I know that young folk hate to hear old-timers like me yammer on about “how far I had to walk to school when I was a kid,” and reminisce about “how much better music was in my day.” But the fact is, lots of things were better in the old days. And among the things on that myriad list of devolving human endeavors is boxing.
Believe it or not, there was a time when you could actually catch a great championship fight on network television - notably, ABC’s Wide World of Sports. And you didn’t have to sell your first born or take a mortgage on your home to buy a ticket to a live event, either. Those were the long lost days when the fans were a cherished part of the timeless drama of Prize Fighting.
I witnessed the careers of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Forman, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Alexis Arguello, unfold before me every weekend on my 19” television. This was before pay-per-view gates lined the pockets of promoters and a few fighters, and decimated the fan base in the process. These were the days when only one champion ruled each weight division. The days before “Super” Lightweight, or demeaning categories like “Junior” Middleweight besmirched the sport.
Boxing was the sport of the common man who, in the deepest part of his subconscious, aspired to be something greater. As fans we vicariously shared a primal strand of warrior DNA that, despite millennia of civilization, screamed to be unleashed every time our favorite fighter came out for the bell. And even though we didn’t have the skill or courage to step into the ring ourselves, we flinched with every punch our boxers took, reveled in the elation of their triumphs, and suffered in the despair of their defeats.
Sadly, what was a beloved pastime for the masses has become an elitist trifle that is headed toward a suicidal precipice - not because of the sport’s enemies, who would like to see the boxing banned, but from the greed and narcissism of those within the sport who have forgotten that in order to remain popular, you must be remain accessible.
In the 1970’s, to supplement my boxing addiction, I would hop the subway to the Felt Forum inside the Madison Square Garden complex to see the stars of the future. New York was a Mecca of boxing then and outstanding fights could be seen every few weeks. I have vivid memories of blood spatters on my clothing courtesy of a Mustafa Hamsho uppercut, and screaming myself hoarse as Gerry Cooney demolished Ken Norton in the Garden on his way to a title bout with Larry Holmes.
But eventually fight nights became more and more rare, and by the time I left, Las Vegas and Atlantic City had sapped the pugilistic lifeblood from the Big Apple.
Relocating to Los Angeles, I found respite in weekly exhibitions at the infamous Olympic Auditorium where I saw Kiko Bejines suffer a fatal knockout, and Julio Cesar Chavez seriously cut in one of his early appearances in the United States. Ticket prices were less than ten dollars and the arena was always packed.
Now the Olympic stands eerily quiet, and while big fights can occasionally be seen at the Staples Center, you could fund a small Third World country for the price of a pair of tickets and parking.
So here’s to the days when champions fought the number one contender, and frequently challenged champions in other divisions because they had an insatiable desire to prove something to themselves and their fans. To the days of eight weight divisions, and two ruling bodies, which has now proliferated to five sanctioning bodies and a staggering seventeen divisions.
Under current circumstances, who but the most stalwart fan can keep track of the champions, let alone the contenders? I certainly can’t. And I’m not even sure I want to anymore. Except for scattered ESPN coverage of second-rate fighters, I’m now relegated to watching reruns of great fights on ESPN Classic and YouTube. If I decide to watch the “Pac Man” and “Money” Mayweather mix it up at some time in the future, I’ll need to bow to extortion and “money-up” $50-$60 for the privilege of seeing it in my living room. But it’s not the same. There’s nothing like the roar of the crowd and the camaraderie that comes with live boxing.
There are still a few outposts of live matches at places like the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, and smaller venues in and around Los Angeles where one can see exciting bouts for an affordable price. But the cost of promotion has made these events few and far between, and without the guaranteed revenues from ESPN or some other cable network, most of these would not exist. Exclusivity, staggering purses, and fighters who are terrified to face each other, have once again served to put boxing on the fringes of respectability, and banish fans to cheer for other athletes.
Mixed Martial Arts is the new kid on the block, and I must admit that it holds a certain barbaric appeal. But try as I might, I have difficulty warming to it. Like I said, I’m an Old Timer. Sorry. For me, it’s a stand-up boxer, Marquess of Queensberry rules, and square ring. But alas, I see the sport of my youth withering before my eyes and ask, "Where has all the boxing gone?"