"It's not my fault," heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis complained at Thursday night's weigh-in for his Saturday night title defense, "that I'm the outstanding heavyweight of my era, the way Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis were before me." Well, uh, no, but it is Lewis' fault that he's dull, unimaginative, passive-aggressive and that he fights more like Bart the Bear than a Raging Bull. Lewis is 250 pounds, but as he demonstrated in his two fights with Evander Holyfield, his primary offensive weapons are a pawing left jab and a bear hug. As Holyfield phrased it after their first bout, "Every time I got in close he hugged me tighter than my wife."
If Lewis' fight with Francois Botha was broadcast nationally against a golf match featuring Tiger Woods, it would lose 2-to-1. Think about that. How would you have answered someone 20 years ago -- no, 10 years ago -- who told you golf would outdraw a heavyweight championship fight? The really sad fact is that this says less about the rise of golf than it does about the decline of boxing.
In truth, Lennox Lewis isn't so much a cause of this decline as much as a symbol. Lewis has defended his title seven times, but a couple of those were against guys who weren't household names in their own households. Lewis is quick to point out that he "isn't responsible for the quality of my opposition," which, again, is true. It's not his fault that the best heavyweight he's been in the ring with, Holyfield, was 36 when they fought for the first time. It is his fault, though, that he fought him twice without displaying passion or conviction, getting an absurdly unfair draw the first time and a lackluster win by decision the next. How boring were those fights? After the second, Bert Sugar of Bert Sugar's Fight Game magazine told everyone at the press conference that "vandals broke into the arena box office and returned 500 tickets." "I believe I am the best," says Lewis, "I believe I am head and shoulders over everybody in world heavyweight boxing. I know that in a room full of men I would be the last man standing." He probably would be. People who spend too much time around Lewis tend to nod off.
Lennox Lewis wears the same title as Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, but it bears the same relation to theirs as the Holy Roman Emperor did to Caesar. Activist groups that seek the abolition of boxing are wasting their time. Boxing is erasing itself from public memory faster than last year's MTV Awards.
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Though it didn't make any headlines, the news of the death of Sport magazine a couple of weeks ago must have put a lump in the throat of those old enough to remember the greatest of all American sports magazines. My father started buying me the monthly magazine when I was 10, and for the next six or seven years Sport and Norman Mailer formed the bulk of my serious reading. Sports Illustrated was great, but SI, in an era when you couldn't see all the highlights every night, was read for news; Sport was for reflection. The writers and editors included Dick Schaap, Roger Kahn, W.C. Heinz, Ed Linn, Charles Einstein, Dick Young, Ed Fitzgerald, Frank Graham Jr., Arnold Hano, Ray Robinson, Al Silverman and even, in the early '70s, a turk named James Toback. Some of them, such as Kahn and Robinson, are still writing excellent books. Many more have out of print but findable books, gems such as Schaap's "Mickey Mantle," Robinson's biography of Christy Mathewson, and Einstein's "Willie's Time: A Memoir," the best book ever written about Willie Mays.
Screw Grantland Rice and that "Four Horsemen rode again" crap -- the Sport magazine of the late '50s (which I caught up with later in secondhand magazine stores) through the early '70s represented the real Golden Age of American sportswriting. Photography, too; like many people I still have the beautiful color portraits by Ozzie Sweet (a forever young Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Paul Hornung and Cassius Clay all grin at me from across the room as I write this).
And, of course, the cartoons by the great Willard Mullin. Let me describe one I have had taped to the wall for I've forgotten how many years. These two multi-tentacled aliens are sitting at an enormous control panel of what appears to be a giant spaceship. On the panel are small TV screens; in one there is a tiny Eiffel Tower, in a second a little Statue of Liberty; in the third what looks like a baseball stadium. The caption reads, "Even money? With Koufax pitching? You think I've never been on Earth Patrol before?"
Actually, Sport magazine didn't die two weeks ago. It has been dead for the last couple of decades, its corpse merely dressed with the same title in its horror show resurrections in New York and Los Angeles. There's probably no room for the old Sport in a world where the most widely discussed sports features are Dennis Rodman describing sex with Madonna in GQ or someone in Esquire telling us how Andre Agassi valued his opinion. I'm not big on nostalgia. I think the athletes are better now. But I think the writing was better then.
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One of the drawbacks of doing this column is that you already always have to check in on stuff like the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza thing. Well, first off, I must be the only person in the New York area who isn't positive what was going through Clemens' mind. I will say this: I do not know of anyone who has ever accused Clemens of just flat-out throwing at his head. Brushing back, moving off, retaliating, yes, but not simply throwing at their head. Isn't it far more likely that what happened is precisely what seems to have happened, namely that Clemens wanted to intimidate Piazza (who had hit three home runs off him) and was simply trying the old intimidation tactic, and that the pitch got away?
But what purpose, I'd like to know, did it serve to put the mike on an asshole like Mets manager Bobby Valentine? Of course Valentine isn't going to want to talk about what was really bugging him: i.e., how his team, playing at home, failed to beat struggling minor leaguer Dwight Gooden. Of course he's going to say that Clemens did it deliberately. ("He's a Hall of Fame pitcher with great control," said Valentine. "He knows where the ball is going." But it has been precisely Clemens' lack of control that has hurt him since coming to the Yankees.) For that matter, what was the point of putting the mike in front of Mike? Piazza is a splendid and spoiled young player who has been lucky enough to come of age in a time when, for the most part, pitchers are discouraged from pitching inside. Clemens is a foul person, at least when he's on the mound, but no more so than a man known very well to both managers Valentine and Joe Torre, the great Bob Gibson. Maybe the problem with hitters today is that they just haven't learned to duck.