This is a story which I’ve avoided writing about in this space for some time, and since it has very little to do with American politics in general you are to be excused if you’d like to skip over it and move on. The news headline in question is one which has a certain segment of the sports world in a high state of excitement, being the subject of great speculation for several years. Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao are going to enter the boxing ring and fight. And as Jerry Izenberg of the New Jersey Star Ledger points out in a tragic, sad, yet extremely spot on article, this was a fight that would, in some alternate universe, have been glorious roughly one half decade ago. Now, however, it’s just sad.
Just like Ali and Frazier on that boiling hot day in Manila, the inexorable march of time has chipped away at the marvelous skills of Mayweather and Pacquiao. The minus side of all of this is that neither is the fighter he was. On the plus sign, each has lost just about the same amount of talent, so that while they may not be the same as they were, in terms of the matchup they remain as first among equals.
But there is one more thing to understand before you anoint this match as a kind of rescue point, designed to save the entire sport of boxing from oblivion…
But let’s be clear on one thing. It is not the fight that is going to save boxing from extinction because boxing ain’t going anywhere. It may take long breaks in the public eye, but it will always remain the athlete’s foot of all the contact sports in the universe.
Jerry is an old hand with this sport, and as difficult as it may be to imagine from his depressing analysis, he’s still more of an optimist about boxing than I am. Boxing as a sport in America (and really around the world) has been dying a slow death since before many of the people reading this article were born.
Let me first say that I’m not here to criticize or comment excessively on the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight. That will take place and it will make some money. It won’t mean much, since it really should have taken place back in 2010 instead of Floyd fighting the hapless Shane Mosely when both fighters were in their prime. But the lackluster nature of their final meeting, long delayed over financial squabbling rather than a desire to prove who was the true champion of the squared circle, is more a symptom of the disease which has nearly killed the Sweet Science than any cure for it.
I was a boxing fan from the time I was a kid. My first outing to see a real, professional fight card took place when my future brother-in-law took me to fight night at the War Memorial in Syracuse, New York, when I was in eighth grade. (It was a great day in my life, even though I actually knew that he was only doing it to score points with my sister because he was trying to sleep with her.) Before that, my dad had taken me to some gym fights closer to home, but mostly we watched the big bouts on network television when they took place. I was in love with the sport… the fire and the fury, the sheer, raw nature of two men entering a ring and fighting as if life or death were on the line with only one victor emerging. Even back in the seventies, boxing was already suffering from decay but I didn’t know or care at the time. There were heroes to be worshiped. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes… they were gods walking on the Earth.
I was so taken with the fantasy of boxing glory that I attempted to pursue it myself when I first entered the military. I was in the featherweight class (126 pounds) because I wasn’t a big guy. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was terrible at it. While it may come as a surprise to learn, getting punched in the face repeatedly for three minutes is really not as much fun as it may appear on television. I soon hung up the gloves, but didn’t lose my love of the sport as a spectator.
Even through my early adult years there were still legendary bouts, though they frequently took place in the lower weight classes. Hagler and Hearns, mixed in with Spinx and Leonard, kept us all on the edge of our seats. It was rife with rumors of corruption, particularly at the lower levels, but we all tuned in for the big fight nights. It was a glorious time. And later- long after the bloom was off the rose- I even got excited about Mike Tyson in his early career. Iron Mike was just awesome and he woke up the world to the wonder of the sport again.
Sadly, there were a number of cancers, both internal and external, eating away at the Sweet Science. From the outside, likely the largest factor metastasizing the disease was Don King. His entry into the sport of boxing signaled the beginning of the end, and he remains, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the most corrupt figures to ever walk the land and he ruined a beloved American tradition with his greed and organized-crime-style approach to profiting from the sport at the expense of everyone else, particularly the fighters.
But at the same time, the various organizers of the sport were doing themselves no favors from inside the system. Back when I came up and first started subscribing to Ring Magazine, there were really only three boxing organizations which anyone paid attention to; the WBA, the WBO and the IBF. If we had known better at the time we might have realized that three was already two too many, but it seemed natural. It even added some spice to the sport as two or even three champions would vie for a unified, “undisputed” title, allowing for the possibility of two champions entering the ring at once.
Unfortunately, that was a splintering of both the rules and the organizing agents of the sport. It only became worse over time, until we now have such a convoluted alphabet soup of “ruling authorities” in boxing that any of you could probably obtain a “title” by beating one guy (or girl, today) in a single match in a warehouse. The independent associations each fought for a piece of the pie, seeking to shut out the others and capture more of the prize money. They argued and quibbled over the least of things in a power struggle which robbed most titles of the nobility they once held.
The desire for money led to what was probably the final nail in the coffin of boxing, and that was the move to pay-per-view from network television. The first time this idea of “you must pay extra to see a fight” concept of corporate boxing greed reared its ugly head was, I believe, the Thrilla In Manila. Many of us laid down the cash to witness that historic event and felt it was well worth the cost. We had no idea that we were helping to cement the beginning of the end of boxing. The greed on display by the organizers and the managers was well rewarded with big ticket fights, but the sport also began shedding viewers on that day. Only the most dedicated were willing to lay out extra cash for an event which might end after thirty seconds of the main event, and the sport stopped attracting new, younger viewers who might have tuned in for a big name bout.
Soon boxing became the purview of the old school holdouts. The continuing stories of lawsuits and lost wages to Don King and his cronies, along with others who wanted a piece of the pie, eroded the legitimacy of the sport further. The magazines stopped selling and people simply ceased caring. Boxing was, by the end of Mike Tyson’s run when he faced his ignominious loss to Buster Douglas, a zombie staggering across a ruined landscape. What was once the heir to the proud tradition established by Greek Olympic champions was now a criminal enterprise and a joke unfit for serious sports fans.
I stopped watching fights for the most part in the early 1990s. I have tried to get back into it from time to time, including as recently as last year. But it mostly just makes me feel sad and old. The glory days are gone and those controlling the splintered “industry” of boxing today are doing nothing to heal it. And this fight, for whichever of the many titles Money Mayweather is clinging on to, isn’t going to change anything. Boxing is essentially dead, and that’s a tremendous loss to America and the world.
In closing, I offer you the chance to relive some of the last glory days when the world watched the Sweet Science in breathless anticipation. This remains perhaps the most brutal eight minutes of human endeavor ever recorded in sports. Marvelous Marvin Hagler (a man described as being so fierce that hair feared to grow upon his head) against Tommy Hearns, who showed up with every intention to shake the foundations of the boxing word. The battle took place in April of 1985. This was what fighting was always meant to be and is no longer.