HBO PPV - Jul. 21, 2007

Bernard Hopkins vs. Winky Wright

Wright: In Pursuit Of A Legacy

Jul 12, 2008

Nat Gottlieb looks into the legacy of Winky Wright and discusses his place in boxing's history with former Wright promoter, Gary Shaw.

After beating future of Hall of Famers Shane Mosley twice and Felix Trinidad, Winky Wright was asked at a press conference why he was fighting fringe contender Sam Soliman in a title eliminator he did not have to take. His answer is a good window into Ronald "Winky" Wright:

"I don't work at a restaurant, I don't get paid to wait. I get paid to fight."

Now Wright says he is also fighting for his legacy. Just what might that be?

At 35, with 55 fights, Wright talks a lot these days about securing this legacy. The shape it would take, however, is not as obvious as it should be with a fighter sporting a sterling 51-3-1 record. It is probably easier to say what his legacy will not be.

When the 35-year-old Wright retires, he will not leave behind a reputation as one of the great fan favorites of all time. And while beating both Mosley and Trinidad was quite an accomplishment, Wright's legend will not be made solely by victories over fighters who arguably were a bit past prime and competing at a weight class higher than they should have been.

If there is a legacy to be left by Wright, it will come from his extraordinary tenacity and determination, his willingness to fight anyone anywhere any time, even if it meant traveling to seven different countries and three continents to do it. He will be remembered as a fighter who refused to be discouraged by the top boxers who avoided him for so long. Despite all the obstacles, Wright achieved elite status the old-fashioned way -- he earned it.

Wright is on the cusp of becoming an all-time great. That is why his July 21 fight with Bernard Hopkins looms so important. To walk among the greats, you have to beat someone great. Hopkins fills the bill quite nicely.

Only three men have ever been able to beat Wright, and none did so all that convincingly. Even middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, who is in his prime and younger, could at best squeak out a draw with Wright.

What does it take to defeat a Winky Wright? First and foremost, you have to be damn good. The three fighters who managed the trick -- Julio Cesar Vasquez, Harry Simon and Fernando Vargas -- had a combined record at the time they fought him of 73-1.

Wright's former promoter, Gary Shaw has a unique perspective on the talented Mr. Wright. It was Shaw who gave Wright his first chance to face an elite fighter.

Shaw was promoting junior middleweight champ Mosley in 2004, and he already had an offer of $10 million on the table to face Felix Trinidad, who was coming out of a two and a half year retirement to fight again sometime in the fall.

Mosley, coming off a second victory over Oscar De La Hoya in September of 2003, needed a fight before Trinidad's scheduled return. Wright held one of the junior middleweight belts. Despite Wright's reputation for being a high risk, low yield fighter, Shaw made a reunification match. It was the chance of Wright's lifetime.

Why did Shaw do it with so much money on the line with Trinidad?

"I knew Winky was the single best defensive fighter in boxing, maybe of all time," Shaw said. "He had an almost impenetrable defense. However, I thought Shane Mosley could move and outwork him while Winky stood in the middle of the ring. Maybe he would not knockout Wright, but he could win an easy decision."

While Shaw didn't underestimate Wright's talent, he might have overlooked one thing. Wright was hungry. Hungry for status. Hungry for money.

"Winky came out of the single best training camp he had ever had, and he beat Shane. It was Winky Wright's coming out party," Shaw said.

Wright got paid $900,000 for that fight, the 50th of a then 14-year career. His previous high, according to Shaw had been $600,000. In a rematch later that year, Shaw paid Wright $1.5 million. To understand how much this kind of money meant to Wright, consider how far he had come and how tortuous the journey had been.

At the beginning of Wright's career, when he was 16-0 fighting out of Tampa, the biggest payday he had earned at that point was $800. Spurned by the major American promoters, Wright signed with the French-based Acaries brothers and began a five-year, 20-fight odyssey in which he fought in France, Luxembourg, Germany, Monaco, England, Argentina and South Africa. No other elite fighter in memory every needed a GPS as much as Winky Wright did.

"I knew Winky was the single best defensive fighter in boxing, maybe of all time," Shaw said. "He had an almost impenetrable defense. However, I thought Shane Mosley could move and outwork him while Winky stood in the middle of the ring. Maybe he would not knockout Wright, but he could win an easy decision."

Even when he was 25-0 in 1994, his biggest payday to that point was just $5,000. The Acaries brothers then paid him what must have seemed to him a king's ransom of $50,000 to fight Vasquez -- who was 50-1 -- for the junior middleweight title in St. Jean de Luz, France. On paper, Wright was vastly overmatched. But as he would prove throughout his career, he did not turn down a tough challenge, something that must be factored into his legacy.

The fight was set for the dead of August. There were no screens on the windows of Wright's gym in France. Before he even got into the ring with Vasquez, he had fought gym wars with mosquitoes and the sweltering heat.

