Friday, November 17, 2006

How Boxing Lives and Dies

Yesterday I was in a place where there were TVs going with the sound off. I was doing something else, so I only paid attention to the TVs out of the corner of my eye. But I began to pay closer attention when I noticed that there was a fight on one of them. It was the middle of the day, and the camera kept cutting away from the fight to show people emoting in the crowd, so I assumed that it was a soap opera. Also, it looked like a soap opera. It had the flat appearance, the stodgy camera, the profusion of inert middle-distance shots, the look of cheapness that all says "soap opera" from a mile away. When the camera cut away from the fight to characters in the crowd, they were standing in little pools of bright light, with the area around them left dark for contrast. They waved their arms and tried to look caught up in the action, but they appeared to be overacting like silent-movie stars, complete with gnawing lips and widened eyes to indicate suspense. It didn't look anything at all like a real fight scene. They weren't even cursing the ref.

But the fighters looked like real fighters. You couldn't see enough of each round to score it--just flurries of action lasting a few seconds--but they were really fighting, and they showed at least basic competence. I got to thinking that it spoke well of this soap opera's producers that they had gone to the trouble to get a couple of real fighters to go through the motions so strenuously. Usually, from what little I've seen of them, the action sequences on soap operas--say, a band of unshaven foreigners rushing in to capture the beautiful young nurse and imprison her on a desert island until she can be saved by the square-jawed doctor who is, in reality, her long-lost amnesiac husband, who suddenly remembers all when struck on the head by a falling styrofoam boulder during the big rescue scene--are as gloriously contrived as a seventh grader's self-produced action-movie spoof on youtube. But these guys were really fighting. I started wondering how it had come to pass that they were on a soap opera, and I started wondering if there was maybe even an interesting magazine piece to do on it...

Then I realized that what I was watching was a rerun of The Contender. I had successfully avoided it so far, but it had caught up with me at last. I think I know now why I have been avoiding it, and why I found it so depressing. The Contender is a reasonably thought-through effort to make boxing attractive to regular TV viewers. The formula makes a certain network sense: take appealing young men, generate melodrama by exploring their hopes and fears and family lives and backgrounds, then put them in the ring with each other, reducing the actual fight to just the "good parts": exchanges, scoring blows, action that looks like action even to the most casual viewer. Use fighters and fights as the raw material out of which to construct a story, in other words, that cuts out the day job, the waiting around, the endless repetitions in the gym, the learning, the clinches, the long stretches in which two opponents' styles fail to mesh explosively.

Makes sense, sort of. But what's left isn't boxing. Action without context is a higlight reel, and even a highlight reel of edited-together knockout punches--supposedly the most exciting thing that can happen in a boxing match--is interesting for at most twenty seconds; then it's thuddingly dull. A knockout punch without the context of the fight around it is like a home run without the baseball game around it--not just the game's superficially exciting parts, but also the breaks between half-innings, the long futile foul-ball-filled at-bats, the pause while a relief pitcher trots in and warms up, all the routine texture of the game from which the well-hit ball suddenly soars free, elevating everyone as it rises.

So, to come back to Frank's post about the long-discussed demise of boxing, I would agree with Charles and others that boxing isn't going to die anytime soon, and may be no more unhealthy today than 20 years ago, but I will say that The Contender represents one way in which boxing might die: to the extent that it's reduced to "material." The Contender represents what happens to boxing when it falls into the hands of people with money and influence who are fundamentally afraid of boxing--afraid that nobody would want to watch a real fight, afraid that it's too much work to endure the parts when somebody isn't getting nailed right on the jaw or at least staging a crying jag, afraid that people would get bored in the same way that, say, the crowds attending NBA games are assumed to get bored during even a minute-long time-out if clowns aren't bouncing on trampolines while shooting nerf balls into the upper deck with rocket launchers. But, of course, The Contender is not the only boxing on TV. If it was, boxing would by dying. Try the Spanish-language channels, for instance. There are some hard-ass little guys boxing up a storm over there. You don't need to be able to speak Spanish--nor do you need to see any trumped-up footage in which the fighters fake their way through soul-baring assessments of their own hopes and dreams--to see that.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Even I'm Starting To Believe It

Since I first became aware of boxing and started following it in 1966, the sentiment that it's a dying sport has been out there. It was predicted once Muhammad Ali retired boxing would soon die. Then Sugar Ray Leonard came along. After Leonard there was Mike Tyson, who was followed by Oscar De La Hoya. Is there anyone after De La Hoya?

This week it was announced that Oscar De La Hoya will fight Floyd Mayweather, who most consider to be the best pound for pound fighter in boxing. De La Hoya vs. Mayweather is boxings latest blockbuster, and will no doubt do huge PPV numbers.

After De La Hoya-Mayweather, what's next?

In all honesty, De La Hoya-Mayweather isn't worthy of the attention it will get. That said, it's the fight boxing fans want to see the most. Which also happens to suit both fighters along with the Promoters and Television Networks perfectly. De La Hoya would love to retire having beat boxings best fighter in what will probably be his last fight. For Mayweather, a win over De La Hoya will solidify him as an all-time great in the eyes of the some boxing fans and writers. That's not an opinion I'll endorse if that's the case. In fact it will drive me crazy since Shane Mosley already beat De La Hoya at his best seven years ago. Three years later he decisioned Oscar again and is officially 2-0 against him. When is the last time Mosley was mentioned as an all-time great?

