shane Mosley and Felix Trinidad. B-sides like Vernon Forrest, Winky Wright and generation-jumping Fernando Vargas eventually intertwined with these heavy hitters to fuel the sport.
Meanwhile, Arturo Gatti would debut among this wave of entertainers and go on to wage a series of wars against unheralded names, creating his own compelling narrative of excitement who fans flocked to the boardwalk of Atlantic City to marvel at. Further down the scale future legends Érik Morales, Juan Manuel Márquez, Manny Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera started a march toward all out war. They darted in and around each other in bout after bout of unparalleled action and suspense, exploding across the sport’s firmament in blood and fury.
This generation of smaller superstars, from De La Hoya on down, filled the void left by Mike Tyson’s theatre of drama and pulled eyes to television screens around the world. As these men made their debuts, garnering early successes, the next onslaught of fighters was ready to arrive. By 2000, future champions such as Nate Campbell, Antonio Tarver, Ricky Hatton, Cory Spinks, Sergio Martinez and Floyd Mayweather had all laced up their professional gloves for the first time and started on their paths to the upper echelons of the sport.
A hallmark of all the fighters who debuted in the two generations spanning the the 1990s has been that they each matured into viable veterans who continued to be notable prize fighters for long careers. Most surpassed 15 years worth of fighting and several remain among the sport’s biggest stars even now.
Around the turn of the century, the next wave began to wash over the sport. A roll call that proffered great potential and optimism stepped into the ring just after the year 2000 and readied themselves to take over. Little more than a decade later, their ranks would be decimated, with few left to stand and represent a lost generation.
The list of broken men who debuted between 2000 and 2005, who were once considered the future of the sport, is long and distinguished. Olympic medalists, flashy prodigies, physical specimens, protected unbeatens and great white hopes. Few are still in the sport in any meaningful way.
Perhaps the poster boy for this misbegotten generation is Jermain Taylor, recently arrested and levelled of charges of shooting a man that could lead to him spending 26 years in jail if convicted. Setting aside these potentially life-altering legal woes, and despite a recent attempt at relaunching his career in which he won a meaningless middleweight belt, Taylor had not been of any relevance since two brutal knockout losses in 2009.
The pride of Arkansas, Taylor took home the bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. After a quick ascendance as a professional, in 2005 he managed to oust the even-then ancient Bernard Hopkins to lift the undisputed middleweight championship, and was seen as the future of the division for years to come. After a smattering of tepid defences and a knockout defeat that lost him the title, Taylor was no longer a building block of boxing’s future, but instead a stepping stone for other fighters to kick around.
Kelly Pavlik, the man who took Taylor’s crown by knockout, was quickly anointed the new face of primetime boxing. A lanky white kid from hard scrabble Youngstown, Ohio, “The Ghost” made his own series of middling defences at middleweight before facing the ubiquitous Bernard Hopkins in a catchweight non-title bout, and lost everything but his belts in defeat. After being thoroughly dominated by Hopkins, Pavlik’s confidence never returned and his recently revealed battle with alcohol has seen him out of the sport since 2012.
Leaving the storied middleweight division for the lighter weights, a bevy of purported future pound-for-pound fodder have faltered too. Juan Manuel López exploded on to the scene, annihilating hard-punching WBO junior lightweight champion Daniel Ponce de León back in a first-round blowout in 2008. He stayed busy and impressive in the next few years and started to breach pound-for-pound lists before veteran Oralando Salido exposed a critically flawed chin that could not stand up to savvy punching in 2011. Lopez went on to get knocked out three more times and calls for him to end his career are louder than ever after his last devastating knockout this autumn.
Jorge Linares, a Venezuelan featherweight who made his bones in Japan before invading the American spotlight with a dazzling technical display against stalwart Oscar Larios in a prime supporting spot on a high profile PPV, suddenly became everyone’s pick for the next big thing. Predictions of pound-for-pound supremacy came as quickly as his precise combination punching and he looked ready to take on a venerated role in the sport. Then, as quickly as arrived, the fantasy was snatched away in a shocking first round knockout loss to Juan Carlos Salgado which was named Ring Magazine’s upset of the year in 2011. A comeback stalled with back to back stoppage losses a few years later, and it’s fair to say that the Linares era never really got traction.
