Floyd's skill vs. Matthysse's power

Plenty of room for brains and brawn in boxing

Updated: May 22, 2013, 2:24 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

When Manny Pacquiao charged directly into the path of Juan Manuel Marquez's counter right hand and crashed face-first to the canvas, my companions sprang to their feet as if the couch they were sitting on was equipped with an ejector seat. It was an involuntary reaction to one of the most spectacular and emphatic knockouts in recent memory, a shock-and-awe moment that stirred something deep inside.

Five months later, the same gathering of hard-boiled boxing writers watched spellbound as Floyd Mayweather Jr. befuddled Robert Guerrero for 12 one-sided rounds with a balletic exhibition of boxing virtuosity. Instead of the visceral reaction elicited by Marquez's knockout of Pacquiao, Mayweather's masterful display was met with hushed tones of reverence.

"He's so good," repeated one pay-per-view cohort, as Mayweather evaded Guerrero's crude attacks with clever upper-body movement and artful pirouettes, all the while punishing his foe with punches of unerring accuracy. This time, however, our appreciation was born of intellect, not emotion -- two fundamental components of human nature that struggle for dominance as fiercely as boxers in the ring.

While Marquez's victory was the result of technical expertise and calculated violence, the manner in which Lucas Matthysse dispatched Lamont Peterson last Saturday was as atavistic as it gets -- a frightening display of raw power and unabashed ferocity. I watched alone this time, eyes agog, almost forgetting to breathe during the third and final round as Matthysse's punches landed with terrifying finality.

The Mayweather-Guerrero and Matthysse-Peterson fights represent the two competing faces of pugilistic perfection: one a triumph of skill, the other a victory of brute force. There's plenty of room for both in boxing, and the best of the best -- Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard, for example -- blended the two elements in exactly the proper proportion to create near-perfect fighting men.

How we respond to various boxing styles probably says as much about us as it does the combatants.

The appeal of a toe-to-toe brawl or a sensational knockout is easy to understand, even if you're not a fight fan. That's pretty much the only reason television occasionally features boxing during sports highlight segments. Although they might not understand why, even folks who don't know Andre Ward from Ward Cleaver love to watch sensational knockouts.

Like sex, violence is an easy sell on TV, and few legally sanctioned activities ladle out graphic carnage as generously as a free-swinging boxing match between two fighters bent on rendering each other unconscious. Technical acumen and the application of a well-considered and nuanced approach are an acquired taste and appeal to an understandably smaller audience.

Among the cognoscenti, however, boxing is indeed a sweet science, a highly stylized martial art in which skills can be honed to such a fine extent that even the most physically imposing threat can be overcome.

There was, nevertheless, a time when standing your ground and trading blow for blow was the only form of fistfighting considered sufficiently manly to be worthy of praise. It's an attitude that still resonates today despite the passage of time and the questionable effects of so-called civilized society.

It was, of course, fighters who ignored the conventions of the day who were the innovators, devising defensive methods and fresh avenues of attack. Men such as Jack Broughton, Daniel Mendoza and William "Bendigo" Thompson all introduced new wrinkles that helped prizefighting's evolution from crude brawling to the sport we know today.

[+] EnlargeJack Johnson
John D. Kisch/Getty ImagesJack Johnson's attractive style inspired many fighters, including Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather.

Foremost among innovators of the gloved era was Jack Johnson, whose cerebral, defensive style set the template for boxers such as Muhammad Ali, Pernell Whitaker and Mayweather. Fans who are exasperated by Mayweather's cautious modus operandi would have really hated watching Johnson play cat-and-mouse with his often-hapless foes.

It is worth noting that the most commercially successful among the defensive wizards -- Benny Leonard, Willie Pep, Johnson, Whitaker, Mayweather and Ali -- represented the absolute pinnacle of their particular brand of boxing. Although a technically limited power puncher such as Earnie Shavers can achieve star status, artful dodgers below the genius level flounder at the box office and seldom rise to prominence.

The never-ending duel between brain and brawn (powered by the disparate dynamics of intellect and emotion) is at the core of boxing, creating the same delicious tension that is at the heart of the human condition. They are the yin and yang of boxing, the duality that reveals the true nature of sport's atheistic qualities.

Although Matthysse and Mayweather represent the zenith of opposing approaches, the majority of fighters fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Nevertheless, they all cater, to one degree or another, to the human desire to participate in or watch violence.

A study, detailed in the journal "Psychopharmacology," revealed that the same clusters of brain cells involved in other rewards are also behind the craving for violence. According to livescience.com, "humans seem to crave violence just like they do sex, food or drugs."

"We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved," said Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

"Psychology Today" defines dopamine as a "neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers" and also "helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them."

Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manuel Marquez
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesMayweather has developed into a master at avoiding punishment.

Understanding the role brain chemistry plays in our lives brings boxing's underlying appeal into sharper focus. It also explains why knockout artists have generally been the sport's biggest attractions. If you're craving a dopamine boost, you might as well go for the super-size dose that a slugfest or savage knockout provides.

Admiration for a marvelously gifted and highly disciplined boxer such as Mayweather is a logical and warranted reaction, but nothing gets the juices flowing quite like the negation of art by primal power.

In his seminal novel, "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison writes of a bout he saw contested between a professional fighter and a man with no boxing skills. The yokel, as Ellison called the unfortunate novice, was taking a terrific beating until "suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger's posterior."

If there's a man capable of doing likewise to Mayweather before the reigning pound-for-pound champ rides into the sunset in a diamond-encrusted Bentley, it just might be a fighter such as Matthysse.

A fair number of Floyd's opponents have shaken him with a flush punch, but none of them have been able to land a telling follow-up blow. His survival skills and recuperative powers have always been more than enough to see him through pretty much unscathed. Matthysse, however, is that rare fighter who punches so hard that even a glancing blow can end a fight. He also has a chin that appears capable of withstanding Mayweather's educated arsenal long enough to earn the opportunity to land a fight-changing punch.

All this, of course, is idle speculation at this point. Mayweather is fighting seven pounds above Matthysse and has more lucrative and far less dangerous options.

Even so, should Matthysse's profile continue to rise and public demand increase to a point where the match is the biggest moneymaker available, Floyd just might take the bait. If that were to happened, it would rate as a fight in the Ali-Frazier mold, a classic encounter between boxing's twin towers of brains and brawn, where intellect does battle with emotion and the sport wins almost every time.

ALSO SEE