Saturday, 29 February 2020

Strikers, brawlers and the greatest ever comeback in sport

Another great feast of sport last weekend, albeit disappointing that Everton continued to fail to register a win away at a "big club", in this case Arsenal, where they haven't won this century, despite the Gunners long and steady decline. The Toffees started well enough with Dominic Calvert-Lewin scoring in the first minute to continue his rich vein of goal scoring form. DCL has registered seven goals in the nine Premier League games since Carlo Ancelotti took over, though his improvement started under Duncan Ferguson with 3 in 4 games if you credit him with forcing Victor Lindelhof's own goal at Old Trafford, which I do even if the official stats don't.

I went on record towards the end of last season saying that I was impressed with the improvement in DCL's all round game, the question was whether he could score enough goals to justify a starting position in the team. I had some hope but wasn't convinced as he just didn't seem to get into scoring positions often enough. Ferguson and Ancelotti seem to have told him not to allocate so much effort into putting himself about the pitch, where he was perhaps overdoing the effort for the team and certainly working a shift every time. He seems to be staying within the outer edges of the penalty area more (an old Shearer tip) meaning he's nearer to the goalmouth action when it happens. Goal hanging it was called when I was at school but you know strikers are there to score....  Anyway, it seems to have worked. I'm not sure he'll turn into a really big scorer but he already looks as reliable a striker as Graeme Sharp, who also came to Everton young and took a while to hit his scoring stride. As Sharp went on to become Everton's second highest ever scorer behind only Dixie Dean, that's a very good role model for DCL. Such achievements are a long way off yet but DCL looks to be on the right track at the moment.

The game against Arsenal revealed two poor defensive teams on the day and Everton's laxness cost them. Ancelotti's face was like thunder for at least one of the goals conceded as he looked around at his back room team in silent fury. The stats show Djibril Sidibe is one of the Premier League's most dangerous full backs going forward but defensively his positional sense is appalling and I can't understand how he got into France's World Cup squad. But although it was defence that cost Everton - and notwithstanding my praise above - Calvert-Lewin should have scored a hat trick on the day and, had he done so, Everton would surely have won.

The better quality entertainment came in the rugby and boxing. England rediscovered their mojo against Ireland and from what I saw of it the Wales-France game was a dramatic and titanic struggle, not always of the highest quality but in a way that added to the excitement. As was clear from their win against England, France have improved a lot and are serious contenders this year. The game was very tight and a bit fractious erupting in a large fracas involving most of the two teams' players on the final whistle. While many spectators would be appalled I confess I find such incidents add to the drama. Of course it's pretty much all handbags these days as, even with the red mist in their eyes, they know it's all being captured by camera so barging, grabbing and bad mouthing are the order of the day. It's a very controlled heat of the moment! But then I have always thought that red mist is actually an extremely brief phenomenon and that after even a second aggressors know what they are doing.

However, what I always find striking is that in rugby such scenes are greeted with a shrug whereas in football they are emblazoned across the media with headlines branding them disgraceful with comments about poor role models for the young etc. I'm not quite sure why this is the case. Rugby players seem to be excused because of the sport's higher physical contact but to me that's perverse: they're used to strong physical contact. It's in the lower or zero contact sports where I can understand a line being crossed producing a strong reaction. And just because they're highly paid celebrities why would anyone expect them to be role models any more than say, er, a prince in the royal family?

When it cuts up a bit rough I would always want to see my team piling in and supporting their mates: I don't think it says much for team spirit otherwise. Surely this can be explained to any youngsters watching - you fly in and support your team mates, let off verbal steam (always satisfying!) but don't strike out.

Which brings me nicely to the sport in which you do strike out with the aim of hurting your opponent, boxing. Mrs H doesn't understand why I have any interest in boxing and hates me pointing out a slow motion replay or still photo of a big punch landing. I try to explain that, whether you like it or not, boxing is one of the fundamental sports: who can run or swim the fastest, who can jump the furthest or highest, who can throw the furthest and who can win fights. Games in which you hit a ball or other object with your body or an implement hold the most interest for me but it's not where sport started. Naturally, I never win that (verbal) fight....

And no, of course I didn't pay 25 quid and get up at 5am to watch the Fury-Wilder rematch, I watched extended highlights on youtube the next morning. But that was enough to see how impressive Fury was. I also re-watched the highlights of the first fight. The comparison was stark. Even on extended highlights the first fight looked very even indeed and, while most pundits felt Fury won it, you could see why the judges scored it a draw. Both boxers got on the front foot a lot and pressed forward, both frequently had to step back and defend. The second fight highlights had hardly an instance of Wilder coming forward. Fury's victory, with 29 wins and the draw behind him stopping a boxer with 42 wins and the one draw, looked overwhelming.

