A few years back, ESPN Classic purchased the rights to what was called the largest fight library in the world from former Mike Tyson brain trust Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. It supposedly signaled a new beginning for boxing and ESPN, which enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship during the “Top Rank Boxing” days of the 1980s and '90s.
But judging from the selected fights being shown on ESPN2 every Tuesday, the powers that be at the “total sports network” don't care about the boxing fan.
Like Roberto Duran against Kirkland Laing (a fight that ESPN televised in 1982), the network is going through the motions when it comes to boxing. What we get every week, whether we like it or not, is a fight from the 1950s here and there and a whole bunch of Muhammad Ali footage everywhere else. And the people making decisions as to which fights are being shown apparently don't know boxing from badminton.
Take last week, for instance. ESPN2 showed “The Fights and Times of Muhammad Ali,” along with the 1980 WBC heavyweight championship between Ali and Larry Holmes. If you're going to showcase Ali, why would you air the fight in which he resembles a corpse? The fight that may well be responsible for his current condition? The one in which Holmes took target practice at Ali's aged noggin and begged referee Richard Greene to stop it?
It was one of the saddest nights in boxing history, one that Ali fans and Ali haters found difficult to watch 25 years ago.
So why would people want to be subjected to that bloodletting again?
And what exactly is ESPN's definition of “classic”? Why not show Holmes bludgeoning Randall “Tex” Cobb or Roy Jones dismantling Richard Frazier? Those were classics.
Classic ass kickings.
Boxing fans consider “classic” to mean “fiercely competitive” – or at least mildly entertaining.
Secondly, it is understood that Ali is boxing royalty. He is perhaps the single most important athletic figure ever (though, nowadays, history often disregards the times when he was a jerk of immense proportions). But do we have to watch him every week, especially when most boxing fans can memorize exact sequences and quotes from a dozen or so of his most important victories?
The victory dance as Sonny Liston slumps on the stool (“I'm a bad man!”). The Frazier left hook that drops him in their first fight (both men spent weeks in the hospital afterwards). The multi punch flurry that drops George Foreman (“Ali Bomaye!”). The 14th round of the rubber match against Joe Frazier (“That's as close to death as I've ever been”).
And the Ali documentaries are ridiculous in their numbers. How many times can one man be chronicled? There have been foreign dignitaries and presidents and peacemakers who haven't enjoyed a quarter of Ali's massive “chronicling.”
– “I am ready to die.”
– “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”
– “If truculent is good, then I'm that.”
– “Hey gorilla, we in Manila!”
All that is classic and historic – but so what? Do football fans want to watch Super Bowl I three times a month on the NFL network?
Then there's the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Has there been a more televised fight in the history of pugilism? Has there been a more televised sporting event in the history of mankind?
Yeah, it was a great fight. It was the last great fight of Ali's career. But, really, isn't enough enough? It's gotten to the point where boxing fans can tell you that Ali threw a double jab at 1:47 of the seventh round. And never mind that the fight is terribly, terribly overrated. There are other fights some of which surely are right there in ESPN's mammoth, ignored collection that are better.
Larry Holmes Ken Norton. Bobby Chacon Cornelius Boza Edwards 2. Bobby Chacon Bazooka Limon 4. Carlos Santos Mark Medal. Thomas Hearns Juan Roldan. Sugar Ray Leonard Don LaLonde. Matthew Saad Muhammad Yaqui Lopez. Aaron Pryor DuJuan Johnson. Stevie Cruz Barry McGuigan. Jose Luis Ramirez Terrence Alli. Matthew Hilton Buster Drayton. Roberto Duran Iran Barkley. Simon Brown Maurice Blocker. Jorge Castro John David Jackson. Vince Phillips Kostya Tszyu.
What about Jacobs’ former charge Wilfred Benitez? Most of us haven't seen his historic effort over Antonio Cervantes, when he won the junior welterweight title at the tender age of 17 (still a Guinness record, by the way). Or Edwin Rosario, who engaged in memorable struggles with Jose Luis Ramirez and Howard Davis Jr. in his reign as WBC lightweight champion.
Does it always have to be Ali, or some fight having to do with Ali?
Or a fight that has been shown already?
Over and over and over and over again.
It all leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of boxing fans that this network supposedly so committed to improving its boxing coverage is instead barely paying attention enough to mix it up a little.
Back in the 1980s, ESPN featured big time world title fight specials. It traveled all the way to Panama to televise a Eusebio Pedroza defense of the WBA featherweight title. Remember Roger Stafford's mammoth upset of Pipino Cuevas? And the aforementioned Laing’s upset of Duran?
All were televised by ESPN in primetime – on Saturday night, no less. And those videos are sitting somewhere in that massive Bristol gaggle of satellites and giant saucers, collecting dust like Sal Marchiano's resume tapes.
Certainly the boxing landscape has changed dramatically since the 1980s with the advent of pay per view, but ESPN gives the impression that it's not trying very hard.
And that it doesn't really care.
“In my opinion, ESPN Classic doesn't have enough boxing people in the decision or selection process,” wrote fight collector Frank Lotierzo in an article on East Side Boxing. “The bottom line is Ali and Tyson get the ratings, so that's who we'll continue to see. However, don't ever be fooled into thinking or believing that ESPN really cares about boxing, or the fans. Because they don't.”
None of this says much for a network that used boxing as a springboard to vault it into the stratosphere in which it currently resides, but has done little to help it out of its current predicament.
How many times is boxing mentioned on SportsCenter? How many times does it scroll across the screen on Bottom Line? How many times do the talking heads on PTI or Around the Horn discuss the slugfest between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales?
Not that Tony Kornheiser or Michael Wilbon know Jack Johnson from Glen Johnson. But the network sure is willing to jump in and profit from the pay per view market, as it will launch yet another broadcasting arm in April.
It all is pretty much summed up by ESPN Classic's sorry Tuesday night boxing lineup, which has gone from curious to laughable. No one wants to watch Holmes Ali or Ali's 340th interview or his personal view of Deer Lake. We want to watch good fights.
Otherwise, ESPN, just say “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” to classic boxing.