Fight-Game Inferno BOXING IS IN A HELL OF A STATE, SADDLED with fading stars and a fragmented fan base, but don't count out the not-so-sweet science just yet

March 10, 2003

It's pointless to predict boxing's demise--it's the cockroach of
sport and will outlast even this nuclear winter--but it is fair
to say the game is toying uncomfortably with its own extinction.
How bad is it? Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward found himself
at a Big Ten basketball game recently and was sufficiently moved
by the sight of a 6'8" rebounder to offer a contract to the
senior forward--to fight professionally. "I know," Steward said.
"It's a joke. Normally." ¶ No joke now. The talent pool is so
shallow, interest so low, the sport so racially and ethnically
marginalized, so invisible, so irrelevant, so desperate that it's
impossible for even its many critics to muster a laugh. At its
best, boxing has an appeal both considerable and horrible. The
enjoyment of such violence is beyond explanation, unless it's to
remind us that evolution is an ongoing process. But the enjoyment
boxing can provide--all that naked desire, all that primal
ambition--does seem to satisfy our Neanderthal blood lust, so
long as we're safe at ringside.

We'd like to believe that boxing offers more than just guilty
pleasure, that the nobility of such regulated fury somehow
demonstrates our competitive potential (well, theirs, anyway).
Society has always found a way to accommodate its brutishness.
The sport will survive. But it's going to be close, and this time
the problem is not that we've finally grown queasy about
exploiting desperate men. The problem now is that boxing's just
not very good.

Last Saturday's bout between light heavyweight champion Roy Jones
Jr. and WBA heavyweight champ John Ruiz is what passes for a
significant event these days, even though it was little more than
a novelty act. Ruiz, though a competent fighter, had zero appeal
after plodding through three bouts with the aged Evander
Holyfield. And Jones, so good that for years he has had no worthy
opposition and thus has had to dream up stunts to create paydays
(a rap CD here, a day job as a USBL point guard there), is known
as much for the surety of his matchmaking as he is for his skill.
Taking on a man who outweighs you by 33 pounds might have seemed
a risky proposition, but as usual Jones knew exactly what he was
doing.

Did he ever. It was a fight that didn't so much solve boxing's
problems as address an age-old question: Does size matter? Well,
no, not when someone of Jones's dazzling skill meets a middling
talent of any weight. Jones, who bulked himself up to 193 pounds,
completely outboxed and relentlessly battered Ruiz. Jones's
mastery, on the way to his easy 12-round decision, was
breathtaking. But what did it prove, except that he's better than
anybody--at any weight?

And now what? The other marquee names are all faded, tarnished by
age or defeat. All the story lines of recent years--Oscar De La
Hoya's redemption, to name one, Mike Tyson's comeback, if we must
name another--are exhausted. Tyson, in particular, has let the
sport down: He is, by his own admission, no longer fit for
top-tier heavyweights such as Lennox Lewis. While there's already
talk of matching him with Jones, he seems happy clocking the
likes of Clifford Etienne on the sport's fringes, where a new
tattoo can spur pay-per-view sales as much as the possibility of
a 49-second KO.

The heavyweight division is problematic to begin with,
increasingly staffed by Eastern Europeans of uncertain
credentials. At the lighter weights the stars are largely
Hispanic, and although their fights are consistently the best
value in boxing, their proliferation leads some to fear that
boxing is becoming a niche sport.

This comes after a year of great matchups and terrific payoffs.
Lewis's demolition of Tyson was a satisfying conclusion to an
eagerly anticipated event, and such fistic firestorms as Marco
Antonio Barrera--Erik Morales II and Arturo Gatti--Mickey Ward (I
and II) were well appreciated. De La Hoya over Fernando Vargas
was another bout that justified its buildup. Then there was the
emergence of Vernon Forrest in a pair of wins over Shane Mosley.

But all that, except for a third fight between Barrera and
Morales, has played out. With Lewis looking toward retirement, he
seems MIA. De La Hoya was also hoping to ease himself out with
returns against Felix Trinidad and Mosley, the only fighters to
beat him. But Trinidad says he aims to stay retired, and Mosley,
who hasn't won in his last three tries, is insisting on more than
the $4.25 million he's been offered, so De La Hoya may find
himself facing Vargas again.

