Thursday wasn’t exactly a good day for boxing. It was not, as some would have it, a “nail in the coffin”-type day, either.
While news emerged that talks between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson were getting serious for a third meeting that would be one of the more shameless, hideous monstrosities of a boxing abortion in recent years, mixed martial arts — no matter what anyone says, something of a rival to boxing — was looking forward instead of dwelling on the past, and signed a pact with CBS to broadcast its events.
By talking about Tyson-Holyfield III at all, I’m violating a ban I’d instituted on talking about Tyson. He casts a long shadow over boxing still today, and why? Because he once was a great fighter, decades ago, really, and because he’s now ongoing tabloid-like fodder. Since his disappearance from the sport, only Oscar De La Hoya has captivated people in any remote capacity like Iron Mike.
But there are some things that must be killed dead, and Tyson-Holyfield III is one of them, now that talks have progressed. Is there anyone — Tyson fans, Holyfield fans, boxing fans, non-boxing fans — who would want to watch this fight? So why is this abomination even under discussion? It won’t make much, if any money. If it would, I suppose there’s a justification for it. Did anyone see what Tyson looked like in his last couple fights, getting beaten up by the likes of Kevin McBride two years ago? Or take note of the fact that he’s frequently and openly talked about his disinterest in boxing? Is there something remotely interesting about watching two former legends — one, Holyfield, greatly diminished and the other, Tyson, who wouldn’t even be considered one of the top 100 heavyweights today in a seriously diminished division — reenact at ages 43 and 41 what were already pretty one-sided beatdowns by Holyfield?
There are fights between big-named veterans that enhance the sport, and there are fights between big-name veterans that suck all the oxygen out of the sport, as I’ve ruminated upon before. Tyson-Holyfield is a very, very, very unwelcome distraction.
There is a tendency in humanity, and in sporting fans in general, to hold on to the past. It is not unique to boxing, of this era or any other. If you don’t believe me, page to the end of A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science.” In the very last paragraph — I don’t have it handy, so I don’t have an exact quote — he noted that the era of Jack Dempsey et al had been considered “The Golden Era” of the sport, and that people remained enamored with it — despite the fact that, in truth, that era had its flaws, too. This, in an era Liebling wrote about in the present tense when Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson where still fighting. Larry Holmes is one of the best heavyweights ever, but he had the misfortune of fighting in the shadow of Muhammad Ali. When Tyson left, people lamented the reign of Lennox Lewis, but once Lewis departed, even his departure was lamented. This strikes me as a foolish way of thinking. What will it take to make people live in the present when it comes to boxing? I wish I could cure this ailment. People should be happy that there are two potentially great fights coming up this weekend, one of which is likely to be a “good ole fashion donnybrook,” in the words of my colleague Sean, and the other of which is aiming for historical greatness. But they go unnoticed, with the headlines devoted to Tyson-Holyfield III instead of where they should be.
Compounding the misery is that CBS deal for mixed martial arts. It is but four events a year, not even inked with the biggest of the mixed martial arts organizations. But it is a huge breakthrough for the sport.
Once upon a time, boxing was on network television. It even flirted with a boxing event last year, briefly, featuring light heavyweight (175 lbs.) Antonio Tarver, coming off a star turn in the movie Rocky Balboa, if not a star turn in the ring against Bernard Hopkins, who had recently belted him all over the place. And Bob Arum, the boss at the promotional company Top Rank, has grand network television ambitions for his middleweight (160 lbs.) star Kelly Pavlik.
This CBS deal does not preclude boxing doing its own network TV business, but MMA has now snagged the biggest network, and I doubt CBS wants to host both boxing and MMA. If it’s successful, don’t doubt for a second that the other networks will strike deals with the other MMA organizations.
As good as 2007 was for boxing, and as good in many ways as it has been in early 2008, it’s clear that the sport needs to do much more. After some deserved congratulations I delivered here on 2007, it’s time to amp up the final part of what I wrote: A lasting resurgence will require many additional steps. MMA and boxing can coexist, and they have. They really are vastly different sports, something I’ve said and others have said before, and impossible to compare except that both feature fighting. Boxing likes to pretend that it’s not competing against MMA, though, and that’s not quite right. There are a great many fans that only watch one or the other, but how many MMA fans would be boxing fans if MMA didn’t exist?
MMA, as it grows more popular, has seen its own boxing-like problems. Rival organizations. How many MMA organizations are there, anyway, four or five? There’s now a belt-sanctioning outfit, a pox that long ago visited boxing and still sickens it, and the biggest MMA organization, UFC, has had falling-outs with some of its biggest names. There’s a chance the broader public might not take to the more rough-and-tumble MMA, since it looks a lot more like a street fight than the more organized violence of boxing, and all that wrestling around doesn’t appeal to some (like me). This move could fail.
But boxing needs to get on the network trail and fast. BoxingTalk.com recommended here that De La Hoya, as the sport’s biggest name and, now, promoter, should lead the way, because he is the one with the most juice to do it. That’s a great suggestion. Arum, obviously, should continue with his efforts.
One way or the other, it’s gotta happen. Tyson-Holyfield III is worse than a joke. I’ve tried to do my part talking up Saturday night’s potentially historic fight, but it’s terrifying that the boxing powers-that-be haven’t been able to accomplish more themselves. It’s time to get serious about it.
(An after-note. Gary Shaw is one of the promoters of the Saturday night Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez fight. He is also the man behind EliteXC, the MMA organization that struck the CBS deal. Earlier this week, Shaw trounced De La Hoya for holding a news conference this week to announce his own upcoming May fight the same week of Vazquez-Marquez, apparently violating some kind of unspoken rule among boxing promoters. Shaw was peeved that De La Hoya was upstaging Vazquez-Marquez III. But, um… am I the only one that finds it strange that Vazquez-Marquez III goes woefully under-promoted in the same week that the MMA news [in the eyes of some] upstages the entirety of boxing, not to mention a major fight promoted by the same dude?)