WAIL! | The CBZ Journal | February 2004

Boxing: Why We Love It

By Tom Donelson

The famous sportswriter Red Smith described boxing as the red-light district of sports. Despite of the whores, the con artists, and the all-around wiseguys who populate the boxing scene, it remains enthralling. My love affair with boxing began as kid in the '60s, following Ali's career. It was Ali's mastery of the ring that enticed me into boxing and grabbed my interest.

Obviously boxing was more than just Ali, and historically, the heavyweight champion was the most famous sports figure in America. During the roaring twenties, Jack Dempsey's earnings dwarfed that of even Babe Ruth -- and this despite fighting just four of the seven years that he was heavyweight champion. A reporter once asked Ruth why he was earning more money than President Herbert Hoover, and Ruth replied, "I had a better year than the president." (In Ruth's defense, he did have a better year than Hoover, who managed to drag America into the Great Depression.) Dempsey's earnings dwarfed not only the great Babe's, but also all of the presidents' salaries throughout the '20s.

Boxing as a sport never advanced beyond its medieval past of the early part of the previous century. Sports in the early 20th century fell victim to crooks and con artists. Corruption affected baseball, the American pastime at the turn of the 20th century. The Black Sox scandal demonstrated that even the World Series was not exempt from criminal elements, as members of the White Sox threw the 1919 World Series.

The difference was that baseball decided to put its house in order and ensure that that wouldn't happen again. It began by giving Judge Landis central authority to run the sport. Landis' first move was to ban every member of the White Sox from the game forever. Baseball began the process of protecting its integrity and enjoyed massive popularity as America's pastime until football took over in the '60s. Most sports followed baseball's lead in establishing a central authority to protect their integrity. Boxing did not. Promoters have always treated boxing as a fiefdom, and no central authority has ever existed to promote the sport. The sport survived in spite of itself. The Mafia began controlling boxing in the '20s, and this continued until the early '60s. Today major promoters such as Don King and Bob Arum ruled the sport through various sanctioning bodies, which do their biding.

This has hurt boxing over the past 20 years. Since Ali left the boxing scene and Mike Tyson self-destructed, boxing has done everything it could to commit suicide. Boxing survives, but boxing today no longer has the same hold upon the sporting imagination. Most fights are on cable or pay-per-view. If ESPN, HBO, and Showtime didn't cover the sport, no one would.

So why does boxing survive? It is the nature of humans to pummel one another, and boxing is merely the reminder of man's early struggle. War is the one reality of humankind, and boxing is a reflection of man's violent nature. But there are rules within the ring. It is the one place where natural aggressiveness is allowed and cheered. Men will fight for 36 minutes, looking for their moment of glory, a shot at a championship belt. When it's over, most fighters congratulate each other. For combat only exist within the ring, and after the bell rings the final time, man's violent nature gives way to his sporting instinct. Boxers, more than any other athletes, understand the sacrifice it takes to become a fighter, and they are most respectful of their opponents. The hatred that exists within the confines of the boxing ring disappears after it's over. Boxers understand that their opponents have traveled the same path. Bravado exists in all boxers, but there is humility, as well. Boxers understand that defeat can happen in the next fight, and there is no place for arrogance, for even the greatest will fall prey to age. The greatest fighters find themselves victims of their own hubris as they fight just one more fight. They only delude themselves in thinking that they can be the fighters who beat the ravages of age. No one beats the aging process, and in the end, even the greatest must face defeat, humiliation, and retirement.

Ali as a young man bragged of the being the greatest, but near the end of his career, he began to see his own mortality. After the Thrilla in Manila, Ali tried to heal the rift with his most noble opponent, Smokin' Joe Frazier. Ali had to respect the man he taunted for nearly five years and whom he fought for 41 of the toughest rounds in heavyweight history. Humility came as the result of punches that landed on Ali's body and head. After the Thrilla in Manila, Ali became more humble and appreciative of the sport he mastered. When Holmes fought Ali, it would be Holmes' toughest moment. Forced to fight an aging Ali whose eroding skills merely made him a target, Holmes beat the defenseless ex-champion. Holmes saw his own future demise, as he would lose to Mike Tyson eight years later as an aging former champion.

Every fighter must face defeat and face it alone. A football player is but one of 11 players, and a basketball player is but one of five. Even in defeat, a basketball or football player will never truly be singled out, for he is part of a team. A boxer faces his opponent alone, and there's no one else who can help. Hit or be hit: That is the fate of a boxer. Boxing is the noble sport, incapable of being destroyed by the various princes who rule it as their own fiefdom. Boxing has survived because boxing is bigger than the rulers of the sport and because we see human frailty and courage on display in every bout. Boxing is the last place for the modern-day warrior outside of war. As Joyce Carol Oates observed: "Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost." Boxing is sport at its most brutal, most primitive, and most natural. Two men defending their honor and courage, in a ring surrounded by observers, whose love for the sport is essentially spiritual.

Boxing is the last refuge of the modern-day warrior.

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