The Decline of the Sweet Science

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Dear Readers,

Today (Sunday), I got caught up on the boxing action that I missed yesterday. I have a DAZN subscription, but with other things to do on Saturday, I could not watch the fights. And seeing as how the Canelo match didn’t start until after midnight CST, I would have probably fallen asleep anyway. So this morning, as I watched Ireland’s own Katie Taylor win a decision over Christina Linardatou of Greece, I began to ponder the history of la dolce scienza alongside the history of the country. For those who scoff at the importance of sport on a nation’s shared cultural memories, I would only state that you cannot disconnect the history of sport from the history of a people. Indeed, they are as intertwined as two lovers in a bed. Each generation has it’s own sporting events that become part of the shared history of that generation.

I am both fortunate and cursed when it comes to the sweet science. I was born just in time to remember the last big heyday of the ring as king. Though the superbouts of the 80s and early 90s are but a distant memory now, they live on within the memories of those who watched them. Ah yes, who can forget the first round of Hagler v. Hearns? Or in 2003, the epic Ward v. Gatti I? But, reader mine, I’ve also lived to watch the decline of the art of bruising as well. With the rise of MMA, UFC, and other combative sports, boxing has entered a long, slow, and unfortunately it seems, permanent decline.

But why does the sport still hold such appeal over those of us who still cling to the glory days of the past? That’s a difficult question to answer. Boxing is an urban sport, a sport of the working class, of immigrants, and of the downtrodden. Consider in the late 19th and early 20th century, boxing dominated the sporting landscape of the Irish and Italian immigrants in America’s cities. It ignited the flames of ethnic and cultural pride and superiority for the same reason that people tune in to watch the Olympics. How many Americans actually watch, for example, women’s gymnastics when it isn’t the Olympics? But every four years, tens of millions tune in and suddenly turn into gymnastic experts on social media. Why? Because in the mind of the fan, if the US wins, then it means that the US is better than whatever countries our team beat. Much the same is true of boxing. Though Irish and Italian Americans don’t seem to follow boxing as much, it is still insanely popular among Hispanic immigrants, proof that boxing is, at least in that part, still true to its roots.

I’m at the same time, a blue collar and working class kid, having grown up in a blue collar town and worked as a firefighter/arson investigator, and also an ivory tower sort, having become a history professor as a retirement job. I usually don’t mention my interest in the sweet science to faculty colleagues as in times past, when I let it slip that I was a fight fan, I was viewed with looks somewhere between disgust and dismay. Individual tastes vary, and boxing is no different. It has nowhere near the wide following that it once had, when top bouts aired free on network television. In my opinion, PPV has helped kill the sport’s popularity by taking it away from a wide audience, not to mention the cost prohibitive factor for many fans. That’s why I’m grateful for DAZN, an app which allows you to watch somewhere around 100 fights a year for the cost of one big pay per view event ($99). Maybe that is what we need to reconnect with the masses, though I fear the damage has already been done.

Truthfully, Dear Reader, I dearly wish they’d carry boxing on the radio! The UK still airs match commentary over the radio, but it isn’t done anymore in the States. In 2015, SiriusXM inked a deal with Premiere Boxing Championships to bring bouts to satellite radio, but only, to my knowledge, aired one weekend’s fight card. Oh well, at least YouTube has tons of audio coverage of bouts from the 1930s-1950s. That’s comforting to this old boxing fan.

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

 

From Glory Days to Empty Nights: The Decline of the Sweet Science

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Friends,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hutch

Boxiana: Or When the Ring Was King

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Dear Readers,

If you were to poll a random cross sections of Americans and ask them what professional sport was the most popular in the nation prior to the shotgun marriage of television and football, I’d bet dollars to donuts that the respondents would answer “baseball” without hesitation, mental reservation or secret evasion of mind. While it is certainly true that the Overlords of the Outfield did indeed hold sway over the imaginations of the public in the post-war era, it is not the whole truth. By that, of course, I refer to the second great cataclysm to strike the world following close on the heels of the War to End All Wars. Before said war it was not the Bandits of the Bullpen who most captured the hearts and minds of the American people, but rather the Rajahs of the Ring. Yes, Dear Readers, I refer to the sport of boxing.

La dulce ciencia is perhaps the oldest sport known to man, a fighting companion, perhaps, to the oldest profession. No doubt cavemen engaged in fisticuffs as readily as some men do today. The Book of Genesis tells us how Cain slew Able, but it leaves out the method with which Able was dispatched. Given the fact that they were the third and fourth humans, respectively, one can only assume Cain slew his brother with his bare hands. The Good Book details frequent battles between opposing groups, often resulting in the vanquished being “smote hip and thigh”, whatever the hell that means. No less an authority than Homer, the blind bard of antiquity, spoke of the innate desire of one man to smash his face into the fist of another. Odysseus, of whom Homer sang praises, settled things with his fists when the need arose. Indeed, the Pantheon of Boxiana reads like a who’s who of famous writers. Hemingway, who spent time in the ring, Jack London, Joyce Carol Oates, and the great A.J. Liebling, all devoted time to chronicle the Sweet Science of Bruising in a manner worthy of Shakespeare. The question we must ask is why? What drew literary heavyweights to wax poetic (and sometimes wane) about their counterparts in the ring? Just how popular was the fight game in the past? Well, Dear Readers, I shall attempt to answer my own questions.

