It was a meeting of two diametric body types: the impeccably chiseled vs. the swollen flab of the aesthetically aloof. An experiment to determine what a real fighter should look like.
There was James Toney, the short guy who’d eaten his way out of the 160-pound division up to a rotund 217 pounds. Once referred to by HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley as a “fat tub of goo,” Toney’s body was soft, with a paunch that peeked over his trunks, and a waistline that threatened to jailbreak his butt crack from his ever-lowering shorts. By conventional standards, he didn’t look like much of a fighter.
And there was Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight division’s elder statesman who, at 41, was still a physical marvel. As he grew older and bigger, his neck got shorter and thicker, slowly consumed by sloping trapezius muscles. His shoulders became cannonballs and his weightlifter chest deepened and expanded like armour. He resembled the marble statues of ancient Greece, or perhaps more notably, the copiously oiled bodybuilder bulk of Rocky Balboa.
Holyfield had also begun his career as a much smaller man. Unlike Toney, he worked up to the heavyweight ranks seeking greater glory and fortune. To help, Holyfield’s manager, Lou Duva, sought out Tim Hallmark, a fitness guru who would forge Holyfield’s body into what some purists considered a gaudy display of the human form.
Hallmark was first hired to help Holyfield prepare for cruiserweight champ Dwight Muhammed Qawi. After Holyfield won, Hallmark was asked to make the 190-pound fighter a heavyweight.
“I said ‘yeah, but what do you mean by heavyweight?’” Hallmark said.
“We want him big,” was the answer.
“They called it the Omega Project,” Hallmark recalled. “And they wanted him to get up to like 220.”
Hallmark cautioned them: any unneeded muscle would sap much-needed energy. As the boxing truism goes, punchers are born, not made. Extra weight only offers a marginal increase in power, if any.
Holyfield packed on 12 pounds in 1988, and continued to grow until he had heaped more than 25 onto his lean frame. When he met Toney in 2003, he weighed 219 pounds. Rumors swirled that Holyfield used steroids to help him gain weight. Those suspicions reignited when Holyfield’s name surfaced during two steroid investigations of pharmacies in 2007. Holyfield denied the allegations.
His conspicuous physique fascinated commentators, including Lampley, whose stentorian proclamations would bolster the legend of Holyfield’s fitness.
“Conventional wisdom is that Evander Holyfield is the best trained, best conditioned heavyweight in the sport and maybe in the history of the sport,” he exclaimed during Holyfield’s bout with Bert Cooper.
Holyfield acquired praise through years of grueling fights, including the 15-round battle of attrition with Qawi. But some ring observers saw a man who was naturally 190 pounds being weighed down by muscle, killing his stamina. Holyfield won fights with intellect and mental toughness more than lung capacity. He’d collected an array of barfighter techniques, hitting opponents below the belt or raking their noses and cheeks with his elbow. And he regularly employed the clinch, leading with his head as he went to hug his opponent.
Holyfield had effectively learned to stall, frustrate and catch breathers for himself. After eating too many of Holyfield’s headbutts in their first fight, Mike Tyson infamously bit a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear.
Toney was different. At 5’9, he was almost five inches shorter than Holyfield, his muscles lost islands in a rising sea. His bulky shimmer evoked none of the menace of pop-culture badasses. Even his nickname, “Lights Out,” might be mistaken for the final line of a children’s story.
When the pair met in Las Vegas, boxing’s glittering capital, Toney had just survived a punishing fight with Vassily Jirov, taking nearly 250 punches on his way to narrow victory. Jirov, known for fighting German shepherds in a closed hallway during his amateur days, was famously dedicated to his training. Toney outlasted him, knocking “The Tiger” down late in a split-decision win.
Both Holyfield and Toney were considered outstanding fighters, but Holyfield had the better earnings and reputation after knocking out the palpably violent Tyson and nearly beating champion Lennox Lewis. Holyfield would bring his own brand of relentlessness, fans thought, along with what some called world-class conditioning. Toney, conversely, was known as a hard partier who loved cheeseburgers and preferred sparring over other kinds of training.
Perhaps more than their resumes, the fighters were compared by their waistlines.
“The bottom line is, what kind of shape is James Toney in?” Showtime commentator Steve Albert observed. “We’ll soon find out.”
Little time elapsed in the fight before the outcome was certain. Toney’s waist didn’t matter. His boxing was economy of movement, his torso swiveling to offer him vast counterpunching options. His defense followed the shoulder roll tradition of the old days. Whenever Holyfield tried to punch Toney, the slickster used a suite of defensive maneuvers to create odd angles.
Nine rounds later, Holyfield’s corner threw in the towel.
Both men carried substantial extra weight into the ring, but it was the fat man who breathed easy. And yet, the fight did little to deter a movement across boxing towards bigger, more sculpted fighters. Big men with big muscles, like Michael Grant, had already been established as standards in the prize ring. Tyson came out of prison and quickly acquired a six-pack, and Lewis’ chest and arms grew throughout his career.
