“Boxing doesn’t really register anymore, does it? I mean, I see some of the fights on TV. I do sometimes. I can’t say I know who they are though. Where are the great fighters now? Who are they?” So ran one half of a casual conversation this writer had a week ago with “an average sports fan” who classified himself as a guy who “generally likes to see the fights.” The phrase “the fights” almost hovered in the air between us for a second and then vanished back to 1975.
Almost no one uses that phrase any more – except for Larry Merchant, the odd New York literati and yours very truly – much like the term “prizefighters” the almost forgotten perfect descriptor for what pro boxers do. Even the language to partake of a casual boxing conversation gets stultified, an act of accidental retro-speak, these days.
It’s true that boxing is on more channels now than ever; more fights are broadcast in more languages than ever before. We also know mainstream newspapers don’t specifically ‘cover’ boxing now, they publish newswire boxing scandals or court cases involving boxing bad boys – and girls – to the exclusion of describing the week to week, card to card, fight to fight maturation and devolution of the same fighters they give the time of day to only to present as deviant or deranged.
Sure, the pay-per-view superfights and local fighters of momentary interest are, at times, noted somewhere in the recesses of the sports pages; Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and Antonio Tarver have taken post-fight bows on late night talk shows. Roy Jones made music and athletic marvels, yet no one ever asked him his views on religion or politics. Boxers are not considered socially sentient, lower on the public’s need to know IQ inquiry register then rock stars and TV actors.
Well, you know the rest of that story. We all know what we do not see as pertains to boxers or boxing generally in newspapers and magazines across North America and Europe. The essential transmission of boxing as a sport, business and culture happens due to the Internet and its subject specific ubiquity, its all things for all people at all times informational, virtual totality. Newspaper reporting often feeds of Internet informational platforming of boxing. Otherwise, boxing would hardly register within the data coding of the electric city.
You have to shop for boxing, browse and surveil the net, if you want to keep up with the cutting edge currency of the sport. The broadcasting of boxing looks impressive, but the long-term viability of the sport will have to endure a period of retrenchment. Showtime, the US cable network, having let go longtime production chief Jay Larkin, among other executives, will be going through a reassessment of programming as it relates to boxing coverage.
Showtime’s chief competitor, HBO, itself enters a period of star disenfranchisement. With the ending of the careers of mainstay boxing stars such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones, Felix Trinidad, as well as the final aspirations pending for Oscar De La Hoya, the cable giant’s decade-and-a-half star system has hit a major generational wall.
Of significance has been the, until now, failure of subsequent marquee fighters such as Mosley, Floyd Mayweather, Fernando Vargas, the Klitschko brothers, etc., to provide long term substitute demographic drawing power for HBO’s special events-based programming. Though the jury remains out on what financial effectiveness fighters such as Jermain Taylor and Tarver can have on HBO unit buys, the only noteworthy fighters remaining box at or below lightweight.
The issue of Vitali Klitschko’s sudden retirement signaled for many commentators a crisis of legitimation for the sport’s symbolic head, the heavyweight championship. The division has also been classified as a talent vacuum for almost half a decade, rightly or wrongly. Speculation that promoter Don King’s issue to the boxing community for a “heavyweight championship tournament” could be enabled by HBO platforming a significant number of these fights or indeed paralleled by HBO developing upon the “theme” of Hasim Rahman’s acclamation as WBC champion and subsequent title aspirations, including unification.
Make no mistake about the current situation of the new WBC champion. Rahman, who has filed for bankruptcy protection, is desperate to fight for major purses. The Baltimore native seeking financial stability and a last significant championship run represents the key element in the division. But we also have the resurgence of Wladimir Klitschko — coming off a win over Sam Peter — the ongoing persona of James Toney, and the pivotal happenings with Peter, who, at 25, still has time to improve.
Is Peter to be a force in the division or is he just a strong man of marginal technical accomplish destined to come up short at the top level of the division? Those are the questions and issues taking us into 2006 and HBO is uniquely positioned to cover and in some way orchestrate the “final determination” of the heavyweight title scene largely based on them.