The fact is Floyd Mayweather isn't a draw. Yet the boxing establishment believes if they can somehow package and sell him as a once in a generation fighter, they'll have the next Sugar Ray Leonard. They're wrong. He's not Leonard's equal in the ring, or at the gate.

Mayweather, if he does beat De La Hoya, it'll most likely be by decision, and he certainly won't look unbeatable in doing so. A loss to De La Hoya by Mayweather will hurt boxing and make it hard to convince fans to take it serious. Without a must see fighter, and no big time boxing talent on the horizon, what will be the driving force behind keeping the public's interest in it. Certainly not the heavyweights, the division is in shambles. The Klitschko-Brock fight last weekend was awful and a perfect example why the division is currently un watchable. I hate saying this because every Johnny come lately boxing writer has beat it to death, but sadly it's true. There isn't one heavyweight fighting today worth paying to see.

The UFC is already nipping at boxings heels and has a bigger appeal to most fans. It's more violent, every fighter shows up in great shape and the best fighters actually fight each other. Maybe that will change if the day comes when Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz can make De La Hoya-Mayweather type money. If that happens, maybe then the UFC's top fighters won't risk fighting the other top fighters just like the top boxers avoid it.

I doubt you could find a bigger boxing addict than me if you searched the civilized world trying. Yet this past Saturday night while HBO re-aired Mayweather's last fight, and two of the top ranked heavyweights in the sport fighting live after it, I kept flipping back to the Arkansas-Tennessee college football game on ESPN. That's right, I felt there was a better chance I'd miss something special happen in a game Arkansas won 31-14, then watching two of boxings biggest stars fighting on HBO.

I'm worried about boxing. It's been such a big influence and part of my life since I was five years old. I hate seeing the shape it's in today, and there are many reasons why that's the case. Which I'm sure will be addressed on this blog. I'll just say, in my opinion nothing indicts boxing more than the fact that De La Hoya -Mayweather is the biggest fight that can be made today.

Before, when I heard it said boxing is a dying sport, I'd get mad and refute who ever said it. For the first time in my life I'm starting to think they may be right. If one Saturday night in the near future I flip to HBO during a commercial of the Florida-Florida St. game on ESPN, and see the Liddell-Ortiz rematch instead of Mayweather-Baldomir or Klitschko-Brock, I can't say I'll be shocked.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why Do We Love the Heavyweights?

I've always found it strange that heavyweight title fights, no matter how poor their matchup, always draw relatively high amounts of interest from media and fans. I'm no exception to the rule. My favorite period of boxing, its black power movement, if you will, from 1965-1975, is most interesting to me because of the heavyweights. And I know far more about the heavyweights of that era than its other fighters, even though that means that I know far more about the likes of Ron Lyle than I do Emile Griffith, and am aware that I voluntarily consume an inferior product because of it.

I'm not into decline narratives; I think a lot of things are better than they ever have been before. But today's heavyweight division isn't one of them. Today's heavyweight division sucks. Not one of the fighters, in their current incarnation, would come close to showing up in my top fifty all-time heavyweights. Do you think any of these guys would be a lock against Ingemar Johansson?

A lack of talent has plagued the heavyweight division for a long time. I believe that one would have to go back about 15 years, to the first two Holyfield-Bowe fights, to find a fight in which both participants, on the night they met, could be called top-fifty all-time heavyweights. It's been a long time since we had a great heavyweight champion; I think Holmes was the last. But even if you think Tyson, Holyfield, or Lewis were great champions, you would be hard pressed to find fights in which they were tested by very good heavyweights. Tyson and Lewis, in their primes, managed to lose to some less-than-very-good heavyweights.

So why do we love the heavyweights so much? What makes the heavyweight division so interesting? Why did Ricardo Lopez make so much less than Andrew Golota? Is this more media driven or fan driven?

Klitschko Stops Brock In The Seventh

Last night at Madison Square Garden, Wladimir Klitschko stopped Calvin Brock in the seventh round to retain his IBF heavyweight title. I have only one thought after watching the fight. If any fighter fought a more stupid fight than Brock challenging for the heavyweight title, I can't remember when it was. The only way the fight could've been easier for Klitschko is, if Brock entered the ring handcuffed.

I'd like to know what the Brock faction were thinking as they prepared Calvin for Klitschko. The one thing I can say with certainty is, he didn't do one thing during the bout, other than show up with gloves on, to remotely give himself a chance to score the upset. It boggles my mind how a fighter could show up and not do a single thing that may have given him at least a chance in the biggest fight of his career.

The fact that Klitschko won is no surprise, he and Brock aren't in the same league as fighters. However, it's no secret that Klitschko isn't the most durable fighter around. He enters the ring harboring some doubt, and fights as such. It's easier to take his confidence and make him fight not to get knocked out than any other heavyweight who owns a title belt. Yet Brock made no attempt to do it.

For seven rounds Calvin Brock was a stationary target, and fought too upright. A big mistake when fighting an opponent who has a big right hand. Brock wasn't busy and didn't let his hands go with any kind of intent to hurt or instill fear in Klitschko. That's really all it took to set himself up to for the right hand that finished him. In fact, the only thing Klitschko did was throw the right hand. Calvin Brock is the fighter who made sure it landed perfect.