Featherweight Abner Mares seemed to have the right combination of skill, will and personality to become a linchpin performer on the big stage. But in just over a year beginning in 2010, the burgeoning undefeated bantamweight star had a majority draw followed by a split decision, then a majority decision in three close bouts which took some of the bloom off. The entire bouquet wilted in 2013 when Jhonny Gonzales knocked Mares out in one round to take his WBC featherweight belt.
While all of these fighters seemed skilled and exciting enough to become star attractions in the sport, they each had flaws that eventually overtook them. Few would say they failed to perform to their abilities, however. Conversely, there are a few in this underperforming pack of prizefighters from 2000-2005 that could be best described as underachievers.
Even more so than Mares, welterweight Victor Ortiz seemed to have the charisma, power and speed to become a tentpole attraction, but the De La Hoya protégé lacked the will and mental acuity to perform on the sport’s grandest levels. A lapse in judgement set him up to lose via an embarrassing sucker punch surprise against pound-for-pound maven Mayweather in 2011.
Quitting on his stool with a broken jaw against Josesito López in his next bout, Ortiz curried no favour with fans. Since then, Ortiz has spent more time as a celebrity fox-trotter on Dancing with the Stars and as an action star in the latest installment of The Expendables than in the ring. Like many of these fighters, boxing has found Ortiz supremely expendable.
Another of the era’s underachievers came in the form of the likable Rocky Juarez, a former Olympian who seemed to give a good account of himself in every fight, but always lacked the extra something that would get him get over the hump. He faced notable names like Márquez, Barrera twice, Linares and longtime featherweight champion Chris John. He couldn’t scrape out a win against any of them. All promise and no delivery.
Super middleweight titlist Jeff Lacy and welterweight also-ran Andre Berto fancied themselves as Tyson-esque punchers. Having been fed a steady diet of premium cable cannon fodder they managed to look the part in spots. Both ultimately faltered when true tests presented themselves.
There have been tragic cases like welterweight and junior middleweight belt holder Paul Williams, a 6ft 1in giant with the wingspan of a condor who graced pound-for pound-lists for a time before suffering a knockout-of-the-year loss. His ring time was ultimately cut short by a motorcycle accident that left him in a wheelchair, unable to walk.
There is the even more tragic story of lightweight titlist Edwin Valero, who emerged from the gloomy haze of internet folklore in grainy footage from overseas, an undefeated knockout king whose bouts only ended via knockout but whose demons spilled tragically outside the ring when he killed his wife and then himself while in custody. His final record stands at 27 victories and no losses, 27 knockouts.
These tragedies were oppositely reflected in the triumphs of flawed fighters who exceeded their potential. Paulie Malignaggi and Juan “The Baby Bull” Diaz each captured glory with their skills, all while lacking the power to keep pace with other professionals. Their failures weren’t for a lack of will or talent, but they could simply never be the complete fighters they deserved to be with such feather fists.
Then there was the heavyweight division. The sporting world has been waiting for a dynamic heavyweight champion to emerge for well over a decade. Chris Arreola, Eddie Chambers, Calvin Brock and David Haye all seemed like promising pugilists who could make a run at unseating dominant but dull champion Wladimir Klitschko. The latter three all took their shots and failed miserably. Arreola was spared that embarrassment, but was granted the same fate by older brother Vitali, who left Arreola weeping in the ring, feeling like he had let his fans down in a one-sided affair.
This long list of names comprises the vast majority of notable boxers who got their start between 2000 and 2005. What once seemed inevitable, their hefting of the sport upon their backs, has become impossible. Not one of them is in a position to carry the boxing torch onwards.
Has this generation of prizefighters lost its legitimacy entirely? Is it nothing more than a footnote in the history books? No, there is one who will be remembered as true great of the ring.
One man, who began his career in 2001, has unequivocally stamped himself as a great fighter and assured his place as a future hall-of-famer. He’s still a bona fide box office star and has added prestige few would have predicted late in his career. But before we talk of such things, there are four other notables from that 2000-2005 era who may still manage a small share of boxing immortality.