We need not venture all the way back to the 19th Century to explain the rise of pugilistic parade of boxers turned celebrities, though the Boston Strong Boy might take issue with such a dismissal. No, we should first turn our eyes to the island city of Galveston, which gave birth to the first superstar black athlete, who is a worth early example of the impact of a sport on our society. It took some doing, but eventually Jack Johnson, the Galveston Giant, convinced Tommy Burns to schedule a title fight. Burns had, earlier, defeated then champion James Jeffries. Burns and Johnson touched gloves in Australia in 1907. Fourteen rounds later, Burns was on the mat and Johnson was the champion. That a black man had beaten a white champion shocked the world, no matter how skilled said black boxer was.

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This set off a desperate search for a “Great White Hope”. White American fans of the fight game couldn’t stomach a black champion. Surely someone, anyone, could come forward and wrest the title from Johnson’s massive fists. A hope, both likely and unlikely, stepped forward. James Jeffries said he’d give it go, although he had thrown nary a punch in six years. The combatants met in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice before his corner threw in the towel to prevent him from having a knockout on his record. Jack London, sitting ringside to cover the bout, summed it up succinctly. “Once again Johnson has sent down to defeat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time, the greatest of them all.” The country reacted with shock, nay, horror!

What may have seemed like a simple boxing match was anything but. Riots swept across the United States, with dissatisfied white men storming black communities to set homes and businesses on fire. Some estimates state that around twenty-five people died and a few hundred more injured. Consider the significance, Dear Reader. Have we ever seen nationwide riots after the Patriots win (another) Super Bowl? To my knowledge, the Johnson v. Jeffries prizefight is the only sporting event in the United States to ever touch off nationwide rioting due to the outcome. But alas, Dear Reader that is exactly what happened when Johnson won.

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The saga of the Galveston Giant is a great one, but time and space prohibit me from giving it anything more than a light jab on the chin. Eventually, the world found its Great White Hope. In a fight scheduled for 45 rounds, Jess Willard sent Johnson to the canvas in the 26th. Boxing reigned supreme in the 1920s. No less an authority than A.J. Liebling, the Heroditus of the Prize Ring, noted that during a decade known for flappers and prohibition, Jack Dempsey got more headlines than Babe Ruth. And made more money too. It would take over twenty years for another black boxer to challenge the established order of the sports world at the time, but when he did so, he’d do it with, at least on the surface, the support of white America.

When Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, stepped into the ring on June 22, 1938, he not only carried his own desire to avenge his earlier defeat to Max Schmeling, he also carried the hopes and best wishes of the United States. A couple of weeks before the fight, no less a person than Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with him and gave him sincere wishes for success. Schmeling likewise sallied forth to do battle with the hopes of a nation upon his broad shoulders. A second victory over Louis would be a propaganda coup for Hitler, who could point to it as an example of Aryan supremacy. The media cast this titanic battle as one between Democracy and Fascism, the Brown Bomber and Hitler’s man! Such makes for good copy, but the truth was that Schmeling was not an admirer of Adolf. The manner in which this fight was covered meant that, for the first time, white Americans felt comfortable cheering for a black boxer, even if they would not have wanted him to live next door or marry their daughter.

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On that fateful night, the men eyed each other from across the ring whilst millions tuned in around the world to hear the call. 70,000 lucky fans were able to watch what promised to be an epic battle between two noted pugilists. Some estimates have as many as 70 million Americans listening at home on their radios. What makes this shocking is that the population of the United States was around 129 million. That, Dear Readers, is over half of the country. Consider this, even the most watched Super Bowls don’t bring in that percentage. Around the world, people tuned in on shortwave radios as well to hear it live. If people hoped for a long fight, they would be disappointed. Louis dispatched Schmeling in just over two minutes. Had you been at home on this fateful night, you’d have heard the broadcaster say “Schmeling is down……the count is five!” This became one of the most recognizable radio calls for many years to come, indeed, among fans of the sweet science, it is known even to this day.

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These are but a few examples of the hold la dulce ciencia had over the American public those many years ago. There are many reasons for boxing’s decline following the super bouts of the 1980s. But for those, like myself, who are fans of the sweet science of bruising, we can look back on a time in which the pugilistic art bouth captivated and repelled us, a time in which in divided us and brought us together, and a time in which it showed both racial division and unity. Some learned historians have called the 20th Century the American Century. If this is true, than at least during the first half, boxing was America’s Sport. Alas, the sport has fallen a mighty long way since June of 1938. It may well never recover.

But among the hardy few pugilists who trade jabs in the ring today, one constant has remained the same since bareknuckle brawler John L. Sullivan plied his trade. Boxing has always been a working class and/or immigrant sport. My own ethnic group, the Irish, became the first great bareknuckle champs in the United States. We gravitated towards the prize ring, perhaps due to the fact that we discovered a way to get paid for something we did for free on a typical weekend. In the 20th Century, we saw black fighters, Jewish fighters, and Italian fighters like the great Rocky Marciano. Today, the Hispanic community has strong ties to ring. While a Mexican-American kid laces up his gloves for the first time today, he or she is following a path blazed by other immigrants who, though they might have had a different shade of skin or language, shared the desire to fight their way to the top of a very difficult world.

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I will leave you with this thought. One cannot separate the history of a sport from the history of a country. The two are as entwined as two lovers in a bed. To understand one, you must understand the other. To those who opine that in the grand scheme of things, sports are irrelevant, I only ask them to consider those killed in the riots following Johnson’s victory. Tell those murdered by mobs angered over the outcome of the bout that sports don’t matter. For those poor souls, the sport was life or death.

Don’t drop your guard and remember to stick and move.

Hutch