To the sport I’ve been watching and writing about the last three Saturday nights, I ask this question: Who are you, and what have you done with boxing?
You superficially resemble boxing, with the four-sided rings and the dudes wearing gloves all punching each other and spitting into buckets and whatnot. But where are the two steps back for every step forward? Where is the sound of gunshots as you shoot yourself in the feet taking those backward and forward steps? Where are the horrid scorecards that beget conspiracy theories, the body slams resulting in no-contests, the impassioned press conference trash talk that precedes 12 rounds of passionless mauling?
A theory: If you found someone who had never watched a round of boxing, and you made him watch the recent fights of Andre Ward, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Sergio Martinez, Juan Manuel Marquez, Nonito Donaire, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, and anyone else you think might deserve consideration as one of the best fighters alive, that person would choose Ward as the finest boxer on the planet. Of course, several factors go into pound-for-pound designations — a fighter's body of work, the strength of his opponents, and his status in the sport, among others. Because of this, it seems unlikely that Oakland's Andre Ward will be recognized as no. 1 before Mayweather retires, but based on the eye test alone, it's hard to imagine anyone looking better than Ward.
Why? Quality. I admit this is strange, but after I watched Ward dominate light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson on Saturday night, I started thinking about the philosopher-mechanic Robert M. Pirsig and his discussion of "Quality" in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality, Pirsig says, cannot be defined. "[It] cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct." Basically, you know Quality when you see it, but your attempts to explain it won't quite add up to a full picture of "Quality."
There’s wasn’t much overlap between Willie Pep’s years of lucidity and the age of Google. But it would have warmed the heart of arguably the greatest defensive fighter in boxing history to know that the second suggestion offered when you type his name into the search engine, trailing only “Willie Pep boxer,” is “Willie Pep no punch round.” Long after his career was over, the former featherweight champ still delighted in telling the tale of the night he won a round without throwing a punch. It was probably an urban legend, or at the very least some liberal truth calisthenics. But it was a point of beaming pride for Pep just the same.
It’s a good thing Pep fought in the era in which he did, because had he tried to pull that no-punch stunt in 2012, he would have been booed incessantly by the live crowd for the final two minutes and 30 seconds of the round, yelled at by some officious referee to let his hands go, and vaporized the next day by a cadre of blue-balled boxing bloggers. Here’s the prevailing audience attitude in the modern fight game: If you want to demonstrate your craft and outbox a guy, do it on your own time; the time we share is to be spent with you giving and taking punches for my viewing pleasure.