Any star you can name is faded. The once-glittery Naseem Hamed
has been invisible ever since he was dismantled by Barrera in
April 2001. Tyson has gone loco, Holyfield's gotten old,
middleweight king Bernard Hopkins has somehow mismanaged himself
sufficiently that he must find work on undercards in his own
hometown. And those were the old reliables. No sooner does
Forrest get anointed Fighter of 2002 than he gets flattened by
wacky journeyman Ricardo Mayorga to begin this year.

This dead zone might have been a good place for the class of 2000
to step forward, but Olympic buzz has, nearly three years after
Sydney, grown faint. The only Olympian to create a stir was
Mexican bantamweight Francisco Bojado, groomed out of the
amateurs to be a Hispanic Sugar Ray Leonard. And in the ritual
career buildup, fighting carefully picked journeymen, he let
himself go and got beat in just his 10th fight.

What to make of all this? "It's never been worse," says Lou
DiBella, who has been trying to make promotional inroads outside
the Don King/Bob Arum axis. "I'm very worried about the sport."

The most obvious concern is the heavyweight division, which is a
big concern given that it's the face of boxing for most of the
world. Now that Lewis is in wind-down mode (and at 37, why
wouldn't he be?), the rest of the bunch is jockeying for
pay-per-view stardom. It's not going to be pretty. Holyfield,
always too valiant for his own good, is now too old and needs to
get out of the game. And he's the legitimate one. The rest--David
Tua, Hasim Rahman--are retreads, hoping to be recycled into a
payday.

Only the Klitschkos, Ukrainian brothers Wladimir and Vitali,
offer intrigue. At better than 6'7" and 240 pounds, they are both
of the super heavyweight class of carrier, like Lewis, and have a
bit of charisma to go with their punch. Lewis was going to test
Vitali, the older and less clever fighter, until he got
sidetracked by the idea of a Tyson rematch. Wladimir, the more
athletic, is considered the division's salvation, but he has yet
to prove himself, except in the classroom. (He holds a Ph.D. in
sports science.) For all we know, he could turn out to be Michael
Grant with an accent.

"Boxing skews a little lighter these days," says Jay Larkin, who
runs Showtime boxing. That's an understatement, and here's the
reason: What 250-pound athlete would choose boxing when surer and
safer money beckons in more mainstream sports? And why would he
be inclined to box anyway? Who's the last hero he had to emulate?
For years there has been no coverage of boxing to speak of on the
broadcast networks. Even the amateurs are invisible. In 1976 a
kid might have been swept away by Sugar Ray Leonard. These days
the networks want no part of Olympic boxing. And who's to blame
them? What corporate sponsor wants to tie its products to
programming in which the hometown boys are pummeled by Kazakhs?

Among the pros, all the excitement is at the lower weights,
almost as it was in the 1980s when Leonard, Marvelous Marvin
Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns converged in a fierce and
lasting competition. The difference now: The combatants are
almost all Hispanic, and only De La Hoya has shown crossover
appeal.

Is that bad? Well, not if you're a real boxing fan. What Morales
and Barrera and so many others bring to the ring is a
crowd-pleasing style of fighting--all action, all the time. But
even Arum, who uses Hispanics predominantly, acknowledges that
this is niche marketing. "Only among Hispanics is boxing still a
major sport," he says. "You just try to cross them over as best
you can."

But they don't cross over. Having wonderful Hispanic fighters
sounds democratic, another noble sports assimilation. But there
is little assimilation, just further ghettoizing. The Hispanic
boxers fight on Spanish-language TV, especially Univision's
TeleFutura. Or on basic cable, where the boxing audience is
increasingly Hispanic. Or on pay-per-view cards that rely on
Southwestern subscribers. Occasionally Arum breaks a fighter out
of this mold, or tries. But mostly he's content, and successful,
with boxers who are "household names--just not in your house."
It's not for him to enforce affirmative action. "I fish where the
fish are," he says. "I'm going where the fans are."

