So often in a given field of endeavor we start out with a certain number of guidelines that help us hit our marks as we work towards a certain objective. These fundamentals ensure the progress required towards meeting our goals while at the same time projecting an air of professionalism. Over time and with the right amount of repetitive effort, plus attention to detail, as we gain momentum based on success, we tend to color such process with an intangible; something that personifies what we have done yet clearly leaves others feeling as though they have dealt with a pro.
Call it whatever you want, following the proven course with the added flair of marked individualism so often leads to success, and success breeds confidence, which breeds further success. Correctly managed, it can take a person a long way up the ladder in a given field of endeavor, but it has to be managed. The foundational guidelines or fundamentals are there for a reason, but the personal component so often determines success or failure. Such applies to the time-honored manly art of prize fighting, but the fundamental aspects learned at the outset of a given career apply just as much down the road even when all seems to be second nature to a seasoned fighter at the top of his game.
Looking back at the career of Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, I cannot help but come away with the feeling that the explosive success in some of his early career fights somehow caused him to sway from the fundamentals that he originally used to great effect as both an amateur and later on into the early stages of his professional career. To be sure, Ruddock learned how to navigate the parameter of a ring, his amateur pedigree bleeding through; showing excellent mobility and speed of foot even in his initial efforts. He demonstrated an understanding of the value of using angles when measuring his foes and of course back then all of this was predicated on a busy left jab. This took Ruddock to the point where several of his early bouts were showcased on cable or network television, but somewhere about this period, in the gym I suspect, he discovered the extraordinarily explosive nature of an awkwardly delivered signature punch, a quasi left hook/uppercut hybrid that turned the lights off on foes with the same effect as anything delivered by Mike Tyson.
Over the course of these bouts, Ruddock garnered considerable attention for the sudden and explosive nature of these wins, to the point that famed trainer Angelo Dundee had noted that “The Razor” had dispatched his charge, Larry Alexander, in a fashion not seen against his fighter previously in a career that dated all of the way back to 1977.
By the time Ruddock had his hand raised in victory for his rousing network television win over “Bonecrusher” Smith in the summer of 1989, he had seemingly eschewed the basic fundamentals of his early career in favor of sheer delivery, having to climb off of the canvas in order to deliver “The Smash” for the entire world to see. The result was highly entertaining and spectacular, but at what cost?
So spectacular was the Smith victory, the general consensus among those that paid attention to such things was that there was a new heavyweight threat on the horizon. Ruddock was deemed just green enough and perhaps flawed enough that the prospect of a match between he and the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” made complete monetary sense. The prospect of Mike Tyson facing somebody that would come out gunning for his scalp was refreshing to those that had grown accustomed to his early blowouts of the fear-stricken. And who cared if Ruddock might have been a tad on the chinny side? He was hungry, willing and entertainingly explosive. The bout was signed for November 18th, 1989.
As fate would have it, Ruddock lost the opportunity to challenge for the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship when “Iron Mike” withdrew from the scheduled November title defense under the pretenses of having the flu virus, only to later be seen partying on the dance floor with some women of the night. The pull-out was particularly disappointing to me as I felt that “Razor” truly believed in himself and off of that, and his high-profile badgering of Tyson, I expected some first round fireworks. It also didn’t hurt that he was from my neck of the woods. I could not help but think that despite the need for some polish, “Razor” was in a great position to capitalize given Tyson’s increasing penchant for out of the ring turmoil. The truth was I believed in Ruddock and I wanted to see him excel.
Looking back, there may be something to the notion that the network television win over a known commodity such as “Bonecrusher” Smith, a former WBA heavyweight titlist, was Ruddock’s big introduction to the mainstream populace. It was enough to propel him into a title challenge of then-reigning heavyweight king Mike Tyson, but when that bout ultimately fell apart, forward career progress was still the order of the day. That being the case, Ruddock’s next big bout of note was with the highly ranked Michael Dokes for the WBA Inter-Continental heavyweight title, essentially an elimination bout. Looking back, the match with Dokes has to be considered his breakout performance and the showing that captured the imagination of the general public; making them curious to see him in with all of the top heavyweights of the day.
Like Bonecrusher, Michael “Dynamite” Dokes was a former WBA titlist. Unlike Smith, Dokes was in the fourth year of an extended comeback that saw him win eight straight bouts, seven by knockout before losing valiantly to the future four-time heavyweight champion, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield by 10th round TKO. Having won four straight subsequent to that loss, Dokes had again regained a semblance of his earlier momentum and was looking for a big win in order to position himself for a title shot. Also of particular note, Dynamite had made a successful comeback to that point in his personal life, having emerged from a well documented cocaine addiction, underscoring his strength of character and personal resolve while illustrating the level of focus and desire he had managed to harness in this second ring career. At any rate, this was without a doubt the biggest bout to that point of Ruddock’s career, and to my way of thinking, his greatest opportunity to forcibly position himself at the forefront of “the Tyson Sweepstakes”.
