By: Kevin Dyson
Boxing is not professional wrestling, we know that (I hope…).
That said, our sport has always had the ability to get us invested in fighters’ characters. While nothing like the preconceived scripts of the WWE, we do see parallels with wrestling’s faces and heels.
Personally speaking, I am a fan of the understated fighter, as epitomised by the likes of Anthony Crolla and Ricky Burns.
Both are likeable and have great backstories (Crolla fought back from a fractured skull and broken ankle after a burglary at his home while Burns continued to work at his local sports shop despite being world champion.)
However, it is obvious that they don’t have the star personalities that engage fans across the globe.
To truly grab people there has to be a hook. And this hook often comes in the form of antagonism – both real and perceived.
Yes, plenty of fighters admit hamming it up to boost interest in a fight. A perfect example is the grudge match between David Haye and Tony Bellew. In and of itself, the fight had no real purpose, with Bellew given little chance in his first fight as heavyweight.
Haye made some unsavoury comments ahead of their clashes, but later admitted: “I’ve never really had a problem with Tony Bellew. In the lead up to the fight you say what you need to say to sex the fight up, but I never really wished him any harm.”
While the facade of beef (don’t try that home decorating types..) is commonplace, it takes a genuine feud to take the sport to a new level.
Step up Miguel Cotto.
Cotto’s second fight against Antonio Margarito could have been seen as a simple pantomime of revenge. That is until you understood the context.
Margarito had battered the Puerto Rican icon in their first bout, three years earlier.
Matters only became murky when the Mexican was found to have cement in his wraps in his next fight against Sugar Shane Mosely. The tainted wraps had telltale signs that indicated he had used the same method, to significant effect, against Cotto.
Robbed of his unfair arsenal, Margarito was taken out by Mosely in nine.
Cotto clearly sought revenge following this revelation, but had to wait as Margarito continued to revel in his cartoon baddie role against a peak Manny Pacquiao in 2010.
Having mocked trainer Freddie Roach’s Parkinson’s Disease and the Filipino’s stature, he set himself up to become the target of a righteous and frankly astonishing beating which left him nursing a mangled orbital bone.
The contrast between the roguish Margarito and the ever cheery Pacman was stark and, for many, set the scene for one of the most satisfying results in years.
The 2011 fight between Cotto and Margarito would have a darker dynamic. Having nursed a bitterness for three and a half years, Cotto had an almost scary focus as he entered the ring, hell bent on gaining revenge that night.
Margarito, happy to continue in his villainous role, was overtly dismissive of Cotto – an attitude that would only strengthen Cotto’s already steely resolve.
The Mexican was outmanoeuvred by the Puerto Rican from off, with Cotto taking his opportunity to work away on the eye that had been so badly damaged by Manny.
For all the negatives about Margarito, there has never been any questioning his spirit or his chin. After nine rounds Margarito’s face was a mess. Despite the fighter’s protestations, there was no question that the fight could continue.
Usually there would be a bit of solidarity between two fighters, even if there had been animosity. Not so for Cotto, who raised his arm once and then stood stock still, staring almost blankly at his beaten foe.
If you have not seen this fight I implore you to do so right now (after reading the rest of this article, of course)
I cant see any rivalries which match the nature and intensity of that event. Then again that would probably be the case before it as well.
The closest is GGG v Canelo, a result of frustration at the scoring of their two fights, Canelo’s drug ban and the continued claims that the industry is hell bent on keeping the star power of Alvarez firmly in place, no matter what.
We do, of course, have some straightforward revenge missions to look forward to.
Anthony Joshua will be hoping to put on a show and snatch his belts back from shocktrooper Andy Ruiz Jr. Given their personalities, I cant see any major beef coming into play unless there is some ill advised answer to a loaded ‘he said, she said’ type of question from the press.
If the Andy Ruiz story is a fairytale, and it is a great story on so many levels, a Joshua win in the rematch would be a classic British tale of doggedness. While it was a shock to the system when he lost, there is a sense that regaining the belts could even take the Joshua story to new level by overcoming adversity.
On the flipside, this revenge mission is do or die for AJ. It is hard to see where he would go after another defeat such has been his rapid rise.
Obviously Fury Wilder II has its own story following the controversial scoring at their first meeting. We know that both of them like to wax lyrical, so an interesting build up is guaranteed. But will it be a genuine grudge match? That is a harder question to answer.
For all that dedicated fans are passionate about the purity of the fight game, we are not immune to the drama. Indeed, it may well affect us more than the casual fan, as we know more about what is at stake and how easily it can taken away.
Six great antagonists
1. Antonio Margarito – Pretty much all of the above. Margarito revelled in being the bad guy, but had the smarts and strength to carry him through to world titles. Top for being authentically antagonising.
2. Floyd Mayweather Jr – For me Floyd played on the loadsamoney shtick to make even more money. A fighter more easy to admire technically, than love, Floyd knew people would pay money just for the chance that someone may take him down a peg or two. But they didn’t.
3. Tyson Fury – The big man is less unpredictable than pre-Klitschko. Fury has made many statements that have been out of order, and accused of homophobia and misogyny. However, he has balanced it with endearing traits, from the sheer daftness of his Batman press conference ahead of his Klitschko win. He does seem more mellow now, apart from his headache inducing suits, but those who know him know he could turn at any point.
4. Prince Naseem Hamed – Time has helped my view of Naseem. As a youngster I hated his cockiness. Like Mayweather, he was able to live up to that cockiness with his once in a generation skills. Then, of course, he came a cropper. I can now look back and see just how great a fighter and showman he was.
5. Muhammed Ali – There is no doubt about Ali’s legendary status in boxing. But he was a flawed man whose intelligence, skills, poetic tendencies and charisma allowed him to get away with an awful lot, no more so than the insulting and belittling of the great Joe Frazier, calling him an Uncle Tom and a gorilla. He did, of course, show the principled side by refusing to go to Vietnam, a decision that wouldxx cost him his peak years.
6. As mentioned before, David Haye was a provocateur of the highest order. I was a big fan around the end of his successful stint as a cruiserweight. In hindsight a lot of the things he said as he ventured into the heavyweights was unpleasant, particularly the ridiculous t shirt of Haye holding the severed heads of Wlad and Vitali aloft. It was out of order, but many in the UK accepted it, in part due to his personal charisma and in part a willingness to support our man at a time when success in the glamour division was scarce. Subsequent battles with Dereck Chisora in Munich and Bellew just confirmed Hayes antagonistic streak.
And just to show there is more to the game than being mouthy, I present Adrian Broner.
The Mayweather prodigy has seems intent on amping up the less pleasant aspects of his mentor’s character. Sadly (for him, I personally love it when he is schooled) he has not shown the ability to match.
Yes, he is an elite fighter. But he has shown no modicum of respect to opponents, at least not up until Pacquiao.
His rough landing in the form of Marcos Maidana was just beautiful, particularly when his opponent gave him some of his own crude ‘dry humping’ treatment.
Three defeats down the line, there are times you think he has learned humility only to hear him once again open his mouth and spout inanities.