Greats in boxing involve what’s inside

Apr 6, 2004 4:58 AM

A year from today, I become eligible for full Social Security benefits. In the meantime, I’ll have to scratch out a living by judging character.

It is not always easy. Most of us can see who is faster, who hits harder, who has better techniques. That’s on the outside. It’s what is inside a boxer, though, that most often determines a big fight.

Walter Tevis, who wrote my bible of sports betting, a novel called "The Hustler" that was turned into a pretty fine movie, demonstrated this in the scene where Fast Eddie Felson firstchallenges Minnesota Fats.

Fast Eddie is winning. But when he says to Fats that it doesn’t matter what happens the rest of the night, it is already established that he is the more talented shooter. The real hustler, Bert Gordon (George C. Scott in the film), advises, "Stick with this kid, Fats. He’s a loser."

Gordon could see that Fast Eddie was looking for a soft spot on the canvas, that he didn’t have the character ”” Tevis’s word and now used in place of such ephemeral things as "heart" and "guts" by the fine boxing commentator Teddy Atlas ”” to sustain himself over the long haul.

It was why, when Mike Tyson left prison and returned to Don King, that I once wrote that the first time Iron Mike met a real fighter, he’d lose. Going back to King, I believed, showed that deep down, Tyson was a "loser." He didn’t have character.

Against Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, the talent differential was so great that the issue of character never arose. I thought it would be the same against the faded Evander Holyfield. In terms of character, there was no questioning the Real Deal should have been the overwhelming choice. But the man I saw knocked out by Riddick Bowe ”” who was finished himself ”” and struggle with Bobby Czyz could hardly be considered a "real fighter." Oops.

That was the rare case where what was on the outside was tougher to judge than what was on the inside. What makes it even more intriguing is that sometimes what is inside changes, at least for the moment. Tyson’s history gives a remarkable example. James (Buster) Douglas, who stopped fighting in so many of his matches upon becoming fatigued. His father, Billy, walked away from the corner when Buster quit against Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF title.

Douglas let his obvious talent carry the night at least one day in his career. His mother had just died and he dedicated the Tokyo bout to her memory and thus forgot to quit when Tyson landed a desperate uppercut that floored him.

We knew he "could" if he had the character. I once wrote that every now and then, Douglas gave us 20 seconds or so as to why he could give Tyson big trouble. I concluded that 20 seconds was not enough to beat Mike Tyson. Go know about Mrs. Douglas.

Taking jabs at Zab

This is all a preliminary to why next weekend I believe Cory Spinks, a slight underdog, beats Zab Judah and remains the undisputed welterweight champion. Judah seems to be the faster boxer, he seems to hit harder, yet I have seen him unravel.

He was brilliant in the Olympic Trials in a match I dubbed Hector Camacho Jr. vs. Pernell Whitaker Jr. Young Zab had sparred so many rounds with the great Whitaker, and was so brilliant in imitating him, that the Main Events folks had dubbed him Whitaker Jr.

But in the Trials, and in the Boxoffs to follow, he was virtually chased out of the ring by David Diaz, a tough well-conditioned kid from Chicago who, while still undefeated, has never made an impact as a professional.

Judah couldn’t handle the pressure from Diaz and broke down in both matches. Still, that is no reason to think he has no chance against Spinks. Quite early in his pro career, Judah met another pressure fighter and showed sturdier stuff in handling Micky Ward.

So my selection is not based on Judah being a dog. He did show lack of character when he exploded at Referee Jay Nady for stopping his bout with Kostya Tszyu in the second round. But he also showed that night that he can be hurt. Spinks is no puncher like Tszyu, but he is

a full-sized welterweight and, more importantly, he carries a lot of his father’s blood in his veins.

Leon Spinks flunked Marine boot camp several times, but managed to finally make it through. He was never a "dog," confused often, but he only fought one way, straight ahead. His kid calmly and professionally handled the pressure from Ricardo Mayorga. I think he will handle Judah’s as well.

Brewster no punky

Losing to Charlie Shufford and Clifford Etienne hardly qualifies someone to be a heavyweight contender. Lamon Brewster is supposed to be a puncher, but if he couldn’t take out the Black Rhino, we may have to wonder about that, too.

Yet I think he is worth a flier, at very high odds, against Wladimir Klitschko, the kid brother who was whacked out by Corrie Sanders in two and may not be fully recovered psychologically. But neither underdog in the Mandalay Bay doubleheader seems worth risking the mortgage.