Campaigning in Philadelphia last week, Hillary Clinton threw a bucket of cold water on the growing chorus calling for her to concede the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. Evoking the image of Philadelphia's fictional fighting hero, Rocky Balboa, Hillary said: "Let me tell you something. When it comes to finishing the fight, Rocky and I have a lot in common. I never quit. I never give up."
Her identification with Rocky got me thinking about boxing and presidential politics from a neutral corner, so to speak. What legendary, real-life fighters are reminiscent of Clinton, Obama and John McCain? As a kid growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, I was often glued to the TV set watching the Friday nights fights from Madison Square Garden. Partly, it was the wonderful, exotic names--Kid Gavilan was one of my favorites. But mainly I was intrigued by the contrasting styles of the sluggers, counter punchers, southpaws and so forth. And in boxing, style counts for a lot, as it does in politics.
The other day, I tracked down the Boxing Hall of Fame historian Bert Randolph Sugar, and asked him to share his pugilistic insights on the three political heavyweights still in the ring.
The author of 80 books, Sugar, 72, answered the phone at his home in, of all places, Chappaqua, New York, where Bill and Hillary also live--and nearby. "I can see their house," he says. "Seamus, their dog, leaves presidential souvenirs on my lawn."
As soon as I popped the question, Sugar was off and running. "The person that Hillary reminds me of is Jake LaMotta. He had grit, guts. He was a rough, tough brawler. He didn't mind taking two to the face to land one to the body." LaMotta was the middleweight champion when, on the night of February 14, 1951 in Chicago, Sugar Ray Robinson dethroned him in the 13th round. The ending of that brutal fight, which some call the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, was immortalized in the movie, Raging Bull. In the movie, when the referee mercifully stops the fight as LaMotta is pummeled on the ropes, Jake defiantly shouts at Robinson: "You never got me down, Ray, you never got me down." That, Bert Sugar says, "reminds me of Hillary."
In his book, Boxing's Greatest Fighters, Sugar ranks Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong as the top two of all time. His third best, who lost only once in his first 136 fights, was the featherweight champion Willie Pep, who fought mainly in the 1940s and 50s. "Obama is a Willie Pep," Sugar says. "Pep had great moves, and was always on the move. He once won a round without throwing a punch. He was as eloquent in his movements as Obama is in his speech. And you couldn't lay a glove on him." Indeed, Sugar, who prefers Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, thinks Obama's dazzling style has allowed him to elude potential haymakers such as his association with the Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright, Jr.
In recent weeks, John McCain has portrayed himself as an amalgam of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. McCain's incorporation of several styles and images reminds Bert Sugar of the 1920s heavyweight Gene Tunney. "Tunney was a boxer with predecessors," is the way Sugar puts it. "He appropriated from others. He would take a little of this fighter, James J. Corbett, a little of that fighter, Benny Leonard, a little from Hank Dillon, a light heavyweight champion. And that made him what he was." Tunney had a highly successful career, losing only once in 83 bouts, the loss occurring in a 1922 bout when he absorbed a terrible beating from Harry "The Windmill" Greb. "Tunney's blood was all over everybody in the first five rows," Sugar says. But like McCain, who was bloodied in the 2000 South Carolina primary and left for dead by Karl Rove and his boys, Tunney's tenacity and smarts ultimately paid off. In four subsequent bouts with Greb, he won them all.
Last year, Bert Sugar and the fabled boxing trainer Angelo Dundee coauthored the book, My View From the Corner. Sugar suggested I give his friend Angie a call, which I did. Dundee, gregarious and energetic-sounding at 86-years old, said he didn't follow politics. "I know boxing; I don't know anything else," he assured me. But when I asked Dundee, who trained Muhammad Ali and George Foreman among other champions, about Willie Pep, you could almost see his eyes widening. "Oh, God. The most magnificent boxer I ever saw. He was so graceful. It was like watching a ballet dancer in mid-air. He was my hero. I told him: 'Willie, you were the greatest I ever saw.'"
And come Election Day in November, John McCain may discover what Hillary Clinton already knows: it's hard to beat somebody as talented as Willie Pep.