After almost 20 years, many of them happy and profitable, network television boxing last fall sank into a grave dug mostly by itself. Gone because of the unequal competition with TV were more than 300 small fight clubs, the source of TV's boxing talent. But, by leaving, television paradoxically may have breathed new life into the sport. There are signs that 1965 could be the year when, despite the malodorous run-ins with policemen by leading heavyweight contenders, boxing begins to return to health.
"One of the few promoters still running steady is Unsinkable Sam Silverman up in Massachusetts," says Al Braverman, a New York fight manager who has taken to running an art gallery. "But some others are ready to come back. Boxing will boom again as soon as the small clubs open to bring out the talent." Despite the economic pinch—Don Toro Smith, a heavyweight managed by Braverman, is happy to get $60 for six rounds from Unsinkable Sam in New Bedford or Pittsfield—there seems to be little lack of available youngsters. The gyms are glutted. "My gym is full," says Chris Dundee, the Miami promoter. "I have a gym full of boys," says Cus D'Amato in New York, "but they get disgusted because they have no place to fight."
Nonetheless, a boy with talent—and a punch—is welcome even now. The main divisions have begun to wear thin with reruns of some of the same old faces, and the champions are mostly artful dodgers, from Cassius Clay, who fortunately is also a puncher, on down through to Carlos Ortiz, the lightweight champion. The day of the mauler and the puncher, the era of the Sonny Listons and Gene Fullmers, the Carmen Basilios and Dick Tigers, appears to be over for the nonce.
Clay, the best and most exciting of today's champions, is scheduled to fight Liston in late spring, and he should win again. Liston was in the shape of his life for the postponed fight last November, but now he is beering it up and wrestling with tag teams of Denver police. Liston's odd behavior could make even the World Boxing Association seem a sensible organization—if its own actions were not even more eccentric. The WBA has ruled with no logic whatever that the Ernie Terrell-Eddie Machen fight in Chicago this February will be for the heavyweight title. Terrell should win, but no one, with the exception of his loud manager, Julie Isaacson, will take the championship seriously. The winner of the Terrell-Machen fight is supposed to meet the winner of the George Chuvalo-Floyd Patterson match in Madison Square Garden on February 1. Here may be the first surprise of the year: a number of knowing boxing men pick Chuvalo to win by a knockout. Yet, peculiarly, the consensus is that Terrell would lick Chuvalo, but Patterson would beat Terrell—not that it really matters so long as Cassius is around. Aside from Chuvalo, the most promising "new" heavyweight is posturing, talkative Oscar Bonavena, a Cassius Clay from down Argentina way. He has been impressive, but he has had only eight fights and cannot be classed with name fighters in the division.
The situation in the light-heavyweight division is more desperate. Willie Pastrano has been punching harder since winning the title, but this is a relative thing and one wonders what keeps him up there. Harold Johnson, from whom Pastrano took the title in an outrageous decision in Las Vegas, has been embalmed for all practical purposes because he is such a dull fellow to watch. ("It's his own fault," says D'Amato. "Professional boxing has to entertain the public") The one hope in sight is D'Amato's José Torres, who last month knocked out Bobo Olson in the first round. Torres can campaign as either a light heavy or a middleweight.
The most artful dodger of all is Joey Giardello, the middleweight champion. A counterpuncher to an extreme, he is also a fancy stepper when it comes to picking the place to fight. Usually it is Philadelphia, but on occasion he can bestir himself to travel 60 miles to Atlantic City, where the officials are fond of Philadelphians. His most formidable opponent is Joey Archer, but when and, more important, where the two will agree to meet is anyone's guess. "Archer would beat him in New York," says Braverman. "Archer holds the record for split decisions in the Garden. He's got the legs and style to beat a Giardello, but not in Philadelphia or Atlantic City. What's the sense of kidding? They go on Barren Island, and Archer's got a chance." Dick Tiger remains dangerous, but he has a fatal flaw. He cannot fight boxers, and both Giardello and Archer are boxers, even outside Philadelphia and New York. Tiger has already lost to both.
The pickings among the leaders of the welterweight division are slim, so slim in fact that Emile Griffith, the champion, has been fighting middleweights. Next to Griffith are Luis Rodriguez, who used to alternate the title with Griffith like two kids playing one-a-cat, and José Stable, a strong puncher.
