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Steve Aschbruner

Rasheed Wallace is a huge fan of the "sweet science."
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia roots stir Wallace's passion for boxing

Posted Nov 10 2009 11:23AM

Ask Rasheed Wallace about the NBA and you're likely to get a "Both teams played hard" response, his way of either dodging the question or disengaging from the process entirely. Ask him about boxing -- prizefighting, pugilism, "the sweet science'' -- and the Boston Celtics' newly acquired big man lights up like Chris Rock riffing on the Jacksons.

Wallace is from Philadelphia, so you don't need a cut man to know that the fight game pumps through his veins. He is a good friend of Bernard Hopkins, longtime middleweight champion and a fellow Philly native; Hopkins sat courtside when the Celtics played in Philadelphia last week. Like a lot of NBA players, but more than many, Wallace is looking forward to the big fight in Las Vegas Saturday when Manny Pacquiao faces WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto in their "Firepower'' bout at the MGM Grand Garden. I talked with Wallace recently about his second favorite sport (basketball isn't No. 1, by the way):

05_Columnist_Banner_QA.jpg After the game in Cleveland on Opening Night, you entertained a small group of writers with your knowledge and opinions on boxing. And you made a case for Jack Johnson as the greatest fighter of all time. Is that really possible, that a guy who was heavyweight champion so long ago [Johnson was the first black heavyweight champ, holding the title from 1908 to 1915] could still be No. 1?

Rasheed Wallace: I'm going to have to say yeah, man. Going back to 40- and 50-round fights? Not to say that there weren't great heavyweights after him, but I don't think they could have withstood the punishment and the torture that he did for so many rounds.

Jack Johnson.
Courtesy of Getty Images So what if it was Jack Johnson vs. Muhammad Ali? [Wallace had done a nifty impression of Johnson's old-school, fists-high style that night in Cleveland, compared to Ali's dancing and stinging.]

RW: In their prime? I don't know. Both of them were monsters in their prime. That would definitely be one to see. But I've got to go with Johnson. How did you become such a boxing fan?

RW: C'mon, man, I'm from Philly. Yeah, you know, we're a boxing Mecca. I've always been into boxing -- I started with my older brothers. They were heavily into boxing as fans. You've had your share of heated moments on the court, at least with the referees. Boxers don't mess with the refs but they at least get to work out their aggressions. Did you ever second-guess your career choice?

RW: No. Not at all. Actually, my first love was track and field. Basketball was third on my list. Third time's a charm, though. Boxing? It wasn't for me. But I've heard that you have gotten into the ring with Bernard Hopkins as a sparring partner from time to time. True?

RW: I've just gone a couple times to see him spar. But this upcoming summer, I'm going to start working out with him. Try to get my old body into some kind of shape. Manny Pacquiao is a huge basketball fan; he loves to play the sport and even owns a team back home in the Philippines [PacMan Gensan in the Mindanao Visayas Basketball Association]. He strained a knee ligament, in fact, while playing sometime after his Ricky Hatton fight last spring. That had his trainer [Alex Ariza] wishing Pacquiao would stick to the ring rather than the court. Do you see much crossover in terms of training or workouts?

RW: Actually, I think boxing is a harder workout. There are so many key things you have to work on. You have to work on your body because you're taking so much physical punishment. You have to work on your neck, all your individual muscles. So I would say that boxing workouts are a little bit harder. But basketball is a good way for a fighter to get his road work in.

RW: Definitely. With basketball, you're running up and down, what, I'd say the average NBA player is going to run a minimum of four miles. If you're getting some good minutes. Plus basketball is a little more athletic and fun. How do you feel about the difference in team vs. individual sports? The Celtics have five guys on the floor at all times sharing responsibility. In the ring, it's just you.

RW: There's nobody you can blame. When you're out there on the court, some guys on some nights are like, 'Aw, man, that's your fault. You didn't get there to help.' And this and that [other excuses]. But boxing? You've got no one to blame but yourself. You can't blame your corner. They're just trying to give you advice, but you're the one who's in that squared circle. Now, Bernard Hopkins expects Pacquiao to "chop Cotto up'' in their fight, and I'm assuming you agree. Hopkins also called Pacquiao ``the Bruce Lee of boxing,'' and said "Unlike Rocky, Bruce Lee was a real dude and so is Manny.'' I get the sense that Philadelphia boxing fans aren't necessarily big fans of Rocky Balboa.

RW: No, man, that's fictitious. That's all for the movies. Actually, some people think that Rocky was a real boxer. No, he was a movie boxer. That's just something that put Philly on the map in the late '70s. He's all fictitious right there. The real stuff is at the Blue Horizon. That's where a lot of amateurs fight at. That's where anybody with any type of name coming out of Philadelphia had to fight. It's a big thing. [The "Legendary Blue Horizon" was vote the No. 1 boxing venue in the world by Ring Magazine and claims to have produced 30 world champions since the first fights were held there in 1961.] You said the other night that the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard was the best fight you'd ever seen? I happened to cover that one -- "The Superfight'' at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in April 1987 -- back when you were 12 years old. That one still ranks as the best you've seen?

RW: It was. I've seen some good fights since then, but that's the one that really hooked me. I thought, `Man, this is a good-ass sport.' That could have gone either way. [In a comeback fight after a detached-retina injury, Leonard earned a split-decision over Hagler in 12 rounds, a controversial outcome still debated today.] So setting Jack Johnson aside and going by the "pound for pound'' standard, who's the greatest fighter ever?

RW: I can't just name one, as far as the greatest. Of course, Ali was great. At the time he was champ, Roy [Jones Jr.] was good too -- he was knocking people out left and right. Mike [Tyson]. Lennox Lewis. There's too many. Sweet Pea Whitaker. I don't think of just one. It's a hell of an argument. I've got to throw Bernard in there, too. He held the middleweight belt for something like 12 years [10, from 1995-2005]. That's no hometown call -- that's the facts. Fine. So who's the greatest NBA player, pound for pound? We always hear that used to describe Allen Iverson.

RW: AI? He definitely was one of the best. I think he still is.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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