DiBella doesn't blame him, but he wonders about the health of a
sport that must survive in ethnic pockets, even if those pockets
are large. "This will kill the sport," he says. "We're just
serving a market that happens to be fading less. The sport is
dying among English-speaking Americans."

DiBella, who used to make the matches at HBO, took a chance by
signing up young black fighters out of the Olympics. Now he can't
get them on basic cable, he says, because those networks skew so
mightily toward Hispanic viewership. "I paid $1.4 million for
Ricardo Williams [the 2000 silver medalist at 140 pounds], and
I'll never get that money back. He's the most talented, but he's
black." (Of course, to become TV attractions anywhere one has to
win; Williams suffered his first loss last month.)

Meanwhile, NBC announced it was returning to boxing
coverage--with each show preceded by an hour of the undercard on
NBC's Spanish-language network, Telemundo, to steer viewers its
way.

Hand-wringing is nothing new to boxing. And you can easily argue
that in many ways, boxing is as popular as ever. Over at ESPN,
where Bob Yalen maintains the farm system with 60 cards a year,
viewership is stable. Showtime's Larkin is aggressively pushing
his schedule, which includes the return of ShoBox, a late-night
series of cards featuring up-and-comers. And HBO continues to
reward top fighters with huge contracts.

Still, the landscape is changing. Don King, who used to run the
sport through control of the heavyweight division, may be running
that business model into the ground. A reliance on Evander
Holyfield and Chris Byrd does not auger well for his future.
That's just the way it is: The urban kids who wanted to be like
Ali now want to be like Mike, and we don't mean Tyson.

So the available talent--at least the portion that speaks
English--is scarce, and often rushed into overambitious matches.
Emanuel Steward has been toying around with Thomas Hearns's son,
a former Division I basketball player, and has reluctantly agreed
to turn him pro after two amateur bouts. Even the Hitman was
stunned. But nobody has an amateur career anymore, not in this
impatient country. Says Steward, "That's why boxers from other
countries, where amateur boxing means everything, dominate."

Steward, now involved with USA Boxing (the sport's amateur
governing body), wishes it were otherwise but seems resigned to
the self-perpetuating defeat of the program, where loss
reinforces apathy, which allows the talent to drift away.

Of course, boxing is always down, never out, and for a sport that
breeds cynicism, it is oddly hopeful. "This guy we saw playing
basketball," says Steward, hardly believing he's saying this,
"he's never boxed. But based on what's out there, he may be the
solution."

That's the thing about boxing: You just never know.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY TIM BOWER [COVER INSET] The Hell With Boxing THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM BOWER COLOR PHOTO: AP COLOR PHOTO: NICK POTTS/ACTION IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM WEST/AFP COLOR PHOTO: MIKE NELSON/AFP COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: CHIEN-MIN CHUNG/REUTERS COLOR PHOTO: ERIC MILLER/AP COLOR PHOTO: BILL HABER/AP COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP COLOR PHOTO: JEFF ZELEVANSKY/AP COLOR PHOTO: TOM CASINO COLOR PHOTO: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP COLOR PHOTO: MIKE NELSON/AFP COLOR PHOTO: GARY HERSHORN/REUTERS COLOR PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/AP COLOR PHOTO: STEVE NESIUS/AP COLOR PHOTO: OMAR TORRES/AFP COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT DOWLING/CORBIS COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO COLOR PHOTO: STAN HONDA/AFP COLOR PHOTO: BRAD TRENT/CORBIS COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: JOE MARQUETTE/AP; CAPITOL: DOUG MILLS/AP

LIVING IN LIMBO
A RINGSIDE VIEW OF TODAY'S PUGILISTIC PURGATORY

Where the Real Money Is

HBO's
ROSS GREENBURG

Showtime's
JAY LARKIN

Back Channels
ESPN, Fox, NBC, Telemundo, Univision

Welter Skelter
KOSTYA TSZYU
Tszyu's Next?
Ricardo Mayorga
Vernon Forrest
Zab Judah
Arturo Gatti
Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Paul Spadafora

The Big Guys

LENNOX LEWIS

Pain from Ukraine
Vitali and Wladmir Klitschko

A Vast Wasteland
Chris Byrd, Evander Holyfield
Hasim Rahman, David Tua

A World of His Own
Mike Tyson

Little Big Man

ROY JONES JR.

