Let me first say that I love boxing. I grew up at a time when Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most well-known person in the world and coincidentally, my personal hero. Jim Lampley has called boxing “the most emotionally accessible sport”, and he’s right. What could be more immediate than two fighters putting everything at risk in a small ring that offers no escape other than a 60 second reprieve every three minutes? When two boxers face off against one another, there is no one to help them. Oh sure, they do get some advice between rounds, but when they get off their stools, they are all alone against another fighter whose job is to punch them in the face as hard as possible. The risk to their health and their lives is enormous. And therein lies the rub.
The cliché of the broken down fighter exists for the same reason most clichés do. Because they are true. Too many boxers fight for too long. If you ever want to break your own heart, listen to post fight interviews of boxers early on in their careers and then again towards the end of their pugilistic lives. Watch them reach for words that used to be at the ready. Lean in and focus your ear in an effort to make their words more intelligible to you. Typically, things do not improve for them as the years go on. Most fighters don’t come from well-heeled backgrounds. Part of what makes one gravitate towards boxing is a lack of other options. And for many, boxing is indeed a way out. This should not go unsaid. However, if one is lucky enough to make their fortune in the sport, they are often not well-equipped to retain it. As well, those that never make sizable bank from the endeavor are hardly set up to transition into a straight job. Most professional fighters with long careers are likely to leave the sport diminished both physically and mentally, despite only being in their middle ages.
The uncertainty that awaits them post boxing is nothing less than intimidating. It’s easy to focus on former fighters like Oscar de la Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard who have turned their success in the ring into opportunity outside of it. They are the ones you still see. Far too many fade into obscurity and poverty. Even Joe Frazier lived out his final days in a small room in the dilapidated boxing gym he owned and operated. He would still probably qualify as being on the luckier side of the ledger compared to most.
It’s not like the alphabet soup of boxing organizations are looking out for the fighters once they have crossed over the hill. How many times have you seen or heard of a boxer being cleared to take the ring when they are so obviously impaired? What kind of post career training and advice do any of the boxing councils offer those that allow their very associations to exist? Where is their retirement plan? Their pension?
The WBC was the first of the various major boxing organizations to offer a pension plan. That finally happened in 2012, just two short years ago. The California State Athletic Commission also has a pension. However, they do such a poor job of locating former fighters that far too often, benefits never get paid out. A scathing 80 page audit released by the California Attorney General earlier this year found that the Commission failed to pay out a single dollar in benefits in 2002-2003 and 2008-2009. Perhaps more shockingly, not one examination of a boxer was paid for by the Commission’s neurological fund since 1998. So many have been left behind. Do we not owe fighters more than this?
Let’s face it, the people making the most money off of the sport are usually not the ones taking the punches. Don King may be the most flamboyant huckster in the fight game, but he’s hardly the only one getting rich off the sweat and blood of someone else’s labor. The history of boxing is littered with corrupt, shadowy figures who pull the levers and reap the rewards while the fighters who produce that wealth are left with futures full of uncertainty. I would argue little has changed.
There is perhaps only one other major sport that treats their athletes so poorly. I was born in Kentucky, and horse racing is in my blood. I have a great fondness for it as well. There can be no doubt though that it is also a sport run by scoundrels who take advantage of their athletes with impunity. Of course, boxers are adults who choose to take on the physical danger of their profession, but there is a parallel here. Many horses and fighters are essentially—if not literally—put out to pasture when their careers are done. In some cases what happens next is far more painful than the basic idea of retirement and the end of a career. A horse may need only modest mental faculty to live out the remainder of its days, whereas a person needs much more. Every time I see a documentary with old fighters looking back on their greatest fights, I am filled with fascination over their remembrances, but often sadness over their inability to express them. Great fighters like Joe Frazier, Meldrick Taylor, and of course, Muhammad Ali, often need to have subtitles put beneath their faces so we can understand their words. It is a tremendous price to pay, and one that fills me with complicated emotions.
How do I square my love of boxing with the all too often heartbreaking results of that profession? Well, I can make an argument about the beauty of the sport–and there is so much beauty in the hand speed of Manny Pacquiao, the footwork of Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the pure grace of Muhammad Ali. All of that is true. But there is a greater truth at play here. My most honest justification for my love of horse racing is a primal one. I simply love to watch them run. And when I plumb the depths of my heart and mind in search of the justification and the source of my zeal for the sweet science of boxing, I reach a similar conclusion. God help me, I love to watch them fight.