THE CIRCUS IS SHUTTING DOWN — Two definitions of “tradition,” as listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, describe it as “cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs and institutions,” as well “an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior.”
At 69 years of age, I consider myself a staunch proponent of tradition, at least those customs that can be traced back at least to my impressionable youth and have somehow survived in a constantly evolving society. But perhaps I have not clung to all the old ways as tenaciously as I would like to think. I last attended a circus performance 30 or so years ago, accompanied by the two youngest of my four children, and even that marked the first time for me to take in the so-called “Greatest Show on Earth” in the 25 years that preceded it.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of remorse to find out that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will close forever in May, ending a tradition of providing wholesome family fun that goes back 146 years. But they say nothing is forever, and 21st century kids apparently prefer to keep playing video games than to head off to a bigtop tent or arena and watch clowns with bulbous noses, grease-painted faces and oversized shoes scramble out of a tiny car and do silly stuff.
“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which bought the circus in 1967. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world.”
It did occur to me that one difference between Ringling and the ring is four little letters, and that the parallels between the two forms of tradition-encrusted entertainment are numerous and so obvious as to be undeniable. If the lords of boxing do not take care to mind their troubled store and make necessary changes, who’s to say they won’t eventually be obliged to close up shop as the flying trapeze artists, lion tamers and high-wire walkers must soon do?
Circuses have existed in one form or another for centuries, but the inventor of what might be described as the version we know today was an unapologetically shameless huckster and showman named Phineas T. Barnum, who was 80 when he died on April 7, 1891. Although he is erroneously credited with coining the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute,” Barnum was only too happy to describe himself as the “Prince of Humbugs” whose mind conceived an endless stream of oddities, authentic and not, to separate a willingly gullible public from some of its money. “The people like to be humbugged,” he reasoned.
Among the non-authentic come-ons invented by Barnum was Joyce Heth, a blind slave touted as being the 161-year-old former nurse to toddler George Washington, who enthralled paying customers with her totally fictitious remembrances of “dear little George.” When she died in 1836, an autopsy revealed that Heth was most likely no older than 80.
Some of Barnum’s more notable humbugs included the “Feejee Mermaid,” which was hyped as a creature unlike any ever seen, but was actually the upper half of a stuffed monkey sewn to the bottom of a similarly preserved fish, and “General Tom Thumb,” a child dwarf who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. A natural mimic, by five the little boy – later presented at court to England’s Queen Victoria — was drinking wine and smoking cigars for audiences’ amusement.
The most obvious boxing equivalent of Barnum is, of course, electric-haired octogenarian Don King, but another master of trickeration with Barnumesque flourishes is King’s contemporary, Bob Arum, by virtue of his propensity for overstatement. (He once predicted that a matchup of Oscar De La Hoya and Dana Rosenblatt would be the biggest attraction in boxing history, and that a Top Rank fighter, super welterweight prospect Anthony Thompson, who was 11-0 with eight KOs at the time, “has the chance to become the best fighter ever to come out of Philadelphia.”)
Where Barnum trotted out General Tom Thumb, Arum helped fill out the undercards of De La Hoya-headlined fight cards in the mid- to late 1990s with novelty acts Eric “Butterbean” Esch and Latina lovely Mia St. John, who in tandem became known as “Beauty and The Bean.” Esch was a bald, obese former Toughman contestant (the erstwhile “King of the Four-Rounders” weighed 426½ pounds for his final pro bout) while St. John was a smokin’ hot babe featured in the pages of Playboy. “I know how they were marketing me,” St. John once said. “I don’t blame them. I was what you’d call a willing victim.”
Stealing a page from Arum’s playbook for the Butterbean/St. John pugilistic sideshow, Fox-TV’s second installment of its short-lived “Celebrity Boxing” series paired 7-foot-7, ultra-skinny former NBA center Manute Bol and ultra-wide former Chicago Bears defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who tipped the scales in Butterbean territory somewhere north of 400 pounds. ’Nute won because he landed a few boarding-house-reach jabs and a gasping Fridge ran out of gas moments after he waddled from his corner following the opening bell.
You like clowns? Sad-faced Emmett Kelly Sr. was the most famous graduate of The Ringling Brothers’ “College of Clowns,” but boxing had spectators rolling in the aisle, one way or another, because of the frequently outrageous antics and garb of such fighters as the late Hector “Macho” Camacho Sr. (who, it should be noted, was good enough at the serious business at hand to be a 2015 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame) and Jorge Paez.
Animal acts are, or at least used to be, highly popular staples of the circus. Of particular interest were the trained elephants, a reality that dates back to Barnum’s purchase of a gargantuan, six-ton African elephant named Jumbo from the London Zoological Society in 1882. So popular was Jumbo, who died after accidentally being hit by a freight train in 1885, that he helped birth the now-familiar adage of an “elephant in the room” that no one can ignore or look away from.
But PETA (an acronym for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) fought a long and ultimately successful battle to remove elephants from circus shows on the premise that the stress of performing, as well as the cramped conditions on the trains used for travel, made them skittish. PETA’s argument was bolstered by several instances of elephants going on rampages, perhaps most notably one on Aug. 20 1974 in Honolulu, when an African elephant named Tyke killed her trainer and badly injured her groomer before running through the Kakaako central business district for more than 30 minutes. Police had no choice but to fire 86 shots at the enraged animal, which according to PETA, had been involved in three previous incidents before it collapsed and died.
Juliette Feld, Kenneth Feld’s daughter and the Chief Operating Officer of Feld Entertainment, noted that circus attendance has been dropping for 10 years and the removal of the company’s elephants in May 2016 to a conservation farm in central Florida has caused an even more precipitous decline in ticket sales. She said it is paradoxical that so many people say they don’t want big animals to perform in circuses, while many others refuse to attend a circus without them.
Boxing’s most massive elephants during my lifetime were the late, great Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, who commanded so much global attention that they were bigger draws than a veritable herd of Jumbos. But Ali, who was 74 when he died on June 3, hadn’t fought since dropping a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981, and Tyson, who is 50, last stepped inside the ropes for a bout that counted on June 11, 2005, when the rusted remains of what once had been Iron Mike were stopped in six rounds by the very ordinary Kevin McBride in Washington, D.C.
With no elephants to happily stampede through our consciousness, fight fans are left to wait on Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s possible return against MMA standout Conor McGregor, a humbug event if ever there was one. Oh, sure, Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Jacobs and Danny Garcia-Keith Thurman are nice coming attractions, but we ain’t talking Ali-Frazier I. Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao in 2015 had a chance to throw a few logs onto the embers, but blew it.
Boxing’s movers and shakers need to look at the imminent shuttering of the Greatest Show on Earth and acknowledge the clear and present danger to all traditional enterprises that don’t adjust to new realities. The fight game’s tent hasn’t folded, and is in no real danger of doing so, but steps must be taken to ensure that all that is still good is made better.
Because extinction is never as far away as you might think.
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