Middle Men

OSCAR DE LA HOYA

Oscar Hopefuls
Shane Mosley
Felix Trinidad
Winky Wright
Fernando Vargas
Bernard Hopkins

DON KING BOB ARUM

Late Summer of the Poor Relations
Cedric Kushner
Frank Warren
Dan Goossen
Kathy Duva, Main Events
Duva Boxing
Russell Peltz
Murad Muhammad

Ghosts of Greatness
MARVIN HAGLER
Thomas Hearns
Roberto Duran

Spring Chickens
LOU DIBELLA
Sugar Ray Leonard

Who's in Charge Here?

The Commissioners
MARC RATNER, NEVADA
Larry Hazzard, New Jersey
Rob Lynch, California
Bernard Kerik, New York
Dicky Cole, Texas

Los Hombres Mas Chico

MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA
Acelino Freitas
Joel Casamayor
Jesus Chavez
Erik Morales
Juan Marquez

Once There Were Giants

MUHAMMAD ALI
LARRY HOLMES
JOE FRAZIER

Futures Market

JEFF LACY
Rocky Juarez
Francisco Bojado
Juan Diaz
Ricardo Williams
Clarence Vinson
Jermain Taylor
Jose Navarro
Brian Viloria

Alphabet Soup

JOSE SULAIMAN, WBC
Gilberto Mendoza, WBA
Francisco Valcarcel, WBO
Marian Muhammed, IBF

Watchdog
TIM LUECKENHOFF, Association of Boxing Commissions

First Daughter

LAILA ALI

Sock Sisters
Mia St. John
Christy Martin
Vonda Ward

Sister Sybil
TONYA HARDING

Mr. Fix-it?
JOHN MCCAIN

LET'S GET IT ON--PLEASE!

Boxing is struggling, but a good fight or two would go a long way
toward rejuvenating the sport. Here's a fistic wish list for the
coming year, along with an assessment of the chances that boxing
fans will get what they want. (Odds against the bouts occurring
are in parentheses.)

LENNOX LEWIS vs. WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO The better of the K-Bros,
Wladimir is the one true threat among the heavyweights. Alas, at
37, Lewis seems more interested in reprising his mauling of Mike
Tyson than in testing himself against the Ukrainian giant. (10 to
1)

ROY JONES JR. vs. Mike Tyson Jones now owns the WBA heavyweight
belt, but--face it--the real champion, Lewis, is just too big for
him. IBF titleholder Chris Byrd? Uninspiring. Iron Mike is the
right size and packs the kind of punch John Ruiz didn't. And
remember: Jones, who ain't no Etienne, loves a challenge. (4 to
1)

OSCAR DE LA HOYA vs. FeLIX (TITO) TRINIDAD De La Hoya, the WBC
and WBA 154pound champ, wants a chance to avenge his loss to
Trinidad. Tito says he wants to enjoy retirement. The two are set
to talk this week in Miami, but the Golden Boy may have to settle
for slick-boxing IBF champ Winky Wright or for a rematch with
Fernando Vargas. (5 to 1)

KOSTYA TSZYU vs. ARTURO GATTI Undisputed 140-pound champ Tszyu is
a buzz saw; Gatti has never fought a dull round. The IBF says
Gatti has to face Sharmba Mitchell--with the winner to meet
Tszyu--but talks are under way to eliminate the elimination bout.
(EVEN)

MARCO ANTONIO BARRERA vs. ERIK MORALES Their first meeting, for
the WBC and WBO 126-pound titles, was 2000's fight of the year;
their second was one of the highlights of '02 (as well as a huge
PPV hit). Barrera faces faded veteran Kevin Kelly on April 12;
after that look for a third installment of boxing's best
miniseries. (1 to 2)

The sport will survive, but it's going to be close. THE PROBLEM
NOW IS that boxing's just not very good.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)