In case the sports-minded reader was distracted by the Triple Crown, the French Open, the World Cup, the NBA finals or interleague baseball games during the second weekend of June, please note that pugilist Mike Tyson was in the news as well. This time it wasn't about parole violations. Nor was it anything to do with his oft-stated desire to eat children. It was about the boxing match held in Memphis, Tenn., on June 8.
After an avalanche of pre-fight hype, once in the ring, reigning heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis punished Iron Mike for seven rounds. Perhaps then Lewis was satisfied that the man who had bitten his leg at a January press conference had been sufficiently softened up for the knockout punch. In the eighth, Lewis, 36, sent a bloody and thoroughly beaten Tyson crashing to the canvas for the 10-count. (Click here to see the knockout punch at YouTube.)
The ripples from the Tyson/Lewis affair resonated beyond the traditional audience for boxing. Because of Tyson's much-reported propensity to lose his grip, this was a spectacle with the brand of sizzle that trash culture consumers can't get enough of.
Television's sports talkers went so far as to claim the aforementioned weekend, with its wide variety of stellar attractions, was the greatest weekend of sporting events in history. At this desk it isn't known who keeps track of such records. However, I do have a take on whether professional boxing should still be viewed as a sport in 2002.
In a word the answer is "no."
Boxing is an archaic, sometimes compelling spectacle that features men who bleed for cash. Whether boxers bleed willingly is not the issue. People will do a lot of things for money. Whether the old "sweet science" has overstayed its welcome, that is the issue.
Isn't convicted rapist Mike Tyson, a longtime protégé of boxing boss Don King, precisely the shameless personality we've needed to look directly in the eye to finally ask ourselves, "Why in hell is boxing still around?" Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society, why should a civilized people continue to countenance a practice that really has no upside to it?
Boxing calls upon its participants to strive to injure one another in plain sight. No legitimate sport permits that. Violent games, such as football and hockey, allow plenty of contact. But both prohibit players from deliberately trying to injure an opponent.
This scribbler turned the corner on boxing after interviewing a Richmond neurologist, Nelson G. Richards, for a boxing article in 1985. At the time, Dr. Richards was making national headlines for his leadership in persuading the American Medical Association to change its position and call for the outright banning of boxing.
After listening to Richards describe what had been recently learned about how the puncher's blows can move the punchee's brain around inside his skull — apparently it compresses and ricochets like a bouncing rubber ball — boxing's traditional defenses withered for me.
"The public should be made aware of the intentionally dangerous effects of boxing," Richards said.
Beyond the vexing medical and moral considerations of boxing, there are some legal questions, too. Why does the label "boxing" immunize the participants from facing what would be the legal consequences of anyone else repeatedly striking a person with their fists? Why should the presence of ropes, a referee and an audience trump a community's laws against assault and public brawling?
Modern society no longer permits dueling with pistols or swords. Boxing is dueling with fists.
While I don't follow boxing closely these days, at one time I did. I remember watching Emile Griffith literally beat Benny "Kid" Paret to death on TV when I was 14. Paret collapsed into the ropes in such a way that they held him up.
Griffith blocked off the incompetent referee and repeatedly hit the totally helpless Paret until the job was done. It was their third fight, and supposedly, there was some bad blood between them. (Click here to see the almost surreal end of that fight at YouTube, including some commentary by Norman Mailer.)
Given the chance to decide whether this commonwealth should continue to allow professional boxing matches, my guess is, Virginia's voters would say "no." After all, once it becomes an issue, and the pros and cons are debated, how many people would really step forward to defend boxing as a legitimate sport that gives something positive back to the community?
Back to Tyson: Even at his best, 15 years ago, Tyson, 35, wasn't a skilled boxer. He was a hard puncher, a first-round knockout artist. Sonny Liston, a surly heavyweight champion in his day (1962-'64), was a feared puncher, too. But you don't hear many boxing aficionados throwing Liston's name into discussions of the great heavyweights.
For what it's worth, it says here that Tyson and Liston are roughly equal in the all-time heavyweight rankings. Both were brutal. Yet, neither ever showed the deft skills or competitive heart the most revered champions have exhibited.
This is all to say that much of the drawing-card power Tyson brought to Memphis was due to publicity about his wretched doings outside the ring and the ridiculous Holyfield ear-biting incident five years ago.
Immediately after the Memphis fight, with his face swollen and shredded, a subdued Tyson wasted no time in begging Lewis for a rematch in that creepy baby-voice of his.
Don't be surprised to see Tyson's blood flowing on the small screen, again. For every guy who paid $54.95 hoping to see Tyson win, or bite somebody's nose off, there will be another guy happy to see the washed-up bully get thrashed more severely next time around.
Television or not, eventually the boxing match itself is bound to be banished to Third-World countries and offshore barges. It's just a matter of when. Although men such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were seen as heroes in their day, that day is fading into the mists of history.
Hasn't the time run out for putting up with the stench of professional boxing?
Update: So what has changed? Why does Virginia allow professional boxing in 2010?