12.02.09 – By John Wight — So come May 14 the Pac-Man and Ricky Hatton will walk to the centre of the ring, listen to the referee’s instructions, touch gloves, and then retreat to their respective corners with seconds left before what is sure to be one of the classic fights of the decade begins..
This is what boxing is about, the kind of fight that lends credibility to a sport that only now is emerging from an era of mismatches involving over-hyped fighters slugging it out for one of the myriad world titles that have been responsible for boxing’s popularity taking a bad beating. Add to the mix the hegemony of PPV, which has filled the pockets of promoters and a few fighters at the expense of the sport in general, and you have all the ingredients for the rot that had set in over the past 10-15 years; and indeed the reason why MMA shows in Vegas now consistently sell more tickets than their boxing counterparts in all except the very big fights.
But there has been a resurgence of sorts in recent years, with some great contests having taken place over the past year or so alone. Think Mayweather-Hatton; think Margarito-Mosley; think Pacquiao-Marquez-Diaz-De La Hoya; and you have to say that boxing is finally beginning to rediscover its soul.
Alas, Joe Calzaghe has just retired, depriving the sport of a true great, a man whose legacy will provoke lively debate among fans and commentators for years to come, but whose 46-fight unbeaten record, including such classics as his demolition of Jeff Lacy and an epic encounter with Mikkel Kessler, is surely testament to the heart of a warrior. That he was able to establish his record fighting out of an unfashionable gym in a Welsh backwater merely adds to the achievement, and for all those who knock his last two fights with Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones, just look at how Hopkins demolished a much fancied Kelly Pavlik after being beaten by Calzaghe.
Still to return to its former glory is the almost separate sport of Heavyweight Boxing. In days gone by, the title of Heavyweight Champion transcended the sport in a way that no other title in world sports ever could. After all, to be Heavyweight Champion was to be acknowledged as the epitome of masculinity, and heralded as such the world over. Ali, of course, took this to whole new levels by mixing his unique speed and reflexes inside the ring with political convictions outside that rocked not only American society, but the entire world. After all, here was a black man who refused to know his place, who refused to submit and give thanks for the opportunity to fight his way out of the gutter. The pride with which Ali fought and the courage he displayed in defying the system, at a time when black leaders were being killed and persecuted for daring to speak out, helped to instil hope and pride in the poor and dispossessed not only in America but throughout the world.
Yet even whilst acknowledging Ali’s greatness, men like Liston, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, and Holmes et al. were superb athletes and fighters in their own right too. And they were followed by the arrival of that freak of nature and human wrecking machine, Mike Tyson, who lit it up again in the mid-eighties, before his own sad decline. Succeeding Tyson as the last great Heavyweight was Lennox Lewis.
But apart from the sad decline of the Heavyweights, which shows no sign of improving yet, the health of the sport has improved and is improving. And it has to be said that the ending of Don King’s stifling control of the sport and the arrival of De La Hoya on the stage of boxing promotion with Golden Boy is a major factor in its resurgence. At last we now have fighters promoting fighters, and at last we now have fights worthy of the name again. Pac-Man v Hatton is sure to be a war. Both will be coming to win, both are at the top of their game, and both know how to fight. The excitement generated by Hatton alone, with a fan base to match that of a top English soccer club, is a new phenomenon in the sport. Indeed, who will ever forget the spectacle of thousands of them invading the US in December 2007 to watch him fight another of the true greats of the sport, Floyd Mayweather Jnr? And who could doubt that this invasion will be repeated in May this year when he takes on the rightly acclaimed pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao? The fact is that when fights like this are made, global recession or not, the fans will come.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of boxing’s renaissance right is its international dimension. Whereas before the US dominated the sport, now we have great fighters from every corner of the globe. British boxing has arrived on the world stage, without a doubt, offering not only some of the great fighters of the modern era, but also the excitement and passion of its fans. Of course, the Mexicans have long been a force, but now we have the Pac-Man representing the Philippines, a nation in which he’s treated like a living God.
Yes, there is much to get excited about even in the midst of a global economic crisis. At last the sport of boxing is on the way back to where it belongs. And isn’t it about time?