At least that will be the fictional front, the virtual sales job to be aired for the next year plus. Yes, boxing fans do want to see what will finally happen if Hopkins actually decides to fight Taylor – and not pose and preen and attempt to simulate a victory in December. Truly, we all are waiting to see how the Barrera, Morales, Pacquiao and Marquez soap opera will finally turn out. We do caution ourselves knowing that soap operas do not tie up all the loose ends or come to finite resolutions; they tend to just pop and vanish in the air of expectation and seduction.
But the situation in the heavyweight division, constantly referred to as chaos, actually presents broadcasters, no less promoters, with a kind of collage in the making, multiple facets waiting to be fitted into dramatic presentation. Don King will take his initiative as far as he can and HBO will likely negotiate upon that theme.
As fans we should remember that it is certainly not beyond the realm possibility that sometime in the spring or summer of 2006 Vitali Klitschko will reemerge to challenge for the heavyweight thrown which injury and circumstantial diffidence has shed him of. Team Rahman will be looking toward an optional defense before any WBC mandated fights, no matter the fallout. Though that’s not a certainty, Rahman has clearly illustrated his willingness to fight the fights that matter to his career, his pocketbook and to the fans of the sport. May that trend continue!
There’s a quieter, more forceful determination about “The Rock” in the last year and boxing fans are praying that his resolve to take on the best fighters in the division was part of a personal renewal and not just a passing expedient. We will know within weeks just how he defines his professional resolve, with a matchup against Wladimir Klitschko early in 2006 having been green lighted by Rahman’s management and HBO. No doubt, such a fight, if it is made, represents the groundwork for what we can speculate will be a superfight between Rahman and Vitali Klitschko upon the older brother’s return in the spring of 2006.
Like myth, speculation often has an elementary basis in facts. Rahman’s manager Steve Nelson admitted in the summer that a fight with Wladimir Klitschko, in the right circumstances, has been part of Team Rahman’s short list for sometime now. The right circumstances having been confirmed upon them, it’s hard to see how HBO would not be favoring such a fight given the obvious implications beyond. So as John Ruiz and Chris Byrd attempt pseudo-free agency, Toney represents the most money either is likely to make if they are determined to remain outside of Don King’s heavyweight box-off.
That will make for legal dramatics over the next year perhaps comparable to the fights we are likely to see. Nevertheless, Toney and his promotional team at Goossen-Tudor are positioned to move wherever free agency can take them. Toney being one of the division’s key commodities of choice on the cable networks short list of must have heavyweight combatants.
What of the New York/New Jersey axis vs. Las Vegas pertaining to the issue of media maximization; perhaps, we shouldn’t say versus. Let’s just say that a reinvigorated heavyweight division might be well staged in New York, or at least climaxed in New York, as King’s middleweight box-off between Keith Holmes, William Joppy, Felix Trinidad and Hopkins was resolved at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, boxing needs more than a viable heavyweight division. It needs the recasting of boxing stars, a process of marketed visibility that is at present voided. But boxing must present the image of excitement and possibility, glamorous danger as sporting excellence, packaged as martial artfulness.
If it relies only on stealth and methods for survival it’s shot. For championship boxing must look big and act important, more important that it is and more central to the sporting culture of North American than it can be. For boxing is a specialty event of self-defining drama, participants trained and combat ready for a global spectacle interphase, pitting the good guy vs. the bad guy, the champion against the challenger, dueling masters with intrigue suspected, undo influence the untold story, heroism the state of mind and fan’s fanaticism.
Boxing used to have a diamond sparkle to it, red lights and black eyes, senate hearings and pinstriped suits only adding to the romanticism of human struggle, glaring lights upon rosined canvas, where the blood of desperation ran, unyielding performance ringed and ruled that sent nobodies to the veritable stars. So boxing doesn’t look like that anymore. Many of us cannot remember when boxing was king anyway.
But it doesn’t matter. It has to keep appearances – corporate and administrative – for appearances sake, for the sake of its very survival. If we foolishly believe that within capitalism, you have to expand to survive, then boxing’s got a fighting chance. Because boxing knows all about looking larger than life and selling itself over and over again, just to make a buck, rolling the dice every chance it gets.