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Remembering Jimmy Carter (No, Not The President)

One of the primary allure's of boxing is that it is a vocation steeped in history. This is one reason, among many, why I find it so superior to MMA. What happens in the ring is part of a lineage that dates back decades and even centuries, in a kind of unfolding panorama of violence, courage, race, and masculinity. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, boxing was arguably America's most popular sport (when it wasn't, it was, at worst, in second place behind baseball. This remained true until the rise of the NFL in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, to look back on the sport's history is to encounter boxers who, while perhaps as skilled as the best pugilists of today, were certainly more famous, and more widely admired.

This was particularly true of the early years of television, as the major broadcast networks turned to boxing for original programming, in the process creating a film archive of fights that, in the age of YouTube and now streaming services like ESPN+, is virtually limitless.

In the early 1950s, boxing was a staple of weekday and weekend prime time telecasts. It was on this platform that many of the sport's greatest figures--chief among them Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano--became superstars. But the bright lights of television also settled upon figures who are less-renowned today. In particular, one of the frequent staples of boxing in this era was the lightweight champion Jimmy Carter, whose fights I have been watching over the last few days. Hailing from New York City, and featuring a slick defensive style that combined quick hands and feet with excellent counter-punching skills, Carter first gained the lightweight title on May 25, 1951, when he scored a 14-round TKO victory over the hard-punching Ike Williams. From the fights I have seen, though Carter was by no means a knockout artist, he had real power, and opponents who got careless with him could find themselves on the canvas, often after taking a left hook to the jaw.

The first Carter fight I watched occurred one year later, in May of 1952, when Carter put his title on the line against Mexico's Lauro Salas at the Olympic Coliseum in Los Angeles. The fight, available on the new ESPN+ app, brought out Holywood's biggest stars, who took in the rematch of the first Carter-Salas meeting, which had taken place one month earlier, ending in a Carter victory by decision. In the rematch, Salas was the aggressor, while Carter tried to keep the fight at a distance. Deploying a hard-charging style, Salas spent most of the 15 rounds barging in on Carter, who wore himself down by pushing the Mexican fighter away. Though Carter won some of the exchanges, Salas got the better of most of the action, and deservedly took the split decision victory and the lightweight crown.

Five months later, Carter got his revenge with a unanimous decision victory over Salas at Chicago Stadium. The highlights of that bout show that Carter, a master technician, had learned to better time Salas as he came in, clipping him with left hooks and straight right hands, controlling the bout. With the victory, Carter became only the second lightweight ever to regain his title. He would go on to claim it a third time after losing to, and then defeating, Paddy DeMarco in 1954. All told, Carter finished his career with a record of 84 wins, including 34 by knockout, 31 losses, and 9 draws. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000, six years after his death at the age of 71.

Among other things, Carter could take a punch.

What is most immediately striking about Carter's career arc is that it would be unthinkable today, where even the most active fighters step into the ring at most three or four times a year. By contrast, Carter during his prime fought about 9 or 10 times a year, a grueling pace that exposed him to more opportunities to both win and lose. By today's standards, Carter's winning percentage would mark him as a journeyman "opponent," not a multiple champion. In the age of Floyd "Money" Mayweather, boxers, and the men who guide their careers, jealously guard a fighter's record, trying to keep it pristine as long as possible. Losses are now regarded as devastating setbacks that can permanently ruin a boxer's reputation. Given the physical toll that fighting more often puts on the bodies and brains of boxers, I can't say that the old ways were better. The grueling schedules of the ring in the 1950s and 1960s often had devastating consquences for the men who stepped into the ring. But it does I think put the lie to the notion that any boxer today, no matter how gifted and accomplished, can ever be regarded as "the greatest ever," as Mayweather has so often claimed. With his 124 bouts, Jimmy Carter fought about 2.5 times as much as Mayweather has. He lost frequently, but won even more frequently. If his ringcraft was not superior to Mayweather's, he certainly sacrificed more to the sport. From the perspective of the 21st century, that makes men like Carter appear to be, to borrow from Springs Toledo, like gods of war, pushing themselves far beyond the limits of the possible, as we have constructed that in the present.

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