May 3, 2005

Boxing Needs to Wake Up From Knockout

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There was a heavyweight title fight this past weekend. I’m willing to guess that almost no one here — or anywhere else for that matter — even knew about it. James Toney beat former champion John Ruiz for the WBA title. Promoter Don King was only able to sell 9,000 tickets for the fight at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden.

It’s not surprising. After all, boxing is pretty much down for the count in America. Ever since Muhammad Ali retired, the sport has gradually lost its appeal to most sports fans. Sure, there have been little revivals from time to time. But nowadays, boxing ranks somewhere below horse racing in the modern world of sports.

The golden age of boxing was probably between 1930 and 1950. Back then, gyms in New York, Detroit, and Boston, produced legend after legend — boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Lewis, and Rocky Marciano.

Boxing captivated the American public. And in New York, there was a major fight almost every week.

But soon, the NFL, NBA and NHL would come into the picture. And television — which helped make football the most popular sport in America — couldn’t do much for boxing. After all, boxing is a sport that is really best appreciated in person.

As the sport’s popularity declined, so did the caliber of its fighters. The last 25 years have seen very few great heavyweight champions. Mike Tyson was an exciting boxer, but a horrible person. Boxers like Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield were talented heavyweight champions, but no one would confuse them with an Ali or a Joe Lewis.

Of course, boxing is also plagued by its own promoters. Men like Don King have made millions of dollars — all while leaving their great fighters with nothing.

And boxers don’t only have to deal with financial ruin. All fighters live with the very real chance of injury or brain damage. And some state boxing commissions don’t do enough to prevent medically unfit athletes from entering the ring.

Boxing is also hurt by the laughably incompetent sanctioning bodies, like the WBA or the IBF. These are the organizations that give out championship belts, and are supposed to ensure fair play. But they are ineffective, and unable to weed out corruption — even if they wanted to.

However, there is some good news for boxing. The sport itself remains a wonderful one, and a good fight is still one of the most exciting events in sports.

There is also a lot of great boxing going on in the lower weight classes. Some middleweight and lightweight boxers have a large amount of fans. This is especially true in the Mexican-American community, which has been known to treat a Mexican champion like a major hero. Middleweight Oscar de la Hoya, for example, is one of the biggest Latino stars in the country. Even The Contender reality show on NBC has earned decent ratings, and maybe, it has revived some interest in the sport.

And you can still find the soul of boxing living on through amateur fighters. Even at colleges — including Cornell — you’ll find people joining boxing classes or clubs. They join only for the love of the sport, or for the confidence that it brings.

These students and boxers understand what makes the sport great. We need the professional ranks to come along, too.

How can the sport be saved? The corruption needs to end — and that includes the promoters, state commissions, and sanctioning bodies.

But, the industry itself doesn’t seem willing to change. Perhaps, the only way to end the corruption — and save boxing — is with a little bit of government involvement.

Believe it or not, there is basically no federal regulation of boxing. The states have all the power. And, as you could imagine, the rules and regulations differ across the country. Some states don’t even have real athletic commissions.

Regulation is not just about governing how fights are conducted. It’s about protecting boxers from the often corrupt promoters and managers.

Congress has taken steps to begin some kind of federal regulation. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been a leader on this front. But there’s been opposition from rich promoters. And boxers don’t have much of a lobby for their own interests.

“The thing that gets me so involved is the exploitation of the boxers, who, with rare exception, come from the lowest rung on our economic ladder,” McCain told ESPN. McCain’s new legislation would create a national commission to oversee the sport, and it would standardize boxing regulations around the country.

His bill passed in the Senate last year. But the House leaders — under pressure from promoters — wouldn’t even allow a vote on it. He’s reintroduced the bill this term.

McCain’s plan seems reasonable. After all, sports like baseball and football have national commissioners. But, boxing is unique because it has no nationwide, official league. Boxing only has promoters to help arrange fights — and they work for their own benefit. It’s highly doubtful that they would create a commissioner on their own.

Some national oversight would be a good start for improving the sport. But the boxing community will need to do more than listen to the government. Boxing will need new heroes — and better fights — if it wants to once again be a contender in the world of sports.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times appeared every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman