On the ropes – Where has boxing gone?

Photograph by Brian Batista Bettencourt

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Humza Hussain stands off to one side of the sweaty combatant’s room in the Ajax Community Centre, methodically wrapping well-worn yellow tape around his hands and wrists. He is quiet, pensive as he prepares to enter the boxing ring which dominates the small gym.
Hussain does not look like a typical boxer. He is in his first year studying business management at Ryerson University. His lanky six-foot tall frame supports 130 pounds of muscle, and his hands move in rapid, striking jabs as he spars with his coach, Thomas Francis, in a testosterone-fuelled love affair with a sport that is decidedly receiving less and less love these days.

Hussain is the rare adolescent who chose to study the “sweet science” of boxing over the mixed martial arts (MMA) wave sweeping across North America, beguiling many video-game hardened, Red Bull fuelled, voyeuristic teens these days.

According to Hussain, boxing is suffering from a lack of heavyweight star-power. “People who didn’t care about boxing still cared about Muhammad Ali and wanted him to win,” he muses after his sparring session. They watched his fights because they didn’t want him to lose his platform for speaking out against controversial issues such as the Vietnam War, and because mainstream America could relate to Ali’s own struggle to find himself in his sport and his working class roots.

“Heavyweight champion of the world” used to mean something. It inspired young children to jog up their city hall stairs with Rocky highlights playing in their heads, and it was a poignant statement of athletic supremacy. The days of heavyweights like Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson being worldwide names have long since been marginalized with the introduction of new regulations, countless weight classes and numerous championship titles.

Nevermind losing household names in the ring, gone too are the days when boxing writers and announcers were legends in their own right. Gone are the images of the colourful Bert Sugar, who wrote over 80 books on boxing history, appeared in movies, and was instantly recognizable ringside with his trademark brown fedora and a thick cigar hanging out of his mouth.

Boxing culture has lost its place in society and along the way its fights have lost their character too.

Over and over boxing fails to capitalize on the buzz generated by its showcase fights, like the über-hyped Floyd Mayweather Jr. – Oscar de la Hoya mega-fight in May of 2007. The most-watched bout in history was followed by snoozers like Jermain Taylor’s sorry win over Cory Spinks later that month.

Enamored with the heydays of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, boxing is on an eternal search for its next savior. Kelly Pavlik was supposed to be that man, but in the five years since his much talked about victory over Taylor he has fallen into the depths of boxing purgatory, ever on the cusp of stardom but never actually there. The numbers say Mayweather may well be the greatest pound-for-pound fighter ever, but his gregarious lifestyle is unpalatable to the casual fan, and while his fights continue to draw large numbers, his is a story that fails to captivate the world at large – he is no Ali. Then there is Manny Pacquiao, the fast southpaw from the Philippines who is Mayweather’s only peer at the top of the boxing pyramid.

The world continues to wait for a Mayweather – Pacquiao super-fight, the likes of which Hussain says might be enough to make boxing big news again. “It’ll be the biggest sporting event of the decade.” Yet egos and blood-tests stand in the way of the only fight sure to pull in the casual fan – and it is killing boxing. While both fighters continue to line up lesser opponents, worldwide sentiment among casual observers seems to be, ‘if it ain’t Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, I’m not interested.’

In a world which increasingly deplores the subtlety and patience required of the so-called sweet science, boxing is boring to todays coveted 18 – 34 year-old ratings demographic. Boxing does not allow opponents to change tactics by wrestling, clutching, and delivering those YouTube sensation roundhouse kicks.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) by comparison is flashy, with its frenetic light shows, loud, aggressive psych-up music, and a gritty pageantry not associated with the tradition-rich, gentlemanly, up-right and uptight boxing world. Boxing, it seems, is on a quest to re-capture the storied past, while UFC is capitalizing on the changing culture of voyeurism and violence.

The mixed part of UFC’s mixed martial arts (MMA) is its main draw. Why should fans of combat sports be left to argue over who would win in a hypothetical fight between Joe Frazier and Bruce Lee? MMA would see former boxers, linebackers, wrestlers and jujitsu masters duke it out in an all-or-nothing, two men enter, one man leaves octagon – and the idea took off.

Boxing fans have New York entrepreneur Bob Meyrowitz (UFC’s creator) and former boxing trainer Dana White (UFC’s savior and genius) to thank in part for their own sport’s decline. But mostly boxing has its own stewards to blame. Blame Don King; blame Bob Arum – boxing promoters who purged the sport of its lifeblood, with steep pay-per-view prices, corruption allegations and scandal after scandal inflicting serious damage on its relevance in the world today. Blame the stream of links to organized crime – think the late Arturo Gatti – and blame fighters who increasingly polarized the sport from its working class roots and left fans disillusioned and disconnected.

What is a sport to do when it seems at every turn its integrity, not to mention its safety and sanity are questioned?

For one thing, it needs to go back to its roots. Hussain believes boxing stands a fighting chance of surviving relative obscurity to re-emerge, with a renaissance of classic heavyweight contenders, a shrinking of weight classes and championship bouts and a transparent scoring system free of corruption.

“It starts with a Pacquiao versus Mayweather fight, but that interest needs to be drawn on by boxing promoters.” That means they need to market aggressively; much like the UFC does now, and questions of safety must be addressed so that a new stream of amateur fighters can fill the ranks.

Most importantly, boxing needs its stories back.

From 1980 to 1997 there were a respectable 45 Sports Illustrated covers featuring boxing stories. From 1998 to 2010 there was one solitary cover featuring a boxing story. This is perhaps the greatest statement that boxing has lost the ability to influence popular culture.
Boxing is broken, yes, but some of its most celebrated heroes entered the sport broken and battered by society and they emerged champions. Where would Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti be without boxing? It raised a generation of children who really believed that it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, it’s getting up that counts.

Ali’s character and witty remarks are a large part of his legend and help extend it far beyond the ring. He is the one who “done wrestled with an alligator… tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.” He embodied an entire generation when he said “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I wanna be and think what I wanna think.” Boxing gave us the “Four Kings”: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran; arguably the best to emerge from the electric super-fight years at the height of the sport in the 1980’s.

In hockey, if a team is down two goals, they need three goals to win. In boxing, if a fighter lost nine rounds, he needs but one knock-out punch to win. It is a sport requiring constant training of the body and mind, because in boxing, a fighter only takes away exactly what he put in – a valuable life lesson.

Hussain was drawn to boxing three years ago in part because of his father’s love of Ali, and the exhilaration of spiritually finding himself in the ring. “It’s lonely in the ring. It’s just you. In the ring people are exposed. You can tell who wants it more. You can tell who is determined, and who is having second thoughts.”

It also began for Hussain with images of Rocky Balboa jogging up those iconic steps, and dreams of one day being crowned “heavyweight champion of the world!”

Boxing is on the ropes, the storied culture that pervaded the sport in the ‘70s and ‘80s is shamefully missing in today’s culture. Boxing needs its stories back, its characters, and its mainstream coverage. But most of all, boxing needs those dreamers once again.

Chris Babic, Journalism ’14
Files from Peter Lozinski, Journalism ’14