Showing up for duty at a proper 230lbs. and pacing the ring like a nervous thoroughbred bent on getting the hole-shot at the gun, Ruddock appeared anxious to get the latest imposing career hurdle that was Dokes out of the way. At the first bell he charged out, soon bouncing around the perimeter of the ring after flicking out a quick singular long left jab that missed its intended target. For a moment the prudent up and comer I saw in those early career bouts teased me with the notion that tactical boxing and ring generalship would be the order of the day, but within moments that notion would evaporate as Razor settled down to plant himself angular to Dokes’ plodding stance, bending intermittently from side to side at the waist, looking to find that split second opportunity to deliver his vaunted “Smash”.
As the round progressed it became evident that the potent left jab that he had once effectively utilized to trouble former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in sparring, a point of note “The Easton Assassin” mentioned to the media, was all but forgotten. Ruddock was periodically flicking out his left as a range finder as opposed to using it to set up his arsenal, all the while eating well delivered left jabs from the lightning-quick Dokes, a fighter who was by that point in his career more given to plodding than youthful mobility. Weighing a hefty 240lbs. Dynamite was vulnerable to deft movement and angles punctuated with craftily delivered salvos, but instead of noting this and implementing a strategy designed to take advantage of those deficits, Ruddock chose to open himself up to stationary counter-punches by fighting in spurts on the inside, an act that saw him momentarily shook-up by a short counter left hook from Dokes in the closing moments of round two.
To begin the 3rd, Ruddock landed a solid looking right hand that momentarily stopped the forward progress of Dokes, causing commentator Gil Clancy to quip “Even if he didn’t land the right hand, it gives Dokes something else to look at, which makes the left hand more effective. He has to start throwing that right hand. He’s trying to get Dokes out with one shot, and his punches are a little wide”. They were sharp observations stated by a man that had worked with many world champions and with decades of experience. Ruddock’s potential was obvious; the tools and the package were there, it just had to be put together.
Moving to his left to start the fourth round, Ruddock again began by throwing his pawing, range-finder left jab, punctuated by the occasional attempt to turn it over into wide left hook. Slowing the action mid-ring, Ruddock extended his left into Dokes’ face just long enough to chance a short chopping right hand. Missing it, he managed to land a snapping right lead after bending at the waist as if he were looking to load-up to throw his Smash. Absorbing a quick right hand counter, Ruddock tied Dokes up, pushing him back towards the closest corner and slowly walking him into position, he suddenly bent over to his left side and unleashed a picturesque Smash to the tip of Dokes’ chin. Crashing back against the turnbuckle in an almost seated position, the out-on-his-feet Dokes’ arms dropped to mid-body. Without hesitation and with practiced abandon, Ruddock threw and missed a quick right cross, leaned slightly to his left, reloaded and launched another hybrid left hook/uppercut, a deal capper that caused Dokes arms to go limp. Recoiling and dipping to his left one last time, Ruddock brought down the curtain with possibly the most effective and devastating example of his vaunted Smash ever caught on film, landing it squarely on the jaw of the upright and now unconscious Dokes, causing him to slump to the canvas in sections, ultimately depositing him on his right side.
There was little need for the formality of a count as review of this bout will show that by the time referee Arthur Mercante JR. had reached the count of four, various handlers and corner men from both camps were frantically entering the ring. In the moments after the official verdict was delivered by Ed Derian, Ruddock began to pace the ring nervously and with an expression that belied concern for the fallen former heavyweight champion as he anxiously waited for word on his fallen opponent’s condition. It was as though Ruddock suddenly realized the extent and destructive nature of his brutal delivery. In the end Michael Dokes managed to regain his senses, but history would go on to show that the defeat effectively took the best of what he had left as a world class fighter. In a post-fight interview with Gil Clancy, Ruddock revealed that he had been injured in camp, adding that “We don’t pull out, Gil”, a clear reference to his commitment as a fighter and his ever burgeoning level of self confidence as a destructive world class heavyweight.
The breakout win over Michael Dokes clearly thrust Donovan “Razor” Ruddock to the forefront of the heavyweight picture, among such notables as then-former heavyweight champ “Iron” Mike Tyson, his conqueror, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion James “Buster” Douglas and the aforementioned future all-time great, Evander Holyfield. For me as a fan, the excitement grew. I could only hope that this Toronto-bred fighter could take it all of the way to a title shot, but even then I wondered if his bent for explosive knockouts would further predispose him to the sharp skills of the division elite. It was at this key point where I bought into the hype, choosing to ignore the chinks in Ruddock’s armor. But it can be correctly argued that the closer he inched towards the big stage, the farther away he veered from what brought him success in the first place. He fell in love with the destructive power of “The Smash”, and bought into all of the press clippings and hype surrounding it, seemingly oblivious to the level of talent around him and the opportunity for doom his explosive victory over Michael “Dynamite” Dokes would ultimately afford him.