Saturday, October 13, 2007

Evander Holyfield and the End of Boxing

So apparently Evander Holyfield lost a title fight this weekend in Russia. This should not come as any great surprise, as Holyfield is nearly 45 years old. However, the fact that he could even get a title fight speaks volumes about the sad state that boxing is in today.

It wasn't so long ago that Mike Tyson was the next big thing in boxing, and he plowed through the competition to achieve super-stardom, including a video game franchise. He had a couple of classic fights with Holyfield (even if one did end with an ear-biting incident), who then went on to fight the next big thing, Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis was a tremendous boxer who defeated everyone in his path, but then a funny thing happened: he quit.

The fact was, the competition in boxing by the time Lewis became champion was so weak that Lewis could never hope to reach the same level of stature as his predecessors. For there to be a Batman, there has to be a Joker. For anyone to claim to be elite at anything, they must be tested. And there were simply no valid tests for Lennox Lewis. So, rather than wait around for a new boxer to emerge while putting his body on the line against low-level competition, he retired.

At first I thought, "Why not just keep boxing, pulverizing each opponent and collecting a paycheck?" The reason, however, is that his paychecks would be smaller than those of previous champions, because nobody would be anticipating the possibility of Lewis losing. So he gets less money to fight less accomplished boxers, boxers who might try wild haymakers that could injure Lewis because they're so overmatched. Lewis made the right decision to preserve his long-term health.

The long-term health of boxing, however, is a different story. The heir apparent for boxing's fans is the mixed martial arts circuit, but there's something less elegant about MMA. Boxing drew fans from all walks of life, from the railroad worker and garbage man to the CEO and the MD. Because of this, massive amounts of gambling and widespread interest helped fuel the boxing industry. For the moment, the ultimate fighting world can't pull those kinds of numbers.

Will boxing die off? I doubt it. It will endure, just as horse racing and the Olympics have over the years. And there will always be an occasional story that floats up on SportsCenter or PTI, mentioning an old boxer doing something new, or a new boxer doing something exceptional. But the long-term prospects for renewed success are bleak.

It's too bad, really. The old times getting together at Lu's house for boxing matches with the guys, having Mrs. C cook up all sorts of goodies and Lu's dad bring down pizzas, those were great times back in the day. I'm not optimistic that boxing can recapture that kind of interest, but I'll keep hoping.

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