Tuesday, 20 November 2018

1982: James Clubber Lang v Rocky Balboa

Admittedly it is a fictitious event, but this week I have decided to revisit the second bout between James Clubber Lang and Rocky Balboa from Rocky III.
The report below has been written as if the event was real. It is a significant departure from my usual blogs, but I hope you enjoy reading this, as much as I did writing it.

They said it couldn’t be done. All logic suggested that Rocky Balboa’s career would finally come to an end at the brutal hands of James “Clubber” Lang in Madison Square Gardens. We should have known better. On a stunning night, logic was chewed up and spat out. Rocky Balboa has won the title back at 34.

To understand the remarkable nature of Balboa’s victory, you really need a bit of context. The Italian Stallion may have defended his title ten times since his win over Apollo Creed three years ago. But the whispers within boxing circles grew louder that these opponents had been hand-picked.

It was Lang who would be the first to voice this opinion publicly, although choosing to do so at Balboa’s statue unveiling ceremony was unseemly. Balboa had been in the process of announcing his retirement before Lang’s intervention. But the fighter in him could not resist that one last challenge.

During his long spell as champion, Balboa understandably took his eye off the ball. Commercial activities increased, and complacency set in, as the successful defences followed. Whilst Lang worked his way up the world rankings, we also had to witness the undignified spectacle of Balboa taking part in a charity event when he took on World Heavyweight Wrestling champion Thunderlips.

Motivation in sport is not something that can simply be turned on like a tap. Balboa’s open gym and the surrounding razzmatazz that dominated his training for the original Lang bout infuriated his trainer Mickey Goldmill. One man appeared hungry for success; the other had already taken one trip too many to the all you can eat buffet.

The inevitable followed, Lang destroying Balboa inside two rounds, apparently ending his career on a night that was enveloped in tragedy. Goldmill, suffering a heart attack before the fight, passed away in Balboa’s dressing room, putting the fighter’s troubles into perspective.

Very few had much of an appetite for a rematch. After all, Lang was on his way up and a mourning Balboa was surely past his best. Yet in an unexpected twist, the unlikely unification of rivals Creed and Balboa was the catalyst for the extraordinary events that we witnessed last night.

“I can’t be beat and I won’t be beat,” Lang had boasted beforehand, and many pondered whether Balboa could recover from the psychological trauma of his defeat. But unbeknown to us all, coach Creed was working his magic, whipping Balboa into shape, and passing on his numerous tricks of the trade.

Even before the fight, you sensed something was different. Balboa appeared tense at the stare down in the first Lang bout, unable to look at his opponent with any intensity. Now, almost a stone lighter than before, the former champion had the eye of the tiger, as his menacing look showed that he meant business.

Sporting a pair of Creed’s stars and stripes shorts, Balboa got to work immediately, landing jabs and bouncing around the ring in the opening round. Lang had no answers, swinging and missing at regular intervals, as Balboa skilfully ducked and dived.

It was more of the same at the start of the second round. But in a dramatic turnaround, Balboa soon found himself pinned in a corner, taking a barrage of hammer blows as Lang found his range. After such a promising start, the script that everyone expected was now being followed.

Balboa had other plans, though. Down twice in the round, he then shocked everyone, including his own corner, by goading Lang; perhaps the blows to the head had temporarily rendered Balboa senseless, such was the lack of intelligence in adopting this strategy.

“You ain’t so bad,” Balboa could be heard to shout at Lang, as he continued to infuriate his opponent towards the end of the second round. It was all part of the master plan, Balboa obviously aware of the rope-a-dope chapter in the history book of boxing.

And so it continued into the third and final round, Balboa egging the champion to knock him out, and insisting that Lang “go hard”, absorbing the blows and then avoiding the wild lunges. Second by second, the fog cleared, as Balboa’s plan started to come together.

Visibly tiring, Lang had shot his bolt, allowing Balboa to carry out the final part of his strategy as the third round neared its conclusion. The champion was clearly out on his feet; soon he would be knocked off of them. Unable to beat the count, Lang’s inexperience had been exposed.

Falling to his knees and then sprawling on his back and laying on the canvas, Balboa illustrated the enormous physical effort required to pull off such an accomplishment. The only sad note for the new champion was that his mentor wasn’t around to see his moment of redemption.

Hopefully we have seen the closing episode of Balboa’s memorable career. The man simply has nothing left to prove. Possessing the heart of a lion and the eye of the tiger, Balboa has once again beaten the odds, and made the majority of critics eat their words.