There is a certain kind of poetry found in boxing that other sports simply cannot match. It is fitting, perhaps, that one has such a difficult time in putting a finger to exactly what makes it that way. Boxing is the most violent of all sports. There is an ugly grimness in it that would lead many to find little to no beauty within. But followers of the sport know otherwise. Despite everything wrong about it, and despite the shady characters within it, people who prosper by duping both fighters and fans out of every possible cent they can lay their greedy fingers on, boxing is beautiful.
Tragic? Yes. Dysfunctional? Absolutely. But there is more Truth and Beauty found in boxing than just about any other thing in the world.
No other sport quite compares, but if there is one, it must be baseball. Think about. What other sport is romanticized more than boxing and baseball? What other sport reveres its history as much? What other sport has in its history great writers and artists and song makers creating celebrated works of art like boxing and baseball have?
Yet television killed them both.
There were no more popular sports than boxing and baseball during the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the next. The first national celebrity sporting figure was heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan in the 1880s. He was also the first American athlete to earn over one million dollars. By the 1920s, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and baseball slugger Babe Ruth were the most popular and prestigious men in the entire world. No sport meant more than boxing and baseball.
Thomas Hauser described the two men “who bestrode it all” in the 1920s for SecondsOut.com: “In the ring, Dempsey attacked with unrelenting ferocity. Ruth swung for the fences every time he stepped to the plate. Dempsey fought like Ruth played baseball, and Ruth played baseball like Dempsey fought. Millions of Americans thrilled to their exploits as they led the way to a previously unimaginable commercialization of sports. At decade’s end, Ruth signed a contract that paid him $80,000 a year. When asked if it was appropriate for him to make more money than the president of the United States, The Babe famously replied, ‘Why not? I had a better year than he did.’ Dempsey, by then, had made ten times the president’s annual salary for one night’s work.”
As also noted by Hauser, the peak of perhaps both sports also attracted some of the greatest writing talent ever seen. This “golden age of sportswriting” included “Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Hype Igoe, and Westbrook Pegler” among many others.
But the popularity of both sports has declined since the invention of the television in the 1920s and its rise to becoming the most popular medium in the 1950s. While baseball has remained more mainstream than boxing during that timeframe, it is no longer considered a national pastime. Its ability to remain more relevant to the masses is likely less due to the sport itself and more to the governing structure of it. Where Major League Baseball has enjoyed what essentially boils down to a monopoly over the sport in America, boxing has continued on as a band of competing promotional companies continually trying to usurp and outdo each other.
Neither boxing nor baseball are television friendly sports. They’re both long and slow. Both hearken back to a time when watchers of sport had longer attention spans and enjoyed subtle nuances of things. Where today’s generation of know-nothings see two men punching each other, boxing fans see an entire language of pugilism that remains indecipherable to mainstream consumers. There are feints, parries and footwork. These small things can appear to be nothing to the untrained eye, but fight fans see a subject that can truly never be studied enough to be fully mastered. Baseball fans see the same. Where one might see a man throwing a ball passed another who tries to hit it with a big, wooden stick, baseball fans attach great significance to the smallest of things in their sport, almost imperceptible but still substantial singularities which affect each moment’s outcome.
Yet the two fan bases could not be more different. That wasn’t driven home more than when Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and James Kirkland attended the Houston Astros vs. Texas Rangers baseball game on Wednesday night preceding their Saturday night showdown at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Nary an applause was given when the two men walked out to the mound to deliver their ceremonial first pitches. While the fighters, particularly Alvarez, were rock stars just a few moments earlier during their fight week workouts which were open to the public, they were nobodies when sauntering out in front of the baseball crowd.
Yet there was a place where boxing and baseball still entwined. From within the dugouts emerged baseball players, both from the Astros and the visiting Rangers. These men, adored by their culture for being the same types of stars and celebrities Canelo and Kirkland are in our world, were smitten by the two fighters who would do battle on that very field later in the week. There were pictures and autographs and selfies. There were smiles and hugs and laughs. The boxers and baseball players loved each other.
It was a family reunion of sorts. Two sports forever entwined with nothing alike about them except maybe everything that really matters.