The steady decline of boxing

Published 3:14 pm Thursday, January 27, 2011

Column: Jon Laging, Talking Sports

Prizefighting, pugilism, the sweet science, the manly art of self-defense, are all names for boxing. It’s a way of disguising a sport that lends itself easily to injury and even to blood spectacles.

I had a friend in high school who thought he might become a prizefighter or at least go into amateur boxing-Golden Gloves. He spent time one summer with an older brother in Milwaukee who took him to a prize fight. When he got back, he told me that he didn’t like it. He said that when one fighter got hurt the other fighter just kept hitting him when he was helpless. I said, “Mel, that’s a big part of boxing.”

Sugar Ray Robinson was asked after he knocked out Tommy Bell and Bell’s subsequent death, whether he noticed that Bell was in trouble? Robinson replied: “It is my job to put Bell in trouble.”

Boxing was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up. A heavyweight championship fight was rivaled only by a World Series game. The biggest sporting event of the post-war year was the Billy Conn-Joe Louis rematch after WWII. Before the war Conn had taken Louis to the 13th round and was ahead by points in their title bout before Louis knocked him out. Many articles were written about their forthcoming rematch when they would both get out of the service.

All us little boys in Dayton, Ohio pretended to be either Louis or Conn. As I remember, race didn’t enter into it or at least not very much. Radios were tuned in and tension was high that night as Louis eventually caught up with Conn and knocked him out. As Louis once said; “He can run, but he can’t hide.”

There were no more magical words than an announcer intoning Madison Square Garden and the ring announcer stating that the fighter came “by way” and hometown. Not from, but “By way.” George Barton, Minneapolis Star writer would devote many learned columns to the Manly Art. The Golden Gloves’ results rated headlines in the paper’s sports pages. The Friday Night Fights were the Monday Night Football of their time. (I can still hear their sponsor’s advertising jingle.)

Later Mohammad Ali took center stage. Howard Cosell said that he had made Ali. I think the opposite is true; Ali made Cosell. After Ali was sidelined, boxing went into decline. Cosell no longer broadcast the Olympic fights and boxing started or some would say, continued downhill. No longer do little boys pretend to be the heavyweight champ. Ali has become the last vestige of boxing relevance and I doubt if a hundred people in southeast Minnesota could name the present heavyweight champ.

I don’t think the lack of interest is because we have turned our back on sports violence. Pro football even with its injuries is still very popular, as is hockey; professional wrestling has its own TV channel and tough man contests draw very well.

I think the little interest in boxing is a combination of things. Professional boxing is cruel and even the best of boxers suffer the consequence. The public likes to see participants win and retire with honors, and there are very few long-term winners in prizefighting. We need our sports to be bounded by rules that limit harm to its participants. Plus professional boxing was proven time and time again to be corrupt with fixed fights. All this contributed to boxing’s decline.

I think it is for the best that boxing has left the center stage, for while professional prizefighters displayed skill, it came at a very heavy cost.