Lost Youth: Why Boxing is Dying in America

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31.08.04 – Part II of a three-part editorial series by Phillip Przybylo – July 30: Mike Tyson and Danny Williams leads off as the top story in ESPN’s edition of “SportsCenter,” their flagship sports news show. Mid-August: Riddick Bowe’s latest comeback attempt is picked up by the Associated Press and then by newspapers across the country.

Two buzz-worthy pieces receiving major play in the media. They came at a time with no “Super Fight” serving as a tent pole and feeding them residual interest. And boxing is a dying sport, right? Right. Now more than ever. In the first installment of this series, the sport’s failure to capitalize on Olympians and the Olympians/prospects’ teams failure to capitalize on opportunity were examined. At the other end of the career timeline lies another damaging problem for boxing: veteran fighters who will not let go.

Each boxer has his own reasons for going on past the prime of his career. The reasons range from admirable to illogical. The results normally range from car-wreck-entertaining to pathetic. The image of the sport is clearly hurt by athletes who are given an unlimited amount of chances based on name value. Unfortunately, more times than not, the sport hurts them right back.

More Mirage than Oasis

Any publicity garnered from returning heavyweight heroes like Bowe and Tyson is not the kind that generates goodwill toward the sport. In fact, the sport acts as nothing but a background for something like Tyson’s Traveling Circus ’04. Most people are watching to see a Tyson show and not a boxing match.

We live in an age where people wish to be entertained first and enlightened last. So, when Bowe announces he wants to fight 15 times in 18 months, we listen. We might even laugh, too. We might think this concept could only work in the 1940’s or in George Foreman’s lifespan. But we plan on watching him try at least one of those supposed 15 times.

In the end, we are watching a deteriorated manic depressive, convicted rapist fall on his butt in the fourth round. We are watching another ex-convict who first sounded punchy at the tail end of 1995 after his third bout with Evander Holyfield. Think about it-these are the public faces of boxing, embarrassing the sport more than any wrongful scorecard ever could.

The onus does not fall solely on the fighters (and by no means am I trying to take away what many positives they have given to the sport). One need only play a simple game of connect-the-dots to figure out who’s and why’s.

If they are less than perfect public faces, they must be making appearances in media outlets. If they are making appearances, then someone must be setting it up (i.e.: promoter’s publicist, agent, etc.) because I do not envision Mike Tyson calling Tom Arnold up on his cell and asking if he can be on “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” or Riddick Bowe wondering why someone associated with the AP is not talking to him.

A highly regarded amateur boxing trainer and acquaintance of mine, Mike Stafford, concurred with the same sentiment. However, he was shouting it out almost two years ago.

“A lot of people think Mike Tyson should retire,” Stafford said to me. “But he’s not going to because promoters can still make money off of him. You and I know Mike Tyson shouldn’t be boxing anymore. But the money-people with money-ain’t going to say that, are they? Follow the money.”

While it has been revealed that Tyson needs the money much more than his contractors do, the fact promoters often act as enablers cannot be overlooked. I cannot recall if I have ever been more ashamed to be a boxing fan when I learned that Meldrick Taylor was on the comeback trail despite not being able to put together two coherent sentences. Similar discontent followed when there were plans in the making for a Terry Norris comeback to be staged in Mexico a couple years back.

Living in a Trap

Whether the boxer is in the right state of mind or not, he is still the one making the decision to go forward with a career in the ring. Stafford later philosophized on why he thought Tyson would continue on, no matter how many losses he tallied.

“People have their own judgments and opinions,” he stated, “but I think he feels that if he stops fighting, he’s going to kill someone. It’s either that or he’s got nothing else to do. So many of these guys in the ring have nothing else to do.”

Fighters will find themselves in a whirlpool, falling deeper into the trap while increasingly losing perspective on how to swim their way out. For some, it is more of a struggle to quit than to endure hundreds of hours of training and sparring.

It is the only possible scenario I can think of why someone like Ivan Robinson is still an active boxer. Remember him? Fought two fights of the year with Arturo Gatti, had lightning quick hands, came oh-so close to becoming a top-tier fighter in the lightweight division.

What was he up to earlier this month? Losing to Reggie Nash, a man with an 8-9 record. Robinson has not won a fight of significance in five years. His handlers told HBO four years ago that they were going to urge him to retire. Four losses after that statement, his career goes on. If one of Eastside’s readers know the reason behind this, please let me know. I think it is sad and disgusting.

Keep in mind, I am a self-proclaimed hardcore fan of the sport. If the logic within boxing can make me feel sad and disgusted (as I’m sure it does many of you at times), what do you think it is doing to the potential new generation of fans?

Reasons to Leave vs. Reasons to Believe

There are fighters who have been in the limelight and willingly step out. Marvin Hagler, arguably the greatest middleweight of his or any era, may have had the most admirable exit of any big name boxer. He left at the end of his prime even though he was not fully satisfied with the forever controversial decision in his fight with Ray Leonard. He had an eight-figure payday waiting for him in the form of a rematch, too. Still, there were standards and values that he held himself to, so, he never returned.

