by Paul Magno
“Baby Bull” Juan Diaz was one of the most feared fighters in the lightweight division; A throwback fighter who “bulled” and bullied his way up to his opponents and wore them down through sheer physical pressure. However, on March 8th in Cancun veteran Nate Campbell took his WBO, WBA and IBF titles from him in a bloody battle that appropriately took place in the Plaza de Toros. By the end of the encounter, “The Baby Bull” had been the one bullied and beaten up and neither Diaz nor Team Diaz were too happy about it.
The cries of foul play, including an unfounded steroid accusation against the 36 year old Campbell, all told the story of a bully who simply didn’t like the idea of getting bullied himself.
Especially odd about the sour grapes of Diaz and his people was precisely the fact that the complaints were coming from Juan Diaz and his team.
Juan Diaz has spent most of his career as the one doing the head-charges and questionable tactics involving holding, rabbit punching and elbows (among other roughhouse tactics). Most of his opponents simply didn’t know how to handle a guy who charges in so violently and many, even among his world class opponents, flinched at the idea of seeing the top of a head pushed at them like Diaz would. That’s why Diaz’s fights mostly ended up with his opponents backed up against the ropes looking as though Diaz were swinging a machete. Fighters, nowadays, simply don’t know how to handle a physical style like that.
Campbell, however, was not one of those guys. “The Galaxy Warrior” pushed when pushed back and refused to give ground to Diaz, even when it meant running the risk of getting butted or elbowed. What resulted on that muggy night at the beach was 12 rounds of old school warfare, including more than a fair share of grappling, pushing off, butting and elbows. At the end of the fight, it was Campbell who stood victorious because, when all was said and done, Diaz, the old-school fighter, simply couldn’t handle fighting the old school style against someone who could fight back the same way.
“I had a lot of heart. I wanted to finish the fight out.,” said Diaz, “When I got cut it affected me a lot. I wasn’t able to throw the power jab. I usually have the power jab and break them down from there, but I couldn’t do that.” Hardly the words you would expect from a fighter who takes pride in being a throwback to another era of fighter. Can you imagine another “Bull,” the famously tough Jake Lamotta, saying something like that? Diaz sounded more like “The Atomic Bull” Oliver McCall than “The Bronx Bull” Jake Lamotta.
Flash forward about 6 weeks later, to the build up for the Bernard Hopkins/Joe Calzaghe fight. Calzaghe’s camp was quick to make pre-emptive complaints about Hopkins’ roughhouse tactics.
“If Hopkins’ is such a legend, he needs to prove it. He needs to fight like a man not foul like a coward…A DQ is the only chance Hopkins has to stop Joe,” said Calzaghe’s trainer and father, Enzo, “Just look at his last three fights. It’s head first and punch after.”
Even after Calzaghe took a spilt decision victory over Hopkins, his team was still quick to point out Hopkins’ fouling and underhanded tactics. But, if we go back and do a stroll down memory lane via Youtube, we will see many more old time fighters who look like Hopkins than who resemble Calzaghe.
So, why is it now that the old-school style seems so offensive to some when, for the vast majority of the sport’s history, it was the norm? Why do otherwise fine fighters and legit tough guys moan and cry about having to face the possibility of getting butted or grappled in an inside war? When exactly did fighters lose the ability to handle themselves on the inside?
Some would point to Muhammad Ali’s stylish victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 as the beginning of the end of the in-your-face blue collar in-fighter. Ali looked so good and had such an impact on the sport that he inspired an entire generation of movers and jabbers who were more comfortable flicking a jab from the outside than throwing a hook to the ribs. Even after Ali slowed down, he still was a master at taking care of things from long distances. His imitators, however, were often likely to be just runners who did more dancing than punching and who, if they had fought a decade or two earlier, would’ve been booed out of the arena and blackballed from the sport.
Another culprit for the lost art of the in-fight is the current amateur boxing system that rewards points over ring generalship. The system used now awards a point to a fighter if he connects with the front, white portion of the glove and doesn’t take into account the force of that punch, thereby creating an entire generation of fighters who learn to pitty-pat fast combinations instead of turning over on their punches and making them land hard. With this system, in-fighting is discouraged since long range love taps are more easily scored than inside punches that may be obscured from the judges.
Possibly the biggest factor to blame for the apparent “sissification” of the sport is the diminishing number of real, old school trainers. As neighborhood boxing gyms disappear, they are being replaced by stylish aerobics gyms that often offer boxing as just an afterthought. You are more likely to find Tae Bo, aerobic kickboxing and Jazzercise than a real boxing workout these days. With fewer and fewer trainers around, the subtle aspects of the sport are being lost. Sure, boxers are better athletes today, but there are fewer boxers around who actually know how to box. These better athletes naturally gravitate toward showing their athleticism by fighting on the outside and using their superior cardiovascular conditioning to win fights.
So, what can we do to stop this trend that makes formal protests to the commission more common than all-out brawls? What can we do when we see more whining to the ref than physical retaliation?
One thing is to simply make the refs decide how much in-fighting will be tolerated and be consistent about it. Fighters need to know what the rules are as they come into a fight and not have to guess just how much they’ll be able to get away with (or put up with) as the fight progresses.
More importantly, however, is for fighters to actually learn how to properly fight on the inside and to realize that this isn’t a piano recital they’re engaged in, but a prize fight where anything and everything can happen.
This is not to say that those blessed with phenomenal hand and/or foot speed have to suddenly change their styles and grapple on the inside. It just means that they need to learn how to handle things properly and not rely on the fatherly hand of the ref to get them out of hot water.
When a fighter is getting clinched or mugged, the best thing they can do is simply resist that mugging. Fight back and grapple back, making it imperative for the ref to break things up. The clinch is only a foul when it impedes a fighter’s ability to follow through with the fight. If a fighter lets himself be held, he’s showing the ref that the clinch really didn’t interrupt his plans and most officials simply won’t act under those circumstances.
“Move your hands and keep moving them until the referee decides that enough’s enough,” said the great former champ and expert in-fighter Ruben Olivares when I had the privilege to spend some training time with him. “If he hits you low, hit him low; If gets you with an elbow, get him with an elbow. You should only see the referee as the guy who counts to 10. You can’t look for help from him.”
A perfect example of how to properly handle yourself inside came in December of last year when Floyd Mayweather fought notorious grappler Ricky Hatton. Mayweather hooked Hatton’s arms when Hatton came in to clinch and pushed and shoved his way on the inside until referee Joe Cortez had to step in, ultimately taking a point from Hatton and thus forcing the fight to take place more from the outside, where Mayweather’s hand and foot speed provided him a huge advantage. The end result was a 10 round TKO for “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Mayweather, admittedly, has one of the highest boxing IQ’s in the sport, but he proved that dealing with a vicious in-fighter was as simple as fighting back on the inside to get the ref’s attention and timing his foe with crisp shots as he moved back in to grapple some more.
The art of the in-fight is probably a lost art at this point and I really don’t see things changing much in the future, some wouldn’t even classify it as an art. Rather, they would call it “cheating” or “taking shortcuts” or, more diplomatically, “questionable tactics.” And, while the saying, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure” surely applies here, what can’t be glossed-over is the fact that our fighters seem to be cut from a different cloth than those of our grandfather’s.
What needs to be remembered is the fact that boxing is combat and as much as we try to clean and polish things up, the sport essentially revolves around one fighter’s ability to dominate another. Part of that domination is psychological and part is physical. The ability to fight on the inside makes it easier to do both.
Just ask Nate Campbell, as he polishes his three new world title belts, if he regrets being able to practice the art of the in-fight.