Fury is a complex character but he's a skilful and intelligent boxer. He said that something clicked during the first fight, which he was quite probably heading to lose before it did. Remarkably he changed his trainer only a few weeks before the second fight. He told the world this was because he had decided he needed to be coached to attack much more. Fury of course is crazy - as in daft as a brush but also as in has experienced mental health issues - so his opponent might have felt this was a bluff. After all, surely it would be crazy for a boxer to reveal such a change in tactics before the fight. And to try to make such a radical change in such a short time. But that's exactly what he did.

Fury has always impressed with his movement, having an ability to duck and weave far beyond the flexibility of even much smaller boxers. Martin Samuel made an extravagant claim in his Daily Mail column a few days after the fight - that Fury has broken the mould for boxers in the way that Usain Bolt did for sprinters. In the case of Bolt the question was as follows. What if there was a sprinter who could burst out of the blocks like 5ft 9in Maurice Green but had the rangy stride of a man eight inches taller? If tall men could get into a sprint as soon as the pistol fired then all 100m runners would be 6ft 5in tall. The answer was they couldn't - until Boult. And once he started running he was eating up the ground at a rate impossible for any rival. Samuel went on to say:
"Suppose there was a fighter who could move like Ali but with the size of Nikolai Valuev? Fury is the Bolt of boxing. He has the whiplash movement of a small man and the power of a big man. To see Fury avoid danger belies his weight, height and build. Ali could dance too, but he was six inches shorter. Fury has redefined the heavyweight division. He is breaking ground as Bolt did by making us re-imagine the possible."

"I don't have massive legs or a big muscular body" said Fury in 2014. "I have the legs of a racehorse not a carthorse. I would have been successful at any sport". I'm not sure about the last point - some chaps are just too big and heavy to be great football players for example. But Samuel thinks Fury can be the greatest heavyweight, the way Bolt was the greatest sprinter, because he defies the limits of physiology. It's still a long way to go for Fury to assume the stature of a Muhammad Ali. In the modern world the distractions of too much fame and money, together with the longer gap between fights, might well make that impossible. But although Fury is already 31 he still has time to establish a legacy. Ali famously won the world heavyweight title back at the age of 32 (many of us vividly remember Harry Carpenter's incredulous commentary) and he won it a third time at the age of 36. Vladimir Klitchko was 39 when Fury beat him. The question might be whether Fury can keep his marbles together that long.

I heard another remarkable claim, this time on the radio: that Fury's comeback from his problems with depression, drug use and weight gain (he ballooned to over 28 stones) was "the greatest comeback in the history of sport". Many thought that came last year when Tiger Woods won his 15th major at Augusta at the age of 43 and after an 11 year hiatus during which he had his own serious mental health, private life and injury problems. Personally I'd say the Woods achievement was more surprising and difficult, particularly given the number and strength of the competition in a golf major.

But I'd stand by what I said last April*: neither of them are the greatest comeback in the history of sport. Based on what I've read I gave that to Ben Hogan, who survived a head on crash with a Greyhound bus resulting in a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots. His doctors said he might never walk again, let alone play golf competitively. Despite lifelong circulation problems and other physical limitations which meant Hogan subsequently struggled towards the end of an 18 hole round, he won the US Open within 7 months of returning to golf and went on to record one of the greatest seasons in the history of professional golf in 1953, winning 5 of the 6 tournaments he entered, including 3 majors.

Woods's comeback was undoubtedly remarkable but benefited from the skill of modern surgeons in repairing his back and knee injuries. Yes, he achieved some of the big victories in his career playing in pain, but Hogan won 6 of his 9 majors playing in pain. You get a sense of that achievement from the fact that Hogan only won 11 tournaments after his accident, compared with 53 before it.

So, of the two striking claims about Fury, my view is that Samuel's just might turn out to be right but I don't buy that his defeat of Wilder was the greatest comeback in the history of sport.

P.S.  Maybe post-accident Hogan is Brooks Koepka's role model: Koepka has a total of 7 PGA Tour wins in 5 seasons on the tour but 4 of them were majors and another a World Golf Championship event. Which makes me think - Fury was great and the rugby is entertaining but for me these are brief highs compared with the fascination of the golf season. Roll on the Masters!

 *Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright posted 18 April 2019

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