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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Boxing Has Lost the Magic it Once Had, It’s Been Passed by MMA

Do you happen to remember a sage truism given to you by a parent, trusted loved one, or fortune cookie that came along with a restaurant check? A penny saved is a penny earned. Either I was sick on one of the many days my mom was dispensing clichés or was too weak from overfeeding on Kung Pao to muster the strength to crack open that V-shaped bearer of wisdom/empty calories to take in that luminous advice. Between holey pockets, incline benches at the gym (yes, I workout), and the random, shifty valet attendant, I have lost more pennies than I can count. The most recent example of money lost was what I spent to bear witness to the spectacle that was the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley fight.

In fact, for the pleasure of watching that fight in public, I failed to save 2000 pennies. I should have taken Andrew Jackson’s accusing stare from the $20 bill I handed over to get in as a sign that maybe the money would have been best served being invested in soybeans, or at least a contentious game of bingo. Instead, for the first time in years, I gave boxing another shot. Lured by the prospect of seeing one of the quickest, most athletic politicians the Philippines’ Congress has ever known — I’ve heard of a punch card ballot, but this is ridiculous — against 39-year-old Shane Mosley, who was trying for another shot at glory against the WBO welterweight champion. To Pacquiao’s credit, they say politics is not a spectator sport … and they’re right.

What followed were 12 rounds that had the intrigue of a filibuster. The only difference was the pomp and circumstance included the singing of two national anthems and the protracted entrance of the two fighters. Mosley came in accompanied by LL Cool J, and Manny walked along side the lead singer of Survivor. For a minute, I had to check a mirror to make sure that I wasn’t wearing a Members Only jacket, with Aviators and a New Wave hairdo and that it was indeed 2011, not 1990. Plus, I’m not sure whose idea it was to have Pacquiao come in alongside Jimi Jamison, a more mismatched couple than Woody Allen and any woman he has starred with over the last 30 years. One can only imagine what the fighter was thinking walking alongside Jamison, seeing as how he was all of 3½ years of age when “Eye of the Tiger” was released; the only commonality between the two was a full head of hair.

True to form, the match itself was dull. Another sad indictment about how the sport is beginning to age as gracefully as Rocky himself. Some may point to the inability of boxing to unify into one organization, an alphabet-soup of associations which includes the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO. After all, who needs one champion when you can have four? Others have pointed to the rise of promoters with egos bigger than the waistline of Eric “Butterbean” Esch, beginning with guys like Don King and continuing through to Bob Arum, men who have helped to generate large sums of money for fighters while diminishing the sports’ appeal to the mainstream fan.

It sounds almost like a fairy tale nowadays, but there once was a time when fighters fought the best in the sport to be the best, not for the amount of pay-per-view buys or contractual dollars that could be harbored by entering into a deal. Now the notion seems as antiquated as bare-knuckled brawls that went 70-rounds. Smokin’ Joe, the Sugar Rays, the Brockton Rock, The Manassa Mauler, The Cinderella Man, The Galveston Giant, The Greatest, The Brown Bomber. So legendary was the prowess of these men and others in the ring, the mere identification of their nicknames suffices. These were fighters whose rise to stardom was as notable and storied as the history of the sport itself. That is not to say the great fighters have gone way, but that the nature of the sport has changed. Is a 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins becoming the oldest champion ever a testament to a great athlete or an indictment on boxing?

There was a time when the heavyweight division in boxing was the crown jewel of the sport. Now the title of heavyweight champion carries with it the same gravitas as a Confederate tycoon, circa 1866. Anyone outside of the sport would be hard-pressed to name as the current heavyweight champions, David Haye and two Ukrainian brothers named Wladimir and Vitali, both with Ph.D.’s. (I didn’t know you can write a dissertation about a punch to the cranium.) As you would expect, once they made it big, they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly Hills. Even despite the apparent lull in boxing interest among the large swath of sports fans in this country, there is still is plenty of money to be made in the sport. And, perhaps, therein lays the problem.

The fight that has had the world foaming at the mouth is the prospect of a Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight. One optimistic mensch has even gone so far as to build a website dedicated to drawing interest and updating fans in the hopes that such a spectacle is arranged. Either out of hopelessness or general laziness, the site itself has not been updated since July 25th. Sifting through the reasons about why the supposed “Fight of the Century” won’t happen is about as tiring and uninteresting as clipping coupons for discounts on canned peas. Drug tests, money, jurisprudence. Whatever the reason, the more time drags on, the more this bout looks about as likely to happen as me supplanting James Patterson on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Say what you will about Muhammad Ali’s brashness and Mike Tyson’s madness, it put fans into the seats and brought eyes to the TV screen. Not only the fighters, but their unique personalities made the sport unpredictable and interesting to watch. The personalities in the sport today are, for the most part, as distinctive as cream of wheat. This is just a hunch, but one would have a hard time believing that Hollywood will make movies in the future documenting the exploits of today’s fighters in the same way that stories were told of James Braddock, Jake La Motta, and Rocky Graziano.

The boxing brain trust (sounds oxymoronic at times) also has to be feeling a little uneasy about the guy who moved in down the street. Goes by the name of Dana White. Runs an organization called The Ultimate Fighting Championship, promoting mixed martial arts. With the shrewdness, tact, and no-nonsense business acumen paired with the gusto of a pugilistic Leland Stanford, Cornelius Vanderbilt or Andrew Carnegie, White has helped to promote and build the organization, acquiring rivals like Pride, WEC, and Strikeforce to generate interest, while enhancing the image of the sport; a sport which once allowed head-butts, eye gouging, and groin strikes (previously only seen at the express aisle in your local supermarket). Now the sport has found a home in over 100 countries, being broadcast in dozens of languages. (Apparently spinal adjustment doesn’t transcend language barriers.)

While mixed martial arts is certainly not for the faint of heart (as evidenced by the barrels of disinfectant de rigueur at your typical MMA event) nor for the geometrically challenged (who knew that learning about octagons and triangles could actually be useful?), the sport is providing moments of excitement that boxing once supplied. Though the pay scale and sponsorship money are still miles apart — think of the superstar boxers as CEOs and most mixed martial artists as the guys working in the mailroom — and the subsequent superstar talent has a ways to go before reaching the marquee space that boxing still has, the gap may continue to shrink unless boxing can discover the error of its ways.

Certainly, MMA captures the demographic prized by sponsors and its increasing popularity among the people who spend money is also a plus for advertisers. Even if one knows little about the sport of mixed martial arts, wouldn’t just the sound of submission moves like a Neck Crank, an Anaconda Choke, or a Flying Scissor Heel Hook (forget that warning about running with scissors) at least intrigue a newer generation to watch? Simply put, the arena of mixed martial arts is a dynamic one. Think of how many times you’ve used a boxing undercard to stock up on high-caloric staples or fill up the contents of your bladder with various libations. If you saw the last UFC undercard featuring a relatively little-known Canadian named John Makdessi, you witnessed a fight punctuated with a whirlwind of a spinning back-fist to seal a knockout win. What has boosted the allure of the sport as an alternative to boxing is the mere fact that what happens next is oftentimes unpredictable. Plus, who knew guillotines would be back in style?

I’d like to believe boxing will one day again pique my interest like it once did. Until then, I’m going to see what UFC 130 has in store this weekend. It will cost me ten bucks. See, I’m already saving some pennies.



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