In this our young, convulsive millennium, we struggle with meanings of the past and the implications of our possible futures. We live with and via machines close to the processes of thought itself, our very existence political commerce for sale. How far have we gone from the hierarchy of kings, the commerce and battlefields of definable honor?
One of the lasting imprints from a more romanticized time has been the idea of noble hierarchy, in boxing the kings of the ring, one fighter set above the rest triumphant, pulsars in the galaxy of telegenic fame, meant to reign supreme, fending off challengers deposing their hungry wills and heraldry against the king, the champion who preens in his exalted time, showered in the glories of title, deed, daring and the sentiment of a supreme nobility of purpose. Even in the mythic champions of memory, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, or for that matter Gene Tunney, Beau Jack, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles, they were taken to be royal men, at their time of superiority, for a fight or a decade, champions of the world. Those world champions only lost right of supremacy, the mantle of being champion in the ring, contesting their distinction as champion, defending a symbolic honor, battling.
Yes, boxing champions were part of the greater modernist myth, centered round the booming tide of American geopolitical dynamism making heroism out of fame. Yes, there was the gambling graft of John L. Sullivan and Jack Johnson, the economic rape of Shelby, Montana by Tex Rickard, “Doc” Kearns and King Dempsey himself, Jake LaMotta taking a canvas nap for hire. Every sort of chicanery, misfortune and evasion was at one time or another woven into the misrule of the men who held boxing’s world championships, be they heavyweight legends or flyweight oddities, regardless of weight. Yet the men, who fought their way to the championship ring and won, joined the lineage of champions past. To take the title away meant facing them in the ring and winning. For those who have long been fascinated by the squared ring and its ultimate fights, those truly ultimate fighters of the code of the fist, the romance was a woven story of combative art, romantic reflections spun as dedicated reporting by Damon Runyon, Jack London, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, A. J. Leibling and Dave Anderson among a host of others. And yet in the last 30 years the exacting toll of legal recourse and organizational oversight of championship boxing means being a sanctioned belt holder has effectively replaced the singularity of being champion, THE world boxing champion.
There no longer exists the distinction of world champion in the sense known in boxing before the rise of the WBC and WBA in the early 1970s. And by the time that the IBF and the WBO established global constituencies and satellite distribution of fights as entertainment product boxing was subject to a division of powers and delivery that left it open to manifest manipulation. Indeed, more boxing is seen now than ever. But gone is the imperial aura of its sporting presence. What exists today in the place of world champions is the titleholder of the moment, sanctioned to wear a belt of authenticity, as such, by a governing body within the sport for the purposes of marketing his fights as title bouts for the mass consumption of a global television audience. Fighters no longer reign as champions, de facto kings of their divisional realms – divisions having been subdivided for product/market diversification.
Fighters, such as middleweight great Bernard Hopkins, toil for the balance of their primes, in the relative obscurity of chasing sanctioned title defenses alongside rival claimants for the now lapsed notion of the – THE – world championship. Hopkins’ successor, heir to HBO patronage and validation as dominant titleholder at middleweight, Jermain Taylor himself tries to exact justice from a media environment that commonly critiques his standing as universally recognized constantly calling into doubt that distinction because of the presence of legitimate contenders such as Ronald “Winky” Wright. As if champions were not to have contenders.
As soon as the fighters settle the issue of dominance by fighting, the wheels of managerial, promotional or governmental self-interest can disavow the winner, the very legitimacy of the title or titlist itself. The ring result is called into question, debated, debased and made to stand against legal or statutory criteria. Winning a title essentially secures the status of being one of the best. Champions of a division become part of a PR parlor game endlessly moving between gossip, speculation, ridicule and fantasy. As a substitute for world championship status, the plotting of a pound-for-pound #1 act to fill in for the tradition of the true champion’s mantle. Note here the current flip-flop between those hoisting Floyd Mayweather and those trumpeting Manny Pacquiao as the true pound-for-pound king of the ring, partly because their divisional status cannot absolutely confirm them as world champions.
In what turned out to be defined retroactively as the Hopkins Era, he fought as IBF champion alongside titleholders William Joppy and Julio Cesar (WBA) and Keith Holmes (WBC) to name just three. Many in boxing felt this was as it should have been: the new normal before the new normal; yet, for boxing fans that sense of a tradition of knowing the person and persona of the world champion was muddled into a frustrating obscurity. What also became lost was the right of succession that connected the championship winners to the over all historical lineage in the sport. The confusion of Hopkins’ assertion of breaking the middleweight title defense record of Carlos Monzon – whose reign bisected the traditional and the postmodern periods – became a subject of contention prompting the polling of experts.
