A bitter pill for the once-sweet science

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Boxing used to tell the tale of our history and the tale of the overlooked classes. But too much greed and too many wrong turns means it now just tells the tale of its own failure, writes Ewan MacKenna.

For many, it’s been the bout that’s kept on giving. Granted, very little had to do with actual boxing.

There was the build-up around ticket prices (some over $100,000 with a total gate of $74m), pay-per-view costs ($99 Stateside with a worldwide net of $400m) and massive purses (the victor earned $83,000 a second), not to mention the wife-beater rather than the fighter as if it only dawned on people and as if it’s a first from a sport tangled with real-life rawness and vileness. Fast forward and there was the shoulder injury, murmurs of prison and the fact those on the outside can now pronounce boxing dead. But it’s like a distant relation showing up at a funeral and talking tragedy when those in and out of the nursing home over the years realise the real person left us long ago.

For boxing itself, it’s been the bout that kept taking away though as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was a microcosm of everything sickly within the sport. Avarice and egos made it happen five years too late. From a past-it Pacquiao came lies over his health only after fans paid his massive wages to watch from their sofas. In Mayweather was a man that can’t even play pantomime villain for that would require charisma and a grudging likability. And for all his talent, his overprotected record may show he is better than many from the past, but he’s not greater for that stems from getting in with and getting up from fights against heroes. All the while at the MGM, those who keep boxing going through the dark days weren’t there, instead it was just those who could afford the spotlight.

It was a circus that represented the pinnacle of modern boxing perfectly. That can be hard to admit, because a sport so intrinsically intertwined with so many pivotal moments in history is now merely another snooker or athletics, watched by aficionados when generation pop couldn’t care. What makes that more damning is to think what boxing can be. For sports fans, it can give the most unforgiving battle between body and mind. For journalists, it can give access to flaws and fortitude that mirror existence. All the while, for the soul, it can tell gruesome and great memoirs of forgotten classes.

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But more and more that’s merely a nostalgic view. The truth is that over the last 25 years boxing has become like its own haggard journeymen. Too scared to look in the mirror and see the old and battered face staring back, but also too scared to change and veer from the only road it knows.

A couple of weeks back, a brilliant essay by Brando Simeo Starkey on ESPN aligned the demise of the sweet science to the demise of racial hatred. Blacks were banned from title fights until 1908, but late that year Jack Johnson gave Tommy Burns such a beating to take the heavyweight crown that police came into the ring, stopped the bout and turned off cameras so the world couldn’t see him standing victorious over the hollow frame of his white opponent. It took Hitler and Joe Louis to make America comfortable with a coloured king and even Muhammad Ali built his name playing the race card, humiliating and exploiting opponents by questioning their true colour because of his one religion.

But as Starkey pointed out, “America’s financial recovery and the GI Bill after World War Two produced economic pathways for poor white men that slowly and steadily depleted boxing of Caucasian talent… Two decades later, the civil rights movement and integration would give poor black men access to those same pathways and eventually drain boxing’s black pipeline.” At that time, colleges in the southern states began integrating athletic programmes too and as HBO’s Larry Merchant put it: “When people ask me, ‘Where are all the American heavyweights?’ I tend to respond, ‘They’re all playing linebacker.’”

Johnson

In 1920s America, somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 professional boxers were licensed. By the 1950s, that collapsed to around 5,000. But if a treaty in a race war can explain that, boxing has to take the blame for the 2,850 fighters registered come 2006. “Boxing is the wild, wild west,” explained Showtime’s Steve Farhood. “We don’t have anyone who looks after the long-term interests of boxing. The interest in boxing is all short term.”

The resulting dearth in talent can be shown by the fact that no one seems to retire or be retired anymore. Mayweather is 38. Wladimir Klitschko remains untouchable at 39 while the blue-riband heavyweight division has been in flux for two decades. Roy Jones is looking to return at 46. Bernard Hopkins is a champion at 50. If you had that age profile among leading lights in another physical sport, you’d say there was something seriously wrong. But boxing just looks for money, not solutions and as a result, since the early 1980s, the only fighter to cause genuine excitement was Mike Tyson and he didn’t have a genuine competitor in his prime. The problem isn’t solely the shallow water though; it’s the reluctance to swim. People don’t get the fights they want. If Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns were around today, they’d be kept apart but still people are expected to fork out for the crumbs.

At its best boxing could afford pay-per-view, as it wilted it couldn’t. But it greedily persisted, making it too remote from its audience. That helped hide the rarity of great fights like Ward-Gatti and Barrera-Morales. And it helps bury the great stories. In Ireland alone Andy Lee comes from a Travelling Community so often there to face the slings and arrows but he’s offered another side. Growing up in the shadows of the peace wall in Tiger’s Bay, Carl Frampton has shown all of Belfast what real fighting men are about. Elsewhere there are untold tales like WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder who, with a pregnant girlfriend, gave up his NFL dream at 19, quit college, worked two jobs and when finding his daughter had spina bifida promised her a better life. But because of their sport’s standing no one knows. And no one outside of boxing’s inner circle cares like they used to.

Tyson

Wilder delivered on his promise where boxing didn’t on its obligation. Of course the sport can never actually die because the essence is in places you’ll never visit. But while there’s a theory that boxing owes those peering in something better than last weekend, it doesn’t. It owes its own lifeblood better than taking a path as if Labour hustling towards the centre.

Ask Bernard Dunne and he’ll tell you he grew up watching Hagler and Hearns. Ask Frampton and he’ll tell you about Eubank and Benn in an ITV studio. But ask a fighter in 20 years’ time if he watched Mayweather and Pacquiao and we guarantee that if he did, it won’t have been his inspiration.

Sunday Business Post
10 May, 2015

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