Boxing: Rights and wrongs of southpaws

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THERE is something you should know about Michael Moorer, a fully paid up hard case from Detroit, who is challenging Evander Holyfield at Caesars Palace on Friday for two versions of the heavyweight championship.

In boxing terms, more precisely those incorporated into what passes for spoken English on this side of the Atlantic, Moorer is a left-hander. He is a southpaw. Poison. The late Jim Wicks, an old reprobate of fond memory who managed Henry Cooper with paternal care, used to say, 'Them southpaws should be drowned at birth,' adding quaintly, 'they are a detergent to boxing.'

Wicks had an uncommon way with words. Once when asked about Cooper's world championship prospects he said, 'I wouldn't put my Henery in with Sonny Liston or any of them other mahogany sideboards,' but let us stay on course.

Apart from Moorer, who has brawled up a considerable record in unscheduled contests, including one against a policeman, only two southpaws have fought for the modern heavyweight championship. That is going back more than 100 years. All the way to John L Sullivan who amused himself in bars by pounding on the counter as a prelude to bellowing that he could lick any man in the house.

The first was Karl Mildenberger, a German who literally fell for the ridiculous notion that he had a chance against Muhammad Ali. The second was Richard Dunn, a former paratrooper from Yorkshire.

Physically, Dunn and Ali appeared just about equal when they shaped up for the title in Munich in 1976. 'Yeah, from the ankles down,' said an American television commentator. This was stating the obvious. Having no problem with Dunn's unorthodox stance, Ali knocked him down six times.

After knocking out a former British champion, Jack Bodell, the American heavyweight Jerry Quarry was asked if he'd found the Midlander awkward. 'Jack fell awkwardly,' a bystander said. Bodell was so awkward that he once tripped himself up when crossing the ring to receive instructions from the referee. Worse, he sliced off two of his toes with a lawnmower.

It used to be that when left- handers showed up in boxing they were likely to be shown the door. 'If they could fight, the first thought was to turn them around,' said the famed trainer, George Benton, this week. 'Otherwise it would be difficult to make matches for them. Nobody wanted the problem.'

The stigma Marvin Hagler carried as a southpaw probably helps to explain why it took so long for him to become established as one of the most successful middleweights in history. 'He should have got there earlier,' added Benton, 'but people fought shy of Marvin because although he could box both ways leading with the right came naturally.'

In most other sports the practical values of unorthodoxy are there for all to see. For reasons of disruption, the ideal opening partnership in cricket involves a left-handed batsman. And, as demonstrated by David Gower, left-handers have prominently figured among the game's great stylists.

When building a team, the football coach strives to achieve symmetry. Thus, because they are in a minority, left-footed players have a lot going for them. Scouts quickly respond to word of a great left peg.

A negative theory advanced about left-handed performers is that because their genes counsel against taking sport seriously, they cannot be relied upon. In more ways than one on the tennis court this was hardly true of John McEnroe. Rod Laver was no slouch either. Bob Charles is the only left-handed golfer to win a major championship, the Open, but how many southpaws are out there?

For reasons put to you earlier, precious few in boxing. Prejudice runs so deep against his kind in the old game that even if Moorer defeats Holyfield, which may not be altogether improbable, he will set a precedent, not a fashion.