On a lesser level, Mickey Ward retired just last year even though he could have easily squeezed out a couple of more six-figure paydays on name value alone. Ward felt the need to announce that he would be retiring after his third fight with Gatti. When I interviewed him on behalf of Eastside before the last fight of his career, I was expecting someone who would be excited about the fight, sad to be retiring, and willing to leave the door open for a comeback.

Instead, I talked to a warrior whose scars were more than skin deep.

“I don’t want to be in there too long,” Ward said. “I think I’ve done enough, and I’m done. I’m done-that’s all I can say. I’ve had a lot of tough fights, and, at this age, I don’t want to be in there on fight too many or take one punch too many. That’s all it takes in boxing is to get hit with that one good shot and you’re done. It can change your life around. I want to be healthy after this, ya know?”

It is almost as if Mickey knew-as if he had a sixth sense about it-that his last fight would be brutal and taxing enough to inflict permanent damage. He was just praying that it wouldn’t. He would be plagued by eye and head problems after that bout.

His health and future, the reasons to leave the sport, were more important to him than any amount of adulation or gigantic payday.

“One part of my boxing career will be over,” Ward confided. “I’ll be honest-it’ll be sad. But I look forward to it. I realize the consequences I put myself in. I’ll actually be relieved that it’s over.”

For other stars, glory and their place in history are too much to pass up. “Ex-champ Overcomes Odds to Become Champion Again,” the headline would read. For a fighter of Evander Holyfield’s stature, it is more than a headline. It is a way of life. It IS his life.

Reaching the pinnacle of a sport one has an undying passion for is the most intoxicating experience for a fighter. It gives a fighter three reasons to immerse themselves in the situation-power, pride, and people’s love. To want that again after a fall from grace is completely rational. Unfortunately, the path to the top again relies heavily on delusion.

When critics and pundits say that Holyfield does not stand a chance against the latest heavyweight champion, he has to tell himself that he does. He has to believe he can defy logic and physics long enough to execute a plan that will need a little bit of luck to succeed.

Holyfield’s goal to become undisputed champion has been announced dozens of times over half a dozen years. At what point does he cross the line from deluding himself while defying odds to becoming delusional? In a letter to his fans after his bout with James Toney, he addressed every issue regarding calls for his retirement.

“I am not in denial about what happened in my fight with James Toney,” Holyfield stated. “Immediately after the fight, I said that I had been beaten and had rarely been hit with so many punches. Since then, I have watched a tape of the fight very carefully, and I can see that I had a bad night. Toney was quicker than I was and also outworked me. I have absolutely no excuses. I had a bad night, and I got beat…”

Holyfield went on to say in the letter: “I am not unaware of the risks of continuing to fight. I understand the risks better than almost anyone…The fact of the matter is that, as much as my fans, friends, and family care about me, nobody cares about me more than I do…I appreciate very much the concern I know my team has for me and the advise from boxing writers and the public, but I want everyone to understand one thing. This is my decision to make. This is my life, and I will not allow anyone else to make this decision for me. I have listened to the people who care about me, and I will continue to listen, but only I will decide when I retire from boxing, and no amount of pressure can force me to change my mind.”

Holyfield can sell a fish some water. I will admit that I have purchased Holyfield memorabilia. Heck, that is why you will still see him in television commercials from cotton to Chili’s to ESPN. However, has he crossed the aforementioned blurry line? Will his next fight be a one-sided war he will live to regret?

I do not want to find out.

Conclusions

Some have suggested the best way to go about eliminating the problem of past-their-prime boxers is to institute an age limit. Besides being unethical (Who in their right mind would have wanted to tell Foreman he was unable to box ten years ago? How about Bernard Hopkins today?), it would also be illegal, calling for age discrimination to anyone who passed all necessary medical exams.

Something so complicated has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. I believe no reforms can be made.

Voices can still be heard.

Fans and writers need to speak their minds as much as possible. As much as we get flak for not being in the ring, we have earned the right to speak through the tickets sold, pay-per-views bought, and television ratings totaled. But above else, we deserve to speak because we care. Whether it’s through the writing of letters or the action of inaction (not ordering a pay-per-view, for instance), fans can have more power than any promoter.

Promoters, managers, trainers, and agents need to look out for their fighter, not their meal ticket. Just because the fights play out on grand stages does not make it any less real. Each fighter is a person first. Every person has a story. Place it above all else.

Boxers need to look in themselves. Holyfield was right when he said he knew himself better than anyone else. The boxers will also know better how to distinguish if the money he is earning for his family is as important as the future living conditions with his family. They should also know that leaving with grace might be their greatest contribution to the sport they love so much.

Coming soon: Part III of Lost Youth

Comments and questions can be e-mailed to the author at: eastside_double_p@hotmail.com