Call it the counterpuncher's conundrum: If an opponent won't come to you, you can bore everybody stiff waiting, or you can suck it up and go to him.
Winky Wright is, by nature, a counterpuncher. He doesn't just put the earmuffs on; his guard is like a full ski mask: high, tight and nearly impenetrable, designed to pick the other man's punches off until Wright is ready to throw counter shots. Like any good counter-punching artist, Wright turns his opponent's attacks into his own offensive opportunities.
But the former undisputed junior middleweight champion has shown he can take the fight to his opponent when he has to. Wright pressed forward in his 1999 fight with Fernando Vargas. He brawled in '03 with the overmatched Angel Hernandez. He followed Jermain Taylor to the ropes in '06, doing his best work when he chose to lead rather than counter.
And when he fought fellow boxer/counterpuncher Bernard Hopkins last July, there was no mistaking who forced the fight. Wright came forward, doing his part to make a dreadful chess match a little more palatable.
But he paid the price for straying from his natural counter-punching tendencies; Hopkins landed the cleaner blows and won a unanimous decision.
It marked Wright's first defeat in nearly eight years. And six months later, it's becoming apparent just how damaging that loss was to his career.
Every mainstream name at or around Wright's weight has found himself a big-money dance partner for '08. Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad boogied two Saturdays ago to the sweet sounds of cash registers opening and closing. Kelly Pavlik will cut a rug -- and his pay-per-view teeth -- against Taylor in three weeks. Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe will hit the floor to make each other hit the canvas on April 19. And Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather are lined up for a Sept. 13 rematch to last year's record-smashing waltz.
Winky, it seems, is the odd man out. He's spent six months on the sidelines, has nothing lined up and doesn't appear to have much hope of landing a bout with any of the aforementioned stars any time soon.
He's faced with the counterpuncher's conundrum all over again: Do I wait for one of these big fights to come to me, or do I move forward and make something happen? In other words, does Wright have to take a step back and a step down, fight a nonsuperstar and get a new winning streak going in order to position himself for the fights he really wants?
"Why should I go fight these lesser guys when I know I'm above them?" Wright responded. "You got De La Hoya. He's a steady loser; he lost two of his last three. Taylor lost his last fight. All of these fighters lose. But they have opponents who want to fight them again. I have nobody that wants to fight me because they know they're in for a tough fight. They're ducking me, they don't want to fight. That's why I'm left out.
"They want me to fight [Mikkel] Kessler. Why do I need to fight these dudes? I'm at the top. Arthur Abraham and people like that, I have no interest in them. For what?"
It sounds like Wright, a tricky southpaw, has a grasp on the reality of why the big fights aren't coming his way. His primary selling points as an opponent from 2004-07, when he scored a string of marquee matches, were his unbeaten streak and his upper-crust pound-for-pound status. The Hopkins fight ended the former and damaged the latter, giving the superstars an excuse not to fight him.
What Wright isn't grasping is what he may need to do about it.
"He doesn't want to fight tune-ups?" marveled HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. "Oscar De La Hoya's talking about a tune-up, and this guy, who's never been an attraction, wants to walk into a multimillion-dollar fight? On what basis? Winky Wright is not Oscar De La Hoya -- nobody is -- and you've got to go out and fight. He can demand all he wants, and he can wait all he wants, but the longer he waits, the farther the distance is since he last won a fight."
Lester Bedford, a veteran promoter, manager and broadcaster, agrees with Merchant that Wright will do enormous damage to his career if he stays inactive much longer.
"You have a diminishing value the longer you're out," Bedford said. "Unless there's some real intrigue about you, like a Sugar Ray Leonard, where there's anticipation over you coming back, you can't sit out for a year and come back and have the same value.
"One of the problems is these guys get spoiled. They make that real big money, and then it's hard to get them motivated to turn around and fight for significantly less. But the inactivity, at his age, is really going to hurt him."
Wright isn't so terribly old. He isn't in danger of being renamed Wrinkly Wright. But at 36, he isn't so terribly young either.
The good news is, because of his tremendous skill level, he hasn't taken much punishment, and for a guy with 56 fights on his ledger, he doesn't seem to be on the downside. In his past three fights, Wright drew with then-middleweight champ Taylor in a close fight he deserved to win, he nearly shut out Ike Quartey and he moved up two weight classes and lost a close decision to Hopkins, a living legend.
Most boxers would give their left pinky to be Winky. He still has his skills. He's not hurting for money (fights against Shane Mosley, Trinidad, Taylor and Hopkins all paid handsomely). He has fought on either HBO or HBO PPV 13 times. He's a sure shot for the Hall of Fame. It's a career worthy of envy.
But his current situation is not so enviable.
Wright fought in France, Monaco, Germany, Argentina, England and South Africa trying to make a name for himself in the '90s. To an extent, it worked, and he reaped the benefits in the 2000s. But it's a lot to ask of any man to expect him to go the road-warrior route for a second time, a full decade after he thought he was done with it. That rules out fights with the likes of Kessler, Abraham or Felix Sturm.
And a semi-intriguing fight against Vernon Forrest is out of the question because Wright considers Forrest his friend. For the same reason, he isn't interested in facing Jones. ("Then he's got too many friends," Merchant quipped.)
The obvious advice is to tell Winky to take a fight on Versus or ESPN2 against a nondescript opponent, get a new winning streak started and remain on the superstars' radar. It may even be advisable for him to tank it a bit and look like a faded fighter, improving the apparent risk-to-reward ratio for potential opponents.
That's the obvious advice. It doesn't mean it's the right advice.
The last time everyone told a big-name, veteran fighter that he was mismanaging his career, it was Hopkins, who was 36 when he scored his breakout victory over Trinidad. "The Executioner" followed that up by fighting Carl Daniels, sitting out for 13 months and then tanking at the box office in his hometown against Morrade Hakkar.
The supposed mismanagement worked out brilliantly when Hopkins landed a fight with De La Hoya soon after that paid $14 million.
Maybe, like Hopkins, Wright will find opportunity by going against conventional wisdom.
It's not easy to win a fight backing up. But the most skilled of counterpunchers can do it.
Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.