ON MARCH 25 boxing will be lifted from the pages of Ring magazine
and into those of Newsweek and PEOPLE -- and the National
Enquirer. It will be removed from the sports anthology shows to
Dateline and 20/20 -- and Inside Edition. It will emerge from the
casinos of Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where for three years it
has merely survived, and assume a prominent place at bar stools,
on street corners, maybe even in sewing circles. The awakening
will happen around the world. Boxing comes back on March 25.
What sports fan doesn't know the date or understand its
importance? For three years boxing has had the quality of a held
breath. On March 26, 1992, the day Mike Tyson was jailed on a rape
conviction, the sport went into a kind of suspended animation.
Things happened, good and bad, but everything had a temporary feel
to it. Boxing had become a makeshift affair, enduring the absence
of Tyson's violent charisma as best it could. ``Making the best of
what we had to work with,'' says Don King, Tyson's longtime
promoter. The stars flared and died, champions came and went, and
all along there was the understanding that in 1995 -- on March 25,
it has developed -- boxing would be able to breathe out.
Because the day Tyson walks into his freedom, boxing once more
becomes the kind of personality-driven riot that galvanizes
globally. With his return it is newly dangerous and unpredictable,
freshly sensationalized with theatrical themes. There will be,
finally, something for everyone -- from boxing fan to tabloid
consumer -- in a sport that has hardly had anything for anybody.
Oh, it's going to be big. Nobody really knows if Tyson can still
fight, or even if he wants to. But it doesn't matter.
``Irrelevant,'' says Seth Abraham, the president of Time Warner
Sports who oversees fight cards for HBO. The day Tyson walks out
of an Indiana jail, surveys the flat farmland that has
surrounded him for three years, and ducks into a waiting
limousine, boxing will be transformed into show business. Only
Tyson, whose young career has intertwined malevolence and
melodrama, can cut such a demographic swath as this: Among the
appeals for a piece of him, King, his presumed care taker, has
received calls from the Ricki Lake Show (``the Number 3-rated
late afternoon talk show, hosted by a white woman,'' King says
he was told) to go along with a five-page letter from 60
It will be big, don't you worry.
To be fully accurate, boxing was not exactly in tip-top shape when
Tyson was still fighting, and it didn't die out altogether when he
left. Boxing is the cockroach of sports; you can't kill it. After
his 1990 loss to Buster Douglas, Tyson's skills were being
increasingly questioned, but while boxing had enough moments to
keep it more or less on track in his absence, it badly missed its
locomotive. He was the only one who could pull this train.
``Bottom line -- as the heavyweight division goes, so goes
boxing,'' says Bert Sugar, publisher of Boxing Illustrated. ``This
goes back to John Sullivan. And it has something to do with being
American. Americans are always obsessed with big things -- cars,
houses, breasts, fighters. We could have had 10 Roy Joneses or 10
Pernell Whitakers, we'd still be waiting for the heavyweight
division to come back.''
Abraham, who saw HBO do some pretty good numbers when it was
associated with Tyson, has thought about this too. ``It's this
idea of Superman, a fictional character,'' he says. ``The
heavyweight champion is the closest thing we've got to Superman.
Able to reverse fortunes in a single blow. There's a bit of
fantasy to these big heavyweight champions.''
And if we happen to have a heavyweight who is concussively
effective and who can demand attention from all reaches of society
-- say a guy who can dispatch people in 90 seconds and, on top of
that, is interesting enough that he could drag his brief marriage
through gossip columns -- well, boxing just takes off.
``Boxing is one of those sports that's always been cyclical,''
Abraham says. ``And its high-water marks have always coincided
with a dominant or popular heavyweight champion -- Jack Johnson,
Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson. The ratings go
up in all fights. Ticket sales go up in all fights. There's just
Abraham has noticed that even 46-year-old George Foreman has had
a profound effect on all of boxing since winning the WBA and IBF
titles last November. Foreman, powerful yet genial, is the kind of
guy who can walk into an upscale steak house at Caesars Palace and
have grown men and women stand up from their dinners and applaud
him. He enjoys so much goodwill that he can afford to shed some of
it on the game's lesser lights. But Foreman's reign is likely to
be freakish and brief. He has already promised to retire by the
end of the year, permitting himself two or three fights at most.
And his admitted goal of fighting Tyson in the mother of all bouts
($200 million is a figure that gets tossed around) by that
deadline is problematic, to say the least.
So, except for the interest Foreman has brought to boxing these
last few months, can we agree that ever since Tyson lost his title
to Douglas that shocking night in Tokyo, boxing has not had a
dominant or popular champion?
