Fifteen years ago, I wrote an article about George Foreman and Christmas.
“I'm low key about the holidays,” George told me. “The buying and gift-giving never stops. The machinery of giving expensive things has gotten so well-established that nothing stops it. It's let's see how much we can buy, and a lot of people have forgotten about giving of themselves instead of giving things.”
So what would Foreman have said if a young child asked him what Christmas is about?
“I wouldn't say anything,” George answered. “I'd just hug him. Words can mess up anything, but a hug is always good. I'd hug him and spend the day with him. And the wonderful thing about a hug is, you don't have to wait for Christmas to give it. You can give hugs every day of the year.”
Then I asked Foreman about some of his Christmas memories. They weren’t all good.
“When I was growing up,” George reminisced, “Christmas was the most dangerous time of the year for me. We didn't have a tree or anything like that. We were poor. Christmas trees cost money and, once you had a tree, you had to put something on it. So no tree at Christmas. But when I was young, I'd hear people saying, ‘I'm giving my mother this; I'm giving my girlfriend that.’ So I'd go out and prowl the streets, fourteen, fifteen years old, a mugger, to get money for presents.”
Sugar Ray Leonard’s most vibrant Christmas memory dates to when he was about ten years old.
“My father was the produce manager in a supermarket,” Ray recalls. “His paycheck had just been garnished, so he didn’t have money for Christmas presents. And what he did was, he brought home fruit for Christmas. I was looking for a toy. And to this day, I have a vivid picture in my mind of bananas, apples, and oranges in boxes and bags under the Christmas tree. But I was old enough to understand that my father was providing for us as best he could. And Christmas is about love, not gifts. Talking about it now, I still get a bit emotional.”
Larry Holmes is as jolly as Santa Claus when discussing Christmas.
“All of my Christmases have been good,” Holmes says. “I’m 66 years old now and the happiest guy in the world.”
As for this year’s festivities, Holmes reports, “My wife does all the work. I buy a present for her, and she buys the presents for everyone else. We just got a nine-foot tree and had to cut the top off. She decorated it. I don’t do decoration. I just look at it. Except there were a few branches high up on the tree that she couldn’t reach, so I reached up and put the decorations on them.”
And Christmas Day?
“I’ll sit home and relax,” Holmes answers. “Eat, drink some wine, watch football on television, and talk with people who come by.”
My own favorite Christmas memory as it relates to boxing dates to the time that Muhammad Ali telephoned to wish me a Merry Christmas.
“Think about it,” I told Muhammad. “A Muslim calling a Jew to wish him well on a Christian holiday. There’s a message in that for anyone who’s listening.”
Perhaps the most iconic Christmas image that relates to boxing is the cover of the December 1963 issue of Esquire magazine.
Sonny Liston was heavyweight champion of the world and the most feared fighter of his era. Liston had a long criminal rap sheet and the personality to match. Esquire’s cover consisted of a headshot that featured a glowering Liston staring menacingly at the camera while wearing a red-and-white Santa Claus hat.
Photographer Carl Fischer, who took the picture, later recalled, "Everybody knew Liston was a nasty son of a bitch. Make him Santa Claus? It was just the wrong thing to do. But that was my assignment. There was no plan B. So I went out to Las Vegas, where Liston lived, and met him in a room at the Thunderbird Hotel. I explained what we wanted. He said, ‘I'm not going to put on any goddamn Santa Claus hat.'
Then Lady Luck smiled on Fischer.
“The manager of the hotel came into the room and brought his little girl, a six- or seven-year-old whom Liston took affection to. So we took a couple pictures of her. Then I said, 'Let's put the Santa Claus hat on her.' So we put the Santa Claus hat on her. And then, 'Let's take the pictures with the two of you together, and let's take the Santa Claus hat off her and put it on you.' We took a whole bunch of pictures of the two of them and then got rid of her."
Christmas is a time for peace on earth, not punching people in the head. Few major professional fights have been contested on Christmas. The most notable exception was the December 25, 1923, battle in Detroit between Harry Greb and Tommy Loughran.
Greb (who amassed the extraordinary career record of 107 wins, 8 losses, and 3 draws) was the reigning middleweight champion. Nineteen months earlier, he’d defeated Gene Tunney, in what would be the only loss in Tunney’s storied ring career.
Loughran, age 21, was eight years Greb’s junior. The two men had fought each other once in 1922 and three times in 1923. All four bouts had gone the distance with Greb winning three of four.
On Christmas Day 1923, Greb was the better fighter. “The Pittsburgh Windmill” came on strong in the final two rounds of a back-and-forth struggle to earn a ten-round decision over Loughran.
How tough was Greb? Fifteen days earlier, he’d fought fifteen hard rounds at Madison Square Garden in losing a rematch against Tunney.
As for Loughran; in 1927, he defeated Mike McTigue to claim the light-heavyweight championship of the world.
With all the commentary about Tyson Fury’s upset victory over Wladimir Klitschko, surprisingly little has been said about the man who wasn’t there: Emanuel Steward.
Steward took over the task of training Klitschko in 2004. In their first fight together, Wladimir was knocked out by Lamon Brewster. Eleven years passed before he lost again.
Steward died in 2012, shortly after being diagnosed with colon cancer that had metastasized throughout his body. Thereafter, Johnathon Banks (who’d assisted Emanuel) took over the training duties.
As Klitschko-Fury slipped from Wladimir’s grasp, I couldn’t help but think back to the night of May 10, 1996, when Lennox Lewis fought Ray Mercer at Madison Square Garden.
Steward had been with Lewis for three fights, all of them knockout victories. But Mercer was a heavy-fisted brawler with an iron chin. And Lennox considered himself a “pugilistic specialist.” The plan that night was for Lewis to outbox Mercer.
Except the plan wasn’t working. And in the middle rounds, sensing that the fight was slipping away, Emanuel told Lennonx, “Just fucking fight him.”
Lennox did as instructed and eked out a narrow decision win.
There were a lot of problems with Klitschko’s performance against Tyson Fury. Some of them stemmed from the fact that Wladimir seemed poorly prepared to fight a man who had a height and reach advantage against him. But Klitschko can whack. And Fury throws wide looping punches without much power on them.
At some point during the middle rounds, Wladimir needed Emanuel Steward’s voice in his ear, saying, “Just fucking fight him.”
Like football in the mother country, boxing’s middleweights seem to be separating into a premier league and everybody else.
In the premier league, Gennady Golovkin reigns supreme. The Kazakhstani native, now living in the United States, obliterated David Lemieux in his last bout and is undefeated with 31 knockouts in 34 fights. One month later, Canelo Alvarez lay claim to a hybrid middleweight crown (the contract weight was five pounds below the real middleweight limit) when he decisioned Miguel Cotto. The hope is that Golovkin and Alvarez will meet in the ring someday, but Alvarez doesn’t seem in any hurry to make that happen.
Meanwhile, in another world, Danny Jacobs stopped Peter Quillin in one round earlier this month to retain his middleweight belt. And a fourth middleweight throne will be up for grabs this Saturday night when Andy Lee defends his version of the title in Manchester against Billy Joe Saunders. The nice thing about Lee-Saunders is that it shapes up as an entertaining competitive fight. The winner could fight Jacobs in the near future.
Given the multiplicity of world sanctioning bodies and wars between television networks and skirmishes featuring Al Haymon versus much of the old guard, it should be noted that all of the aforementioned middleweight title fights have one thing in common. They have been – and Lee vs. Saunders will be - televised in the UK by BoxNation.