Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mark's Top 40 at 40: Introduction

By Mark Lyons

I am about to turn 40 in March, so when it was suggested that I compile a list of my 40 favorite fighters in my lifetime, I thought it was a great idea. Very quickly, I found that making a list of your favorites is much more difficult than making a list based on accomplishments. It literally has taken me two weeks to come up with the final list.

I remember watching Ali/Lyle and a few other fights from 1975, with my dad and my uncle. But it was the '76 Olympics that really started the obsession with the sweet science. From that moment The Ring, KO, World of Boxing and Boxing Illustrated magazines grew into monstrous piles that eventually filled several moving boxes.

I was blessed enough to grow up in a time when the major fights were all over network TV every weekend. Many of the great bouts of youth were watching my fighter on those weekends with my dad, in what was the perfect environment for creating a fan for life. Recently I even found a box of old tapes we made with the audio of fights like Hagler/Antuofermo, Leonard/Benitez and Franklin/Johnson.

I have excluded a few more recognizable names for some others that many readers may have to look up. I think that makes for more interesting reading. Every fighter mentioned is someone whose fights I never missed if I could help it. These are men I always cheered for, with the only exception being when two faced each other.

Fighters that just missed the cut were: Hilario Zapata, Alberto Davila, Frankie Randall, Marlon Starling, Donald Curry, Ricky Hatton, Mickey Ward, Oba Carr, Mark Breland, Vince Pettway, Fernando Vargas, Bernard Hopkins, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Young, George Chaplin, Hasim Rahman, Leon Spinks and Mike Weaver.

I want to touch briefly on a few of them today, before moving on to the list next time.

Hilario Zapata (pictured left) is a fighter that I never saw fight live. As a kid, I loved the man's name. I know I couldn't have been the only youngster that loved a fighter just from reading The Ring recaps. That is something lost in this internet age. Every issue brought results from months prior, and in many cases, you didn't even know the fights had taken place.The Ring's "Around The World" was my favorite section in the whole magazine, and I looked forward to reading about the slick little southpaw more than just about any other fighter.

Alberto Davila was a tough bantamweight whose quest for gold was covered by the networks. The first time I saw him was when he challenged the savage punching Carlos Zarate (pictured right, standing over a falling Davila), and gave a spirited effort before being stopped on his feet. Next came a decision loss to the very crafty Jorge Lujan, on the undercard for Ali/Spinks 2. It was a very clean win, as Davila just couldn't penetrate Lujan's brilliant defense.

Alberto was a brawling type without an equalizer. Boxers caused him more trouble than sluggers, who had him outgunned with firepower, but never in guts and determination. Over two years later he lost a razor thin decision to the extremely durable Mexican, Lupe Pintor. Davila controlled the fight early and everything seemed to be falling into place. However, Pintor rallied late and secured a razor thin decision in a fight that most observers thought the challenger had won.

Finally, almost six years after the Zarate fight, in front of a hometown crowd at the legendary Olympic Auditorium, he knocked out Kiko Bejines in the final round to end his odyssey. This was another fight that I got the result several months later. He was behind and on his way to a decision loss in a brutal war. He could finally raise his arms as a World Champion, after an amazing display of heart and will.

Unfortunately, after the sun had finally shone on the tiny warrior, the elation quickly turned to sorrow as Bejines lost his life a few days later from injuries suffered during the fight. Three years following that tragic event, Alberto lost his belt to Miguel Lora in front of a massive Colombian crowd. Shortly thereafter, he lost to Frankie Duarte in one of the bloodiest wars your eyes would ever want to see. Interestingly, he had beaten Duarte in his first title eliminator a decade earlier.

Being born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, I was naturally drawn to Vincent Pettway (pictured top right) and Hasim Rahman. These two hometown boys made good, and became World Champions. Both had some untimely losses, but one thing I can say about them is they were two of the most down to earth and accommodating fighters you could ever have the pleasure of meeting.

George Chaplin was another local fighter who participated in my first live event against an aging Earnie Shavers. He wasn't a puncher, but was never afraid to throw hands.

A lot of times the history books don't reflect how a fighter was looked at in certain phases of his career. When George went to Louisville to face the undefeated Greg Page, he was getting in the ring with a fighter many considered a future great. Chaplin pressured him and beat him to the punch all night in one of the worst decisions you would think was possible.

That was dispelled a year later when Chaplin again appeared to easily beat Page over 12 rounds, only to get victory snatched from his hands once more. I defy anyone to find me 8 rounds that Page won over the 22 they fought.

I'm not going to go real deep on Muhammad Ali. I just want to mention that if this list was made 30 years ago you would have found him at the top of it. As I have aged I've become more of a Joe Frazier man. Some of Ali's hurtful antics towards Frazier and other fighters have left a bad taste in my mouth, but in the ring, he was all man.

The relationship between fan and boxer is something that fans of other sports have a difficult time grasping. I'm a huge football fan, but it's the team more than any individual. There is no off season in boxing and the connection you feel to YOUR guy under those lights lasts a lifetime.

I love the Ravens and never miss a game, but I also never watch a tape of their Super Bowl victory. For my money, there isn't a sport that is close to boxing when it comes to replay value. Has anyone ever watched a baseball game 100 times?

Please join me over the next few weeks, as I relive the memories and count down my 40 favorites.

Next up 40-36.

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