The least of these prospects is Chad Dawson, former lineal light heavyweight champion. He managed to grace pound-for-pound lists for a time and had solid victories over Thomas Adamek, Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, facing each of the last two twice. An aesthetically unappealing victory over Bernard Hopkins rounds out the positive aspects of Dawson’s now seemingly stalled career.
Never a fighter who elicited much passion for his performances, the most damaging blow against Dawson’s memory may be that when he stepped in against his talented contemporaries, Jean Pascal and Adonis Stevenson, he lost his belts.
Tim Bradley, another fighter painted with the “passionless” brush started in 2004 and has had great success, overcoming adversity and remaining unbeaten until earlier this year. Building a solid record over tough competition took him far, but a gift decision against PPV pound-for-pounder Pacquiao saw the hardworking but staid Bradley launched to stardom.
A balls-to-the-wall barnburner in his next bout against stone-fisted bomber Ruslan Provodnikov followed with a decision victory over technical maestro Juan Manual Márquez and a respectable loss in the Pacquiao rematch have quelled the unjustified fan backlash. His best chance of etching his name more firmly in the boxing history books seems to be patience and persistence. Time will tell if he has further heights to reach.
A fighter who has earned his reputation as a fan-friendly champion and who has already carved out, at the very least, a kind of second tier niche of greatness is one Carl Froch of Nottingham, England.
Facing all comers, his list of opponents has been second to none over the course of the last six years. Froch has challenged himself against the best fighters in the super middleweight division without a blemish on his record. His hard-nosed, action-packed style has seen him end many a high profile contest by knockout, and his supremely confident persona makes him an interesting figure in and out of the ring.
This dynamic combination of personality and prizefighting culminated earlier in 2014 before 80,000 raucous fans at Wembley stadium in London, as Froch delivered a satisfying knockout to would-be rival and countryman George Groves. With all his accomplishments, though, Froch has suffered from never quite being his division’s best fighter. First ballot hall of fame entrant Joe Calzaghe, longtime super middleweight champion, ended his career in 2008 undefeated, just as Froch was proving himself a worthy challenger. He has since tried to drag the Welshman out of retirement, to no avail.
When Froch was pitted against the division’s more recent best he lost a clear decision to Andre Ward. The goodwill Froch has received for his warrior demeanor has more than made up for this one clear loss he has suffered, though.
Ward turned professional in 2004 after winning gold at that summer’s Olympics. After a slow and criticised start to his career, he has established himself with comprehensive victories over Froch and Mikkel Kessler, becoming the super middleweight division’s clear best. Seen by most of the sport’s spectators as one of the most talented fighters in any division, Ward’s career has been plagued by promotional issues, which have kept him out of the ring, failing to capitalise on the momentum of his biggest wins.
Time will tell whether Ward will waste the prime of his career or whether he will be able to display the prodigious talent that marks him as a potential great. Even if he pulled his career out of its precipitous stall, though, Ward’s gritty, grinding style will probably preclude him from superstardom.
Of all the men mentioned above, most of whom have faded away, and some of whom have distinguished themselves in some way, the generation born between 2000 and 2005 has produced just one superstar. Just one fighter has faced the best, challenged himself and proven to be a true warrior in the ring.
He has been rewarded by becoming a big time attraction and will surely be remembered not as an all-timer, perhaps, but as someone who gave all of themselves to the ring.
Miguel Cotto is the one man who has inarguably stamped his passage to the Boxing Hall of Fame. Having begun his career as a 140-pound Puerto Rican prospect, over the course of his career Cotto has excelled where all of his contemporaries have failed – by putting in honest fight after honest fight. He didn’t win them all, but he always came to fight.
Of his contemporaries, it’s Carl Froch who most closely shares this spirit. And it’s no surprise that the boxing public at large forgives both men their losses. Cotto captured titles at 140, 147 and 154 pounds by fighting the best available competition. He then inexplicably rose once more to face the undisputed middleweight champion Sergio Martinez this past summer and knocked out the ageing pound-for-pounder in a one-sided mauling.
Notable victories throughout his career and his willingness to step into the ring with Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have put him in a category of his own among his contemporaries. The one great figure of a lost generation.
As human nature dictates, it is not enough to notice the existence of something. One is propelled to ask why. Why did this generation fail to produce heirs to the boxing throne who were capable of overtaking their predecessors and lead the sport?
