The Year in Sports 2007
Kelly Pavlik revived an essential stereotype for boxing when he knocked out Jermain Taylor for the middleweight title on Sept. 29. Palookas and lugs, and otherwise overmatched overachievers, had not been faring so well in recent years (or, really, ever), but the unsung Pavlik, out of Youngstown, Ohio, reminded us of the sport's most engaging myth, that just about anybody, regardless of pedigree, can punch his way to that Rocky moment. Pavlik had it all going on -- a trainer who spread asphalt by day, a fan base that shut down the local General Motors plant for the fight and an opponent with Olympic glitter and huge-money prospects. Yo, Adrian!
Everybody agrees this was a comeback year for a beleaguered sport, with top fighters committing to dangerous and, not so accidentally, entertaining fights. Yet the casual fan might be hard-pressed to note any progress at all, because the heavyweight division remains in limbo. This is partly a matter of national chauvinism, with fighters from Eastern Europe and Russia in possession of three of the four titles, but it's also a matter of constancy. They come and go, with one no more intimidating or inspiring than the other. Can you name even one current heavyweight champ? Not really watercooler talk, is it?
Oscar De La Hoya made $50 million boxing in 2007, but at 34 he promotes more big fights than he wins lately. And with all the time he spends in well-cut business suits, we've become accustomed to seeing him out of his satin trunks. Still, it was a shock to behold tabloid pictures of the former Golden Boy in fishnet stockings, especially when they were displayed on national television. Leaving aside the question of just what De La Hoya was doing in a hotel room with a woman not his wife as well as his publicist-issued denials ("These pictures are obvious fabrications"), the images -- presumably Photo Shopped > -- garnered headlines and were mocked by stand-ups. Boxers rarely get so much attention. Hey, if cross-dressing is what's going to mainstream this sport, maybe more fighters should embrace their feminine sides.
The Kentucky Derby again delivered a stirring contest and a heartwarming story on the one day that the sport has the nation's full attention. Jockey Calvin Borel, who learned to ride horses fearlessly as a boy on the hellacious Louisiana bush-track circuit, bravely gunned Street Sense to the lead along the rail at Churchill Downs and gave trainer Carl Nafzger his second Derby triumph and owner James Tafel, 83, his first. Street Sense became the first winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile race to capture the Derby.
Like nearly every major sport in the U.S., racing fought a daily battle to control the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. During 2007, two leading trainers, Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher, served drug-related suspensions, following on the heels of Bob Baffert, Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill, all of who have been nailed in recent years. On the eve of this year's Breeders' Cup, trainer Patrick Biancone was suspended for a year for possessing cobra venom, which can deaden nerves. All have professed innocence, leaving the public suspicious and confused.
There is little debate that Curlin was the best racehorse in America during 2007, with victories in the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic. His selection as Horse of the Year in January is a foregone conclusion. Yet the marvelous thoroughbred seemed tainted by his ownership, which included Kentucky lawyers Shirley Cunningham and William Gallion, who have been incarcerated since Aug. 10 on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, accused of stealing $65 million from clients in a $200 million settlement involving the diet drug fen-phen. Curlin's trainer is Asmussen, with his suspension baggage. All of which does not make for a stirring or cuddly story, no matter how swift the horse.
No owner in NASCAR's modern history, which stretches back to 1972, has lorded over the sport for a season quite like Rick Hendrick did in 2007. Let us count the ways: In the final Cup standings his drivers at Hendrick Motorsports finished first (Jimmie Johnson), second (Jeff Gordon) and fifth (Kyle Busch). The Hendrick gang won fully half of the 36 races and 11 of the 16 events that featured the Car of Tomorrow, which means Hendrick's dominance shouldn't wane anytime soon. With 550 employees, Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest race team in NASCAR. Hendrick's arsenal of engineers and engine specialists -- not to mention his crew chiefs and drivers -- have put miles between themselves and the other elite NASCAR teams.
After spending six years developing a boxier, heavier race car outfitted with a rear wing; the idea being to make racing safer, closer and less costly for teams, NASCAR unveiled its Car of Tomorrow at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on March 25. But while the quality of racing at Bristol was high -- there was plenty of passing and side-by-side bangin' -- the winner of the event, Kyle Busch, declared that the new vehicle "sucked," and each succeeding CoT race was, to put it gently, less than thrilling. The drivers complained that they couldn't steer the car through the corners without the vehicles' becoming "loose" or "tight," and as a consequence it was difficult to pass. The CoT will be used in every event next year, so NASCAR had better hope that its teams figure out how to improve the handling and performance in the off-season. Otherwise, with a less exciting product, the sport's sagging television ratings may continue to trend downward in '08.
