Ruined: When one fight implodes a career – part one
Former world champion Jeff Lacy was knocked out in four rounds on Jan. 30 and the probable end of his career did not even make the televised portion of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” Once a promising former US Olympian, Lacy looked to have the boxing world at his feet for a short time in the early 2000s. So what turns a seemingly unbeatable champion into yesterday’s news or a good name on a prospect’s resume overnight? In Lacy’s case, it was an extended and frustrating beating by slick boxing Welsh Hall-of-Famer Joe Calzaghe. Boxing is a cruel master that turns today’s pound for pound champ into tomorrow’s sad comeback attempt. In exploring the “ruined by one fight” phenomenon, you will find multiple reasons for the falls from grace. Some reasons were mental while others were never the same after an insanely grueling fight. Most retained their physical skills after the fateful bout but the performance level – or willingness to employ said skills – dissipated.
I chose 10 boxers whose stars shone brightly as champions – and, in two cases, contender status – but whose decline in form can be traced to one fight (some right down to a single punch) in which something went horribly wrong. Losing, or the manner in which they lost, was not always the cause for a downturn. In fact, four of the 10 boxers selected won (or should have won the decision) their calamitous bout. Yet, the damage incurred in the win was too much to overcome. I limited my search to the last 35 years, so no fight before 1980 (Alfonso Zamora vs. Carlos Zarate and Duane Bobick vs. Ken Norton come to mind immediately) was considered.
Case study No. 1: Davey Moore (vs. Roberto Duran)
Things got off to a horrible start for Moore when a Duran jab missed its mark (or did it?) in round one and Duran’s thumb landed squarely in the eye of Moore. The eye began to swell and close almost immediately. It was an opening on which Duran capitalized with fervor, throwing combinations from every angle. By the beginning of the third round, Moore’s left eye was completely closed. In the fourth, Moore was noticeably flinching as Duran’s body shots impacted with sickening accuracy. The agony showed on Moore’s face and by the seventh round, even hardcore New York City fight fans were asking for a stoppage. It was a surprise, to most, when Moore was allowed to come out for round eight. Moore, too proud to quit, walked into power shot after power shot. Press row shouted for the bloodbath to be stopped and at ringside, Moore’s mother fainted. Finally, Davey’s corner threw in a towel to end the torture. Duran was born again as a force and Moore was virtually finished. Moore never really recovered, going 6-4 and losing every time he stepped up his level of competition (a fortunate win in which Wilfred Benitez broke his ankle after a knockdown was the notable exception). Eventually, Moore was reduced to fighting on local cards and met a tragic death in a freak auto accident at age 28.
Davey Moore’s fall is simple to dissect in retrospect; his was a classic tale of too much too soon. After only nine fights, Davey Moore was a beltholder. The problem came when Moore was faced with adversity for the first time against a fighter who had more title fights than Moore had total bouts. Entering the Duran bout, Moore, whose mix of athletic ability and vast NYC amateur boxing pedigree allowed him to beat very good opposition, was 12-0 (9). Ability is a double-edged sword; it also prevented Moore from being tested against lesser boxers who were not as adept on capitalizing on openings. Moore’s lack of experience (an inept corner did not help) left Moore unable to defend himself against a legendary fighter when adversity hit him in the form of a thumb.
Case study No. 2: John Tate (vs. Mike Weaver)
Forty five seconds and a hellacious left hook are what separated John Tate from potential greatness. How could one left hook erase all the physical gifts and finely honed talent within Tate? The irony of the Mike Weaver fight is that Tate, 20-0 (15), was showing everyone how good he was. Tate was dominating the fight, hitting Weaver with any punch he chose (most notably a jab/right-hand combo Wladimir Klitschko would be proud of) in front of Tate’s hometown fans. But in the 12th round, Tate was wobbled by a hook, a sign ignored. In the 15th round, Weaver connected with a perfect left hook that melted an unconscious Tate face-first into the canvas. There, Tate lay motionless, seemingly forever. And it’s where Tate’s career remained. After the loss to Weaver, Tate came back against future champ Trevor Berbick, who knocked him out in the ninth round. Did Tate, who withstood Gerrie Coetzee’s bionic hand, become chinny in one night? Over the next seven years, Tate won 14 fights (a proposed Larry Holmes fight fell through) but they were against soft opposition. Even in those wins, Tate looked shot enough to be denied a fight against a boxer of any substance. That said, even substances were a problem as Tate fell into a life of alcohol and cocaine addiction, later dying in a truck accident at age 43.
Tate never showed chin problems beating the capable Coetzee (on Coetzee’s home turf in front of 80,000 people) one fight earlier, to win the WBA heavyweight title, and he was good enough to win the silver medal at the 1976 Olympics. In 1980, nearly everyone thought Tate, a 6’5, 230 pound hulk, was the future of the heavyweight division. The Weaver punch was one for the ages but did it drive all the skill and ambition from Tate? Maybe Tate had a glass jaw all along. Perhaps the punch was so psychologically damaging, Tate became reluctant to take the chances his physical skills allowed him to employ before the knockout. In the end, one has to surmise a combination of drugs and negative mental mindset, both in boxing and life, kept Tate down until his death.