Well, there have been Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, and
there has also been Michael Moorer, who dumbly circled left into
George's big right hand and lost a fight he was handily winning.
There is, for the moment, Oliver McCall, and there might again be
Lennox Lewis. And with the creation of yet another governing body,
the World Boxing Organization (WBO), there was Herbie Hide, who
was knocked out by Bowe on March 11. Which of those champions was
a) dominant or b) popular?
Most of those fighters were able, but of them all only one
(Holyfield) was workmanlike and professional, and only one (Bowe)
had as much personality as talent. And they hardly ever fought.
Early in his career Tyson fought as often as 15 times a year and
established a percussive rhythm with his headlines. But with the
penetration of cable television, which has made boxing so
lucrative for its top performers, few of them need or want to
fight more than twice a year. ``I've had managers tell me their
boxers won't fight in October, November or December because of
year-end tax concerns,'' Abraham says. ``Hard to develop an
attraction that way.''
And as always, the continued corruption of boxing's politics has
contributed to the public's skepticism about the sport. Consider
A heavyweight title unification fight was prevented last year
because an influential promoter feared that he would be left
without a chance at a crown.
Foreman was stripped of his WBA title on March 5 because his
first title defense is scheduled against Axel Schulz instead of
one of the WBA's top available contenders.
Bowe, whose only loss was a close decision in a rematch with
Holyfield and who may have been the best heavyweight out there, is
still unranked by the three major organizations.
No wonder that a fighter can now make as much news coming out of
prison as he does going in. No wonder nobody is embarrassed by
that sad situation. No wonder promoters are worrying that Tyson
may have been rehabilitated too much, are worrying that he may
have gotten too much religion. If Tyson, now a convert to Islam,
has reformed too much, marketing angles may well be destroyed.
Foreman, a preacher with his own Houston congregation, vs. a
convicted rapist: Boxing likes its morality plays to be accessible
to everyone, from viewers of Ricki Lake right up to fans of Andy
Boxing has been doubly moribund not only because there has been
malaise among the heavyweights, but also because this time there
hasn't been anyone in the lighter weights to emerge and carry the
sport. When Larry Holmes, who came after Ali and before Tyson,
couldn't popularize boxing in the 1980s, there were the spirited
tangos of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran
and Marvelous Marvin Hagler to provide the entertainment. Those
four fought in every combination, welterweight through
middleweight, and produced one remarkable event after another.
Just to mention two of their pairings evokes some of boxing's most
splendid moments: Leonard-Duran II and Hagler-Hearns. They were,
variously, brooding (Hagler), scary (Hitman Hearns) and a little
loco (Duran). And all of them were covetous enough of the
spotlight to maintain a healthy sense of theater about their
business. And in the ring, they delivered the goods.
More recently we have had Julio Cesar Chavez, but while Chavez is
a national hero in Mexico, his appeal has not translated in the
U.S. all that well. Lately, some controversial decisions over
Stateside fighters have made him suspect. At 32 he's near the end
of the line. These days you have super middleweight Roy Jones Jr.,
whose pick-'em fight with the fierce James Toney turned into a
one-man show for Jones, and welterweight Pernell Whitaker, another
fighter who doesn't figure to brook defeat. These are startling
talents, as good as boxing has ever produced, but where is their
Duran, their Hagler?
Jones might have looked forward to a big-money bout with Gerald
McClellan, a one-round KO artist, but was robbed of that payday
when, frighteningly, McClellan fell on Feb. 25 to Nigel Benn and
was retired by a British neurosurgeon. As for Whitaker? ``He's a
winner, but he's not like Ali or Leonard,'' says veteran manager
Emanuel Steward. ``Not the personality. This is one of the few
times in history that there is no star in boxing.''
Indeed, it could be that the growing anticipation over Tyson's
return masks continuing and very real problems. Boxing has always
had a sporadic quality, its talents emerging from nowhere on
nobody's schedule but their own. Tyson himself was the product of
the juvenile detention system and an eccentric trainer, the late
Cus D'Amato. Foreman's reincarnation -- he wanted money to build a
youth center, so he came out of retirement in 1987 -- was also
unpredictable. You can never count on attractions like these.
Sometimes they just materialize.
But that doesn't mean they always will.