Most of the current pound-for-pound stars are pushing 20 years or more as professional fighters. Mayweather and Wladimir Klitschko started in 1996, Pacquiao in 1995, Márquez in 1993 and Hopkins 1988.
Are these old fighters so great that their younger challengers could not unseat them? You could argue that they would fair well in any era. They are truly gifted fighters. But has their greatness been heightened by the lack of worthy challengers born in the years after they debuted? What are the factors led to a lack of talent?
All of the older fighters still competing at a world class level have old school trainers that instilled discipline in them. Mayweather had his father and uncle to guide him, Klitschko had Kronk Gym founder Manny Steward, Pacquiao’s dynamic potential was only reached when he connected with Freddie Roach, Márquez is the standout creation of Nacho Beristein’s and Bernard Hopkins came of age under tough Philly trainer Bouie Fischer and his disciple Nazim Richardson.
All of these trainers represent a lineage of expert guidance that today’s fighters have no opportunity to reap the spoils of. Today a slew of boxers-turned-trainers dominate the sport’s coaching and apprenticeship in the training ranks seems less and less a prerequisite for getting your cornerman credentials.
The glorified days of boxings allure has waned. The opportunity to make more money in popular sports such as football and basketball is an oft-cited reason the for the lack of American heavyweight prospects. How many gridiron giants are getting concussions bouncing their heads off shoulder pads and green grass instead of leather gloves and canvas mats?
Another contributing factor to the lack of greatness in the first five years of the century was the dynamic crew of Cubans still waiting to turn professional, stuck participating for their country as amateurs well into adulthood. If fighters like the supremely talented Guillermo Rigondeaux, flawed but big punching Yuriorkis Gamboa and slick Erislandy Lara had entered the pros in their natural era between 2000 and 2005, their careers and stardom may have blossomed in ways their abbreviated stints thus far have only hinted at.
Perhaps they would have been foils to other talents, or perhaps would have dominated for years. One thing is for certain, more talent in the ranks would only have improved the sport.
Another contributing factor to this generation falling away and leaving the sport to trudge forwards without them was the increased importance of staying unbeaten for as long as possible. This strategy creates a false sense of accomplishment and an unrealistic view of fighters’ true talent, leading to overconfidence and a lack of testing that would allow them to navigate the tough spots many of the fighters of that generation found themselves in and ultimately could not conquer.
Happily that viewpoint has found some balance in fighters of the following generation, who began their careers between 2005 and 2010. Canelo Alvarez has shown his willingness to take on real challenges in his still young career, facing Mayweather, Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara in the last two years. All of these bouts were tough assignments and as Mexico’s current cash cow he didn’t have to take them.
He could fight a bum of the month club and make millions, but Alvarez seems to want to prove he is the best and is looking for real challenges. Young champions such as Danny Garcia, belt holders such as Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, and promising talents such as Kell Brook, Shawn Porter and Vasyl Lomachenko are good examples of prize fighters who do not seem precious about an undefeated status. One hopes other young fighters arriving on the scene will follow suit as these men fight and sometimes lose, but continue to get opportunities because they are willing to risk it all.
All of this may shed some light on why and how an era of boxers stumbled when reaching for the torch. It may explain why fighters that should have been put out to pasture long ago continue to amaze us with their longevity and brilliance.
But as dynamic figures such as Pacquiao, Mayweather and Hopkins begin to fade away and new superstars come of age and replace them, it’s wise to remember that one generation of boxers vanished beneath the waves, drowned in the ocean of a sport whose tide is always crashing.
Mankind’s oldest competition, unarmed combat, seems to always find brave men to challenge themselves against one another. Wave upon wave of unmarred warriors prepare to land on the beaches, crashing forth to overtake the receding high water mark of the past. Boxing doesn’t wait for you to swim. It doesn’t send out a search party for a generation gone missing. It marches on. It merely replaces you.
Boxing immortality is won only in the ring, where it’s hard to hide from the truth. Miguel Cotto joins the truth seekers who have stepped between the ropes for generations. Other such seekers are coming. Some will falter. Some will succeed. The rest of us will watch and judge and cheer for the best of them.
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