The issue for debate became: was a titleholder who fought mostly as a single organization’s champion able to count his defenses retroactively after unifying – and only temporarily – the middleweight titles? Even the notion of champion and championship, championship equaling the unification of say three of the four major belts, became a point for debate and moot consensus was reached only by the ability of a major broadcaster like HBO to make a dominant assertion filling in for established fact. Who indeed were the real world champions at any weight? Unification fights were held and titles dropped, recognition splintering by weight defections, divisional retirements, governmental stripping, legal challenges of all kinds blinding the empirical data of ring results. Defining real, that became the issue. Then in so far that the issue of the middleweight championship was settled with the Hopkins-Trinidad 9/11 postponed showdown in New York City, multiple titlists soon popped up not long after, the threads loosed, ready to fray. The very idea of postulating the question of Hopkins’ number of title defenses as middleweight title defenses to be compared to Monzon’s proved that even Hopkins’ eminent position was not automatic, obvious.
Sadly, fans have come to expect that whatever the fighters can settle with will and skill the courts or boardrooms will soon call into perplexing question, stripping titles, over regulating and mandating defenses against bogus mandatory contenders. Just review the career of Roy Jones Jr. for example, checking his opponents against the luminaries of his time he never did engage in a championship contest. Self-exploiting tailored marketing for HBO millions, indeed! And we consider also Roy Jones was a tremendous talent, a fighter of unique ability and capacity. One might also ponder upon the issue of the great triumvirate Morales, Barrera and Marquez, THE great unsolved mystery of this generation.
Pick your division and think of the permutations, considering what a true champion title reign might look like. At middleweight, Jermain Taylor fills in nicely for the picture of the world middleweight champion. Inside boxing his claim as champion is as universal as any in boxing today. To the general public, however, and to casual sports fans Jermain Taylor remains invisible, without the form and significance of even celebrity, without valid meaning of being the world champion. World championship boxers no longer inhabit the status of being at the summit of a pyramid. Because the mythic status, to be a king, means an acceptance of the role of fealty, suspending rights, for the masses who do not question until an ultimate challenge ground swells.
Yes, we can acknowledge Jermain Taylor as champion by ignoring the torrents of disinformation spewing forth about how he robbed Bernard Hopkins of the seat of power, the symbolic mirror of being the man at middleweight. Others are offended by the draw against Winky Wright and point to their seemingly inevitable rematch in 2007 as the final determination of the middleweight championship. So Taylor is a king in title only, a symbol without meaning? But of course, we know that it will never be final. Some look to HBO’s boxing team to tell them the truth of Taylor’s manifest championship designation, others flip through The Ring magazine and believe what they read, what they want to read. Most fans just shake their heads and try to remember who was THE last king of the ring?
No wonder three decades after he lost the heavyweight championship Muhammad Ali’s name keeps reappearing as the template for what no longer exists in championship boxing. In our time, with democracy and the internet tidal forces for individual liberty as self-expression making us all independent voices, we have a difficult time standing still to venerate or appreciate or allow for meaning to add up and unfold as given, established. We are constantly looking for the next, brightest star forcing an evolution of process to happen for us like steaming video, expectation for novelty our designer drug of choice. The global game of producing boxing as sports entertainment programming merely follows the predictable course of meeting market demands for temporary importance and titillating controversy.
Mike Tyson remains an imploding marvel for us, the anti-heroism of his life having devoured his championship talent, his youth passing comet like before it was fully formed, merely posing as his mature prime prowess, the force of his bipolar nature a continuous replay of a very public death via ultimate success and total fame. Where Tyson lived the nightmare of a continuous celebrity humiliation, Oscar De La Hoya eventually walked out of the simulation, preened his PR perfection for us to generate the last epic standard of regal boxing that prizefighting has seen since Roberto Duran and “Sugar” Ray Leonard. No wonder the expectation for his showdown with the Michigan genius Floyd Mayweather Jr. looks like such a retro classic of 1980s superbouts, a genuine pay-per-view crossover event bout of towering importance. In a fight between two supreme ring talents, only De La Hoya stands out as a king, his mere presence defining the possibilities for the contest financially, symbolically and emotionally.
Many see this fight as the last flickering of a mythic flame, and with it the end of boxing’s romantic past.
Read Part 2 of Monarchs and The Middleweights