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Bowe, Mesi, Holyfield and Boxing Ethics

BY Patrick Kehoe ON October 31, 2004
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Boxing and ethics seem ever at odds, too often remaining disparate terms for reference, alluding to – in a sporting sense - connotations of war and peace.

No doubt, examples of boxing’s ‘inattention’ to ethical prohibitions are all too common and, in fact, manifestly blanket the history (and very fabric) of the sport. One need not essay the catalogue of boxing’s ethical shortcomings; however, within boxing today the figures of heavyweights’ Riddick Bowe, Joe Mesi and Evander Holyfield stand out for those concerned with the topical imperative of boxing and ethics.

So why concern ourselves with ethical responsibilities, when discussing professional boxing? Because history – the historical - only informs by connotation and predictability. At this juncture of our millennial crossing, with the market share and social currency of boxing diminished, boxing needs more than token efforts at systemic reform.

The need for boxing reform is, admittedly, never to be trivialized. But perhaps, within the diaspora that is the community of those constituting the sporting practices and business of boxing there needs to be a common consciousness of a more abstract – ethical – nature.

One might contend, we do need to see boxing in relation to ethical standards as an imperative. Devolved culturally into a niche (periodically relevant) entertainment spectacle, boxing’s status exists on the margins of intermittent (situational) media relevance. In North and South American and most of Europe, since the baby booming aftermath of the WWII generation, boxing like horse racing has – with only two short exceptions – been displaced from the central position of sporting consciousness.

Thus, despite the ‘recreational persona’ of Olympic based amateur boxing, grounding the developmental side of boxing for the last 60 years, the ‘sport’ of boxing remains a wild west like business enterprise, still sustained by gambling wealth, corporate media ratings calculations and sociological (global) poverty. How much more ‘red-light’ could boxing be? To be at a championship prizefight has been, since Sullivan-Corbett, to witness the human stratum of politics, finance, show business – hucksters, hustlers, the ‘big time’ and the self-important – all preening themselves in anticipation that something only marginally legal and poetically martial is about to go down.

And since the Jazz Age flappers and robber-barons watching Dempsey dismantle Luis Firpo or Frank Sinatra and Frankie Carbo taking in a post-Depression Yankee Stadium Joe Louis fight, the notion that boxing is sinful exploitation of condoned violence, for the purposes of ‘regressive’ public psychological consumption remains its (un)written subtext. Day to day the business of boxing identifies to differentiate those who are channeled toward greater exposure, money and titles from those who either fail outright or those who are descending away from profitability and prominence, creating a moral (benefactors vs. vanquished) quandary for the so-called boxing industry. There are only winners and losers, it might be said. And yet it is how the system of boxing deals with the vanquished and the diminishing, to what extent it exploits inability and decline in fighters remains the test for the sport.

Can fighters be saved from exploitation, as readily as medical oversight tries to protect them from direct and unnecessary physical harm?

That’s were ethical conduct has to interpose itself as a safeguard. Don’t some fighters – limited of skills or advanced of age - have to be saved from themselves? One wonders if a figure such as Evander Holyfield – a legend in post-modern boxing – might be just that individual.

Having for so long defied convention in being a small heavyweight in the era of the giants, in overcoming injuries and carving out a stellar, lucrative career, might an over 40 Holyfield now – in 2004 – not be a figure on the margins of ethical tolerance?

Business and maximization of profits cannot be all, if boxing is to be more than a niche sporting industry.

We sound out large conceptual notes, then draw persuasion back toward the particular and the known. If the ‘comeback’ of Riddick Bowe does not alarm those who care about boxing then what could? In the summer of 1998, Riddick Bowe entered estranged wife Judy Bowe’s home, threatened her with a knife, armed additionally with pepper spray, tape and handcuffs, forcing her and their children into a mini van to take them to his home in Maryland. Part of the defenses case was predicated on Bowe having suffered ‘brain damage’ and ‘trauma’ as a prizefighter. We all remember his slurred post-Golota interviews, his in the ring mediocrity, during the very years he should have been demonstrating his prime performances.

His once unguarded, comically infectious Bowe-speak now comes out more as rambling mumbles on topics wavering in and out of relevance; his words almost all having the quality of sardonic reflection, as if even the things he intends to make happen, fights he intends to win, the justification he says his boxing can make out of his life, all define illusion as much as faint desire.

Nearing middle age and being bored should not be justification to re-enter a professional boxing ring.

