They just were…
Watching Errol Spence Jr. last weekend brought up questions for me – not about his ability. That is obviously there in excess – however, there are special people who have an appeal just by being themselves. They have a secreted ability of attracting a following. Call it charisma, personality or just plain allure but there is, no doubt, the “It Factor” existing within them. Boxing’s gold standard is Muhammad Ali; he was braggadocios without crossing the line and becoming a lout, which was the trick Floyd Mayweather Jr. was never able to pull off. Where Ali mouthed off with a knowing and barely perceptible Mona Lisa-like smile (mostly, there were instances with Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson for which Ali should be rebuked), Mayweather’s persona mostly grated people as his comments and actions came with a sneer of superiority that rubbed the boxing proletariat the wrong way.
It is a fine line to walk, which is why so few were able to pull it off, and some even did so by becoming an antihero with negative implications like a Mike Tyson. However, they were mostly forgiven with the passing of time, maybe because we assume that anyone given such a special gift has been limited in other ways such as social etiquette by Mother Nature? Again, Mayweather did not fit this model because he seemed to want to bestow an aura or persona on himself, instead of it being naturally formed and thus validated by the masses. I lump Oscar De La Hoya into that category as well; he was too media savvy and slickly manufactured by Top Rank Promotions’ Bob Arum to come off as a natural.
Then there is someone like Tony Galento, who had the personality but lacked the boxing talent to cross over into legend status. Lastly, there is a difference between popularly beloved or admired and having a special kind of charisma. There are legends like Sugar Ray Leonard (I am sure people will disagree with my lower appeal assessment of him), Manny Pacquiao or Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., who were fantastically unique boxers who found great popularity without becoming known as showmen. Also, nationally beloved figures such as Barry McGuigan, Julio Cesar Chavez, George Foreman, Sir Henry Cooper and Henry Maske are popular, for what they did for boxing in their country but had little to do with their magnetism, were not included.
Oh yeah, and if I needed a promoter for these guys, of course, Don King is the logical choice.
Jack Johnson – A man who was bold in an era when being a bold black man could have easily gotten Jack Johnson killed. That is courage and audacity, which attracts admiration, if not adulation in some sectors, through centuries. In a time, because of his race, when Jack Johnson was supposed to be compliant and subservient, he stood out and demanded to be heard and seen. When Johnson was not allowed in a bar, he opened his own and, almost to ensure even more hatred, Johnson married a white woman. As Johnson kept beating white heavyweights, racists made the call for a “Great White Hope” to create momentum for their doomed cause. There was nothing Johnson would not try for fun or money, whether wrestling in Sweden or bullfighting in Spain, and Johnson was not shy about participating. Outside the ring, Johnson acted in vaudeville shows and collected appearance fees to tell tales about his exploits that were more accurate than tall. Even today, Johnson has ardent devotees who fight for his 1913 conviction on trumped-up charges to be overturned on the basis that the law was an inherently racist statute and misinterpreted as well. Lost in the mythos of Jack Johnson is just how cunning and astute he was, given his lack of formal education. For the most part, Johnson found a way to get what he wanted and, simply by being himself, Jack Johnson became immortal.
Battling Siki – Sometimes the show engulfs the man, which is what happened to ill-fated shooting star Battling Siki. The Senegalese legend took part in pro boxing matches at age 15 and, in World War I, was awarded French medals for heroism. So, putting himself in harm’s way was second nature to Siki. The fighter learned the importance of appearance, living in Paris, quickly becoming a fashion plate, wearing luxurious capes with purple lining or a top hat and tuxedo when out and about, walking his baby lion! Other reports said he fired his revolver in the air, on the famed Champs-Élysées promenade, to encourage his two Great Dane dogs to do tricks. He even married two white women, on two different continents, which was nearly unheard of in the 1920s. It was not his ego or celebrity that got the better of Siki; it was alcohol that made his life spiral into oblivion, literally dying in a New York City gutter at age 28, after being shot twice in the back.
Max Baer Sr.- This heavyweight champion is often overlooked and, to my eye, libelously misrepresented in the “Cinderella Man” movie, which was a disservice to a good and simply fun-loving man. One of the first champions to openly court the press and use it as a way to gain celebrity outside the ropes, as much as in the ring. One offshoot of this was his popularity among women, a demographic not catered enough to up to this day. Though outwardly gregarious, Baer’s son (famous for his role as Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies”) said he cried and had nightmares over an incident in which opponent Frankie Campbell died of injuries suffered in the ring. After leaving boxing, Baer was just as successful in Hollywood, acting in movies and plays. How can you not appreciate someone who joked on his deathbed? Baer’s final reply to a hotel clerk (he was suffering a heart attack) who asked him if he needed “the house doctor” was, “No, dummy; I need a people doctor.”
Sugar Ray Robinson – The original “Sugar” wanted to do more than just be the greatest boxer of all time. He wanted to entertain people in other ways equally as well. An entertainer is every sense, Robinson danced his way into the boxing Hall of Fame and danced the night away in nightclubs with beautiful women or on television shows with Gene Kelly. He was famous for driving around Harlem in a huge open top pink Cadillac, also bringing the idea of a personal entourage (made up of a barber, secretary, masseur, singing and elocution coach, a dwarf and, of course, beautiful women) for athletes to life. When Robinson traveled to Europe, he famously needed 50 suitcases to get by. Gave up boxing for three years to sing and tap dance but, when the shine of that wore off, Robinson was back in the ring thrilling fans with his hands. There was enough demand for his services that, after retirement, Robinson uprooted his family from New York City, moving to Hollywood. Robinson did struggle, when his fame waned with time, but was never totally forgotten and is one of the few sportsmen to be honored by his country with a postage stamp.