Holyfield, after all, was old for a prizefighter, and had suffered from high-profile health problems for years. And Toney had already distinguished himself as one of the finest technical boxers of his day. The outcome was unexpected by the sports books, but understandable.
While old-school trainers felt they had established their version of a good fighter’s body, Hallmark and celebrity trainers like Mackie Shilstone successfully led an insurgent school of thought among the sport’s age-old ideas. More conditioning coaches would follow, like Alex Ariza in the camp of Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao.
Though the fight’s outcome was conclusive, fans still debate what an ideal fighter’s body should look like, to the chagrin of the sport’s oldest experts.
Boxing’s roots reach all the way back to 1800s England, with influences from the ancient Greek martial art of pankration. The toughest fighters were immortalized in statues or mosaics, often with idealized musculature: big arms, huge chest and sprawling veins.
But weightlifting in boxing was far from becoming as rigorous as it is today. Bob Fitzimmons, one of the sport’s biggest stars until he retired in 1914, was renowned for his strength and power and won a heavyweight championship at only 167 pounds. He advocated running for seven or eight miles every day. And while he believed in training with dumbbells and a weighted bat, he never grew bulky.
Running has been a cornerstone of boxing training since then, along with jumping rope. Generally speaking, heavyweights of yesteryear had shredded, fit physiques, but lacked the same raw size as the Holyfield era.
Primo Carnera was the first blockbuster attraction to awe audiences with sheer mass. He was a circus strongman appropriately called the “Ambling Alp,” often weighing in at 275 pounds at a time when many heavyweights didn’t even crack 200. He collected a string of knockouts in the 1930s, with headlines to match. When Earnie Schaaf died shortly after losing to Carnera, the big Italian earned a dangerous reputation. But many thought that Schaaf’s earlier beating from Max Baer’s historically dangerous right hand was the real culprit.
Boxing lore alleges most of Carnera’s fights were fixed in his favor, and by the time Carnera challenged Baer, he was no longer considered invincible. In that fight, Carnera absorbed frightening punishment from Baer and was knocked down at least half a dozen times, showing little more than oafish technique and incredible heart.
Fat boxers could also grab headlines, but with skill. Even those men, like the infamous Tony Galento, were still partly viewed as sideshows.
Galento, a beer-guzzling New Jersey heavyweight who once fought an octopus, had skill and a left hook to be feared. He stood 5’8, and was 230 pounds of pasta and meatballs. Once, Galento was anointed “the bum of the month” and offered a chance to fight Joe Lewis. He was ultimately knocked out in four rounds, but not before he dropped Lewis with that sneaky left hook, proving that corpulence doesn’t negate good technique.
But the best fighters had both fitness and skill. During boxing’s golden age, championship fighters typically eschewed weightlifting. Jack Dempsey, for example, was known for speed and devastating power, and stayed in shape by jumping rope, chopping wood and swinging a sledgehammer.
Boxers also fought more often. The all-time great “Sugar” Ray Robinson went 11-0 when he first won the middleweight title in 1951, and sometimes fought more than 20 times in a year. The extra activity forced fighters to stay close to their fighting weight between bouts, the matches themselves giving them exercise that could never be properly replicated in training. Conversely, champions today usually fight two or three times a year at most. Floyd Mayweather was famously inactive while earning some of the highest paydays in the history of the sport.
Trainers agree that weightlifting surfaced within boxing in the 80s and 90s, partly as a way for fighters to move up to higher divisions where they might earn more lucrative fights.
Long-time trainer Abel Sanchez, most noted for his successful stewardship of Gennadiy Golovkin, has long maintained training methods consistent with the old ways. His stable is limited to eight or nine fighters at any time, and he doesn’t consult with strength and conditioning coaches or sports psychologists. His operation is just him, making his fighters do distance runs twice a week, and sprints three times a week.
“Weights have always been something that most fighters didn’t want to mess with because they thought it tightened them up,” he said.
Golovkin, a knockout artist known for his ability to surge late in fights, was long counted among the world’s best fighters.
“To me conditioning is not the ability to go 12 rounds,” Sanchez said. “Anybody can go 12 rounds. Conditioning is to be able to do in the 12th and 11th what you did in the first with the same kind of snap and energy. You can go 12 rounds and loaf the last four.”
Trainer Jeff Fenech became another old-guard boxing trainer after a fighting career distinguished by his conditioning and toughness. He fought at a blistering pace, regularly breaking his hands. Now, he preaches short, intense workouts. In his day, he ran three miles daily at a 15-minute pace, rested, then trained just an hour in the afternoon.
Good trainers tailor their methods for the fighter. Noted stamina freak Johnny Tapia, for example, didn’t believe in running, and instead jumped rope at least an hour a day, sometimes two. But all trainers and conditioning coaches agree that too much muscle is never good, and that no strength training can substantially increase punching power. Artificially going up in weight can lead to disaster.
“It’s a matter of physical structure. Ken Norton was really muscular but he had the build for it, he had long muscle instead of short, thick muscles,” Hall of Fame trainer Jesse Reid said.
