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Exceptional Skills vs. an Exceptional Prime

Exceptional Skills vs. an Exceptional Prime
by J. R. Workman

"In defensive operations, ingenuity is of more avail than machines" — Vitruvius, On Architecture

Exceptional Skills vs. an Exceptional Prime

Boxing Wisdom Extends to Self-Defense 

Combat knowledge borrowed from the sport of boxing has been employed extensively in the combat systems of several nation's military's (the Russian Armed Forces, the British Armed Forces, etc.). The United States Army Combatives Course mentions how knowledge from the sport of boxing was used to develop the combatives program for the US Army: 

"The committee began to develop a program based around wrestling, boxing and the various martial arts they had experienced..." (UNITED STATES ARMY COMBATIVES COURSE, History of Army Combatives)

Since the combat-based skills derived from boxing can be applied to self-defense situations outside of the sporting arena it will be useful for us to look into an important dichotomy present in the sport of boxing and that is the comparison between a boxer having exceptional skills versus a boxer having an exceptional prime and which of these qualities is superior. This is a major debate that boxing aficionados have been discussing for decades and addressing it will help to put the importance of skills/technique and of prime age when it comes to self-defense situations into a proper perspective

Skills & Prime Defined

Before diving deeper into this issue it is necessary to define what this article means by the terms exceptional skills and exceptional prime.

The term skills as adopted by this article could be understood interchangeably with technical ability, craftiness, slickness, or technique and it concerns the boxer's ability to implement the techniques or moves he knows successfully in a boxing match. Additionally skills also refers to the boxer's ability to strategize in the moment and to make intelligent, creative/innovative, and practical adjustments in the ring that can be used to outsmart and outmaneuver his opponent.

The boxer's ability to read, time, figure out, and counter his opponent's attacks as well as his ability to see the attacks coming soon enough to be able to defend against them effectively is contingent upon the boxer's skill level. Skill is something that takes hard work, dedication, determination, and proper application of intelligence, creativity, and talent to acquire. Whereas talent is entirely genetic. 

Prime here refers to the boxer's innate or genetically predetermined physical gifts as well as his natural potential or aptitude for acquiring athletic skills (also known as athletic talent)―prime can also be understood synonymously with what is known as an athlete's physical peak or the age at which an athlete's body is in the best shape it will ever be in his entire life. Usually an athlete's physical gifts and athletic talent as well as his ability to use his physical gifts and athletic talent begin to decline once he ages past his physical peak. 

It is important to point out that an athlete's physical gifts such as his height and reach, his bone structure, the length of his muscle bellies and the points where his muscle bellies insert into his tendons, etc., are all influenced by his genetics and that all of these physical traits effect the athlete's potential to develop greater size, strength, stamina, and speed. 

Most boxers reach their primes at around their late-teens to mid-thirties but there is no set age or age range where all boxers reach their primes―some boxers reach their primes earlier or later than other boxers do. Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history back in 1986 at only 20 years old when he defeated Trevor Berbick and earned the WBC title. Whereas Lennox Lewis had a much later prime than Mike Tyson did. Most boxing experts would put Lennox Lewis's prime at somewhere between the time when he defeated Tommy Morrison at age 30 and the time when he defeated David Tua at age 35. 

The Analysis

This may sound ironic but several of the boxers who are believed by the majority of boxing experts to have had the most unbeatable primes in all of boxing history such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Roy Jones Jr., and Mike Tyson did not necessarily have the "greatest" technical skills or technique levels compared to other boxers in their eras. In Sugar Ray Robinson's era Willie Pep was understood to be a slicker and more skilled boxer than he was by most boxing critics at the time, in Roy Jones Jr.'s era Floyd Mayweather Jr. was seen as a more crafty and a more skillful boxer than he was, in Mike Tyson's era Pernell Whitaker was considered harder to hit and was thought to have had a higher skill level than Mike Tyson did, etc. What Sugar Ray Robinson, Roy Jones Jr., and Mike Tyson all had in common that stood out was their exceptional talent or natural/athletic aptitudes for boxing i.e., they all had sharp reflexes and eye-catching physical gifts―think Mike Tyson's power, Roy Jones Jr.'s agility, and Sugar Ray Robinson's ranginess. Historically boxers with exceptional primes have had remarkable physical traits such as unbelievable power, speed, or agility, or tremendous size advantages when it came to height or reach (for example, a prime Thomas Hearns' remarkable height and reach for a welterweight―which was documented as a height of 6' 1", a reach of 78", and a weight of 145 lbs when he first fought Sugar Ray Leonard) which helped to distinguish them from the vast majority of other boxers in their era. Hence, history demonstrates that the boxers with the greatest primes of all times tended to possess great (but not necessarily the best) technical skills ever. Although clearly someone with extraordinary skills combined with an exceptional prime like Floyd Mayweather Jr. would be the closest example of an ideal boxer that anyone has ever witnessed in real-life and as we will see later on statistics from CompuBox back this up. 