There are worries -- or there ought to be -- about boxing in the
long run. Promoter Bob Arum has warned, ``The audience for boxing
is skewing older and older. The core fans are dying off and are
not being replaced. Nobody gives a damn anymore. People just don't
The situation is not as bad as that. At the top there is more
money than ever. The networks are trying to get back into the
action. And there might be enough capable young fighters to keep
somebody's interest. But how much longer can we trust boxing's
accidental nature? How much longer can we wait for some
breathtaking new combination of ability and personality to
develop? Is the money so big, even as boxing is revealed anew to
be dangerous and dirty, that talent must come to it? Is its
There is no reason, other than historical precedent, to think so.
Close inspection shows boxing to be top-heavy, with a few fighters
getting most of the really big money and the rest swimming in an
ever-draining pool of talent. Nobody's diving in. In the past you
could always count on some ethnic group, denied opportunity
elsewhere, to plunge desperately into boxing and fill that pool --
Jews in the 1920s, Italians in the 1940s and the Irish before them
all. But, these days, except for the Hispanics, who dominate the
lower weight classes, who needs it?
Today a big guy, the kind of athlete who might make a heavyweight
contender, has another option. ``It's called football,'' says Bert
Sugar. ``See, these kids don't need a degree from MIT to
understand a signing bonus.''
It seems to take a miracle of place and circumstance to produce a
boxer anymore. Consider the Ruelas brothers -- Gabe, the WBC super
featherweight champion, and Rafael, the IBF lightweight champ --
who grew up shoeless near Guadalajara. What got them into boxing?
Transported to Los Angeles they flourished as candy salesmen until
Gabe stumbled upon a gym in the San Fernando Valley. Is that what
has to happen?
Apparently, yes. What little organization boxing has had, the
semiorderly development of talent that typically produced its
best champions, is breaking down. Just consider what has
happened at the Olympic level. In 1976 gold medalists returning
from Montreal included such future world champions as Leonard,
and Leon and Michael Spinks. The 1984 team at the Los Angeles
Games took even more golds and produced eventual world champions
Holyfield, Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor. This country's three
medals in '92 at Barcelona -- only Oscar de la Hoya got gold --
were the nation's fewest since 1956.
It's harder than ever to get these kids into a gym. ``Our sport is
a poor man's sport,'' says Al Mitchell, a coach at the U.S.
Olympic Education Center. ``In the past, Irish, Italians, Jews,
they went into boxing. Kids today, they don't want to get punched
upside the head. My son, he wants to play soccer!''
Tom Mustin, head coach of the U.S. Pan Am team, agrees that the
numbers are no longer there. ``In our area [Tacoma, Wash.],'' he
says, ``there are not as many clubs as there used to be. We have
to bring in kids from Oregon, Canada, Montana, just to fill up a
If amateur boxing has never been less popular, it has also been
far from rewarding for young prospects. Most of the 36 members of
the U.S. National Select Team receive only about $200 per month
for staying in the development program. The sponsorship is just
not there. Jerry Dusenberry, the president of U.S. Amateur Boxing,
says, ``We're just not as marketable as we once were.''
Steward, who has made millions training Hearns, among many others,
still works with amateurs at the Kronk Boxing club in Detroit. He
has two Olympic hopefuls at the moment, but he is ever mindful of
how difficult it is to get those hopefuls to the Olympics. ``Very
few kids finish an amateur apprenticeship these days,'' he says.
``Hearns, Leonard, Ali, even up to the '84 team, there wasn't that
much money to be made. You had Ali, and outside the heavyweight
division, that was it. Since then, the kids are training
themselves with pro fighters. They see how much money there is.
Kids come into a gym, they see Michael Moorer with a luxury car,
Thomas Hearns with a Rolls-Royce.'' And they turn pro.
This is disastrous because, according to Dusenberry, only about
15% of these amateur boxers go on to make money as pros. They fail
to develop, to get the springboard that a successful Olympic
career has traditionally given the fighter. ``The amateur program
is really dead,'' says Steward.
The world of professional boxing, at the level that nurtures and
showcases young talent, is not faring so well either. ``We're not
developing young fighters,'' says Mark Ratner, executive director
of the Nevada Athletic Commission. ``Even in Nevada, I've had
trouble filling undercards. There are fewer cards. There are fewer
places for them to go box.''
Traditional training grounds have dried up. The gradual buildup
of name recognition that began with Olympic success and continued
on network TV was a phenomenon that screeched to a halt in the
late 1980s, when the networks stopped carrying fights. Remember,
Leonard didn't vault from the Montreal Olympics directly onto
pay-per-view. He had a long run of bouts on ABC. ``Many people got
to see Leonard and by the time he was champion, they knew who he
was,'' says Tony Cox, who until last week ran the pay-per-view end
of Showtime. ``That's a missing piece of the puzzle.''