But there are some promising young welterweights coming along who may soon make this division the most exciting in boxing. Like most other emerging fighters, they will have a punch. The reason for this is money. Promoters know that punchers draw a crowd, and they are reluctant in this year of revival to encourage cute boxers. The best welterweight is Carmelo Hernandez, winner of the 1964 Golden Gloves Novice Class, who already has won seven pro fights, four by knockouts. "It's not the knockouts that impress me," says Griffith, "but the skill he showed in getting them." Not far behind Hernandez are Stan Hayward of Philadelphia, rated fifth, and Willie Ludick, a South African.
Like Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, the lightweight champion, will step up a notch to the welterweights when not on his annual triumphal world tour demolishing contenders. Already his expedition is being planned with D-day efficiency by his manager, Honest Bill Daly. "He's going to defend his title twice in 1965," says Honest Bill. "It looks like the first defense will be in Kingston, Jamaica in early February against Bunny Grant—that's G-R-A-N-T—and the second defense the latter part of March in Panama against Ismael Laguna—that's I-S-M-A-E-L L-A-G-U-N-A—their No. 1 featherweight. And possibly a third defense in Puerto Rico in May. Anyplace where the money is, regardless of the receptions we get in the different countries."
The three other divisions—feather, bantam and flyweight—are inactive in the U.S., but in the rest of the world they command great respect. Unhappily, Featherweight Sugar Ramos, the colorful displaced Cuban, now from Mexico City, has apparently retired from the ring. Under heavy pressure from his mother to quit ever since Davey Moore died after their title fight in Los Angeles (Ramos had previously killed another man in the ring), Ramos lost his zest for fighting. He managed to beat Floyd Robertson on a highly controversial decision in Ghana, but he lost his title to Mexico's Vicente Saldivar and, unless he changes his mind, is through for good.
Pone Kingpetch may be, too, if he doesn't hurry up and defend his flyweight title. It is a year since he fought, and the WBA is itching to vacate his title. In September it ordered him to defend against Salvatore Burruni by Dec. 16 "or else." The else turned out to be an extension to Jan. 1. The WBA has no hard feelings against Eder Jofre, the Brazilian who is world bantamweight champion and a very busy fighter. Jofre may be the best fighter going today, but few Americans have seen him fight, for the simple reason that he can make a fortune in such places as S√£o Paulo, Manila and Tokyo. "Boxing is going to have a hard job to come on in the States," says Daly. "Around the world, it's a sensational thing. When we travel, people say to us, 'What's the matter? Are Americans getting soft?' "
No, just wary. Subjected to a barrage of stinkers in the days of TV, the public has become very wise. Says John Condon, the Garden publicist: "We promoted the hell out of Bartels and Mangiapane, a neighborhood grudge fight, and we got all kinds of ink. But the public didn't buy it. The fans figured they'd wait until the next time around to see if the two were worth the price."
By contrast, Condon says, the Patterson-Chuvalo fight will be a sellout. It brings together two very competitive name fighters. (There will, incidentally, be more such fights this year. If they are to draw any crowds at all, the top contenders will have to fight each other, a prospect they despise but will have to live with if they are to eat.) Chuvalo is, moreover, the only white heavyweight near contention, and he owes his prominence to one victory, a TKO over Doug Jones. But where a new Chuvalo or even a new Jones will develop is a problem.
One man who thinks he may have the answer is Fred Brooks, the president of Sportsvision, the closed-circuit-TV company. Brooks has lined up a dozen or so promoters, from Unsinkable Sam to George Parnassus on the West Coast, who would be willing to stage live fights on the same card with a top closed-circuit bout. The plan calls for two promotions a month to cut the rental of transmission lines. If successful, the Brooks plan would give young fighters experience, exposure and a decent payday at the same time it offered good purse money for a continuing schedule of name fighters. Who knows? Given such a boost, the small fight clubs might catch on again. Left for dead by network TV, boxing could revive with intelligent closed-circuit programming, and 1965 should be the year of decision.
THE TOP THREE MEN IN EACH MAJOR DIVISION