The Shame of Boxing

By Newfield, Jack | The Nation, November 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Shame of Boxing


Newfield, Jack, The Nation


Someday they're going to write a blues song just for fighters. It will be for a slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.

--Sonny Liston

Boxing is my guilty pleasure. I love it and I hate it. I appreciate it, but I'm also the first one to shout "Stop the fight!" when it becomes an unequal beating rather than a competitive sport.

At its infrequent best, boxing can be the art of hitting and not getting hit--a ballet with blood, geometry with guile. At its frequent worst, it is fakery, burlesque, cruelty, injustice, exploitation and death.

It has always been a sport on the neon, outlaw margins. Fifty years ago sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called it "the red light district of sports." It still is, though in a slicker way.

Despite its dark side--or more likely because of its dark side--boxing has always been the sport most stimulating and attractive to serious writers, filmmakers, painters and songwriters. It is deeply embedded in the American culture. It appeals to the bloodlust in human nature.

Boxing has been an inspiration to writers of the caliber of Norman Mailer, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Gerald Early, A.J. Liebling, Jack London, Pete Hamill, James Elroy, Budd Schulberg, Nick Tosches, Leonard Gardner, W.C. Heinz, Gay Talese, Ted Hoagland and David Remnick.

More outstanding movies have been made about boxing than any other game or racket: Body and Soul, Champion, Raging Bull, The Set-Up, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Harder They Fall, the first Rocky film, Fat City and On the Waterfront (in which Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a boxer who took a dive for the mob). Two of Bob Dylan's best songs are about fighters: "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "The Hurricane."

Even now, in an era without a Jack Dempsey/Joe Louis/Muhammad Ali-level star who is bigger than boxing, the sport is still a $500-million-a-year big business. It is still the ticket out of slum poverty, still what Joyce Carol Oates called "America's tragic theater."

HBO's annual budget for boxing is $75 million. Showtime's budget is $25 million. The second Holyfield-Tyson fight grossed $100 million in one night, because of pay-per-view technology. The mega-fight is still key to the Las Vegas casino economy of high rollers. HBO (AOL-Time Warner), Showtime (Viacom) and ESPN (Disney) make a lot of money off boxing programming. Boxing feeds the corporate system.

The problem is that the sport is unregulated. Except for Nevada and Pennsylvania, the state commissions are jokes, run by small-time politicians interested in free seats facing the TV cameras.

This was the affliction back in 1967, when every boxing commission in the country wrongfully stripped Muhammad Ali of his title, and his license to box and earn a living, without any due process. The New York commission--chaired by a former Republican Congressman--revoked Ali's license on the same day he refused induction into the Army on religious grounds. Four years later the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 0, that Ali did have a legitimate, sincere religious position against the Vietnam War. But every state commission--appointed by politicians--banned him without even holding a hearing where he could present his case.

These state boxing commissions are still as unprofessional as they were in Ali's time. This same politicized passivity is what has allowed boxing to evolve its strange economic structure that is half monopoly and half piracy.

Boxing is like no other sport. It has no national commissioner to set standards for health and safety. In boxing there are no leagues or schedules. Every match is a separate deal. There is no rational structure. The chaos itself becomes an impediment to reform. The casual fan does not understand how the sport is run.

In baseball, the standings reflect a quantifiable reality. In boxing, the ratings (which supposedly rank fighters according to ability, from one to ten with a number-one ranking guaranteeing a lucrative fight for the title) are at best impressionistic, and at worst totally corrupt--sold for cash. …

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