The smaller they are, the harder they fall

By Robert Ecksel on June 12, 2020

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David and Goliath is a dandy tale. It also was a mismatch made in heaven. (Photo: Courtesy)

Despite evidence to the contrary, men have been saying “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” or some variation thereof for millennia. It’s a bona fide boxing bon mot, one of those expressions that rolls off the tongue like “He can run, but he can’t hide” or “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Originally written in Ancient Greek and expressed in countless languages, it looks and sounds good, but physics and boxing history suggest that it just ain’t so.

 

As a rule, a good big man almost always beats a good small man. Heavyweight Jack Johnson fought middleweight Stanley Ketchel in 1909. Heavyweight Max Schmeling fought middleweight Mickey Walker in 1932. No surprise, the little guys lost. The current face of boxing, 5-foot-8-inch Canelo Alvarez, recently climbed a mountain too high and lost a lopsided decision to 6-foot Dmitry Bivol. Skill as well as size was a factor. When 6-foot-2-inch Evander Holyfield, fighting for another title in 2008 at the ripe old age of 46, tried emulating one of his scriptural heroes and ended up losing to 7-foot Nicolai Valuev, even Goliath might have smirked.

 

Everyone loves an underdog, the little guy without a prayer who somehow makes a believer of us all. David and Goliath is a dandy story. It also was a mismatch made in heaven. Still, the fight, however improbable and possessing all the authenticity of a cartoon, deserves its first ballot induction into the Bible Hall of Fame, which happens to be just down the road from Canastota. But 6-foot-1-inch Jack Dempsey decimated 6-foot-6-inch Jess Willard when they fought in 1919. In 1934, 6-foot-2-inch Max Baer dethroned 6-foot-6-inch Primo Carnera, former strongman and circus performer, who hit the canvas 10 times. And when middleweight legend Marvelous Marvin Hagler was asked before his War with Thomas Hearns in 1985 if he was concerned about fighting a taller man, he said, “I love tall dudes. I always like to chop down big trees.”

 

When it comes to “tall dudes” and “big trees” who can box as well as punch, 6-foot-9-inch Tyson Fury is nonpareil. In the old days, the Gypsy King would have been too tall, too gangly, too outspoken to be other than a sideshow, an oversize attraction destined to suffer the fate of other oversize attractions who held the heavyweight title for a minute before flaming out. But Fury’s elevated skills, sky-high ring IQ, and unblemished record—with the exception of a draw in his first fight with Deontay Wilder, which still reeks of home cooking after all this time—established, once again if not definitively, that the smaller they are, like 6’4” Dillian Whyte, Fury’s last opponent, the harder they fall. But some fighters still cling to tradition. I remember asking 5-foot-9-inch James Toney before his short-lived victory over 6-foot-3-inch John Ruiz in 2005 if the defending champion’s size mattered. “Size don’t matter,” said Toney abruptly. “It only matters in the bedroom.”

 

Size is relative. Heavyweight champions John L. Sullivan, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, and Mike Tyson were under 6-feet. Small though they were by today’s standards, heavyweights began outgrowing their predecessors, due to better food, better sanitation, better training and better whatnot. Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney, and Floyd Patterson were 6’. Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey were 6’1”, as were Max Schmeling and Sonny Liston. Joe Louis was 6’2”. Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes were 6’3”. George Foreman was 6’4”. Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe were 6’5”. Wladimir Klitschko was 6’6”. His brother Vitali was 6’7”. And so it goes (or grows).

 

No matter what one has heard, read, or heartedly believes, bigger is not always better. Bigger debt, bigger headaches, bigger deceptions, and bigger you name it are a few examples which question the bigger is better proposition. But when it comes to the aforementioned heavyweight champions, each a Hall-of-Famer, bigger was more often better than not. As the decades became inches and heavyweights continue to grow, the only question remaining is not if it will it ever end, since the answer, writ large, is yes, with Tyson Fury; but whether the phrase, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” is an idle threat, an exalted tease, or poetry to boxing’s prose.