When asked what I liked best about my stint as a free-range sports columnist, I quickly reply that I enjoyed the variety my post offered, being able to write about a baseball game one day, a track meet the next and, maybe, an arm-wrestling tournament the following week. I regarded my brethren who covered the same team (and sport) day in and day out with a mixture of awe and aversion. How did they do that? I asked myself.
But when inquiring minds want to know more, honing in on my favorite sport to write about, I have a bit of as problem. It’s not in deciding what to say but whether to say it. Although I always feel obliged to apologize when I admit it, I really liked boxing. It’s not the mindless brawl its detractors make it out to be, and while A.J. Liebling’s description of it as the “sweet science” strains credulity, it doesn’t exceed it. Withal, the sport is elemental, rooted in our collective psyche, which is why periodic attempts to ban it have failed. As long as some men (and, lately, some women) want to do it, they’re best off in a ring wearing padded gloves, with a referee present.
If I may be permitted a bit of nostalgia, my ties to boxing go way back. My father worked half days on Saturdays in his small downtown Chicago office, and when I was 10 or 11 he’d sometimes take me with him. I’d do odd jobs or amuse myself for a few hours and he’d take me to lunch at Harding’s cafeteria, which had wonderful roast beef sandwiches (and where patrons could roll dice double-or-nothing for the check, although my dad never did that). Then, sometimes, he and I would walk about a block to the Midwest Gym, upstairs in an old, walk-up building on Madison Street, to watch the boxers train.
Dad wasn’t a sports fan so I don’t know why he did that, but I’m glad he did. Chicago had an active fight scene in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and local boxers such as Tony Zale and Bob Satterfield regularly trained at Midwest. When a big fight was in town the contestants would join them, as Ezzard Charles and Joe Walcott did before their 1949 heavyweight title match. By age 10 I already was an avid sports-page reader and was thrilled to be close to the heroes I’d read about. I once was introduced to the great Zale, and his autographed photo decorated my bedroom wall until I went away to college.
Once handed a press card I couldn’t wait to get to ringside, and did so frequently. Besides covering championship bouts I followed the sport in five Summer Olympic Games and scouted young pugilists with promise. I saw a skinny, 16-year-old Oscar De La Hoya (he spelled it De Lajoya then) win a National Golden Gloves title in Knoxville, Tennessee, a 20-year-old Mike Tyson win a prelim bout in a seedy arena in Troy, New York, and a 21-year Floyd Mayweather pitch a 10-round shutout in Los Angeles.
As a cultural experience, nothing in sports beats a big fight. They usually were staged in Las Vegas hotel arenas during my tenure, and I’d show up early to watch arrive what Pierce Egan called “the fancy.” Hollywood and sports stars headed the mix, along with politicians, Vegas big shots, gangstas (especially for the Tyson fights) and assorted pimps and high-priced hookers wearing enough gold chain to stretch from Caesars Palace to Timbuktu. Even when the fight turned out to be a yawner the show never failed to dazzle, and afterward the host casino literally would roar with action. That’s why the hotels pay up big to have them.
I haven’t much followed the fights for the last 15 years but, really, there hasn’t been much to follow. That’s a good thing; boxers are recruited from the economic underclass (nobody does it for fun) and its waning in the U.S. stems in large part from a lack of volunteers. The upper-weight divisions have just about vanished from these shores and the lower ones have become largely Hispanic affairs. The number of “names” that can stir a broad American audience has, I think, dwindled to one.
That would be the abovementioned Mayweather, a consummate craftsman who would have stood out in any era. Nobody I’ve seen better embodies the fight-game aim of hitting without being hit, which is why he’s had a career spanning two decades. He’s unbeaten in 49 pro bouts and according to online sources has a net worth of $340 million, mostly from pay-per-view TV events such as his May, 2015, go with Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather would be richer if he hadn’t had to pay legal fees for the half-dozen female-assault charges he’s faced over the years. A good guy he ain’t, but we’re talking boxing here.
Mayweather has been retired since the Pacquiao fight but, at age 40, has been lured back to meet the Irishman Conor McGregor in Las Vegas on August 26. It’s testimony to boxing’s decline that McGregor isn’t a square boxer but a “mixed martial arts” specialist, from a “sport” in which it’s okay strike one’s foe with one’s feet, elbows and knees as well as fists, and with just about anything that’s lying around. Contrary to many perceptions, MMA does have rules (no head-butting, biting, hair-pulling, spitting or groin shots) but you wouldn’t know it to watch a match. The description that comes to mind quickest is “mindless brawl.”
McGregor is 12 years younger than Mayweather, and probably in better shape. He’s undeniably tough, and white, so enough people will pay the expected PPV tab of $100 to gin up a nine-figure gross. It’ll be a boxing match though, with boxing rules, and, apparently, nobody has told McGregor not to try to beat a man at his own game. My take is that it’d be worth the $100 to stand outside the arena on fight night, but once the first bell rang I’d go home and wait until the replay gets to free TV.