It's now been a day since we saw defending World Cup and Euro champions Spain lose to Chile, 2-0, a day since they were mathematically eliminated from the knockout stages, and a day since we witnessed the grisly end of an era. It was a profound moment in soccer and in soccer's history, and still, all I can think about is boxing.
I've played soccer almost my entire life, but when I look back on my youth, the sport that I always think about is boxing. My parents were pretty strict on my brother and me growing up; until we were teenagers, we watched TV only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and even on the weekends we had curfews. We were allowed to stay up and watch TV only when there was a belt on the line, when my dad would buy a case of Heineken, pop some popcorn, and host friends, family, and coworkers in our living room to watch greats like Tyson, Foreman, Evander, Lennox, Trinidad, Gatti, de la Hoya, Sugar Shane, and Mayweather.
My parents never would've let me box, and I never had any real urge to learn myself. I wasn't all that interested in tactics or theory, and in any case, I felt I understood the sport well enough: knock the other guy out. If you can't knock him out, you better damn well try. I loved the blood, the physicality, the primal urgency of it all. And somehow, my favorite fighter was Roy Jones Jr.
To me, and to everyone else, Jones was the best. He was stronger, faster, and smarter than everyone. More than anything, I enjoyed the minute breaks between rounds, when he would sit down on the stool, completely unmarked, breathing just as comfortably as I was, sitting between my father's legs on the floor, staring at him through the screen.
"How you doing, champ?" his trainer would ask. And Jones would nod, or grunt, and then they'd sit awhile for 45 seconds of awkward silence, both kind of acknowledging that Jones had already discerned what adjustments he need to make, that the fight was already won and there really wasn't anything else for his trainer to do or say.
Jones started off his career with 17 straight knockouts, and won 34 matches with 28 knockouts before his first loss, when he was disqualified for hitting Montell Griffin after knocking him down. In their rematch, Jones knocked Griffin out in the first round.
I was a little young for all of this, however. By the time I started caring about Roy Jones, he was hated by many. He was a counterpuncher who was just too much, tactically and athletically, for any of his opponents, and he would spend bouts backing himself in the corner, hunched in a half-crouch, hands around his knees, feinting and dodging and ducking without ever getting hit. His matches were sleepy, and only picked up when a fighter would sell out and bum rush him, forcing him to raise his gloves and elbows, blocking and parrying everything, before lashing out with jabs almost too quick to see. His opponent, tagged in the face, would retreat a few steps, and Jones would take one step in, think better of it, and head right back into the corner. This made for dreadfully boring matches, and my parents often had to wake me up after the final bell to witness unanimous decision after unanimous decision.
I liked Jones, though, because he taught me about boxing. I started noticing patterns as each of his matches evolved. At first, when his opponent was fresh and pumped on adrenaline, there would be flurries, and it would look like maybe this was the guy to dethrone the king. But as the rounds went on, the fight would take shape, come into focus. I would slowly realize that Jones was in control all along, and from the opening bell, his opponent had already begun to dig his own grave. Jones's strategy was offense through defense, a sleepy form of domination that played out over several acts, over many rounds, like slow-acting poison. From the opening bell, there could only be one outcome. Jones was my favorite boxer, because slowly and over the course of years, I came to realize he had perfected the sport.
And then we watched Jones nearly die, right there in the ring where for so long, he'd been so perfect. First was his rematch with Antonio Tarver. In the previous fight, Jones barely escaped with a majority decision. In the second round of Jones-Tarver II, Tarver and Jones traded left hooks. But Tarver's got to Jones's temple first, harder, and the champion was felled and counted out.
It seemed a fluke, until Jones's next fight, against Glen Johnson in 2004. Johnson was an energetic, jittery fighter whose style appeared the opposite of Jones's. In the ninth round, Johnson seemed to reach all the way into his back pocket before hurling a wicked right hand to Jones's head. Jones froze, and then slowly, almost, fell backward to the canvas. For a few seconds, he appeared dead.
It was the last Jones fight I ever watched. I was shocked to learn this morning that Jones had fought on for nine more years. The Roy Jones I knew, though, had already passed.
Boxing can be measured in milliseconds and millimeters, and often, there's no way for a fighter to know that the sport has passed him by until he's laid out on the ground, looking into the floodlights, brains full of mush. Jones lost because he had simply gotten too old. He fought the same style he always had, but with his reflexes dulled, just a bit, from age, he was vulnerable to dangers he had spent all his life evading. No one considered Jones's fall an indictment on his counterpunching style; they just acknowledged that no one, not even the greatest defensive fighter ever, can dodge time.
