Monday, October 17, 2016

Long-reigning lefties

The legacies of recent long-reigning lefties

Although only 8-15 percent of the adult population is left handed, four of the last five US presidents were southpaws, a piece of political trivia lost amidst the pre-election mudslinging. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama signed legislation, declarations of war, and congressional vetoes from a starboard-centric position; George W. Bush was the only president since 1980 to commandeer the nation favoring his port side. Regardless of who wins the presidential election on November 8, the United States will take a turn to the right again since neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are lefties.

Of the four above-mentioned left handed presidents, three of them - Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama - were two-term Oval Office holders. 

The sport of boxing has also seen lefties conquer and rule for extended stretches. Some were more charismatic than controversial while vice versa was the case for others. Some ruled with ruthless heavy handedness, some with slick maneuvering and others with a combination of both. But all blazed notable trails of their own in the sport, although some were more conspicuous than others.

Here are some recent long-reigning lefties and the legacies they left behind in the sport:

Pugilist and politico

Manny Pacquiao’s world title reign has already spanned the terms of three US presidents. He won his first world title as a flyweight in 1998 while Bill Clinton was still in office and held titles at various divisions during the Bush and Obama administrations. Having dethroned Jessie Vargas for the WBO welterweight belt three days before the general election, Pacquiao's streak will most likely extend into the term of the next US president.

Pacquiao’s full body of work has yet to be written since he is still competing at the highest level of the sport. But he will undoubtedly stand out not just for conquering multiple weight divisions per se, but the almost superhuman way in which he did it.

While a boxer’s physical attributes typically diminish or, at best,  remain the same as he bulks up in weight to fight naturally bigger men, the Filipino phenom is an exceptional anomaly to the rule. Pacquiao (58-6-2, 38 KOs), not only carried but enhanced his power, speed and punch resistance as he moved up, dropping and stopping top-notch opponents who had never or rarely been stopped. His punching power and chin seemed to hit the ceiling at 140 pounds, but nevertheless, his ability to deliver and absorb punishment against much larger-framed foes is remarkable and virtually unprecedented, considering he began his career as a puny, malnourished 106-pounder.

Pacquiao’s rags-to-riches narrative also transcends the pugilistic arena into the political sphere. He was able to parlay his immense popularity as a boxer to get elected as a congressman and senator in the Philippines. Given the Filipino electorate's preference of celebrity over substance in choosing its leaders, it might not be that inconceivable that President Pacquiao will be negotiating treaties from Malacanang Palace (the Philippines’ equivalent of the White House) with Clinton, Trump or their successors in the near or distant future.

Torpedo-proof chin

Marvin Hagler‘s reign as undisputed middleweight champion was uninterrupted and confined to a single weight division. An uncompromisingly ferocious boxer-puncher, Hagler (62-3-2, 52 KOs) unified and ruled the division from 1980 to 1987. He defended the championship 12 times, taking on a star-studded list of challengers including fellow legends Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, who eventually dethroned him. Like Pacquiao, Hagler was naturally right-handed but fought from a southpaw stance.

Three decades after his retirement, Hagler’s jawbone remains the gold standard for the proverbial cast iron chin. During his reign, Hagler almost unflinchingly withstood direct nuclear-powered hits delivered with full torque and leverage from bona fide knockout artists the likes of Hearns and John Mugabi.   

Torpedo-proof chin aside, Hagler's legacy also stems from being amongst a tiny minority of champions to know when it was time to walk away from the sport, move on and never look back to second guess what he had accomplished. His nemeses Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Mugabi all lingered on way past their primes only to suffer physically debilitating and sometimes humiliating defeats against younger, stronger opponents while attempting to defy father time and reclaim past glory. Hagler didn't make that same mistake. (Michael Spinks also comes to mind).

Defensive Genius

Pernell Whitaker held world titles from 130-154 pounds between 1989 and 1997. His longevity was due largely in part to his legendary defensive wizardry. It was like fighting a ghost; Whitaker (40-4-1, 17 KOs) could move half an inch to make his opponents miss by half a mile while remaining tantalizingly and tauntingly within the pocket. With cat-like reflexes, he would deftly dip, duck, turn and spin away from incoming blows, never having to maneuver out of punching range.

In the history of the sport, only a handful of other fighters had that almost supernatural prowess to read body language and know their opponents’ next move before they did. Willy Pep, Wilfred Benitez and Floyd Mayweather Jr. also had that ability but among this very exclusive club of defensive geniuses, Whitaker was the only southpaw.

Whitaker’s longevity and success is also exceptional for a negative reason. While drink and drugs have long been the demise of many a potentially great fighter, Whitaker reached his full potential and then some in spite of his well-documented appetite for both. (Johnny Tapia also comes to mind) The argument could be made that Whitaker might have been an even greater fighter had he led a cleaner lifestyle but his superb Hall-of-Fame credentials would be hard to top by any measure or any one.

Greatest underachiever

Hector Camacho held world titles at 130, 135 and 140 pounds between 1983 and 1991. Above 140, he also did battle against legends the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Roberto Duran and Felix Trinidad.

That said, Camacho (79-6-3, 38 KOs) might go down as the most underachieving fighter in the history of the sport. Given his immense natural talent, his career should have been much more spectacular than what it was.

