Friday, October 1, 2010

A Puncher's Chance by Don Stradley

I watched James Toney being strangled by Randy Couture at UFC 118, but I didn’t spend much time thinking about how far boxing had fallen from its glory days, or how pathetic it was that an aging boxer was rolling around in a cage with a former Greco-Roman wrestler.

I didn't think about the enormous Comcast blimp that had circled above Boston for most of the afternoon, a hi-def television screen on its side advertising the fight. With images of Toney and Couture blinking in the sky, it was like a scene from Blade Runner. Coupled with the idea that men were fighting in cages, it was as if a version of the future was here. But I wasn't thinking about that, either. Not for long, anyway.

I didn’t even think about the fellows next to me in the press row, flatly announcing that boxing was dead and UFC was for real.
Instead, I found myself thinking about Ron Drinkwater.
Drinkwater was a heavyweight fighter from Somerville, Massachusetts. He's the only fighter I can think of who shared the ring with both Muhammad Ali and Peter McNeeley. You remember McNeeley, the grinning kid selected to be Mike Tyson’s first post-prison opponent. McNeeley lasted 92 seconds. People wondered who the hell McNeeley ever beat to get into a position to fight Tyson. Well, Drinkwater was one of the guys McNeeley beat.

Drinkwater had been been pretty good at one point. He fought in places like The Golden Banana Club in Peabody, and in the days when Marvelous Marvin Hagler was headlining at the Garden, Drinkwater was occasionally on the undercard. He was also the winner of the 1976 AAU New England championship, which required a bit of talent and toughness.

By Drinkwater’s own admission, he’d been too busy partying to make it in boxing.  He vanished into civilian life where he drove an asphalt  truck, got married, had children. Then, after being away from boxing for 15 years, he was plucked from the hinterland to fight McNeeley.  Drinkwater thought being away had matured him, so he was ready for another try.

They met in January 1993 at The National Guard Armory in Chelsea. McNeeley stopped him in one.
“He hit me in the nose, made my eyes water, and they stopped the fight,” Drinkwater told me.
Drinkwater’s meeting with Ali took place when Ali came to Boston for a charity fundraiser in 1976. Drinkwater, just out of the amateurs and aching to be noticed, was selected to go a few rounds with "The Greatest." Nothing heavy, just fun. 
During the opening seconds of the exhibition, Drinkwater crowded Ali and took a mighty swing. Ali collapsed, pretending he’d been kayoed. Drinkwater looked disgusted. The customers laughed. Ali rose and, after a few more seconds of horse play, unloaded a sequence of  combinations designed to impress the fans in the cheap seats, his gloved hands whizzing past Drinkwater’s face. 
Why did Ron Drinkwater come to mind as I watched James Toney flounder in the cage? Because Drinkwater was the first person to tell me about UFC back in the 1990s. 
I was in a Malden barber shop when he came in raving about this new thing he'd seen on pay-per-view.

"They have everything,” he said. “Boxing, karate, wrestling, every kind of fighting. I wish they had that when I was younger. I’d fit right in.”
He couldn’t last a round with Peter McNeeley, but he still imagined himself tangling with ju-jitsu masters.

Drinkwater always thought he had a chance if he could just connect once.  That feeling was probably behind Toney's decision to enter a UFC cage, too. It's a feeling that boils in the blood of most fighters, that you can change your fortune with one shot. This feeling pervades the entire sport, from the lowliest journeymen, to the elite fighters, to the promoters and matchmakers. Of course, it doesn't always work for fighters. In fact, it rarely does. But the sport itself always manages to find that lucky punch to keep itself afloat.

That’s why boxing has been able to survive for more than a century. That's why I haven't taken too seriously the idea that Mixed Martial Arts will cause boxing to fold up it tents and leave town.
Boxing has rebounded from ring deaths, racism, scandals, and ties to organized crime. It has survived attacks from medical experts and abolitionists. It has survived the uprising of the NFL, the NBA, and college sports. It has survived being abandoned by major TV networks. It has survived periods when there were no bankable stars to promote. It has survived The Great Depression, and two World Wars. It will survive MMA, too. And it will survive whatever comes along after that. Boxing abides and endures.

Where boxing fools people is in its ability to survive the fallow periods. It seems dead, but it's merely laying on the ropes, waiting for an opening. Then it connects, with a Dempsey, or a Louis, or an Ali, or a Tyson, or a Leonard, or a Pacquiao. Despite the doomsayers, who have predicted boxing's demise since the 1850s, the sport retains a crazy belief in itself. Why shouldn't it? The sport has something unique in its favor.
It’s called “a puncher’s chance.” Boxing will always have one.