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Why Boxing Needs Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton

BY Eddie Goldman ON March 08, 2006
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When I mentioned to a boxing writer colleague last week that I would be going to this past Thursday’s press conference at New York’s ESPN Zone to promote the May 6 fight between Ricardo Mayorga and Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, she jokingly advised me to bring a helmet. Mayorga was not waiting for Sin City in May to begin his sinning, as he had instigated scuffles with the Golden Boy earlier during their week-long, cross-country media tour.

Fortunately on this New York stop we didn’t need to bring our own helmets, but that was mainly because on the chairs reserved for the media saints and sinners there already had been placed yellow plastic construction helmets. Each had decal affixed to it displaying a warning symbol with the words “May 6, 2006, Danger Zone, De La Hoya vs. Mayorga, Live on Pay-Per-View.”

While it was thoughtful of them to alert us to the dangers of Pay-Per-View, we also didn’t need these helmets in New York. By this time, the press conference brawl act had been toned down enough to limit the scuffling to verbal low blows. (Afterwards, I did scoop up a few of these helmets and will dutifully give them to my grandkids, who no doubt will have fun with them until they break.)

Mayorga used the occasion of being in the media capital of the world to remind everyone that he was the champion (the WBC super welterweight or junior middleweight champion, since no one seemed quite sure what it is called), and that De La Hoya, his opponent for this dangerous, $49.95 Live on Pay-Per-View fight, was “nobody.” The board-certified neuro-ophthalmologist that he is, Mayorga revealed his intention only to do harm by vowing to detach De La Hoya’s retina. And he called De La Hoya a maricon, an anti-gay slur which is one of the harshest used by Latinos.

De La Hoya was almost as personable. While he refused to take Mayorga’s bait, he remained seated stoically, staring straight ahead like a brooding statue during Mayorga’s tirade, with an expression that indicated that he was ready to explode. His terse remarks did include the news that “I have more hatred” for Mayorga than almost any other fighter he has faced. After the formal press conference, when the journalists were trying to get one-on-one interviews and photographs, the normally interview-friendly and photogenic De La Hoya talked to them briefly and then marched out of the building.

This was not the best way to stir up interest in a pay-per-view fight involving two guys who have recent high-profile knockout losses on their records, De La Hoya to Bernard Hopkins and Mayorga to Tito Trinidad. Plus, Mayorga’s promoter, Don King, is also putting on a card that very same night in Worcester, Mass., which will be shown live on that real champion of boxing networks, Showtime, and not on pay-per-view.

In that one, another super welterweight or junior middleweight champion, Alejandro “Terra” Garcia, defends his WBA strap against Worcester’s own Jose Rivera. New undisputed world cruiserweight champ O'Neil Bell fights the undefeated top contender Steve Cunningham. And yet another super welterweight or junior middleweight champion, Roman Karmazin, puts his IBF belt on the line against Daniel Santos. This card is so loaded with topnotch if lesser-known fighters that even Don King said he is not sure whether he will be in Las Vegas or Worcester the night of May 6.

King’s publicists thus had to act fast to try to reverse the damage done by Mayorga’s ranting, however many parts madness real and feigned it was. A press release was issued Monday pointing out, as should have been the theme from Mayorga himself, that he twice defeated Vernon Forrest, who twice defeated Shane Mosley, who twice defeated Oscar De La Hoya.

Of course, the rejoinder from the De La Hoya camp should be that Trinidad took care of Mayorga in Oct. 2004, while De La Hoya fared much better against a prime Tito back in Sept. 1999, losing only by a controversial majority decision. Now that’s the kind of back-and-forth talk boxing could use.

The potential damage to this fight’s promotion by this construction of a real danger zone at the press conferences was especially realized by Golden Boy Promotions’ CEO, Richard Schaefer. Besides spreading the word about this show, he was announcing on this media tour that Golden Boy had secured three major corporate sponsors for it: Coca-Cola, Bacardi, and Southwest Airlines. Coca-Cola, Schaefer stated, is even using this fight to introduce a new beverage.