“I think it’s a mistake when they start fooling around with steroids or they get these strength and conditioning coaches that think bodybuilding is going to work.”
Reid, and others see bulky chest and leg muscles as more cosmetic than functional. With no weight limit, heavyweights are free to indulge in culinary temptations in ways smaller fighters cannot. Fighters controlled by weight classes have to closely manage their bodies before every fight. Heavyweights can pack on all the size they like, sometimes against the better judgment of their handlers.
“A guy like George Foreman did a lot of natural training,” Reid said. “He got more relaxed with his body and he started pulling cars and lifting tires and built a lot of natural strength that way. He relaxed more with his body instead of being so tight and so muscular. When he was young he was a massive muscle man.”
Late in his career, Foreman built a persona around his added fat in his late career for marketing purposes. He’d jog while eating donuts in TV commercials, and once taunted trainer Teddy Atlas to “get me a sandwich.”
Foreman, known for devastating power and composure, was good at pacing himself, even as he fattened up. He went 31-3 in his second boxing stint after a 10-year hiatus. And while many of those early opponents were soft-touches to re-establish a famous name, Foreman’s ability to remain calm and manage his work rate carried him even against top young fighters. His mobility declined, but he compensated with a high ring IQ that grew with age. Most importantly, he maintained his one-shot knockout power, which gave him a chance to win fights even if he got behind. In 1994, Foreman reclaimed a version of the heavyweight title against the young, much more svelte Michael Moorer.
“On the club level I’ve seen many sloppy bodies beat up on body beautiful over the years,” PBC matchmaker Whit Haydon said. “I’ve seen many guys who looked like they just got out of a mariachi band beat up on a guy who looks like he just got out of Gold’s Gym. Especially heavyweights.”
Too often, heavyweights ruin what had been fine-tuned machines in pursuit of a bigger purse.
“They might have had whippy power when they first turned pro and then it looks like they’re pushing out their punches and a little bit more robotic,” Haydon said. “They lose that loose flow they had when they were younger.”
In the days since Holyfield became a jacked Adonis, fighters have only continued to get bigger. On June 1, 2019, boxing got another high-profile bout of fat man vs. brawn, a modern-day pugilistic Aesop’s fable.
Heavyweight king Anthony Joshua had ruled the heavyweight division, beating quality competition in almost every championship defense. The undefeated fighter was even more muscular than Holyfield had ever been, somehow stacking bulk on an already huge 6’6 frame.
He’d planned to fight Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller in 2019, a 315-pound unproven boxer not known for his punching power. After Miller tested positive for illicit performance-enhancing drugs three times, he was bounced from the fight. After several emergency inquiries, promoters found a replacement fighter of almost equal girth: 268-pound Andy Ruiz. He wasn’t the typical soft-touch replacement. Ruiz had developed a reputation as a smart, tough fighter whose quaking midsection belied his blurring hand speed.
While both men were natural heavyweights, unlike Holyfield and Toney, both carried extra pounds into their fight at Madison Square Garden. Fans foresaw a bloodbath that favored the British star. Experts, however, knew Ruiz would be a handful.
Joshua came out with relentless aggression. He knocked down Ruiz in the third round and, sensing an early victory, pressed the action. But Ruiz’s hand speed advantage came into play. He exploited Joshua’s recklessness and returned the knockdown with a devastating punch, catching Joshua behind the ear and wreaking havoc on his equilibrium. Ruiz scored another knockdown that same round before finishing the fight in the seventh.
Fans marveled at the surprise victory. How could a fat guy known for eating a Snickers bar before each fight beat a man with muscles out of a Marvel comic?
“When you have more muscle, you better believe you have to condition that muscle,” said Larry Wade, the conditioning coach for top fighters like Badou Jack. “Then a guy like Andy Ruiz is so big, why didn’t he get tired? He’s fat, but you don’t have a bunch of muscle to pump oxygen to.”
Commentators and pundits echoed Wade’s diagnosis. Joshua responded by changing his training. In the rematch six months later, Joshua weighed in 10 pounds lighter at 237 pounds, his waist noticeably less musclebound. Ruiz, on the other hand, told the media that Joshua “was made for me,” and shot up to 283.
Caution and lateral movement were Joshua’s keys to victory; his lighter weight allowing him to attack, in and out, numerous times without getting tired. The bout was yet another reminder that there’s a wrong kind of muscle.
Ruiz was derided for the loss. Many critics loudly wondered if the extra weight prevented him from cutting off the ring. But Ruiz hadn’t gassed out, in spite of his size.
Commentary before and after both bouts was driven more by the fighters’ body shapes than their fighting form. Joshua drew fans awed by his impressive size. Ruiz did the same, while others found solidarity in his everyman diet. But the fights offered no conclusive evidence of what a real fighter should look like. They only showcased the importance of good mobility and conditioning.
Like the statues of antiquity, fighters will forever be judged by their musculature. But though society may favor a chiseled specimen, history has shown there will always be a place for a fat man, waiting to creep up on the unsuspecting, deriding public and become the new heavyweight king.