In his prime Sugar Ray Robinson's record was 129 wins with only 1 defeat (which was to Jake LaMotta who is considered one of the greatest middleweights of all times and who Sugar Ray Robinson beat 5 times outside of that occasion) and 2 draws when he suffered his second loss which was to Randolph Turpin in 1951. 

In Mike Tyson's prime he won his first 19 matches by either knockout or stoppage and he attained 12 of those victories in the first round. 

In his match against Vinny Pazienza (while in his prime) Roy Jones jr. became the first boxer in CompuBox history to go a whole round without even being hit once: 

"In the fourth round, Jones became the first fighter in CombuBox history to go an entire round without being hit by his opponent. Pazienza was credited with throwing five punches and landing zero." (Roy Jones Jr. vs. Vinny Pazienza, BoxRec)

We can plainly see that the empirical data contained up above backs up the theory that an exceptional prime merged with good skills leads to a nearly impeccable performance for boxers competing at their physical peaks. 

A highly-technical and crafty boxer like a James Toney or a Nicolino Locche has outstanding levels of skill/technique, but both of these men were beaten in their primes because they did not have the highest possible degrees of talent and athleticism or genetic gifts. They were just not the genetic freaks of nature or the athletic peculiarities that the boxers with the best primes in history were. James Toney lost to the less technical/less skillful and more athletic/talented Roy Jones Jr. in 1994 (while still in his prime). And Nicolino Locche lost to Vicente Milan Derado in 1959 and Abel Laudonio in 1964 (when he was also still in his prime). 

The boxers who had the best primes―on the other hand―tended to lose matches once their athleticism slowed down when they were no longer in their primes because they had to rely on their skills more and more and they could not rely as much on their talent anymore since their athletic abilities had declined (Sugar Ray Robinson: 174 Wins 19 Losses 6 Draws, Roy Jones Jr.: 66 Wins 9 Losses 0 Draws, and Mike Tyson: 50 Wins 6 Losses 0 Drawsall lost outside of their primes). 

Roy Jones Jr. always performed better than Bernard Hopkins did while he was in his prime (demolishing big names such as James Toney and Vinny Pazienza at his peak) but Bernard Hopkins was well-skilled and that is why he was able to defeat top fighters at an older age (defeating Felix Trinidad in 2001 at age 46 and Oscar De La Hoya in 2004 at age 49). Roy Jones Jr. relied heavily on his athleticism even as he aged which is why he could not compete as well as Bernard Hopkins could at an older age. Roy Jones Jr. dominated Bernard Hopkins when they fought in 1993 (back when they were both in their primes) but Roy Jones Jr. lost to Bernard Hopkins in 2010 when they got older. 

The Best Ever

Floyd Mayweather Jr. who is often considered the most skillful boxer of all times due to his impressive defensive, counter-punching, and strategic abilities has been ranked as the greatest pound for pound boxer in history by the BoxRec website (a popular boxing records website):

"Popular boxing records site Boxrec have given Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather a bump up to number one on top of their pound for pound best boxers of all time list." (Boxrec Rank Mayweather the Greatest Boxer of All Time by Niall Doran)

The following is the ranking of the top 10 greatest pound for pound boxers in history according to the BoxRec website with Floyd Mayweather Jr. listed as number 1: 

Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been able to defeat competitive younger boxers (such as Canelo Alvarez back in 2013 at the age of 36 and Marcos back Maidana in 2014 at the age of 37) even into his late thirties because of his immensely high levels of skill

According to an article from the ESPN website. Floyd Mayweather Jr. while being considered the most skilled boxer of all times also had one of the greatest primes in all of boxing history too:

"Statistically speaking, Mayweather clearly reigns supreme over his contemporaries. But he also stacks up very well against history's pugilistic pantheon. CompuBox stats suggest Mayweather sits high atop a pile of fighters whose numbers were measured during their designated primes, tabulated using ringside figures and fight films. In a plus/minus comparison, greats such as Marvin Hagler (plus-17 percent) and Sugar Ray Leonard (plus-13 percent) don't come close. Roberto Duran (plus-8 percent), Thomas Hearns (plus-6 percent) and Muhammad Ali (plus-4 percent) fall short, too. Only heavyweight great Joe Louis, at plus-26 percent, approached Mayweather's peak." (Mayweather Measures up with Greats, ESPN)