Case study No. 3: Jeff Fenech (vs. Azumah Nelson I)
Nearly everyone who saw this fight says Jeff Fenech won nine out of 12 rounds from a backpedaling Azumah Nelson. Fenech consistently forced Nelson to cover up along the ropes with his aggressive attacks and only the first two rounds, in which Fenech had not found the range yet, could be given to Nelson. After hearing the judge’s verdict, Fenech, holding his son, cried. After watching a video replay, Fenech said what everyone thought, “What more could they want me to do?” Fenech got a rematch with Nelson a year later but was knocked out in the eighth round. More confusing than the result was the way Fenech acted and fought. Fenech looked like a totally different fighter. Gone was the ferocity that marked his ascent; now his chin seemed vulnerable (something not exhibited before) and it hastened Fenech’s exit from the pound-for-pound polls. After the Nelson draw, Fenech was knocked out in three of six fights, nearly unthinkable for such a world-class boxer. In subsequent steps up in competition, Calvin Grove and Philip Holiday, who are not known for their power, starched Fenech.
This is one of those rare cases in which the fighter who won a fight (forget what the judges scored) was the worse for wear. Not only did those judges rob Fenech of a deserved victory, more heinously, they took Fenech’s (25-0, going for his fourth weight division title) will to fight. The passion with which Fenech fought and that made him great was gone after the first Nelson fight. At age 27, Fenech was far from old, so subsequent losses must be attributed to mental fatigue. Anyone who doubts a man can mentally push himself to victory has not seen a before (the first bout with Nelson) and after (the first fight with Nelson) tape of Jeff Fenech.
Case Study No. 4: Oba Carr (vs. Livingstone Bramble)
This may be the only case in the history of boxing in which boxing fans are directly responsible for the downfall of a contender. A horrible managerial decision led Oba Carr to fight a tough former champion before he was ready. Carr was not matched against Livingstone Bramble by a promoter, manager or his own self confidence. Instead, a phone-in poll held by the USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights” program selected Carr’s opponent. Naturally, the eager and educated viewers wanted the most competitive fight, so they chose former champ Livingstone Bramble as Carr’s next opponent. By the time the bell sounded an end to the first round, Carr had been knocked down twice and sported a shell-shocked look on his face. Carr should be commended for finishing the round and doing exceedingly well to fight his way back from the disastrous first round to score a split decision “win.” A victory made possible by a late-rounds rally but nevertheless a win few outside Carr’s native Detroit agreed with. Most magazines and fans had Bramble winning by three points or more.
Carr went on to lose world title shots against the welterweight triumvirate of Felix Trinidad, Ike Quartey and Oscar De La Hoya. However, Carr never looked comfortable when put in the ring with a puncher after the Bramble experience. Maybe Carr was pushed too fast or, just as importantly, too often, as he streaked out of the gate to a 21-0 record in less than two years as a pro. Theres no refuting Carr’s skills but he lacked the blazing speed to be the phenom his team suggested he was. Also, I believe doubt crept into Carr’s young mind after the Bramble affair. Doubt, combined with an unrelenting schedule, ate away at Carr’s mental and physical psyche from both ends.
Case study No. 5: Gabe Ruelas (vs. Jimmy Garcia)
Tragic. It is the only word to describe the outcome of this fight and, in a much lesser sense, the subsequent downfall of Gabriel Ruelas. Jimmy Garcia (who absorbed a lopsided 12-round pounding at the hands of Genaro Hernandez six months earlier) died two weeks after an operation to relieve bleeding and swelling of the brain was conducted the night of his title bout. Ruelas dominated the fight and not many were generous enough to give Garcia a round. It was not for lack of effort, as Garcia threw punches in the face of a hard-hooking Ruelas, who consequently initiated heavier return fire. It was a vicious cycle. After learning of Garcia’s death, Ruelas was very emotional and remained so in countless interviews years after the fight. Ruelas was knocked out in his next fight by Azumah Nelson and also in subsequent steps up in competition against Arturo Gatti, John Brown and Courtney Burton.
“It” wasn’t there anymore for Gabe. The fire and determination that drove Ruelas to victories over Azumah Nelson and James Leija was now tainted with split milliseconds of hesitation. A tiny amount of hesitation is enough to keep a competitor from the win column at the very highest level of athletics. You can also draw a conclusion from a post-fight comment Ruelas made, “I’d rather lose than have something happen to a guy like that. You can always come back from a loss.” After the Garcia fight, Gabe would rather lose than take a chance of dishing out the punishment needed to stop some opponents.