Sunday, May 3, 2015

For frustrated boxing fans, there is still another 85 years for that elusive "fight of the century"

The “Fight of the Century”—thankfully the current “century” is not yet 15 years old—was, as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted, “underwhelming.”  Floyd Mayweather fairly handily defeated Manny Pacquiao in a unanimous decision, winning 10 of 12 rounds on one of the judges’ scoring card, the other two generously giving Pacquiao four rounds. Personally, I was rooting for “Pacman” to win, given that he was the decided underdog. After all, he had taken some time off to pursue a career as a politician, while other than a few outside-the-ring incidents, Mayweather continued to defeat opponent after haplessly bad opponent—albeit to a lesser degree as he advances in age. 

It was clear from the onset that this fight came five years too late. The bigger, longer Mayweather had his way with Pacquiao in the first two rounds, the latter’s jabbing skills obviously diminished. It appeared that Mayweather knew this fight was in hand early on, and he took his foot off the pedal during the next four rounds. As much as I dislike those annoying ESPN blowhards, Skip Bayless and Steven A. Smith, they were right in commenting that for a while it seemed that Mayweather had deliberately stepped away from what was “working” for him. Two of the judges gave all four rounds to Pacquiao; but the truth was that while Pacman was certainly more active than Mayweather in those rounds, he was largely unsuccessful in getting through Mayweather’s defenses. 

The current champion may have been surprised by the former champion’s exertions, and perhaps wishing to avoid being the careless conduit of a lucky punch, Mayweaher took care of business the final six rounds. To the surprise of at least one observer, Pacquiao did not “empty his tank” at the end of the fight for a desperate bid for a knockout, but perhaps he had already done so in the sixth round. While the reaction of a few was that Mayweather had fought “great,” others thought the fight was nothing more than a cynical money grab for both fighters, the real losers the people who paid good money for a bad fight. 

The fact that Mayweather is still the dominant fighter in his class with no young up-and-comer ready to challenge him even as he nears forty is a sad reflection on the quality of boxing, period. We once saw the likes Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Norton fighting epic battles in the 1970s—many of them broadcast live on network television. I remember as a child watching Muhammad Ali bloody Jerry Quarry’s face in a fight which at the time I didn’t realize the social significance of: It was Ali’s first fight since his suspension for his refusal to accept his draft notice to go to fight in a pointless war in Vietnam. In the 1980s there was Haggler, Leonard, Duran and Hearns, often fighting each other to the death (well, alright, there was Duran’s infamous “no mas”). For all his faults, Mike Tyson’s ring prowess for a time made him a celebrity worthy of primetime product promos; Tyson, unlike fighters today, fought all comers—including at one point seven former heavyweight champions in an eleven fight span.

But boxing in general has been in decline, if not complete free fall for at least a decade. The heavyweight division has been so absent of talent that it has been easily dominated by the Klitschko brothers, Vladimir and Vitali. Neither one has particularly good boxing skills, but they tend to overpower their smaller opponents (the only kind of fighters they will consent to face). The former lost a few fights in which his lack of skill betrayed him—including a shocking knockout loss to South African Cornelius Sanders, who had fought only three rounds in two years. You know something was wrong with the division when Vladimir was also knocked out by Ross Puritty, who temporarily “won” the WBC title from him despite entering the fight with a 24-13 record.

Vitali, however, lost only two fights, to Lennox Lewis and Chris Byrd, and both were controversial at the time because the fights were stopped when he clearly was ahead on points. He has since entered politics in his home country of the Ukraine. Meanwhile, his brother fought the undersized Bryant Jennings last week, with Jennings winning “respect” by not getting knocked out. However, it does say something about the state of the heavyweight division when the “champion” fights an opponent who was unbeaten entering the fight—and nobody really cares, since the “winner” was already a fait accompli

What would “Rocky” say about this? Would he tolerate some suspiciously chiseled fighter from the old Soviet block to own what rightfully belongs to an American? Hell no! But there is no “patriotism” these days fueling a desire for “revenge.” 

Back in the day, promoters knew what boxing fans wanted to see; they wanted to see two gladiators in the ring beating each other to a pulp—or in the case of Muhammad Ali, someone either closing his “lip” or watching him outmaneuver a power puncher like George Foreman, or battle to the death with a rival like Joe Frazier. Paul Hayward of the UK The Guardian recently found himself pining for the days when “The eye sees first the astounding ferocity of the contests, the refusal of each fighter to yield, the skill, the ringcraft, the sense that each man was fighting for his life as much as his livelihood. Ali, Frazier and Foreman posed such a threat to one another that the bouts were studies in mortality.”

Nowadays, you can’t get two great fighters together in the ring even if there were two to put together. Despite the fact they dominated the heavyweight division for nearly a decade, the Klitschko brothers never fought each other—even for an undoubtedly huge payday. And look how long it took to get Mayweather and Pacquiao to fight; Mayweather had refused to sanction the fight because he was afraid of losing, which was the basis of his accusation that Pacquiao was using performance-enhancing drugs—a rather mendacious accusation on his part, because he was also accused of doing so. 

In the end, it was all about the money. The champions know that a big pay day is only available as long they keep their title, thus they pick and choose all comers with that in mind. Another problem with boxing is that the great heavyweight fighters from the black community emerged at a time when other sports, like football, baseball and even basketball were largely “segregated,” and a talented athlete could gain instant fame by becoming a champion boxer. Times have changed, however, and those moldering old boxing gyms in the rundown neighborhoods run by old warhorses training the next “contender” are a thing of the past. Kids don’t want to spend years in the gym honing the boxing craft, let alone get “hurt”; they’d rather make a slam dunk or run for daylight. There is of course this new “sport” called Mixed Martial Arts, which I find to be a bit of a joke and little more entertaining than choreographed “professional” wrestling; there is no strategy and even less drama—although, admittedly, you don’t see much of that in boxing these days.  

Is there any hope for boxing? Or better yet, who cares? You can ask that of the top young American athletes who don’t even consider pursuing boxing as an occupation. There are plenty of athletes playing in the NBA today who could squash the Klitschkos into the ground like bugs if they had chosen boxing instead of basketball. But that isn’t happening, and won’t for the foreseeable future; boxing may ultimately become a European sport, instead of one being dominated once by its greatest American names.

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