The Sweet Science: Floyd Mayweather and Improvised Modalities of Rhythm

(by Steve Coleman)

photos © John Hornewer & Michael Wilderman

For me what makes boxing the ‘Sweet Science’ is not two guys just slugging it out in a 'see who falls first' scenario. It is seeing some real skill and artistry in the ring. The Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Phillip Ndou fight on November 1st 2003 was a joy to watch not just because Floyd won, but because of the 'way' he won.

In Boxing defense is not often given the credit it deserves and Floyd's defense is one of the best that I have ever seen. The only other boxers whose defense is similar in some respects is James Toney, Roy Jones Jr. and De La Hoya (who recently has admitted after the Vargas fight that he adopted this form of defense from Floyd Mayweather). Ndou's trainer Nick Durandt brought in veteran trainer Tommy Brooks to assist him in this fight and that was a good move. To my eyes it seemed like it was mostly Brooks who was calling the shots. However Ndou still has to execute the instructions and this is easier said than done. Brooks kept telling Ndou about Mayweather's 'shoulder' and his 'laying on the ropes' technique that they had focused on during training, but Ndou could not execute what Brooks had told him in the gym. It is one thing to know something and another to do something about it. Ndou admitted after the fight that he did not understand the speed of Floyd Mayweather until he got into the ring with him, it was not that Phillip was slow, it is that Floyd made him look slow.

I said above that Toney, Jones Jr. and Oscar all use a defense similar to Mayweather’s defensive technique to some extent but it is Floyd who has completely mastered it (I would say that James Toney is a close second). It is not just a matter of keeping his hands up. It is a defense that involves rolling with the punches in a very interesting way. In Floyd's case this technique begins with 'angles' plus a high left shoulder while his right hand is held close to the right side of his face. Mayweather turns his body alternately slightly to the right and slightly to the left to present a smaller target (most boxers 'square up' to some degree while they are fighting, making themselves a larger target, this is especially true of the 'take one to get one' fighters).

When his body is turned to his right Floyd's left shoulder usually rolls up high to deflect punches and sometimes additionally he uses his left arm to deflect punches, it depends on the angle of the punch. Shots to this left side of his body are usually deflected upward and/or in front of him. When Mayweather's body is turned to the left his right hand is held up high with his elbow tucked in, so these shots get blocked also, a few well placed body shots can get in but Floyd is already rolling after the first punch connects.

Key to Mayweather's defense is the fact that he is always moving as well as the rhythm, speed and smoothness of his movements, this is what makes this defense effective. I am an improvising musician (saxophone player) who is fascinated with rhythm so I tend to notice things that have to do with timing. In fact my music is influenced by certain boxing techniques as is the music of many other improvising musicians.

All the while his opponent is punching Floyd is rolling, slipping, pivoting at the waist, feinting, bobbing and weaving, constantly displaying various ‘modes’ of movement (James Toney is very similar in this regard). The rhythm of the rolling is very interesting because most opponents alternate their punches in a very predictable way, only occasionally doubling up with the same hand in the middle of flurries. When I lived in Chicago we used to use the phrase 'going back for more' for this doubling up effect in music. Floyd alternates the rolling of his body with the rhythm of these punches. On the rare occasion where a fighter does double up with the same hand Floyd usually catches this and improvises by adjusting his rhythm with a series of 'changes of direction' in his rolling. The thing to notice is the timing, all fighters have a rhythm to their movements which can be timed by an experienced opponent after several rounds of boxing. There are usually three different overall rhythmic forms, what I call the set-up rhythm (preparing to punch or waiting to counterpunch, depending on the style of the boxer) the rhythm of offensive motion and the rhythm of defensive motion. However Floyd, like many great boxers varies these rhythms in subtle ways that are difficult for opponents to time, and he can seamlessly flow from one rhythmic form to the next without any break in the forms. Usually the opponent is not even aware that the transition has occurred until it is too late.

This is something that is very difficult to teach, a boxer must recognize it on his own. The way this is done is similar to most forms of dance of the people of the African Diaspora (and in other sports like basketball, football, Capoeira, etc.) where there is a smoothness to the shifts of direction that is based on timing. I like to use the analogy of improvising in music where there is a sense of being in a zone during which you visualize the negotiation of the rhythms through time and everything is moving in a kind of slow motion dance. The mind operates on a level where time seems to be suspended and the constantly shifting 'paths of possibilities' seem to lay before you.

For the master boxers and musicians alike a lot of preparation is involved. The various 'paths of possibilities' have been studied, worked out, analyzed and internalized, after which the mind and body have been trained to respond by reflex to the dynamic configurations as they develop in real time. The artistry manifests when patterns unexpectedly shift and an alternate flow is established. The master boxer (or musician) must then time the shift and adjust the response patterns in mid flight. Of course without intense insight, research and training none of this will manifest, but the initial recognition of these dynamics is crucial to knowing how to prepare and train oneself in the first place.

Ndou’s offense looked good from the perspective of spectators (and announcers) who do not know what to look for. But the name of the game is not aggressiveness, it is 'effective aggressiveness'. Most of Phillip Ndou’s punches were deflected and did not do much damage. Also Ndou was using up a lot of energy in the process. It is tiring and frustrating to punch at a target that constantly making you miss.