To say Wright was moving up in class is a gross understatement. Wright's previous opponent had been Orlando Orazco, who had an 11-20-3 record. Vasquez, meanwhile, was making his ninth straight title defense. Of Vasquez's 51 fights, he had fought a total of 74 championship rounds, which was just five less than all the rounds Wright had under his belt.

Despite the vast difference in experience, Wright gave Vasquez all kinds of trouble. Wright was ruled knocked down in the second, seventh and ninth rounds, and twice in the twelfth, but his trainer, Dan Birmingham said three of those were caused by slips due to the slippery soles on his new boxing shoes.

Even with five knockdowns, which obviously cost him a lot of points, the final scorecards indicated how competitive the 22-year-old Wright had been: 110-113, 110-114 and 110-115.

Two years later, Wright would win a world championship. Again it did not come easy. In order to take Bronco McKart's belt, Wright was forced to fight in the champion's hometown of Monroe, Michigan. Wright won that fight by split decision, with the cards undoubtedly being very close because of the hometown advantage. Just to set the record straight, Wright would later in his career give McKart two more chances at him. On neutral ground, Wright dominated him easily both times.

Wright did not lose again until 1998, when a brilliant and ill-fated young African fighter named Harry Simon, who was 16-0, beat him in South Africa, a fight in which many feel Wright was blatantly robbed. At first ruled a draw, while Wright was undressing in his locker room, officials came in to tell him the scorecards were in error and he had actually lost a majority decision, 113-117, 113-115 and 114-114. Simon, meanwhile, would go on to also win a middleweight title and was 24-0 before legal problems ended what promised to be a sensational career.

The last person to beat Wright was a prime-time Fernando Vargas, who was 17-0 when they fought in December of 1999. Wright to this day believes he won that fight, and while some agree, most thought the judges got it right with their majority decision for Vargas. Once again in defeat, Wright would not be dominated. The scorecards read, 112-116, 112-115, and 114-114.

Wright has not lost a fight since.

What makes Winky Wright so difficult to beat? Most point to his nearly impenetrable, high-glove defense, which has been compared to a tortoise's shell. But the true genius of Wright is his remarkable jab, one of the best any fighter has ever had.

A natural right-hander, Wright fights southpaw, so his power is behind the right jab, which he throws -- by Birmingham's count -- roughly every five to 10 seconds. What makes it so effective is the speed in which he delivers it, the force behind it and his uncanny ability to pull the jab back so fast opponents have a hard time countering over it.

Shaw described Wright's style like this:

"He likes to stand in the center of the ring and jab. It's almost as if he nails one foot down and does everything working with the other foot, moving in a circle using that one foot, up to 360 degrees," Shaw said.

Shaw became Wright's promoter after he defeated Mosley the second time, and would feed him a succession of elite fighters and increasingly more lucrative paydays.

With Mosley out of the picture, Trinidad agreed to fight Wright in May of 2005. For that bout, Wright earned, according to Shaw, "$4 million and change." Wright also displayed a surging belief in his invincibility.

"During his whole camp, Winky kept telling me, 'Don't worry, this is going to be the easiest fight of my life.' He said he had Tito's number. In a sense, you could not make a better match-up for Winky, because Tito just keeps coming and would walk right into Winky's jab," Shaw said.

After backing up his boast to Shaw and thoroughly whipping Trinidad, Taylor loomed as his next logical big fight. Before they would meet, Shaw got Wright $2.5 million to beat Soliman. When he finally fought Taylor, Wright earned his biggest payday ever, $4.25 million.

In the only draw on Wright's record, he gave Taylor the fight of his life. Wright did so by becoming more aggressive than he had ever been before. Shaw believes Wright must fight the same way if he is to have a chance at beating the bigger Hopkins in a move up to light heavyweight.

"Winky has to be the aggressor against Hopkins," Shaw said. "Hopkins is a very very skilled fighter and a very smart fighter. He is not one-dimensional like Tito. He moves from side to side. But Hopkins has never fought anybody with a jab like Winky's. Against (Antonio) Tarver, Tarver was just flicking is jab. Winky has to use the jab to back Bernard up to the ropes and then work him over. If he doesn't, he loses."

Shaw believes Wright can lock down his legacy if he beats Hopkins, and then perhaps goes on to defeat Joe Calzaghe, who has talked recently of possibly facing Wright, among six million other fighters.

"If Winky beats Hopkins and then Calzaghe, he would absolutely be an all-time great," Shaw said. "He beat Shane Mosley twice, he beat Felix Trinidad and drew with Jermain Taylor. That's an awfully good resume."

With that kind of record, Wright's legacy would come into crystal clear focus: he beat the best of his generation. Not bad for a lunch pail guy who says he just gets paid to fight.

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