The Evolution of Boxing? New School Lions vs Old School Legends

Photo Credits: John Rooney

[NOTE: For the purposes of this article, we will define old school as the periods between the 1940’s to 1980. And new school from the 1980’s to the present day.]




ADVANCEMENTS IN SCIENCE:  it is clear that today’s fighters reap many benefits from the advancements in both nutritional as well as exercise science. Today’s fighters are not only accompanied by their head trainer, cut-man, and second corner-man; they are also joined by a nutritionist who oversees the fighter’s diet with customized diets as well as a strict eating schedule.


Fighters today also bring in a strength and conditioning to coach, to ensure the fighter is recovering from his/her workouts so they can be in optimal fighting shape. The training methods employed by these coaches include plyometrics, which aid in explosiveness, as well as the use of cryogenic pods for better recovery.


There are some fighters who go as far as employing the use of a sports psychologist, to help aid them with the mental stress that boxing can induce. Indeed today’s fighter is the beneficiary of many luxuries not known to yesteryear’s pugilist. 


SIZE:  The most glaring change (and some would say greatest advantage) that today’s fighters have is their immense size advantage. In today’s heavyweight landscape, the average heavyweight stands at approximately 6’6 in height with an average weight of 245lbs. That is huge leap from the days of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, where the average heavyweight was 6’2 215lbs; with guys like Floyd Patterson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson being shorter and lighter than that. Consider this; David Haye is 6’3 224lbs and would be considered big in the old days. Today he is one of the smallest heavyweights in today’s age of giants.


 But the size advantage isn’t exclusive to heavyweights. Today the fighters of the lower weight classes have made it almost standard practice to fight in weight classes, where they have a natural size advantage. Welterweights today, would be Middleweights in the 60s. Lightweights of the modern age would be 147 pounders in the 50s. The fervent (I would add dangerous) practice of weight cutting for the weigh-in the day before the fight, has made it so that many fighters are fighting in weight classes, that they realistically don’t belong in. This gives modern fighters a big “advantage” over their old school counterparts.


A LIGHTER SCHEDULE:  Archie Moore had 219 total fights. Sugar Ray Robinson had 200. Willie Pep had 241. What’s my point? Old school boxers fought…A LOT! The wear and tear on their bodies and minds must’ve been excruciating. In the modern age of boxing, fighters are not subjected to the hellish fight frequency the older guys had to endure. There are many reasons for this; such as fighters being more conscious of their health, being more business oriented as well the aforementioned advancements in science allowing fighters different means to stay sharp.


There is also the matter of promoting fights. Fighters today are tasked with obligations such as fight tours, interview upon interview, participating in fan-expos all in the name of promoting their upcoming fights. The modern boxer usually fights about 2-3 times year, contrast this with the old days where it was not uncommon for fighters to fight 3 times in a month, and you can see just how much things have changed.


This lighter schedule allows the modern fighter the ability to preserve his/her body, as well as extending his/her career.


PREFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS:  [Disclaimer: This is not meant to be taken as an accusation towards any fighter, it is an opinion on a very well-known and polarizing topic. Also this article does not condone the use of any banned substances]

Let’s not kid ourselves PEDs are prevalent in all sports and boxing is no different. For decades, PEDs have been hovering over boxing like an ominous cloud. Many of boxing’s most famous fighters have either been accused or outright caught taking PEDs. One look through the modern day boxing landscape and you’ll see acronyms such USADA, WADA and VADA all over the place. That’s how prevalent drug use is today.


Why do fighters use PEDs? Because they work. Performance enhancing drugs give fighters a huge edge over their competition. It allows fighters to recover faster, which allows them to train harder and more frequently.


Fighters who cut massive amounts of weight have also employed the use of PEDs in the form of diuretics in order to help them “dry out” for the weigh-in, however this has proven to be a double edged sword. Because fighters are using PEDs to cut weight, the trauma of the weight cut combined with the use of diuretics, has produced an age of fighters who are yo-yoing up and down in weight which has led to health complications. It has also produced an era of undisciplined fighters, who gain so much weight in between fights, that they spend their training camps losing weight, as opposed to sharpening their skills.


Regardless of this, it is clear performance enhancing drugs give fighters an edge over their opposition. As difficult as it is to accept, the reality of the situation is this; performance enhancing drugs, give today’s fighters an advantage that the old school legends simply did not have. 






SKILL BY WAY OF FREQUENCY:  Remember that grueling schedule that the old timers had to endure? While it certainly caused a lot wear and tear (more on this later) it also did something else…it made the old timers incredibly skillful.