As we can see from the ESPN article quoted up above even though Floyd Mayweather Jr. is typically recognized primarily for his incredible boxing skills he also had an exceptional prime as well. From his debut in 1996 up to early 1998 Floyd Mayweather Jr. had won most of his fights by knockout or TKO. At the choice age of 28 a prime Floyd Mayweather Jr. was gifted with such devastating power that he was able to manhandle and easily knockout Arturo Gatti (who at the time was the WBC Super Lightweight Champion of the world) in just the 6th round. 

So neither pure skill nor pure talent and athleticism are the only necessary factors when it comes to going down in history as the best boxer ever―it is more a matter of being well-rounded or being the whole package and having a lot of talent and natural ability and physical/athletic gifts alongside the skills/technique. Floyd Mayweather Jr. in his prime had everything which is why he has gone down in history as arguably the greatest boxer there ever was. 


Skill is still the most critical advantage and the most valuable asset to have in a boxing match because of the amount of talent and athleticism that is necessary to beat skill/technique. Skill is the best quality in all of boxing for what it is worth. Outstanding talent and outstanding athleticism when combined with good skill may beat outstanding skill head-on, but alone and separated from all of the other qualities―nothing beats skill. The fact that it takes such a phenomenal level of talent and athletic ability to defeat skill demonstrates that it has more value overall or in and of itself than any of the other qualities; it is just that outstanding talent and outstanding athleticism paired with good skills beats good talent and good athleticism paired with outstanding skills when you add it all together. It takes two qualities in this scenario (talent and athleticism) to out-do just one of them (skill); that is how important skill is. Obviously the highest degrees you have of all three of these qualities the more unbeatable you will be in a boxing match.

These same principles apply to self-defense scenarios as well. As a whole skill is always the most indispensable asset to have even when it comes to self-defense situations, but just like in the sport of boxing outstanding talent and outstanding athleticism (or in other words an exceptional prime) when accompanied with good skills will generally beat outstanding skills when those outstanding skills are paired with merely "good" levels of talent and merely "good" levels of athleticism instead of incredible levels of each of those qualities. Since principles (fundamental truths) are immutable this concept applies just as validly and consistently on the street as it does in a boxing ring or anywhere else. For an ideal or perfect boxer/combatant to exist he would have to be outstanding in all of these areas and he would have to have no weaknesses for his opponent to capitalize on, this way he could remain unbeatable. 

Stick with Sparring & Private Lessons

Having said all of this, although the sport of boxing is useful to study for the learning and examination of self-defense techniques―it is extremely dangerous to compete in as a sport and it is heavily opposed by the bulk of medical professionals due to the physical damage it inflicts (such as concussions, increased risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease later on in life, etc.). The American Public Health Association called for a ban on the sport of boxing in its 1985 Policy Statement entitled Boxing Should Be Banned. This is not the only call for a ban of the sport of boxing released from medical professionals either. The Australian Medical Association also released a Position Statement labeled AMA Position Statement on Combat Sport (2015) calling for a ban on boxing as an Olympic sports as well as discouraging the promotion of other dangerous combat sports that can cause serious injuries. 

For these reasons, competitive sports fighting (except when the sport does not cause grave and/or unnecessary damage) is highly demoralized by a large number of physicians. 

Boxing training can still be performed safely, but engaging in sparring instead of competitive sports fighting is much less harmful on your body. Sparring is an excellent means of obtaining self-defense skills, but because of the self-restraint which is usually practiced in it and due to the guidance of the instructors, sparring is much safer than competitive sports fighting is for your health. 

Sparring also takes place in a more monitored environmentyou can adjust the intensity level of the sparring to your heart's contenttherefore sparring is actually a supreme and safe form of training when it comes to improving self-defense skills. 

Private boxing lessons that involve man-to-man instruction and an adequate amount of high-quality sparring partners are to be favored over gym classes and group lessons because they enable you to practice from homewhich is the exemplary and most fitting/agreeable training domain there isor any other desirable setting and it also ensures more highly-concentrated training designed more particularly for you than you would generally have at a gym or if you were training in a group; and this is optimal for acquiring self-defense skills. 

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