Monthly Archives: January 2013
On a wall crowded with yellowed memorabilia, above a round wooden table worn thin by uncountable beer mugs and elbows, in the 140 year old ambiance of McSorley’s Tavern in New York’s Greenwich Village hangs a faded reproduction of artist George Bellow’s timeless homage to the visceral spectacle of prizefighting – Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring.
Sharing ale in the oldest Irish Bar in New York City with a few slightly inebriated friends and inspired by the image of an airborne Dempsey, the conversation inevitably turns to boxing. Not about what’s happening in today’s boxing world, we reminisce. No one can name the new champs, knows who the contenders are or have much interest at all in the sport as it exists today. This, from a group of guys who grew up as rabid fans during an era when the heavyweight contenders read like a who’s who of all time boxing greats, Kenny Norton, Gerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Joe Frasier, George Foreman and of course, Mohammed Ali. Not to mention the other division fighters like Hearns, Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, “the Beast” Mugabi and Roberto Duran. We grew up in a golden age when fights mattered and champions held worldwide recognition as elite superstars.
In truth, a number of circumstances conspired to defeat boxing as the premier combat sport -greed, Don King, pay-per-view and the escalation of violence in our society perpetuated by films and video games, along with the growth and popularity of MMA.
It’s hard to separate sheer avarice and the vertically coiffed Don King, but the TV networks and other promoters are equally guilty for robbing boxing’s seemingly endless till. However, Don King led the way. He slowed the pacing of events, scheduling big fights less frequently and for bigger purses. He squelched the careers of potential fighters by squeezing them out of fights unless they signed with him, effectively controlling who got the big fights and when, for his own personal monetary gain, all to the detriment of the fighters and the fans.
When Tyson was on his meteoric rise to fame he fought under a multiple bout contract with ABC the bouts were televised live and free, some scheduled only two weeks apart. Pay-per-view began to change this easy accessibility. As the best bouts became a commodity, it prevented the average Joe from seeing the fighters and thus began to diminish the number of future fans even further.
CGI (computer graphic imagery) has evolved to such a degree that it is now possible to create realistic depictions of impossible physical feats on film. Movie heroes can leap through windows and off of buildings, tumble beneath Mack trucks and dodge bullets, fight with the speed of hummingbirds wings against fifty foes and afterwards, brush off their shirts and walk away unscathed. Such are the amped up expectations of today’s society and boxing pales in comparison. The rules that govern professional boxing where drawn up in 1867 by the Marquess of Queensberry and are as obsolete as they sound next to the Terminator, Kill Bill and 300 digital Spartans.
Enter MMA. It all began, unlikely enough, in Brazil. Not content to relax on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Carlos and Helio Gracie were busy improvising on traditional Jiu Jitsu and developing a no-holds-barred fighting style incorporating ground fighting and strikes. They honed this new art form in their Vale tudo martial arts tournaments starting in the 1920s and later the rest of the Gracie brood continued on in the family tradition. Elsewhere in the world, Antonio Inoki hosted some of the first mixed martial arts matches in Japan in the 1970s. These matches combining various combat disciplines appeared crude and unsavory to some boxing fans – like glorified street fighting. Nevertheless, it began to gain converts and popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of martial artist turned movie star, Bruce Lee and his theories of mixing martial art styles. To many, it still seemed like Hollywood fluff. The sport finally gained international exposure and widespread credibility in America in 1993, when Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter Royce Gracie (that’s right, from the original family that invented this style of fighting) dominated the Ultimate Fighting Championship and sparked a revolution. In Japan, continued interest in the sport resulted in the creation of the Pride Fighting Franchise in 1997.
The UFC was hatched in 1993 and ironically the promotion of the violent aspects of the sport proved its undoing. On the verge of bankruptcy in 2001, the franchise was purchased for a mere two million dollars by Casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta guided by the persuasive Dana White. Reinvigorated by Dana and the marketing power of the Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV, the UFC reached a new pinnacle of popularity in 2006 with the re-match between then light-heavyweight champion Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and former champion Tito Ortiz that rivaled the pay-per-view sales of some of the biggest boxing events of all time. Boxing’s appeal had wilted, along with Don King’s afro. But is it ready to tap out?
Boxing pundits and longtime ABC and now HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley have said that boxing is dead, but die-hard adherents still refuse to embrace MMA. I’ve heard people say, “who wants to watch those guys punching and elbowing each other on the ground? It’s Barbaric!” Folks who grew up with the simplicity of the jab, the hook and the uppercut face a steep learning curve with the complexity of MMA moves and nomenclature. The biggest developments in recent boxing history have been thumb-less gloves and the rope-a-dope. To get up to speed, fledgling MMA fans must contend with toe hooks, Kimuras, arm bars, guillotines and Superman punches, butterfly guard, X guard and rubber guard, not to mention the omoplata, monoplata and gogoplata! No, those last three aren’t a trio of Jabba the Hut’s assassins, but a series of pretzel-like arm holds executed with the legs of a fighter in guard. See what I mean about the alienation factor? Even so MMA continues to gain loyal fans and garner reportage by the mainstream press. Fueled by athletic fighters, slick promotion, furious matches and a competitive atmosphere not felt since Mike Tyson cleaned up the heavyweight division in the 1980’s, MMA and the UFC are writing the latest chapter of pugilistic competition, formerly reserved for boxing to dictate.
Fast forward twenty years…will the painting of Firpo and Dempsey in McSorley’s be replaced by a picture of BJ Penn’s son Darth submitting his opponent with a mind-blowing gogoplata or will Mr. White and the UFC repeat the mistakes that spelled boxing’s demise? Time will tell, but until then, that iconic image of the flying Dempsey remains forever suspended in the hearts and minds of a generation of boxing fans, along with the fate of their beloved sport.