It had been shaping up as the feel-good story of international motor racing in 2007: Lewis Hamilton, the first black driver in the history of Formula One, a 22-year-old from Hertfordshire, England, won two of the season's first seven races and appeared on his way to becoming the first rookie to win an F/1 championship. Then in September a juicy spying scandal played out flamboyantly on the back pages of European tabloids: Hamilton's racing team, McLaren, was fined $100 million after the World Motorsports Council found that McLaren employees had acquired confidential technical data that belonged to engineers at Ferrari. Although his team was tarred by the theft, Hamilton himself wasn't penalized, and heading into the final event of the season in São Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 21, he held a commanding seven-point lead over the Ferrari team's Kimi Raikkonen. But on Lap 8, in a twist befitting the bizarre season, Hamilton suffered a transmission failure -- his first of the season -- and lost the title to Raikkonen, the sport's highest-paid driver, by one point. It was the closest finish in the 58-year history of the world championship and an all-too-fitting end to Hamilton's season.
It's hard to say which is more entertaining: watching Barcelona's Lionel Messi, the 20-year-old Argentine wunderkind, score goals worthy of Diego Maradona, or listening to Ray Hudson describe them on GolTV. ("This man has got a walkie-talkie directly to heaven's gods!") Messi was the little genius of world soccer in 2007, displaying his breathtaking speed, vision and ball skills on a regular basis. Hudson, meanwhile, is the greatest announcer you've never heard of, a Geordie-accented mix of Dick Vitale's enthusiasm and Keith Jackson's uniquely kooky phrasings. In Hudson's world, a shaky defender is "tighter than a camel's backside in a sandstorm" or "as nervous as a Beirut grocery run." And goals? "I got a physical arousal from watching Bojan [Krkic] there." Small wonder that one Hudson-lover started a blog featuring his greatest hits (hudsonia.blogspot.com). Get this man a wider audience.
Nobody came out looking good after U.S. coach Greg Ryan made the stunning decision to bench starting goalkeeper Hope Solo for the team's World Cup semifinal against Brazil. Not Ryan, who lost his job after the U.S. suffered its worst-ever defeat, falling 4-0 (due in part to the rustiness of sub Briana Scurry). Not Solo, who sacrificed the high ground by publicly criticizing Ryan and Scurry. And certainly not the U.S. team, which blackballed Solo for her remarks with sorority-style vindictiveness, refusing to let her attend the third-place medal presentation, eat with the team or even fly back on the U.S. plane. Lost in the Solo saga was a more important point: Once a women's soccer superpower, the U.S. no longer has the skill or imagination to match Germany and Brazil. To regroup for the 2008 Olympics, new coach Pia Sundhage will have to amp up the creativity in the midfield.
Aside from one memorable night (a 5-4 loss to the Red Bulls before 66,237 fans in Giants Stadium) and one trademark-bending free-kick goal (in his first start), the David Beckham experience was a Theater of the Surreal. ESPN hyped his debut (in a meaningless exhibition against Chelsea), then used the "Beckham Cam" to show the injured midfielder adjusting his socks on the bench. And when the Beckhams were honored at a Hollywood party hosted by Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Will Smith, Beck's Galaxy teammates, several of whom were earning less than $20,000 a year, came along. "I got to hang out with the rapper Common," said forward Gavin Glinton. "I'm a big fan of his music." Now healthy, Beckham should be ready for Take 2 when the MLS season opens in March.
Michael Phelps is in the process of proving that his otherwordly six-gold-medal performance at the 2004 Olympic Games was merely his opening act. Last spring Phelps, 22, won seven golds (it would have been eight if not for a relay disqualification) and broke five world records at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia. The middle school principal's son from Towson, Md., will arrive in Beijing next summer as the U.S. face of the 2008 Olympics. NBC has moved swimming finals to the early morning hours in China so that U.S. viewers can watch in prime time as Phelps tries to match -- or better -- Mark Spitz's total of seven golds from Munich in 1972.
Marion Jones was the Michael Phelps of 2000. She was the Golden Girl of the Sydney Olympics, arriving with her own Nike ad campaign and leaving with five medals and hopes of riding her success and her smile to fame beyond the track. Instead, Jones spent seven years fighting drug rumors and in October admitted to using steroids both before and after the Sydney Games, essentially wiping her career off the books. It was the most damning moment in track and field since Ben Johnson's notorious steroid positive at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and it left a generation of fans feeling empty and cheated.
We know the U.S. excels in sprinting, swimming, gymnastics, basketball -- but how did the nation get so good in Greco-Roman wrestling? In case you weren't aware, Greco-Roman is an ancient sport, traditionally dominated by Eastern European nations and Cuba; the U.S. has won just one Olympic Greco-Roman gold medal in a nonboycott Olympics (Rulon Gardner's in 2000). Yet in September a veteran squad of U.S. wrestlers who had been seasoned by years of brutal training and tens of thousands of miles of travel to unglamorous venues, won the team title at the world championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Olympics, however, are not a team competition, and the U.S. will struggle in Beijing to add to its gold medal total.