In defense of boxing

Oscar de la Hoya, the charismatic welterweight, offers a glimmer of hope to the sport's apologetic fans.

Steve Burgess
June 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Timing is everything. Say there's this guy who wants to star in biblical epics. He has the good sense to come into stern, manly good looks during the '50s. Later, the same guy wants to be a hero playing elder statesman to the gun nuts but, Lo, his train hath left the station. Poor Chuck.
He's probably a boxing fan, too.

I know I am, and believe me I'm not proud of it. Talk about being out of
step with society -- boxing is thrice accursed these days, at the very
least. Blood sports are not much in fashion to begin with, and then
there's the perception that the combatants have probably been forced
into it by socioeconomic hard knocks. Two grade-school dropouts in a
ring beating each other silly because they couldn't read the want
ads -- you can't get much more un-PC than that.


Now pile on the sleaze factor. Rampant corruption and the welter of
rival organizations like the WBO, WBC and IBF have led many to compare
boxing to pro wrestling, which is unfair. In light of the
appalling draw in the Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis heavyweight title fight last year, it's clearly more like figure skating. But
wonky scorecards are only the icing on the giant turd cake that is
boxing's public image. The fact that Mike Tyson is the only boxer most
people on the street could name goes a long way to explaining why the
sport is such a tough sell. In polite society, pugilism is now about a
half step up from cockfighting. Enthusiasts must keep their predilection
to themselves until they're in sympathetic company -- which makes that
company all the sweeter when the opportunity arises.

Last March the opportunity arrived. In a windowless back room somewhere
on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, fight fans prepared to watch Lennox
Lewis and Evander Holyfield battle for the belt at New York's Madison
Square Garden, a continent away. The gathering had an appropriately
furtive air, seeing as how it wasn't just unfashionable, but illegal.
Luckily, little rooms like this one were under the radar of the cable
police. No one was charging money here, which is exactly the problem if
you're vertically coifed boxing impresario Don King (just thank God
you're not).

Despite the taint of blood lust attaching to any boxing fan who emerges
from the closet, there are still celebrities who show up when the
heavyweight championship is on the line. Still, even the famous fans
only tend to confirm boxing's outlaw status -- two of the more notable
ringside faces at MSG belonged to Keith Richards and Jack Nicholson
(inspiring visions of a truly interesting 12-round bout). Some celebs
are probably just past caring, as evidenced when Bo Derek appeared on-screen. "She's, like, 80 now, right?" asked a woman staring up at the
TV. A solid rabbit punch and the fight hadn't even begun.


Heavyweight is the glamour class, but these days serious fight fans pay
more attention to the lower weight divisions. Undisputed light
heavyweight champ Roy Jones Jr. is often called the best fighter
currently active. But the hottest division at the moment is definitely
welterweight, and it's the home of boxing's hottest star, Oscar de la
Hoya, the subject of Tim Kawakami's recent biography, "Golden Boy." The
gulf that separates boxing fans from the rest of humanity is best
measured by his magic name. Among the faithful, the man is bigger than
anyone in the business -- bigger than Tyson, Lewis, Holyfield -- anyone.
You can hear the special savor when his name rolls off the tongue of
famed ring announcer Michael "Let's get ready to rumble" Buffer: "Here
he is ... from East L.A. ... the UN-defeated, WBC WEL-terweight champion of the
WIIIIRLD ... The GOALLL-den boy ... OSSS-car de la HOOOOOO-yaaaaaaa ..."

And outside the boxing bubble, there are still many who have never
heard of him. In May, when de la Hoya knocked out Oba Carr for his
31st professional victory, I searched the paper the next day for news of the
bout. Under the heading "Boxing," there was one story: Mike Tyson was
about to get out of jail. Even when boxing has a legitimate superstar to
sell, sleaze trumps quality in media reporting every time. This despite
the 26-year-old de la Hoya's status as the glamour act of the boxing
world, an undefeated warrior who actually gives good interview.

It's the latter quality that often creates boxing superstars. Like Sugar
Ray Leonard before him, de la Hoya makes boxing fans feel less guilty
about their favorite sport by convincing them that they are watching not
homicidal thugs whose career choice is an indictment of the system that
made them what they are, but bright, talented young men who know exactly
what they're doing and why. De la Hoya's failure to transcend the narrow
boxing world may simply reflect the historic difficulty of marketing
welterweights. Or it may be a symptom of boxing's current bad odor -- the
wider world is accepting no celebrity applications from sluggers just
now, unless they're belting horsehide over a ballpark fence. One more
reason for boxing fans to hunker down and draw the drapes.


Not surprisingly, charisma like de la Hoya's is rare in the fight game.
More common is the type of dull prattle spooled out by fading legend Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker before his February
bout against IBF welterweight champ Felix Trinidad. His disconnected
ramble is not worth quoting here and, in any case, it was the least of
his difficulties.