Curiosity and amusement more than disgust has greeted Bowe’s comeback. Rich Giacetti, Larry Holmes ex-trainer – plays the front man, for Bowe’s comeback, telling those who listen all the proper propaganda. Truth is Bowe can’t even get fit, and has never, since taking the championship from Evander Holyfield, November 13, 1992, exhibited the commitment to even train to approach anything like optimal physical readiness. Added to that he’s an ancient 37.

If those in boxing were to draw a line in the sand of toleration, regardless the criminality of Bowe’s domestic actions, we are left with the implication and legality of that legal characterization, his defense before the stricture of judgement, of his being not responsible for his actions due to neurological trauma to his brain.

So in 2004, he undertakes CAT scans and all manifest issues are voided? The ethical query suggesting itself asks, does he have the legal right to box again, if medically sanctioned? Yes, of course! It’s his personal prerogative. But should he be allowed to box without the boxing community voicing censure? Does his boxing, at an increasingly diminished skill level, not reflect on boxing that avoids sanctioning him? Should the sport of prize fighting not be concerned with ‘the margins’ (old fighters endlessly replaying their failed youth) becoming problematic or tragic?

Should the assertion of the individual’s self-interest trump all other ethical considerations which reflect upon a community of ethics? Again, legally, yes, but what of the stricture ethical reasonableness might enact? Just as the continued presence of a failing Evander Holyfield presents us with another facet of this same question. The matter of a prime -almost 31 – Joe Mesi represents the ethical question from the opposite chronological reference point. Buffalo’s popular Italian contender fought his way to the doorstep of a heavyweight title, only to be ‘undone’ by bleeding within his brain following a torrential fight against ex-cruiserweight champion Vassiliy Jirov in March of 2004, ultimately making him medically unfit to box in most states within the US. And still there was an attempt to circumvent medical standards, to look for promotional access, seeking the return of “Baby” Joe Mesi, top heavyweight contender.

The media and boxing industry response was notification but almost nothing of rebuke or warning condemnation.

Ex-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield readies himself for a bout, on the Madison Square Garden November 13 Don King heavyweight extravaganza, against Larry Donald. This fight comes on the heels of a savage stoppage loss to a medium hitting, former middleweight champion James Toney.

Generally, there are suggestions that Holyfield should ‘probably’ retire, though no collectivist outcry for him to retire. The boxing industry has not voiced their sense of rejection based on a community ethic safeguarding Evander Holyfield from himself.

Don’t medical tests represent only a guideline threshold for participation? Medical prognostics do not constitute the full range of verification that we can hold a prospective fighter to before taking part in prize fights.

Why shouldn’t boxing attempt the process of policing itself, tempering promotional self-interest (read: exploitation) desperate for fighters with name recognition?

Holyfield and Bowe will probably continue to box beyond the mounting cautions of medial oversight. Can boxing, as a system or loose federation of interested parties, project an ethical group interest in cases like Riddick Bowe or Evander Holyfield or a Joe Mesi, sending the message to this generation of sporting fans that boxing can act upon a standard of decency?

Could that dis-interested protectionism for a greater good – curtailing the vagaries of individual self-interest as a general safeguarding – be construed as ethical; and in fact, can the ‘boxing industry’ make manifest a ‘community of ethics’?

In other words, can boxing pay more than lip service to having a collective conscience, going beyond the special interests of the moment, the self-interest of monetary maximization for the objective good (long term interest) of a beleaguered sport and the exploited (or self-exploiting) individual?

If not, then I ask why not?

I believe boxing can and must.

Cynicism and deferring to what has always been the Darwinian history of boxing, doesn’t have to represent an impenetrable barrier.

Communities can, and do, include variance, a welter of conflicting interests, affirming the rights and freedoms of individuals, while still safeguarding a generalizing integrity.

How much longer can boxing pretend to safeguard its participants?

It doesn’t have to be a contradiction in terms to suggest that those in boxing can follow self-interested initiatives and yet hold to ethical standardization, making manifest a community of ethics. Surely, the extreme cases can be held up for censure or condemnation or criticism or peer pressure or whatever ‘critique’ is sufficient to impact upon the integrity of the sport.

Let boxing journalists everywhere begin the refrain!

One might well suggest that the promotion of ethical responsibility is boxing’s greatest moral and actionable challenge.

Its traditional self-deluding rationalism stating, “who’s to say what’s anymore dangerous than anything else” just will no longer serve the long term health of boxing.

Time for the boxing industry to protest itself at all times; time to draw upon common sense and the laws of probability, at least as a guideline for judgement.

One place to start, concurrent with a general and meaningful reform movement, would be a broad based assertion that boxing can have at its core a sense of ethics.

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