For the week of April 13 — a period that coincided with the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and the panic it engendered — nine of the 20 top-rated sports shows in the country were classic fights, according to ShowBuzzDaily.
The oldest dated back almost half a century, to 1971, the first installment of the Ali-Frazier trilogy. And, yes, there were a couple of Mike Tyson fights, too, from 1988, including his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks.
Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine that Tyson’s prime would soon be over. In 1990, Buster Douglas took him out in Tokyo. He would never again be what he was, much less the fighter he was forecast to be.
Still, the idea of Tyson doesn’t merely endure; it’s more potent than ever. Since March 15, his Instagram following has grown to in excess of 2.3 million, most of that owing to a couple of training videos posted in the beginning of May. Give him great credit. Not only has Mike Tyson, formerly of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the Tryon School for Boys in upstate New York, disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that there are no second acts in American lives, he’s infinitely more charming than when he was playing the bully and screaming about eating people’s children.
Of course everybody suddenly wants to fight him. How else can you get rich fighting a 53-year-old?
But as much as this phenomenon says about Tyson, it says more about boxing — especially now that boxing is back, starting Tuesday night, with four-hour broadcasts twice a week.
No sport is more addicted to its own past. No sport depends on storytelling and mythmaking the way boxing does.
Not only do I get it, I profit handsomely from it.
With backing from ESPN, Fox and streaming service DAZN, boxing has an opportunity it’s never had before. But if, after several years of corporate investment, the hottest properties in the game are a 53-year-old Tyson, Floyd Mayweather training videos and a couple of YouTubers, then you don’t have a real sport. All that corporate money matters for nothing. There’s only so much shine to go around. And if you keep mining the past, it will come at the future’s expense. The sport needs a present tense.
Boxing needs to change. Now.
If there’s a ghost voice from the past that boxing should hear, it’s Angelo Dundee telling Ray Leonard, before the 13th round with Tommy Hearns, “You’re blowing it, son.”
Hearns was 22, making the fourth defense of his title. Leonard, 25, was in his seventh world title fight, capping a less-than two-year stretch that included Wilfred Benitez, two fights with Roberto Duran, plus the undefeated Ayub Kalule for a 154-pound title. The best fought the best.
You want to be a boxing legend? Great. Just understand you can only get there by fighting, not Instagramming.
Ryan Garcia, who’ll turn 22 in August, recently said that he envisions “a throwback” era with fellow lightweights (at least for now) Gervonta Davis, 25; Teofimo Lopez, 22; and Devin Haney, 21.
It should happen. But if Garcia is really sincere, he’s going to have to push for it now. With 6.3 million Instagram followers, it’s not as though he lacks leverage.
“We do need to try and eradicate the warm-up fight or the easy fight for big money,” promoter Eddie Hearn recently told Sports Illustrated, reflecting on the pandemic’s impact. “Everybody’s going to feel the squeeze. … We can’t afford weak fights anymore.”
Again, we’ll see. If the star fighters are really as good as advertised, the promoters shouldn’t be so damn worried about them getting beaten. As for those fighters, it’s on you, too. Terence Crawford, whose profanity-laced tweet I can quote only selectively, wasn’t wrong when he admonished Errol Spence: “Stop using the f—ing promoters, managers and advisors for that weak-ass excuse … they work for us.”
Ryan Garcia shows off incredible punching speed as he works through drills at his house.
Not making light of anyone’s losses here, but I hope the fight game — fighters, promoters and networks — has lost just enough to really change now. If a mere defeat didn’t hurt the Four Kings — Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns — it won’t hurt these guys now.
Combat sports are the purest exercise in storytelling, a truly organic form of theater. But fights that tell no stories — that reveal little or nothing about the fighters — should be gone from prime time. Network and streaming partners have some responsibility here, too. Don’t just lay it off on “the boxing people.”
No, the June cards aren’t perfect, but it’s a start in less-than-perfect times. Getting sparring partners and gym time on short notice in a pandemic? Not so easy. Nor was putting this production together to the satisfaction of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. But it’s happening, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how savagely hard certain people pushed themselves to get boxing back on the air safely.
But here’s the good news, as those classic fights attest: Boxing works on television. Going back to the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” in 1946, boxing has been on TV about as long as TV has been in American homes. A live audience would be nice, yes, but it’s not essential, not yet.
Television needs conflict. Boxing is elemental conflict: stripped down, stage-managed, produced for the masses.
The sport has survived the mob, the more transparent greed of the sanctioning bodies, injury, avarice and the seemingly eternal prognostication of its death.
And now, COVID-19.
What’s more, a certain kind of fighter will prosper amid the pandemic. He doesn’t have to be Tyson. He doesn’t need to be a social media celebrity. He merely has to resonate with the fans at home.
He’s a hungry fighter — which shouldn’t be hard to find in a sport that lacks both seasons and guaranteed contracts. Right about now, most fighters should be starving for opportunity.
I’m thinking of someone like Joshua Greer Jr., a top-rated bantamweight, who’s matched tougher than he might think in the main event on June 16. Greer — from Chicago, his neighborhood recently occupied by the National Guard as a result of the George Floyd-related protests — knows about hungry. He remembers being 17, living with his grandmother, the two of them down to a single Snickers bar, which he cut into equal pieces in lieu of dinner.
“Oppression and depression,” he said last week. “That’s what it’s been about lately.”
And fight night? What will that be about?
“I just need to get back in that ring. I have to make people know: I will be a champion.”
The audience watching at home — another way of describing the great American mainstream — doesn’t need Greer to be the best fighter in the world. It needs him to be brave.
More than anything, that’s what makes a bout a classic, bravery.
So go ahead: Goof on boxing all you want. Boxing deserves it.
Just remember these nights can be more than mere paydays.
A fight isn’t another game.
It’s the night that changes your life.