The Intellectual Aspects of Boxing

"Sometimes the man’s IQ ain’t too high, but his boxing IQ is." All fighters make mistakes in the ring—the great ones put that information into their mental computer and learn from it.
  • Transcript


Question: How are boxing matches generally won?

Bert Sugar: Style.  You know, it depends on the fighters.  I’ll give you an old time fighter who fought the wrong fight every time.  Jerry Quarry was a very, very good heavyweight.  He could do everything; he could box, he could punch.  But somehow, he thought he could out-box the boxers, out-punch the punchers, and those were his losses.  He’d come in against Joe Frasier.  Give us a helluva fight for six rounds before he started bleeding or staggering or something.  You know, you look for styles; a stylistic match-up.  You look at the pluses; you look at the minuses, the same with a pitcher and a batter, the same with a football team. 

I still remember Vince Lombardi’s great line, when his Green Bay Packers were playing the New York Giants in the ’62 championship game.  He said, “I’ll tell when I’m gonna run.  If they can stop it, they win.  If they can’t, we win.”

Is boxing an intellectual sport?

Bert Sugar: I think boxing has an intellectual aspect to it.  Budd Schulberg, a great writer, "On the Waterfront," "What Makes Sammy Run?" loved boxing.  So, does Joyce Carol Oates, by the way, talking about literary types.  And Budd once had the great line, “Boxing is chess played with human bodies, not on a board.”  You’ve got to think it.  Now sometimes it’s instinctive.  Sometimes the man’s IQ ain’t too high, but his boxing IQ is.  So, you watch them think.  You know, yes, it’s instinctive, but they’ve had—they’ve learned.  You have to understand, the word "experience" really is "learning from mistakes."  That’s experience, just learning from mistakes.  And everyone has made a mistake whether they won or lost because of it, they put that into their, sort of mental computer, thou shalt not do it again.  So, you’re looking for that. 

Who is the most intelligent boxer you've ever seen?

Bert Sugar: Several. Ali, Joe Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, yes.  Films of Barney Ross, films of Benny Leonard.  These are intelligent fighters.  Some have other attributes.  Ray Leonard had probably the fastest hand I ever saw.  Some fighters have a great knockout punch.  Sometimes they can combine them.  You know, so, you’re looking for a skill, and will they—meaning that person—be able to impose that skill and their will on their opponent?  That’s why to me, boxing is one of the most beautiful sports in the world.  It’s mano-a-mano.  It’s like I once asked George Foreman, I said, “George, were you ever interested in football?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “Why?”  He said, “I didn’t want to be hit by somebody from behind.”  In other words, they’re there.

Was Muhammad Ali really the greatest?

Bert Sugar: No.  He said he was.  Mohammad Ali said he was the greatest, I don’t think he was the greatest.  I wrote a book called "Boxing’s Greatest Fighters."  I rated them one to 100.  I think I have him number six.  But this is pound-for-pound.  Not just heavyweights.  So, I have him the second highest-rated heavyweight, after Joe Lewis/ Because as Ray Robinson, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, number one, he could have been number one through 12, but I had to put another name or two in there.  But I saw Ray Robinson throw a knockout punch going backwards, which is like Nolan Ryan throwing a fast ball falling to second base in terms of leverage. 

But Ali’s peak years were the three-and-a-half years he was forbidden or prohibited from fighting.  He was a dancing master, and a punching master before the three-and-a-half years, then he fails to step forward for the draft, is the equivalent of disbarred for a lawyer for three-and-a-half years.  He comes back and he goes to rope-a-dope.  Those were his peak years.  So, had he had those, and I can’t fill them in, he might well have been exactly what he once took a glove and dubbed himself, “The Greatest.”  Which parenthetically is a line he borrowed from Gorgeous George, the Wrestler who used to do that bravado, “If I don’t win, I’m gonna crawl on my knees to Russia.”  “If I don’t win, I’m the prettiest.”  And he’d lean over the ropes, Gorgeous George.  And Ali saw that and adopted that.  Again, experience.  He experienced watching him and according to Angelo Dundee, with whom I wrote a book called, "My View From the Corner," he was seated with Ali, then Clay, in a wrestling match in Las Vegas before a fight that Clay had two nights later, and all Ali did watching Gorgeous George was say... he said, “That’s a good idea.  That’s a good idea.”  And he adopted it.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen