Saturday, February 10, 2007


In boxing, the old faces just never fade away. Oh sure, they might backpedal out of the picture once in a while, but they’re always there, peeking out from behind a far ring post, hovering in the shadows around the ring apron or skulking around in the back of a grimy gym. The old names of boxing are never that far away and for right now at least, nobody in mainstream America could care less about the new names.

Ask the man on the street who Jermain Taylor is and he’d likely guess that he must be a long lost relative of the Jackson Five. Quiz him on the identity of Zab Judah and he’ll say that he must be an evangelical preacher. Ask him about Klitschko, Maskaev, Liakhovich or Valuev and he’d tell you they have to be brands of Russian vodka, ballet dancers or figure skaters.

The three most well known boxing names today are all from other generations - Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard. Collectively, the trio hasn’t thrown a punch in anger in 43 years. But, just turn on your television any day of the week and you can see an apron wearing George hawking no stick grills on infomercials. Switch the channel and there’s George telling you that won’t have to spend a lot, but you’ll get a lot - and he guarantees it. All you have to do is buy a new muffler for your car.

Sugar Ray Leonard is the host of The Contender which is televised weekly on ESPN. Leonard’s youthful good looks, porcelain smile and charming presence make you forget that the ’76 Olympics in Montreal, where Leonard won a boxing gold medal, were thirty years ago.

Then there is Muhammad Ali, who is 64 years old and riddled with Parkinson’s Disease. "The Greatest" recently inked a $50 million deal with an entertainment and licensing firm to market his image and likeness on everything from lunch boxes to playing cards - and Ali last held the heavyweight championship in 1979. Despite the fact that he has barely uttered a public world in twenty years, Ali would still be more recognized as a boxer by the average American than would a room full of today’s top boxers - Manny Pacquiao, Winky Wright and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

Boxers today have an identity crisis when it comes to public recognition. It explains why James Toney drew 10,000 fans to downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday night and why Evander Holyfield recently attracted a sold out crowd to see him perform in Dallas, Texas. People know their names.

Despite the advanced age and diminished skills of fighters like Toney and Holyfield, it doesn’t seem to bother the mainstream sports fan. Most of them are just looking to see somebody get punched while also reliving the nostalgia of the old days. Sports fans are a bloodthirsty lot, they’ll take their blood wherever they can get it and they cling to their heroes like winos to their bottles - always looking for one more drop.

Remember that James Toney is thirty-eight years old and weighed an obese 233 pounds the other night fighting a guy with two forgettable first names – Sam Peter. While some of his old school skills flicker on and off in quick flashes, James Toney is mostly an unreasonable facsimile of his former 157-pound self. Remember also that James Toney won his middleweight title 15 years and 80 pounds ago. That James Toney is even able to compete in his condition and at his age is a direct reflection of the hopelessness of today’s heavyweight division and the lack of an identifiable heavyweight champion that the public can recognize.

Then there’s Holyfield, a creaking, forty-three year old relic of a prizefighter by anyone’s standards who is trying to resurrect what’s left of himself and his feeble body for one final run at a title. Evander turned professional in 1984 - when Ronald Reagan was President. Physically, Holyfield is a stunning specimen, so maybe that’s why he was able to hoodwink the masses that showed up to see him in a Dallas ring facing off against a full-time insurance salesman named Jeremy Bates. But after the sweet memories Holyfield gave us over the decades against names like Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson all the critics can taste are the pungent humiliation of losses against names like against Ruiz, Byrd and Donald.

All of this leaves the beleaguered sport of boxing in the lurch. The public is clinging to the old names and the former greats because there hasn’t been a marketing bridge constructed to the new generation. They can’t let names like Toney and Holyfield go because there isn’t anybody there to replace them. As a result, the mainstream public will tune in to see Sugar Ray and Big George and buy T-shirts with Ali’s picture on them. Amid much hype and high ratings, James Toney and Evander Holyfield appeared before large crowds and both of their fights were broadcast live on cable television.

There are so few big names in boxing today that even the fighters themselves are throwing down the gauntlet to the old guard. James Toney was asked after his controversial loss to Sam Peter if he thought he won the fight and he had this to say, "How the hell do you win a fight when you lookin’ like a goddamn monster? You lookin’ like Larry Holmes, ugly as hell and shit. I’m not Larry Holmes, I’m not fat and outta’ shape. I heard what you said about me Larry Holmes, last night."

The previous night, before a national audience on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, Holmes, from the comfort of what looked like a rocking chair, criticized Toney for being out of shape. Holmes, of course, was heavyweight champ from 1978-1985, is a 56 year-old grandfather and hasn’t fought in four years.

In boxing, like the old bar at Cheers, sometimes you wanna’ go where everybody knows your name.

September 2006

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