What constantly surprises me is the ignorance of the HBO commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and George Foreman! They kept talking about how well Ndou was doing at certain points and that Floyd should stay off the ropes. Now these HBO cats have seen so many fights they should know certain techniques by now. First of all Floyd was getting hit with very few of Ndou's punches. Many times during this fight Floyd would rest while letting Ndou flail away at him, but this was a calculated ploy that only works because of the nature of Floyd's defensive skills. Sometimes Floyd was laying on the ropes, sometimes he was standing in the middle of the ring right in front of Ndou, in neither case was Ndou actually connecting with his punches in significant numbers.

Floyd's sense of the flow of a fight is fantastic. In round 5 Mayweather really began to open up on Phillip. Then towards the middle of the round when it was obvious that Ndou was not quite ready to fall, Floyd pulled back, partly not to punch himself out and partly to allow Ndou to spend the rest of his energy reserve. It was then a beautiful site to watch as Floyd stood right in front of Ndou, and still Phillip could not hit him. There was a similar sequence when Floyd's back was against the ropes. This was due completely to the structure and dynamic rhythm of Floyd's defense. The HBO announcers only saw Ndou's arms flailing and commented on how great he was doing at that moment. Then after Ndou had punched himself out Floyd went to work at the end of round.

However great fighters know and good trainers know also. Even while the HBO crew was praising Ndou the veteran trainer Tommy Brooks could see everything that was happening and told Ndou as much after every round. Brooks told Phillip what Floyd was doing at every turn, defensively and offensively, Ndou just could not adjust to the speed at which things were happening in the ring, Floyd was that much better.

George Foreman is a funny man, sometimes he is right on and other times he is way off. At one point in the middle of the fight George mentioned that Floyd was staying 'in the pocket', meaning that Mayweather was so close to Ndou that Phillip could not get the proper leverage on his punches. There is an optimum distance that most fighters need to execute effectively. Floyd noticed early in the fight what Ndou’s optimum distance was and at times neutralized it by operating inside of that distance. Phillip is a ‘long’ fighter who needs a certain amount of space to get his punches off. But at the same time that he noticed this Big George was very critical about Mayweather’s 'laying on the ropes' ploy and I just cannot understand why. It was exactly this rope-a-dope technique that allowed Ali to defeat George in Zaire, when Foreman punched himself out and then Ali knocked him out. This is exactly what happened to both Ndou, John Ruiz when he fought Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield in his fight against James “Lights Out” Toney. Ndou, Ruiz and Holyfield got tired flailing at their opponents ineffectively. Maybe it is because of the results of his fight with Muhammad Ali that George Foreman seems to dislike this technique and boxers so much.

Offensively Floyd, Jones Jr. and Toney 'place' their shots, they are not just wasting energy throwing punches. Even when they are in these defensive stances they are looking for well placed shots in the middle of the other boxer's flurries (Bernard Hopkins sometimes executes in a similar fashion). Notice that their eyes are wide open and they are seeing everything that is happening. With many other top fighters this is not the case. It is a natural reflex to close your eyes when an object is coming at your face and great boxers train to counter this tendency. In the Joel Casamayor vs. Diego Corrales fight both boxers had defensive lapses while concentrating on offensive and there were moments when both fighters closed their eyes while punching. Shane Mosley also closed his eyes a lot and flinched when Vernon Forrest had him against the ropes.

Creative improvising is very similar in many respects to the boxing techniques I describe here. While improvising one needs to respond not only to the dynamic structure of the composition that one is playing but also to the possibilities that unfold as a result of the contributions of the other instrumentalists. In a sense the music itself is your ‘opponent’. One of the challenges is to execute your responses in the currently functioning window of time while still dealing with both the nuances of the structure. In addition to this the musician must manage the details of spontaneously composing musical phrases that represent what you are trying to ‘say’ in your music. To do this smoothly while maintaining your equilibrium is not an easy feat. A finely tuned and constantly adjusting balance needs to be developed where one can respond in reflex to the changing musical conditions. In this way it is similar to the responses of the great boxer.

In all music and boxing this would be true but in the African Diaspora this balancing act is as much about style (i.e. how it is done) as it is about what is being done. Style has always been important in the African way of being. For the inner city kids honing their basketball skills, putting the ball through the hoop and ‘how’ it is done carry equal importance. The same is true of the countless jam sessions of musicians or freestyle cutting sessions of MCs. What is most important in the style is the rhythm, the timing and ‘slickness’ of the endeavor. This is as true in a Nicholas Brothers’ dance routine as it is in a Charlie Parker improvisation. When the content is also on a high level it begins to take on the form of high art.

These rhythms could be looked at as shifting patterns of sound alternating with silence. When you see or hear masters like boxer James Toney or drummer Max Roach negotiate rhythms it is like zigzagging through an obstacle course with a certain style…

Changes of speed and direction, pivoting and spinning, dipping, rocking, backpedaling, sidestepping, feinting, weaving, side-slipping, angles––all are part of a repertoire of constantly shifting balancing mannerisms designed to alter the perspective of the observer, a kind of slick motion geometry. I call these various types of counterbalancing movement techniques ‘modalities of rhythm’. These are skills that are displayed most noticeably by master drummers in West African music and I always associate this modality with master drumming.

Along with the movement and form, both the shapes of the sounds and the silences (fashioned of course by the sound ‘framed’ around them) have a certain ‘groove’ to them, a swing that cannot be described adequately with words but has to be experienced. In one analogy I associate offense to sound and defense to silence. It is the seamless transition between the two, the ebb and flow between the different ‘modes of being’ that is the key concept here.

This tradition has always been passed down from master to student mainly through experiencing the ‘feel’ of these modalities as well as using analogy to pass on information. However it is the insights that are gained through these experiences and the ability to execute that creates masters.