Muhammad Ali – What could I add that most boxing fans have not already read, heard or seen, reported in every media platform known to man? That is because Ali was the master of all communications, from the verbal and physical, in his fistic prime, to a non-verbal spiritual or holistic transmission of tranquility after Parkinson’s Disease took his ability to speak. Ali was many things to many people and carried an influence around the world unlike any athlete before or after him. Truly unique, Ali is an iconoclast and standard-bearer that we boxing fans are fortunate to be able to say was given to the world through our sport.
Roberto Duran – I have my reservations about the new Duran movie, “Hands of Stone,” but there is no doubt the Panamanian is a legend with whom the American continent remains fascinated. Let’s face it; Duran scared most Americans without ever speaking a word of English. Stories of his impoverished upbringing are legend and you saw the insatiable aspects of his personality that poverty created in his black eyes. It led to excesses when Duran felt he had “made it.” I can’t think of many boxers who would be almost completely forgiven for the infamous “No Mas” fight, which became part of the American vernacular. Then there is the mythical story of his knocking out a horse and definitely true stories of after-fight debauchery. Joe Frazier gave voice to what Duran opponents felt. Frazier attended the first Duran- Sugar Ray Leonard fight and was asked who Duran reminded him of. Of course, the reporter thought the former champ would say Duran reminded Frazier of himself. The answer they got was more correct: “He looks like that famous dude on TV. Yeah, that Charles Manson fellow.”
Hector Camacho Sr. – Sure, Camacho stopped being “The Macho Man” after the Edwin Rosario fight but Camacho made such a great early impression and was so talented that he traded on his old image for decades after. Before Camacho started his safety-first boxing approach, he used his speed and reflexes to destroy but,l afterward, it was only a tool for survival and endurance. Where Ali traded on ego to become great, Camacho looked to trade his skills for a good time with victory a secondary concern. A man who dared to flare, strutting like a peacock to the ring in gaudy costumes and enough sequins to make Liberace recoil in admiration, Camacho’s career was the perfect embodiment of 1980s excess and he lived in the fast lane until the very end, when it all came crashing down.
Jorge Paez Sr.- With haircuts out of a Salvador Dali nightmare, Paez was one of the few boxers who made people smile or laugh at fights. So it is no surprise that Paez became known as “The Clown Prince of Boxing,” back-flipping and moonwalking into the ring and into fans’ hearts. Paez was born into a Mexican circus family, so performing was nothing new to him. Inside the ring, Paez was no joke. He had the tools to compete at the highest level but, after winning a major title, dedicated himself more to the nightlife than the gym. At the highest level, was left a bit wanting, so Paez made up for it by strutting to the ring in outfits as varied as a nun’s habit and frock to a wedding dress. Few fans, even if he lost, left a Paez fight unsatisfied.
Mike Tyson – Sure “Iron Mike” was loved for his power but, when Tyson spoke, people paid attention for multiple reasons. So, it was not his charm or linguistic mastery of the English language that drew you in but when Tyson fought or spoke, it was must-see-TV. Beyond the athletic excitement he generated, Tyson had a hard-to-justify pull on the public, stoked by the trainwreck aspect of his life. Tyson fights were happenings and the next day, everyone gathered at the watercooler to discuss what he did…good or bad. Maybe it was simply because Tyson was the essence of unpredictability before a fight, during a fight and even in post-fight interviews. You never knew what was going to happen next. Our fascination with Tyson goes beyond the ring, with documentaries and his one-man stage shows making plenty of money because of a voracious public interest.
Naseem Hamed – “Prince” Hamed was one of the most entertaining boxers of any era, fusing a brash brand of flexibility and raw power that has been seldom seen in a ring. “Unorthodox” does not begin to explain the complex upper and lower body maneuvers Hamed pulled off in search of an opening to land his fight-ending bombs. That was inside the ring but, before that, there was an entirely different show from press conference boasts to entering the ring on a flying carpet! Yes, Hamed could be coarse in his choice of words but he backed them up in exciting fashion and generally did not mock an opponent but extoled his virtues instead. I always had a sense Hamed knew he could never live up to his ostentatious avowals and, looking back on the era in which he performed, Hamed was a visage gangsta rap would be proud to call its own.
Roy Jones Jr. – The boxer I had the most doubts of making a part of this list but, when he fought in his prime, other athletes stopped to admire his act, so that counts for something. May have been lacking on the personality front (good enough to get an HBO gig, some would retort) but once “RJ” got inside the ring, he put on a show that scintillated the senses more than anyone since the two Sugar Rays. He participated in media stunts such as playing in minor league basketball games the day of a fight and would walk out to his own rap songs…lest y’all forgot. Was entertaining beforehand as well, like dressing up as “Peter Pan” villain Captain Hook when he fought Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy and was always good for a juicy quote. I am not saying Jones will be remembered fondly but there is no doubt he will be remembered for individual moments of brilliance. Spawned many imitators as well, which is the real mark of a cultural milestone.