On Thursday, famed trainer Emanuel Steward died. This was in a year where we lost trainer Angelo Dundee, and writer Bert Sugar before him. It doesn’t seem like much, but boxing was already in need of critical care, and losing these three men killed it.
As a patient, the prognosis wasn’t good. Riding boxing of its corruption is like trying to take the ants out of an anthilll. Its a sport based on two men punching each other in the head until one of them no longer functions. There was very little in it to attract nice people.
But it made up for it.
Boxing used to have dozen of skilled, tough men from all over the world dying to compete against each other. They fought often, and they fought hard. Boxing to the average person was defined by its heavyweights, and there were plenty to go around. Take any top heavyweight from the 70’s: Foreman, Ali, Shavers, Norton, and have them come out today, and they’d wipe the floor with the competition.
Then things changed. The money got longer, and fighters could pick their fights more easily. The heavyweight division died after Ali, Larry Holmes didn’t have elite competition, and Tyson never lived up to his potential (although its arguable that he never could have anyway, he didn’t seem to HAVE a ceiling to his potential).
Boxing today has committed the most unforgivable of sins. It simply doesn’t give people what they want. There are too many belts, too many champions, and the ambassadors for the sport (Messrs Mayweather and Pacquiao) have no intention of fighting each other until they are well past their prime, and there are no other options. What it did have though, was a past.
Boxing is an exceptional sport for two reasons. One, is that every now and then, it has a magic that no other sport can match. When it happens, it’s because boxing is the most physically demanding sport of them all. It demands endurance, explosiveness, strength, skill, reflexes, strategy, and unmatchable toughness. A boxer is literally conditioned to take pain and punishment that would incapacitate an ordinary person.
When two fighters empty the tank in the middle of the ring, there’s a frenzy no other sport can match, because its a fight.
There is something about a fight that’s different. There is an immediacy about combat, a moment when you are struck, when you are hurt, when endorphins release and you are either quivering and winded, or enraged, that makes boxing unlike other sports. All I have to say is Gatti/Ward, and the average man nods. He knows he’s seen greatness.
Boxing is full of matches and pugilists like those. Even now. But we’ve lost the men to tell the stories. At its core, there is nothing noble about brutal men training in dirty gyms to punch other men in the head for a corrupt and disorganized sport. The men that told the stories made it all grand, made it the ultimate test of manhood that it can be. They created a club of legends that made generations of kids jump rope and work the heavy bag. And they’re gone.
It was Bert Sugar talking about Jack Dempsey fighting Jess Willard that made me look at it again. (Seriously, this is almost a snuff film. Dempsey was at one point a hobo that rode the rails fighting. He is terrifying, he moves likes like some sort of predator. People that saw the fight thought he killed Willard.)
It was Dundee training the older Foreman, a Foreman that joked about his weight and diet habits, but got up every morning and did the roadwork that no one thought he did. It was Manny Stewart calling fights and seeing things that no one else did.
There are still some great boxing guys, Teddy Atlas probably being the foremost, Max Keller being the prodigy. But the myth makers are gone and without them, boxing is nothing. Rest in peace gentlemen.