LAS VEGAS, July 26 – They’re beginning to pop up in those little “On This Date…” boxes in sports pages, references to the 1976 Olympics, which means we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of the Boxing Renaissance of the Eighties. For boxing, the 1980’s began in 1976 and Bob Arum was there, in Row 26, at the Forum in Montreal.
He was a little ticked off when he saw the ticket given him by ABC, but was mollified when he discovered that Row 26 was the first row of the general seating for the Olympic boxing finals. Who knew that the United States team would not only strike gold five times, but that boxing would enter a golden age?
There had been a golden age of heavyweights in the early Seventies, but no one knew it at the time. No one bothered to stop and count all the great fighters – The Greatest, of course, but also Smokin’ Joe Frazier and George Foreman were the major stars and the supporting cast was brilliant with Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, George Chuvalo, Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Ellis; there were the usual former champions like Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, still able to make cameos, and there were the prospects, like Larry Holmes and Ken Norton.
But by 1976, Muhammad Ali was the declining titular head of boxing. That year, he would have his third – and perhaps most controversial – bout with Norton. Ali’s 1975 classic Thrilla in Manila had depleted both him and his great rival, Frazier. Foreman was preaching by the end of the decade, Mike Tyson was in juvenile detention and Holmes
was discovering, like Ezzard Charles after Joe Louis, that following a giant like Ali was no easy act, no matter how good you were.
With the heavyweights in the doldrums, most major newspapers simply stopped covering boxing. But then came that wonderful year.
“We knew going in that it was a very good team,” said Arum, “that John Tate had a chance to be a special heavyweight, there were the Spinks brothers – Leon seemed something special, Michael a little less, but it worked out the opposite – and Howard Davis Jr. was sensational.”
The biggest star was a sleeper, Sugar Ray Leonard, “he barely made the team,” said Arum.
But that team, with its five gold medals (of course you remember Leo Randolph) and a silver (Charles Mooney) and bronze (Tate) arrived at a joyous confluence of events. “We knew,” said Arum, even then along with Don King the biggest promoters in the game, “that boxing was going to take off on the networks.”
Television, after oversaturating its programming with boxing in the Fifties, remembered how perfectly the game fit onto home screens. All three major networks began a feeding frenzy for the Olympians who, with Howard Cosell doing the Montreal telecasts, were projected into young stars by ABC.
There was another major factor in producing the Eighties’ ring revival.
“The ‘Rocky’ movie,” said Arum.
Sylvester Stallone’s film, based on so many real boxing nuggets – Rocky Balboa, like Joe Frazier, hitting the sides of beef; the instruction to the corner to “cut me,” when he couldn’t see out of a swollen eye – captured the public imagination. It was more real than the reality series, “The Contender,” which Stallone would attempt many years later.
“In the movie,” said Arum, “he had more control – he was the writer and the director.”
The Spirit of ’76 remains with us. There’s another “Rocky” movie due this year, but more apropos, if one forgets about the heavyweights, the talent level is extraordinarily high in the real thing.
Back in the Eighties, we were lucky to see Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Wilfred Benitez fight a virtual round-robin of magnificence at welterweight, and they had Marvelous Marvin Hagler waiting for them at middleweight. Even the light-heavyweights, with Michael Spinks, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Marvin Johnson and, please let me interject a personal favorite, Yaqui Lopez, held slugfests that would make Arturo Gatti blush.
As far down as junior flyweight, where Michael Carbajal and Humberto Gonzalez would engage in a trilogy for the ages, it was a boom time.
Forget Nicolai Valuev, Sergei Liahkovich and even Wladimir Klitschko, things aren’t so bad these days. And like the Eighties, the top guys seem willing to fight each other – if you don’t count Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his brush-off (so far) of Antonio Margarito.
Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales have lit up this young century with their rivalries. The welterweights, Mayweather included, are bursting with talent that fills the divisions immediately above and below it. Jose Luis Castillo may have grown out of lightweight, but there are enough headliners who can still make 135 pounds and keep the class busy.
Jermain Taylor and Winky Wright lend class to the middleweights. Talent is everywhere – from the Philippines to Wales, from Thailand to Eastern Europe. And all without a great Olympic team, too.
PENTHOUSE: It’s always somehow uplifting to see a so-called “journeyman” break through into the higher echelons. After much time traveling the world, after who knows how many hours in strange gyms and lumpy beds, Carlos Baldomir has arrived at the age of 35. Yes, he was finishing up the destruction of an old warhorse that had been going on for years, but the calm, confident demeanor in which he went after Arturo Gatti last weekend was professionalism at its highest. Gatti’s supposed edges in speed and boxing skills were quickly exposed by Baldomir’s pressure. This was his second “upset” of the year, Back in January, he shocked the world when he beat Zab Judah to win the real welterweight title; now he has a chance to cash in. No, he doesn’t beat Mayweather and become fighter of the year, but if he does get the assignment he becomes the surprise Argentine millionaire of the year.
With Bob Arum taking from the table his $8 million offer to Mayweather to fight Antonio Margarito – the promoter no longer has the October date he wanted since HBOxing Boss Greenberg, in their never-ending feud, gave it to Don King for Nicolai Valuev, who if he’s not facing Shaq O’Neal, I’m not interested – Baldomir now becomes a prime target for boxing’s best. Good for Baldomir. He deserves it, even if maybe we could do without it.
OUTHOUSE: Anyone who gave Gatti more than the first round, and that includes you, George. Thankfully, the home-ring judges did not come into play.
SPECIAL PENTHOUSE: For life, Arturo Gatti. I’m guessing that Thunder knows it’s over and there are diapers to change. He can smoothly make the transition to real life. HBO would not be a bad place to start. He deserves whatever he gets now for all the amazing Houdini-like escapes he made in his thrilling career. No, he was not a great boxer, but as a fan favorite, he should be hall of fame, first ballot. He was heart and shoulders above the rest.