Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Beast Just Got Fed

Many of us younger (or even just young-ish) boxing fans seem to have a somewhat utopian view of what the sport used to be like, as compared to what it's like now. 

A lot of that may come from having guys like Bert Sugar spin fanciful yarns about promoters having rickety bleachers built around a shabby boxing ring so that tens of thousands of spectators could toss a nickel at a box to get in and catch a fight for the ages, that also happened to be extremely important to the fabric of the sport.  

It's kinda like your parents outlining why their old school R&B was better than your hip hop - or why their classic rock and oldies were better than your rock and roll. 

But said rose-colored outlook on yesterday's boxing (and your folks' music) may also be because sometimes it was true. 

The sweet science really isn't operating on the same plane of popularity that it used to, and one of the clear indicators of that fact is the dearth of free boxing here in the U.S. 

Getting the sport back onto a mainstream network is something pundits and aficionados have emphasized as one of the more important factors in helping to prove to a skeptical public that boxing isn't just a shady sideshow. 

As has been the case in many other instances though, mixed martial arts (or more specifically, the UFC) has beaten boxing to the punch, securing a 7-year network deal with Fox to air live fights. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Victoria aut Mors - Stanley Ketchel

Right around the end of the 19th century, Butte, Montana was a dirty and rugged mining town, albeit a flourishing one. Nestled in a natural bowl surrounded by copper, gold and silver mines, Butte attracted thousands of immigrants from all over the globe at the turn of the century, making it Montana's largest city with just under 100,000 residents. 

It was a blue collar town with blue collar vices - "No Smoking" signs were hung on corridors leading to mines (written in 16 languages), and there were about as many brothels and saloons as there were mines. 

That was the type of town that Stanislaus Kiecal was kicking ass in at the age of 14. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Friday Night Fights' 2011 Surge

Photo: AP

Us boxing junkies that have been waiting on a fix all week are used to watching helplessly as ESPN's Friday Night Fights is delayed by stuff like college softball and little league playoff games that run into the 13th inning. 

In fact, the last two Friday Night Fights cards of the season were delayed substantially by tennis.

But it was a small price to pay for this splendid season of our favorite Friday night boxing ritual. This year, ESPN had more action than a whorehouse on payday. 

Credit in part to ESPN's boxing programmer Doug Loughrey, along with promoters like Goossen-Tutor and Art Pellulo (and not to mention more licensing fee leeway), who kept solid matchups a-flowin', as in almost eight full months, there were only two Friday's where boxing wasn't on ESPN. 

We got five straight months of fights every Friday from March to August, and most were at least good on paper. 

That's good matchmaking from a boxing entity that actually does care about the fans, apparently. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Random Classics - Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton

Frequency of enjoyable skirmishes aside, the definition of a good fight has been the same in every era of boxing:

Action - the more two-way and sustained, the better.

And boxing fans usually have a list of fights - whether they've actually scrawled it out or not - to show folks who exclaim things like "Boxing is fixed!" and "Boxing is boring!"...and the chronically untrue assertion made by fights fans that have been around for a while, "There just aren't any good fights anymore!"

In this era, we point to fights like Corrales vs. Castillo I, Vazquez vs. Marquez (pick one), or Ward vs. Gatti I maybe, to dispel such claims. 

Holmes vs. Norton would've been one of the go-to fights for the die-hards of the late 70's had they needed it.

The early 70's saw some of the best heavyweight fighters and matchups in the history of the division, but the action slowed considerably as the decade came to a close. Aside from a very nice burst of activity in the early and mid-90's with guys like Holyfield, Bowe, Tyson and Lewis, it's been mostly drab ever since. 

In the 1970's, a heavyweight fight won the "Fight of the Year" honors 7 out of 10 years. 

Compare that to the 1980's, where a heavyweight fight never took home that trophy.

It's difficult to follow greatness, but especially so when today's heavyweight top 20 lineup looks more like an amateur bowling team than a collection of gladiators.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

This is the Art of Ruin

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Showtime Bantamweight Tournament ended tonight with more of a groan than a bang, as a night most folks in boxing expected to be unforgettable, ultimately was. 