``The networks were a constant,'' agrees CBS senior vice president
Rick Gentile, whose network began putting on fights again last
year. ``You were always familiar with these guys because of
network exposure.'' But a soft advertising economy in the 1980s
put the squeeze on TV boxing, and it was virtually dropped.
CBS did six shows in '94 and will offer possibly 15 to 20 this
year. But even though Gentile insists in his marketing meetings
that boxing must be cutting across economic strata --
``Advertisers think it's all Joe Six-Pack, but I tell 'em those
guys down the street [HBO and Showtime] are charging $39.95, so
somebody thinks it's hot'' -- it remains a tough sell.
And why not? There is often a brutal beauty to boxing, from the
artistry of a Whitaker to the explosiveness of a Foreman. And the
bravery, endurance and sacrifice exhibited by some boxers can be
instructive -- humans can do that? But too often boxing is just
brutal, just stupid, just dirty. The politics and business of
boxing severely strain its credibility, banishing it from polite
society. For some people this is boxing's charm. Watching these
rogues operate beyond the fringe of decency affords the kind of
fun one doesn't get in corporate life. Imagine a promoter who
operates the levers in $50 million bouts saying, in Arum's famous
words, ``Yesterday I was lying, but today I'm telling the truth.''
There is something winning about that. ``Everyone flies the Jolly
Roger in this sport,'' says Abraham.
But just as boxing sometimes can become too exaggerated in its
violence -- the injury that McClellan suffered even shook many
devotees to the core -- so can boxing's buccaneering spirit. ``The
only sport that suffers from a greater credibility problem,''
Abraham says finally, ``is professional wrestling.''
The three major governing bodies, with a plethora of upstarts
coming on-line all the time, are worthless. Whatever order they
might otherwise impose is undone by an unwholesome bartering of
influence. Who can forget, even if it was five years ago, WBC
president Jose Sulaiman trying to overturn Douglas's knockout of
Tyson -- a knockout! not a close decision! -- just seconds after
the fight, with Don King standing at his side?
Would you grind your teeth a bit if you knew that early last year
a plan was proposed that would have unified the heavyweight titles
then held by Holyfield (WBA and IBF) and Lewis (WBC) -- with a
provision for the IBF's top-ranked Moorer to fight the winner --
but was scuttled because IBF president Bob Lee was suddenly
worried about his organization's No. 2 contender missing out on
the action? That fighter, Oliver McCall, eventually fought Lewis
for the title, won it and gave King, his promoter and the prince
of persistence, entree back into the heavyweight championship
``It was our one opportunity to unify the heavyweight
championship,'' says promoter Dan Duva. ``Now we don't have a
world champion. It's terrible.'' Politics, says Duva, ``is the
problem in boxing. It shows that the organizations don't care
about what's best for boxing.''
And the failure to rank Bowe has gone past the point of
irritation. Bowe certainly made a major gaffe when he literally
dumped his WBC belt into a garbage can. For that sin, coupled with
the larger sin of not taking care of himself and losing his
rematch with Holyfield, he has become a nonboxer. Unbelievably, he
is in none of the major sanctioning bodies' top 10. King proposes
an elegant metaphor to explain this: ``Herein lies an immigrant
who is capable of treasonous activity. So he was deported.''
The arrogance of the organizing bodies is awesome. They are brazen
and shameless. No amount of scrutiny can embarrass them. There is
nothing to do, really, but ignore them and use an alternate and
more credible set of rankings. And going that route is a
possibility. But bucking the governing bodies is a bold step for a
promoter or broadcaster to take, and it could solve nothing if in
the war for ratings, Showtime, say, crowns one champion and HBO
another. It would still be politics but without the accents. Keep
in mind too that these bodies had no importance whatsoever years
ago, when the public relied on Ring to construct the rankings. It
was orderly and fair, right up to the point when Ring was
discovered to be on the take. ``Perniciousness breeds
perniciousness,'' says Bert Sugar. That has been a constant
quality of boxing, hasn't it?
Perhaps this is why March 25 is so much on our minds. It is our
recollection that Tyson cut through all that was so sordid, at
least in his boxing. His own life was booby-trapped by
uncontrollable desires, but in the ring there was a purity about
him as he stood in front of his opponents, not ducking much, maybe
not ducking enough, and bored in with his ``bad intentions.'' It
seemed simple yet wondrous, the absolute essence of competition,
as he squinted behind his gloves and unloaded those powerful
volleys, and it was unnecessary to recall whatever machinations
went into the making of the fight. It was just beautiful to
That's how we remember it, anyway.