But these big corporate types, who usually sponsor boxing shows about as frequently as Dick Cheney gives gun safety seminars, could easily be scared off if the whole show presents the wrong image for them.

Speaking after the press conference, the usually reserved Schaefer commented, “Mayorga talking all that crap is not good, it’s not necessary.” He added, “It’s about a fight, it’s about two guys fighting each other on May 6.” And he agreed that the Mayorga-Forrest-Mosley-De La Hoya-Trinidad-Mayorga discussion should be what was stressed, and not what was.

These corporate sponsors, Schaefer stated, are “really going back to Oscar De La Hoya.” He said it was the intention of Golden Boy Promotions “to really show that boxing is not all that bad as it has been perceived over the last many years.” And he noted, “And that’s why so many sponsors shied away from it. So we’re trying to be the good guys of the sport.”

Also on his agenda, despite this pay-per-view, is the return in the U.S. of boxing to free television.

“Network television is in the business of selling advertising,” he continued. “If you’re in the sport of boxing and none of the Fortune 500 or 1000 companies are willing to associate their brands with boxing, then it is sort of like, how can you bring boxing back on network television if the advertising and sponsorship support is not there?”

It is not bad ratings which have done in boxing, he said: “I think it is the negativity of the sport.” It is the perception that some promoters “have not given the sport the transparency needed.”

He continued by pointing out that a sport like beach volleyball had more sponsorship than boxing, even though, he argued, “If you look at boxing, the demographics are substantially better.”

So here’s my diagnosis, free of charge and with no referrals or pre-certification needed.

Mayorga screaming maricon is not going to help boxing any in this era of “Brokeback Mountain”, even if this film did come up short in the best picture category at Sunday’s Academy Awards. Public behavior and language even a fraction as antisocial as Mayorga’s in just about any other major sport would result in immediate and harsh fines and suspensions, and even possibly lawsuits. Boxing has become a sideshow with no ringmaster, and thus almost no major sponsors other than dear old booze.

The “Danger Zone” theme could be altered a bit to appeal to the kind of fans who wear real construction helmets to work, whose families regularly stock up on Coke products, and who fly the relatively inexpensive Southwest Airlines. Yes, this show is purposely being held May 6, one day after Cinco de Mayo, a major Mexican holiday commemorating the victory of the Mexican Army in 1862 over the French invaders at the Battle of Puebla. But Golden Boy and boxing want and need more than that core audience of Latino fans, however crucial they are to the business today. They need the working class as a whole, of all backgrounds and beliefs, as boxing used to attract back in the day.

Who better to symbolize them than those well-known champions of the working men and women of America, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton? Willie’s work with Farm Aid and Dolly’s “9 to 5” anthem are respected and even loved by a diverse spectrum of hardworking folks in this land. They have long leapt far beyond the limitations imposed by the marketing category known by the sometimes-misnomer of country music. They represent the grassroots of the red, white, and blue.

And now some more colors of the rainbow as well.

Willie’s latest single is called “Cowboys Are Secretly, Frequently (Fond Of Each Other)” and was released on Valentine’s Day on the new Howard Stern satellite radio show. It was too whimsical for “Brokeback Mountain”, but Willie did have a song on that soundtrack, called “He Was a Friend of Mine”.

One of Dolly’s current songs, performed live on the Oscar broadcast, is called “Travelin' Thru”, and was from the soundtrack of the film “Transamerica”. This film starred the Oscar-nominated Felicity Huffman playing a pre-op, male-to-female transsexual. Dolly also gave a live performance of the John Lennon song “Imagine”, which is also on her latest album, on the Country Music Association Awards show in November on CBS, with the openly-gay Elton John.

So bring in Willie, Dolly, and their gang. This honky-tonkization of boxing will help attract the proletariat back to boxing. It will help the sport get some more ethnic and regional diversity. Using Willie and Dolly will also help it teach tolerance rather than hatred. And it will make the maricon problem largely go away.

A year after the “Ring of Fire” documentary about Emile Griffith and the film “Beautiful Boxer” about the transsexual Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol (Nong Toom), such a change of direction for boxing is not too much to ask.

We can hope, we can hope.

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