Camacho was blessed with brilliant ring IQ, blazing hand and foot speed, a granite chin and, although his under-50 percent knockout rate doesn’t reflect it, when he elected to sit down on his punches, he could rock your world. Outside the ropes, Camacho was outlandish, charismatic, controversial and downright entertaining. A promoter’s dream, he sold himself without even trying.

But as his arrest record suggests, Camacho wore his heart on his sleeve and lived his life on the edge. His run-ins with the law typically involved drugs and reckless, impulsive acts committed in the heat of the moment, a tell-tale sign that his mind was not always on his next fight and his body not always at the gym. He underperformed against less skilled opponents, doing enough to win, but when matched against elite fighters, he struggled and was usually dominated.

The cruel irony is, while Camacho failed to live up to his full potential in life, having to settle for a supporting role in the biggest fights of his career, he also played second fiddle in the circumstances leading to his death. A womanizer, gambler and thrill seeker that craved the center of attention, he was one of those love-him-or-hate-him figures who, at any given moment of his adult life was always at risk of being whacked by any number of jealous husbands, bookies, gang bangers or average Joes he had beaten up outside a titty bar. But when Camacho was gunned down in 2012, evidence suggests he was an inconsequential, unintended victim. The drug dealer (who was also killed) he was hanging out with appeared to be the principal target. The “Macho Man” was merely collateral damage.

Hard punch but soft chin

Humberto 'Chiquita' Gonzalez (43-3, 30 KOs) won, lost, regained and partially unified the junior flyweight title between 1989 and 1995. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of fame in 2006. Like Hagler, Gonzalez often switched to orthodox mid-fight but fought predominantly as a southpaw.

Like Hearns and Tommy Morrison, Gonzalez was one of those guys whose punch resistance was inversely proportional to his punching power. In other words, he hit hard but his chin was soft, a combination that often made for suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat fights. Gonzalez's stoppage losses to Michael Carbajal and Saman Sorjaturong won the Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year honors in 1993 and 1995 respectively.

Gonzalez and Carbajal became the first 108-pounders to garner million-dollar purses in their explosive first encounter in 1993, paving the way for other little men to earn big paydays in the sport.
Fighting behind enemy lines

Mark Johnson (44-5, 28 KOs) reigned as a flyweight world titlist from 1996 to 1998 and held versions of the super flyweight title on two separate occasions from 1999 to 2004. Johnson’s legacy stems not only from becoming the first black fighter to win a flyweight title but more significantly, how he got there.

As a diminutive African-American boxer, Johnson faced an uphill battle from the outset in gaining recognition in the 112-pound division where fighters and their fans are overwhelmingly Latino. But he defied the odds and gained notoriety by fighting behind enemy lines at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, the city with the third largest population of Mexican nationals behind Mexico City and Guadalajara. A skillfully slick southpaw, Johnson went 12-0 at The Forum in front of an audience that favored brute machismo over brilliant mechanics. Ethnocentric fans bought tickets to his fights at The Forum hoping to see him lose, but he never did.

The Thai Tyson

Khaosai Galaxy (47-1, 41 KOs) reigned as a 115-pound world titlist from 1984-1991, making 19 defenses of his belt. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999 and was ranked the 19th in Ring Magazine’s Top 100 Punchers of All Time issue published in 2003.

Nicknamed the 'Thai Tyson' because of his concussive power, Galaxy was one of very few fighters to have never lost his title in the ring and retire as champion. (Floyd Mayweather Jr. was the most recent boxer to do so) Khaosai, alongside his brother Khaokor, also became the first twins to hold world titles concurrently, a distinction that was only recently matched by Jermall and Jermell Charlo.

Despite his lofty accomplishments Galaxy remains largely unknown outside his native Thailand and die-hard circles of boxing aficionados. Imagine how much greater his legacy would've been had he fought in the post-globalization era of multi-media marketing/management that Pacquiao enjoyed.

Like Hagler, Galaxy, without much fanfare, reinvented himself from an A-plus fighter to a B-minus movie star in his retirement, never acting upon any urge to make a comeback.

The anti-Camacho

Winky Wright (51-6-1, 25 KOs) won and unified various versions of the junior middleweight title between 2001 and 2005.

The antithesis of Hector Camacho, Wright might go down in history as one of the most under-recognized and underappreciated exponents of the sport. Gifted with superb ring generalship, he took on some of the best boxers of his era. He defeated Shane Moseley (twice) and Trinidad, fought Jermaine Taylor to a draw and pretty much held his own in a loss to Bernard Hopkins. But Wright never came close to attaining the superstardom or earning power of his higher-profile adversaries.

Despite his immaculate skills, Wright didn't pack much punching power and his style was drearily academic and fan-unfriendly. Outside the ropes, his on-camera persona was rather pedestrian to say the least.

The latecomer and late bloomer

Sergio Martinez (51-3-2, 28 KOs) ruled as middleweight champion between 2010 and 2014 toppling the best and biggest names of the division.

His reign stands out because he defied improbable odds on two fronts; he conquered and ruled a division 7-13 pounds above his natural fighting weight, and more importantly, he was a latecomer and late bloomer who crafted his skills on the job to attain top-10 pound-for-pound status. Lacing on gloves for the first time at the overripe old age of 20, Martinez somehow managed to turn a start in bicycling and soccer into a borderline Hall-of-Fame boxing career.

Ironically, Martinez was eventually dethroned by Miguel Cotto, a fellow bulked-up welterweight, not one of the bigger full-fledged middleweights he was reputed to overcome in his prime.

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