Tomorrow marks the birthday of the late champ Muhammed Ali. He passed on to that great gym in the sky last June, so he can now spar with the likes of Jack Johnson. La Dulce Ciencia has fallen a long way since the heady days of the 1920s and 30s, though it certainly showed flares of a comeback in the 1960s and the great era of Super Bouts in the 1980s and early 90s. Ask a random American today who the heavyweight champion of the world is, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. In fact, with so many sanctioning bodies, a pugilistic enthusiast may first inquire from which body said champion won the belt before they can answer. How far the sweet science of bruising, as it was called by Pearce Egan, the Shakespeare of the London prize ring, is a matter of great dismay to those who have witnessed its decline firsthand.
If Egan was its Shakespeare, then A.J. Liebling was its Herodotus. Liebling observed television was useful for “selling razor blades”, but little else. In the 1950s, he spoke of the deleterious effect this modern contraption would have on boxing specifically and society generally. I wonder what he’d say about the pay-per view fights of today. Just as boxing discovered television, so too did professional football. When the Giants took on the Colts in what is billed as the Greatest Game Ever Played, television audiences got to watch what they might have only heard on the radio before. And speaking of the radio, while other professional sports have maintained their radio ties, boxing has completely severed them. In April of 2015, Premiere Boxing Champions inked a deal with SiriusXM to carry some fights via satellite radio. To my knowledge, they’ve carried exactly one fight.
Part of boxing’s appeal in the radio era was because it reached a nationwide audience and was free of charge. All you had to have was a radio. Bert Sugar, the fedora wearing, cigar chomping Potentate of the Prize Ring, once wrote that to understand boxing, you had to understand its roots. This is true of just about anything, I suppose, but particularly boxing. I’ll now add the Hutch Corollary to the Sugar Thesis, that is to say, to understand its decline, you must understand not only its roots, but also its move away from said roots.
The Good Book doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. It says the love of money is the root of all evil. Therein, Dear Reader, lies the problem with sports in general, and no sport more than the Sweet Science. The first Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling contest, which say a Louis defeat, while a big fight, set up the most epic of all rematches. After some backroom chicanery, Louis matched up with Braddock, of Cinderella Man fame, next and won the world heavyweight championship. This set up the rematch between the Brown Bomber and a man seen as Hitler’s guy. The fact that Schmeling was not, in fact, a Nazi enthusiast and had, in fact, irritated them by refusing to fire his Jewish trainer, mattered little to journalists who have never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Half the country tuned in on the radio to hear the legendary words “Schmeling is down……the count is five!” If you’d been in the interior of Africa, you’d have been able to listen on shortwave radio too. Much of the world tuned in to hear the fight. Over 70,000 people filled Yankee Stadium to watch the fight which brought in the first million dollar gate in boxing history. Considering it was 1938, that says quite a bit. J. Edgar Hoover and Gary Cooper were present ringside to watch as well. It is, most certainly, the biggest sporting event in American History.
But what if this fight were to take place today? It would be on pay-per view, of course. You’d have to pony up somewhere around $85 for the privilege of watching it. The main event would start somewhere around 9 or 10 pm. Sure, you could get some buddies to split the cost with you and have a fight party. But what of the working stiffs who are unable to take the time off for a frivolous reason such as a fight? What of those who lack sufficient funds for the purchase? Or those who don’t have cable television? They would be, to put it crudely, shit out of luck. After the fight, someone would post it on YouTube and you could find it there, at least until it got taken down. But by then you’d already know the outcome, having read it in the paper or heard about it from those lucky enough to watch it live. And that just isn’t the same.
Once upon a time, even in my childhood, you could watch good fights on television for free. Unfortunately, the slow inroads of pay-per view events also began their slow creep to the top of the sports realm. Whereas you can tune in on television or radio to watch your local sportsball teams play, if you have a satellite radio you can listen to the radio broadcasts from any team around the country, you cannot do the same for boxing. On occasion, you’ll have televised bouts on cable for the cost of nothing but your cable subscription, but title fights or big bouts are nonexistent outside of pay-per view. If you are old school like me, good luck finding any bouts on the radio.
The big buck associated with pay-per view have taken boxing away from the masses, which gave it popularity in the first place, and instead brought it into the living rooms of the casual fans. Such individuals complained after watching the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight about how “boring” it was. I suppose they expected every fight to end in a knockout. I further suppose they do not know the difference between boxing and fighting. Said person will probably never buy another fight, unless they were a boxing fan already, in which case they would not have been disappointed in the first place.
With the rise of MMA and UFC, really nothing more than a glorified bar fight, boxing has competition which has surpassed it in some ways. Kids gravitate towards those sports rather than a boxing gym, which are getting harder and harder to find in the first place. Added to this, you have a growing chorus of voices which calls boxing a barbaric sport that should be banned. This view has been around almost as long as the sport, but it seems to grow louder with each passing decade. The same individuals who want to see boxing banned feel the same way about football, yet they eagerly sign their kids up for soccer. Girls’ soccer is second only to football (and a close second at that) in concussions per capita among high school sports. But I digress. A street fight is one thing, but a fight in the ring, with rules, is an honorable calling for those who choose to pursue it.
If boxing is to experience a rebirth, a return to its heydays of old, it must once again be brought to the masses. Broadcast major bouts on network television, for free. Make your money off of advertising, just as the Super Bowl does. Carry big fights live on the radio, though I imagine you’d have a hard time finding someone to call it since that type of play by play is a lost art. Tell those individuals who think boxing should be banned that, if they don’t like the sport, they are not required to participate in it. Simple as that. Will any of this happen? No, of course not. There is too much money to be made than to give up a chunk of it by making the sport free. However, I think boxing will find that over time, more and more fans in the United States will turn to other avenues since it just isn’t accessible enough. As more fans turn away, then so too do potential fighters. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Dear Readers, the Sweet Science is on life support and I’m not convinced it will survive to another generation.
And that, friends, would be a tragedy. I have happy memories of many of the fights I’ve seen in my day, including some great amateur bouts. I hope to be able to see many more, but I fear it will be the exception rather than the rule. And once, just once in my life I’d like to hear a fight live on the radio. I’d also like to be a millionaire. Both are equally unlikely. I’ll leave you with this. The boxing world Ali inhabited bears little resemblance to the one today. It’s a tragedy or a travesty or both. Though he left his legacy on the sport and on society, I think his societal legacy will last longer because his sport may not survive another thirty years. Then again, we can take some small hope in one great truth. Men like to punch each other. That hasn’t changed since Cain slew Abel. So maybe, just maybe, there’s hope after all.