Abner Mares, now 22-0-1 (13 KO), was gifted the IBF bantamweight belt (and defended something called the WBC Silver bantamweight title) with a majority decision over fellow tournament finalist Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko, who falls to 28-3 (22 KO). 

To put it lightly, It wasn't a great night for anyone involved.

The Showtime crew did little more than hunt for low blows all night. 

Abner Mares was unable to really celebrate winning, met with looks of disbelief and boos hurled from the Las Vegas crowd following the fight. 

Needless to say, it was crappy for Agbeko, who fought an admirable fight, but was never rewarded for remaining a fair sportsman. 

But referee Russell Mora deserves a round of applause for his downright rank officiating of the Bantamweight Tournament finale - a showing so bad it put his other recent trespasses to shame. 

The Weight

Probably the most dreaded portion of training camp may also be the least-covered. 

It might be that it's not that interesting to most folks. But it also could be that fighters are notorious jerks during the weight cutting process. 

Regardless, fighters are cutting weight every day, and often to the point of physiological detriment.

It's a reality of combat sports, wrestling, etc. - one of the accepted baseline conditions of being a top level athlete willing to risk health to reap whichever reward in sight.

Cutting inordinate amounts of weight was once referred to as "the new way to cheat," but it's unclear who's actually being cheated, whether in the long run, or a few punches away. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Showtime for the Bantams

Photo: Tom Casino

Lately it almost seems as if boxing matchmakers have taken pleas from fans to simply make good fights to heart. 

Results aside, we've been treated to a number of meaningful fights between top guys that should be fighting each other. 

It's not as if we should be sending out high fives to promoters, matchmakers, managers and whomever else for simply doing their jobs, but not having to endure foregone conclusion after foregone conclusion should be appreciated.

In most other popular sports, playoffs determine a best.

Until the early 2000's, single-loss elimination tournaments were how boxing created a champion. Unsurprisingly, they all but disappeared on a meaningful level right about the time Cedric Kushner held a heavyweight exhibition tournament called "Fistful of Dollars" between a bunch of unsavory characters for a winner-take-all $100,000 prize. 

The countless, arbitrary "eliminators" ordered by sanctioning bodies that often wind up being anything but a stall tactic don't count.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kelly Pavlik, Welcome to the Grand Delusion

Photo: AP/Seth Wenig

As boxing stumbles its way through attempts at catching up with the saner parts of the sports world, becoming more computerized and automated, fans and media become more privy to behind-the-scenes aspects of the fight game that they'd never known before. 

In kinder eras of the sport, fights not getting made was usually just as simple as branding a guy a "coward" or "afraid." But as we learn more and negotiation processes and contracts, we learn it's sometimes more complicated than that.  

Occasionally though, it really does come down to some good old fashioned sinful pride.

Kelly Pavlik's diva-like premature evacuation from his fight against Darryl Cunningham last week carried with it a stench of delusional hubris. 

And with the bailout, Pavlik may have depleted one of Youngstown, Ohio's last resources.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Forget Implied Transgressions - It's Official

Photo: AP/Isaac Brekken

Sometimes it's difficult to fathom that bombs-away warriors like Matt Saad Muhammad and Arturo Gatti, who would fight through just about anything, stepped into the exact same boxing ring as guys who don't appear to have reservations about winning the not-so-kosher way.

In a boxing era where losing is like being inked with a scarlet letter, it's possible the sport has become so unforgiving that decisions made in the midst of giving and receiving punishment go on to define fighters.

Or perhaps we simply allow watching guys ply their craft at the highest levels of the game to set unrealistic expectations that we then apply to all contenders, scrubs and journeymen alike. 

Whatever the reason, Zab Judah's low blow fiasco from two weekends ago fueled debates over what constitutes "quitting," and whether or not what Zab did should fall in line with that definition, among other existential boxing discussions. 

Fans, journalists and other non-fighters in the game are frequently criticized for labeling the guys who actually lace the gloves up and get in the ring, and fighters should probably get more leeway than they do in situations that are ambiguous or borderline. 

But much like the soccer player that stops, drops, rolls and grabs an ankle after little or no contact, folks on the outside looking in are justified in their complaints when fighters dishonorably discharge themselves from fights, looking for DQ wins or official punishment for a foul that either didn't happen, or was grossly exaggerated.