The law of repetition states that the more time you spend practicing a given task, the better you will be at it. So let’s ask ourselves a question; who is better at their craft…the fighter who fights 8-10 times a year, or the fighter who fights once or twice a year?


To watch old school fighters is to see a masterclass in skill. This was made possible by the frequency of their fight schedules. It was not uncommon for fighters to fight exhibition fights in between their actual fights. The old legends used tactics that are all but gone now (with the exception of a few fighters) they were masters at fighting from all distances, especially the lost art of in-fighting.


This is a crucial advantage because this factor is what helps close the size gap the modern fighters have over the old timers. It was skill that allowed Max Baer at 6’1 200lbs to beat 6’6 275lbs Primo Carnera. It was skill that enabled a 6’3 Muhammad Ali to beat 6’6 Duke Sabedong. Clearly Skills pay the bills.


Photo Credits: Imagno

TEACHERS: The old school fighters fought often, and that allowed them to stay skillful, fit and sharp. But someone had to teach them the craft, someone had to mold, guide and help them hone their craft. That someone was the boxing TEACHER.


Because of boxing’s immense popularity in the old days, along with the grueling fight schedule, the demand for real trainers was such that many of them became as famous as their fighters; not because they sought the lime-light but because of the results they produced. 


Browse through boxing’s rich history and you read stories of men like Charley Goldman fixing Rocky Marciano’s footwork. Jack Blackburn imparting his vast knowledge to Joe Louis. George Gianford training the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. Ray Arcel training the two greatest 135 pounders of all-time Benny Leonard & Roberto Duran, both of which he did decades apart from one another.


Another crucial reason why this is a huge advantage for the old legends, is that these men didn’t just train fighters, they built them from the ground up. Cus D’Amato would take a scared young boy from the streets of Brooklyn named Floyd Patterson and turned him in to the first Two-Time heavyweight champion of the world and Ray Arcel who would repeat this decades later. This factor was instrumental in the fighter developing the ever important trait known as Character.


The old legends didn’t have trainers…they had teachers. Teachers who imparted such vast knowledge that it bordered on religious. These teachers forged relationships that built skill in and out of the ring.


TESTOSTERONE: You’re probably scratching your head and saying HUH. Walk with me, you will find this very interesting. In Oct 31, 2006 Reuters Health published an article conducted by Dr. Thomas Travison and his colleagues at the New England Research Institutes in Watertown, Massachusetts. The study found that there has been an alarming drop in the male hormone testosterone since the 1980s. What that means is that a 65 year old man in 2002 has testosterone levels that are 15% lower than a 65 year old male in 1987. There have been many other studies supporting this claim.


So what does this have to with boxing? We’ve already touched on the grueling schedule that the old timers had to endure and we ask ourselves how they endured it, well this may be a big reason why. Testosterone (though it’s been vilified in the media) is a very important hormone. It aids in cognitive ability, healing from trauma and recover from high level stress situations among many other benefits. Take a look at the resumes of the old legends, and you’ll see that there was nothing that required cognitive ability, recovery from stress and trauma, like that era of boxing.


And let’s not forget all the stories we’ve heard and read about the insane toughness of the old legends of boxing. Now that we know that they had higher NATRUAL levels of testosterone, we may have one of the reasons why they were able to endure such a hellish fight schedule. There is also this question we have to ask ourselves: Is it possible that this decline in testosterone has driven the rise of performance enhancing drugs? We’ve already touched on the pervasiveness of PEDs in sports and it is a question worth asking.


CHARACTER: Let me be clear about one thing, anyone who has the courage to lace up the gloves and step in a boxing ring has character. Today there are many fighters who exhibit this amazing quality. But the old legends seemed to possess an endless reservoir of it. 


The old legends lived through times and situations that will make a warrior out of the softest of men. The old school boxers had to endure wars, mob threats, racism and politics of the likes that make today’s boxing scene look squeaky clean.


How do we know they had this kind of character? Because Beau Jack defended the lightweight crown on a broken leg. Because Ray Robinson when pressed by the mob to take a dive, said NO! Because Willie Pep despite knowing Sandy Saddler was bigger, younger and hit harder, decided to fight him anyway when he didn’t have to. Because Jake LaMotta refused to go down. Because Muhammad Ali gave up his prime for his beliefs. It’s those displays of character, which give the old school legends the advantage over the majority of the modern fighters.


So who wins? The old school legends or the new school lions? Has boxing really evolved or did we simply trade in one thing for something else? Remember boxing is both objective and subjective. Read this article, look at and analyze all the factors and come to your own conclusion. That is the beauty of boxing, it provides you with tools to cultivate the right answers.