Four years after Jones-Johnson, Spain emerged as a soccer superpower through tiki-taka, a short passing, possession-heavy style, and won Euro 2008. This Spanish national team was the ultimate culmination of a revolution that took place 20 years prior, when Dutch legend Johan Cruyff took over as manager of FC Barcelona and implemented the philosophy of Total Football at the club, all the way down to the youngest prospects at La Masia, Barcelona's youth academy.
If Jones's strategy was offense through defense, then tiki-taka is defense through offense. Jones couldn't lose if he never got hit. Barcelona and Spain couldn't concede if they never gave up the ball. Like Jones's style, tiki-taka solved the sport. Both Barcelona and Spain became unbeatable.
Spain's midfield core of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta were products of La Masia, and grew up with tiki-taka as a way of life. They would become known as the best tandem in the world, and also were the midfield engine of Barcelona, another side for which 2008 was the start of a five-year stretch in which they were untouchable.
Barcelona flaunted a Spanish spine of Xavi, Iniesta, center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué, and keeper Victor Valdés. Later they'd add Sergio Busquets. Barca also padded their roster with superstars from abroad, like Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Dani Alves, and Yaya Touré. Of course, they also had Lionel Messi, an Argentine expat who grew up in La Masia, and developed into possibly the greatest player of all time.
Barcelona's brand of tiki-taka, then, was supercharged. Not only did they possess for long periods, but they were capable of scoring four, five, eight goals on the staunchest of opponents. At no time was this on better display than Nov. 29, 2010, when Barça smacked rivals Real Madrid in El Clasico, 5-0.
Tiki-taka is often nicknamed "death by a thousands paper cuts," because it's a special, slow style of torture that starts at the opening whistle and wears away at opposing defenses, pinning them within their own half. It takes time, but almost always, inevitably ends in goals for Spain, and none for their opponents. If anything, Spain's form of tiki-taka was purer than Barcelona's. If tiki-taka was death by a thousand paper cuts, Barcelona's brand was what would happen if Roy Jones fought while wielding knives.
In 2010, Spain won the South Africa World Cup, becoming the first European team to win the tournament outside of Europe. After a shock loss in their opener to the Swiss, they then beat Honduras in their group stage 2-0, then fended off Chile, 2-1. They advanced through the knockout rounds by beating Portugal, then Paraguay, then Germany, and finally, the Netherlands. They won each match 1-0.
In the Euro 2012 final, Spain shocked everyone by completely dismantling defensive stalwarts Italy, 4-0. In 2013, Barcelona won La Liga for the fourth time in five years. Both had become dynasties in their own right, and as their legend grew, so did hatred for them, for tiki-taka. The inevitability of their 1-0 victories became monotonous, plodding, and critics looked at narrow victories and opined, hopefully, that tiki-taka had been found out, had been solved.
Still, many expected Spain to win, or at least come close, this year in Brazil. But slight cracks, noticed by almost no one, had begun to show. Barcelona, with a core of Xavi, Iniesta, and now Busquets, leaned heavily on Lionel Messi to win matches, but ran into a buzz saw in the 2013 Champions League semifinal, when they were pummeled 7-0 over two legs by German side FC Bayern.
In the 2013 Confederations Cup, Spain cruised to the final, but were blown out, 3-0, by a faster, stronger, more energetic Brazil.
Still, it was a shock when, in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final, Spain took on the Netherlands in the first match of this year's World Cup group stage, scored first, and then conceded five straight goals to the Dutch, who on paper, at least, seemed diminished themselves.
For years, people speculated that Spain's back four was overrated, but untested. And in 2013, legendary Spanish keeper Iker Casillas was intermittently dropped by manager José Mourinho for Diego Lopez. But if you never get punched, you don't need to be able to take one. If you never give up the ball, you don't need much in the way of a defense. The problem here, though, is that neither strategy is sustainable. Jones relied on his speed and quickness for much of his career. His style didn't fail him; his body did. Spain's core had aged. Xavi, who didn't even feature against Chile, is 34. Iniesta is 30. Casillas is 33. Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso is 32.
Tiki-taka didn't kill Spain. Time did. Their folly was not in believing in tiki-taka, but in believing that they could still pull it off. Four years ago, they were in their prime. Two years ago, even, Spain still possessed the passing and technical prowess that vaulted them to the top of the soccer world, that again changed the sport as we know it.
But their elimination from this World Cup once again affirmed what we all know to be true, what I learned watching boxing 10 long years ago: If you stick around long enough, everyone gets caught.
Photo Credit: Getty.