In the spring of 1982, new to Manhattan and eager to write my first big sports piece for the Village Voice, I asked the late, great editor of The Ring, Bert Randolph Sugar, whether the upcoming Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney match qualified as a “Super Fight.”
“Definitely,” he replied. “Boxing’s always had big fights. But the ‘Super Fight’ began with all the politics and hoopla of the Ali era. Big fights used to be written up by sportswriters—Paul Gallico, Red Smith, W.C. Heinz. ‘Super fights’ are written up by sociologists, moralists, novelists. And their main theme is usually ‘Is Boxing Dead?’”
The greatest American sportswriter and boxing writer, W.C. Heinz, thought , sometime around 1950, that boxing would be killed by war. “You can’t send hundreds of thousands of kids to Normandy and Iwo Jima and Korea to see death on a mass level and still expect them to be interested in simulated violence when they come home.”
But boxing survived war, at least until a few years later, when The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling thought television would kill boxing. “You can’t sell what you’re giving away for free.” In the mid-’70s, Garry Wills, writing for The New York Review of Books, thought that boxing should go ahead and “pack it up” after Muhammad Ali left the game.
And so, here we are, in May 2015, and boxing is once again supposed to be either dying or dead as we wait to count the box office and pay-per-view receipts for the world’s two greatest welterweights and probably the best pound-for-pound fighters at any weight, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, to fight for the biggest purse before the biggest audience in boxing history.
The moralists are out in force.
There is much outrage, all of it justifiable, that Mayweather, who has been convicted five times for assaults on women, has served only two months in prison. On ESPN, Keith Olbermann asked viewers if they are going to pay to see “this poor excuse for a man?” (See Keith go after Floyd here.)
In USA Today, Christine Brennan wrote, “Why have we as a society reacted with such anger and disgust at the elevator video of [Ray] Rice hitting his then-fiancé, to the point that Rice still has no job in the NFL, yet completely ignored the despicable and lengthy history of domestic violence by Mayweather?”
The answer to her question is obvious: unlike pro football, there’s no commissioner of boxing to rule that Mayweather can’t ply his trade. There are just enough people around who will fork over $100 for the pay-per-view to put at least $150 million in Mayweather’s bank account.
God forgive me, but I am one of them, and I make no complicated excuse for my weakness: I have waited too long to see Mayweather get his ass whipped to quit now, just as he’s about to fight the only man who might be able to do it, Manny Pacquiao. (Though both men may well be past their physical peak—Mayweather is 38, Pacquiao 36—I think Manny’s hand speed and stamina will be too much for Junior. When Mayweather does his familiar thing of retreating to the ropes and pulling his chin back, I expect to see Pacquiao throwing combinations to the body and then the head faster than the CompuBox scorers can count them.)
I don’t think that I’m ever going to stop watching fights, but I’m very tempted to stop reading about them. In particular, an ESPN.com piece by Brando Simeo Starkey titled “Life after Death” sums up everything I find glib and pretentious about modern sportswriting.
There are meaningless quotations, such as one from Thomas Hearns, the first boxer to win titles in four divisions: “People are afraid of boxing because boxing is not a game. You can play any other sport you want to play. But you cannot ‘play’ boxing.” Starkey must have caught Tommy on a day when he had just read Joyce Carol Oates, who said the same thing in her book On Boxing nearly 25 years ago.
There are big, puffed up, unsupportable statements. The financial bonanza of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is “life after American cultural death.” Since no one knows what Starkey could possibly mean by “American cultural death,” how can you argue with his conclusion?
What killed boxing? For one thing, “When its gravitas faded, when Ali’s feet and mouth slowed, when poor black boys figured out football and basketball offered quicker, safer routes out of the ghetto and toward fame in the mainstream, boxing slid off the New York Times front page, off the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and out of the teleprompters of Dan Rather, Tom Brokow, and Peter Jennings.”
Really? If Starkey had thought his argument through, he’d have seen that nearly all of the great black fighters of the post-Ali era—Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Pernell Whittaker, Roy Jones, and now Floyd Mayweather Jr., to name just a handful—chose boxing precisely because there was no market for short, 160-poundish football and basketball players.
Further, “Mayweather is the richest individual earner in sports despite making zero dollars from advertisers. When a sport’s best athlete can’t sell fast food or sodas, it and he are flirting with cultural irrelevance.” I think you are flirting with logical irrelevance when you define culture as fast food and sodas.
Then we’re offered the old war horse of an argument that today’s fighters just can’t measure up to the greats of yore: “You put Mayweather in with Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard, or Roberto Duran in that weight class, he doesn’t stand a chance with them. Sugar Ray Leonard would eat him up. Tommy Hearns would eat him up.”
Whose opinion has Starkey sought? That great analyst and boxing historian Gerry Cooney, whose head apparently hasn’t cleared from that ass kicking administered to him by George Foreman in his last bout. Cooney is surely old enough to remember that when Sugar Ray Leonard was on top, old timers were saying that he wouldn’t have stood a chance with Sugar Ray Robinson. And the same was said about Robinson when the previous generation envisioned him in the ring with “Homicide Hank,” Henry Armstrong.
Starkey’s main argument, at least as I understand it, is that boxing was “a sport that derived nearly all of its cultural relevance from barbarically arguing America’s black-white racial dilemma.” I’m inclined to ask why, then, the Golden Age of Boxing represented in live gates which brought in a staggering million dollars-plus was during the ’20s when whites were fighting whites for championships.
But let that pass. The factor that seems to be largely invisible to Starkey and to other ESPN writers and commentators like Jason Whitlock and Max Kellerman is that American blacks, both as an audience for boxing and a pipeline for boxing talent, have long been surpassed by Hispanics. And I don’t hear arguments that the NBA and NFL are clamoring for Latin talent.
Beginning with the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad bout in 1999, it was obvious that that not just the future of boxing in this country was Latin, but the present as well. Here’s an irony: Mayweather-Pacquiao may well be the last Super Fight which doesn’t feature Latin fighters. (I can’t wait to see how the flood of talent that will soon be coming out of Cuba will not only enrich Major League Baseball but boxing as well.)
Perhaps Starkey may be correct when he says that boxing’s “cultural relevance will never be resuscitated in America.” (He uses “cultural relevance” the way Bill O’Reilly uses “cultural warrior.”) But I have a feeling that the next generation will be writing their “Boxing is Dead” stories in Spanish.