When my male students talk about getting together to watch “the fights” on TV, they’re talking about mixed martial arts, not boxing. Kind of sad, really.
I’ve never seen enough MMA to give it a valid critique, but it appears to be a cross between boxing and a Bruce Lee movie, and does seem to require more athleticism than those abominable “Tough Man” contests.
But mainstream sports media like ESPN and Sports Illustrated have given it some legitimacy with their coverage, and it appears to have considerable traction among young males. Still, as I like to joke, it reminds me of what you can see for free around closing time if you hang around the parking lot of any Southern honky-tonk filled with alcohol and testosterone-fueled good ole boys.
But back to boxing. I was reminded of the reduced state of this “legacy” sport after I saw a news item announcing that Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins would be matched against each other in a middleweight bout for the first time in 17 years. Jones, of Pensacola, Fla., defeated Hopkins in 1993 in Washington, D.C., for the IBF middleweight title.
That was when both were in the prime of their boxing careers. Hopkins is now 45 and Jones 41. They’ll fight in Las Vegas on April 3. And one has to wonder who’ll be watching.
Boxing has been marginalized over the last couple of decades, a situation largely of its own making – too many champions because of an alphabet soup of sanctioning organizations, and the biggest fights and boxers available to fans only via expensive pay-per-view telecasts.
As I said, that’s sad to me because I grew up watching larger-than-life boxers like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. And sports history is full of boxing legends like Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.
There’s a wealth of good writing about boxing, starting with A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science,” named by SI as the all-time best book about sports. And as a sports journalist, I’ve enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to cover boxing. You can get close to the action – but don’t wear a white shirt – and the fighters are accessible and among the more honest athletes to interview. (The same can’t be said of some I’ve encountered in the management and promotion of the sport.)
The notice about the Jones fight has special resonance with me, as I had a few opportunities to cover him at the beginning of his professional career when I wrote for the News Journal in his hometown of Pensacola.
Jones first made national headlines as a member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team in Seoul in 1988, when he was robbed of a victory in his gold medal match after pummeling South Korea’s Park Si-Hun for three rounds. He lost a 3-2 judges’ decision to Park, who pretty much had to be propped up to receive his medal and later apologized to Jones for winning.
Jones’ professional career started slowly, as his father and then-manager Roy Jones Sr., rarely let him fight outside Pensacola for the first two years and matched him against opponents who were marginal talents at best and, at worst, unfit for the ring. He later broke with his father and won his first championship fight as a super middleweight in late 1992. He’s held some sort of title in a couple of different weight classes almost continuously since then.
But 21 years is a long time to be a professional boxer and Jones – who has dabbled as a rapper and a minor league professional basketball team owner and player – lost his most recent fight, an IBF cruiserweight title bout, in a first-round knockout by young Australian contender Danny Green in December. Click here for the entire fight.
Too many boxers have – because they just couldn’t quit or needed the money – hung on long after their skills have diminished. In most sports, it’s just embarrassing. In boxing it can be damaging to long-term health. It happened to Ali and I hope it doesn’t happen that way for Jones.