As it turned out, Whitaker, 35, had big problems with Trinidad, 26, a mighty
Puerto Rican puncher with a 35-0 record who easily dominated the former
champ. Trinidad's victory set up a long-awaited battle Sept. 18
against the somewhat more polished de la Hoya. That's the kind of matchup
that might even give boxing a good name someday. The fascination with
seeing which fighter's contrasting strengths will win out easily rises
above mere blood lust. Larger meanings come naturally when the game is
as elemental as this: Use your feet to survive and your fists to destroy.


It's a reminder that once upon a time boxing was central to public life,
celebrated by romantic scribes as the Sweet Science, the purest of all
sporting contests. For all its perceived brutality, there is no other
sport that speaks so clearly about basic human strengths, both in
victory and defeat. Thirty-seven "Rocky" movies can't be wrong.

ESPN2 viewers can still tap in to that bygone enthusiasm courtesy of
Max Kellerman, co-host of "Friday Night Fights." "I'm bouncing off the
walls tonight," Kellerman pointed out helpfully during a recent
broadcast. Accompanied by straight man Brian Kenny, Kellerman is the
Quentin Tarantino of the boxing world, a young guy who seems to have been
working at the boxing store all his life and consequently has an
arm-waving opinion about everything. Most boxing telecasts are like
telethons to fight sickle-cell anemia -- you know that any celebrity who
shows up probably has a sister with the disease. Likewise, anybody on a
boxing show has probably taken a few shots to the head, or at least sat
in a corner barking like Burgess Meredith: "Come on, Rock!
He's killin' ya!"

But Kellerman, 24, simply appears to be a young guy who loves boxing and
wants to talk about it. In fact, never mind Tarantino -- Kellerman is
pugilism's Little Stevie Wonder. He's had his own show on Manhattan
cable since he was 16, and he's done Letterman. Not only is his
enthusiasm infectious, his voluminous knowledge about current contenders
and past greats is a reminder that boxing is bigger than Don King and
the scandal du jour.


For a wider audience, it's still only the heavyweights who can put
boxing back on center stage. Holyfield-Lewis caught the world's
attention, and it would be just boxing's luck. By the time the two
battlers left their dressing rooms, the smoky little Vancouver back room
was full of fans, even a few women. (They enjoy the advantage
of needing no apology, not to mention the balm of considerable male
gratitude for their legitimizing presence.) Viewers had been treated to
a few lopsided preliminary bouts and a bizarre spiel by King himself,
evidently positioning himself for a run at messiah-hood. "This is the
resurrection of boxing," he proclaimed to the camera. "I humbly submit
that I love each and every one of you."

"Everybody loves you, Don," gushed the announcer hired by Don King
Productions, to the man whose image on the Madison Square Garden screen
had inspired torrents of jeers moments before.

Unfortunately, the fight itself was another shit sandwich for the sport.
The much larger Lewis clearly dominated throughout, but in uninspiring
fashion. It appeared he would accomplish the astounding feat of winning
the undisputed heavyweight championship without gaining much respect in
the process. As it turned out, he would not be granted even that. The
contest was scored a draw, thanks in large part to Eugenia Williams'
impression of a Russian skating judge. Williams, a veteran boxing jurist
from New Jersey, somehow decided that Holyfield won more rounds than
Lewis, including even the lopsided fifth round, in which Holyfield ate
dozens of shots and delivered very few. In the Vancouver back room there
was disgust but an alarming lack of surprise. By some odd coincidence,
low-down weaseling often transpires when Don King's around, and there he
was at the post-fight press conference, talking up the rematch and doing
his best demonic-puppet-master cackle. Nobody does it better.


However, that rematch, tentatively set for Nov. 6 in Vegas, has hit a
stumbling block, one that neatly skewers King's "What, me sleazy?" act.
The New York Times reported Saturday that King is haggling with
Time Warner, parent company of HBO and boxing channel TVKO, over a
clause in the rematch contract. It stipulates King will be removed as
lead promoter should he be indicted for any illegalities stemming from
the first fight. King wants that particular provision dropped.
Considering that King's Deerfield Beach, Fla., offices were searched by
the FBI last Friday, his negotiating stance is understandable. If O.J. Simpson
had possessed enough foresight to ask for a double-murder clause, he'd
still be doing Hertz ads today.

The FBI raid related to an investigation of the IBF (International
Boxing Federation) by the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark, N.J., over
allegations of illegal payments and kickbacks in exchange for rankings.
(Francois Botha, Mike Tyson's last opponent, was ranked the No. 9
heavyweight in the world by the IBF before he ever fought a heavyweight
bout.) Coincidentally, judge Eugenia Williams was on the Lewis-Holyfield
panel as the representative of the IBF.

Maybe the fix will be in with De La Hoya, too -- surely no one in the boxing
hierarchy wants to kill the golden-goose boy. But for all its ugly
flaws, boxing is not pro wrestling. The better fighter generally
prevails on merit, and even when he's robbed there is at least a
good-sized firestorm afterward. Yes, there will be more sad Tyson
fights and more apparently engineered rip-offs. But when Oscar de la Hoya and Felix Trinidad climb into the ring in September, I know
which dumpy little room my ass will be parked in. I'm already dreaming
up an alibi to tell my friends.

Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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