Sucker punches at weigh-ins. Judges filling out their scorecards in advance. Referees stopping fights at the count of nine. The “why wait?” attitude pervades boxing, so we at Grantland figure why wait until the end of the year to kick off our awards season?
Nothing can happen over the next three weeks that will impact boxing’s Fighter of the Year race. Sure, Marcos Maidana could upset Adrien Broner this Saturday, but all that would do is establish the Argentine as a solid addition to the honorable mention pack. And sure, Broner could make a sex tape in a Popeye’s bathroom while Rosie Perez live-tweets it (sample tweet: "Don't screw AB; screwing is for carpenters."), but the impact on the Fighter of the Year conversation would presumably be minimal.
With Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at age 95, the world lost not only a champion of equality, freedom, and democracy, but also an all-time great boxing philosopher and aficionado. Beyond his political career and achievements in human rights, Mandela was a lifelong student of the sweet science and friend of several heavyweight champions, including Muhammad Ali.
Mandela’s pugilistic proclivities have been thoroughly documented over the years, including in his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Raised in the era of Joe Louis, when boxing was still far and away the world’s most popular sport, Mandela first stepped into the ring as a college student in the late 1930s. Later, while running South Africa’s first black-owned law firm with fellow anti-apartheid leader Oliver Tambo, he could often be found after work training at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre (DOCC) gym in Johannesburg with his 10-year-old son Thembekile in tow.
The scene at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night for WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin’s title defense against Curtis Stevens was a far cry from the atmosphere at Golovkin’s first fight on U.S. soil, just 14 months ago at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York.
That night, Golovkin’s opponent had a name even harder to spell and pronounce than the champ’s — Grzegorz Proksa, from Poland. Press row was not a row. It was five or so reporters sitting at a ringside picnic table. The crowd was sparse enough for me to spot a married couple I’d sat next to earlier that evening at the Season’s Harvest buffet. Few in attendance had a rooting interest — or really, any idea what to expect — because hardly anyone knew who these guys were.
Saturday at the Garden, Golovkin’s challenger wasn’t a marquee name in the middleweight division, but at least the Brooklyn-born Stevens was more familiar than Proksa. The real contrast could be seen in the Theater. The media section was five rows deep. The near sellout crowd was packed with fans waving the sky blue–and-gold flag of Golovkin’s native Kazakhstan, and it included celebrities like Louis C.K., Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, and (WTF?) Susan Sarandon. The promoters had even shelled out for boxing’s ultimate hood ornament, Michael Buffer (on his 69th birthday, no less!), to confer status on the bout with his trademarked “Let’s get ready to rumble!"
Provided clinch-happy heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko isn't involved, it’s rare that the lasting image from a boxing match is that of a hug. But a hug is precisely what I picture when the subject of the third and final fight between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward comes up. Over a period of 13 months they spent a total of 90 minutes beating the shit out of each other, drawing blood, raising welts, puncturing eardrums, abusing livers (above and beyond what Gatti did during a typical night on the town), breaking hands, and knocking each other to the canvas — and each time when it was over, they fell into an embrace. First they bowed their heads and brought their foreheads together, then Ward draped his gloves around Gatti’s neck, then Gatti did the same, then assorted managers and matchmakers closed in to take part, then Arturo and Micky spoke a few words to each other, then they separated for a second, and finally they came in close for a tight, traditional, chin-on-the-other-guy’s-shoulder hug. Boxers almost always come to respect the hell out of each other by the end of a hard fight. But this was something different.
It felt like redemption, but why? On Saturday night, Timothy Bradley beat a 40-year-old Juan Manuel Marquez in a split-decision victory that frustrated and bored the overwhelmingly Mexican crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The last time we saw Bradley, he was staggering around Southern California with what can only be described as an "ongoing concussion," the result of several brutal blows to the head from Ruslan Provodnikov. But Bradley won that fight, again by close, debatable decision. Before that, Bradley was on the happy end of one of the worst decisions in recent memory when Duane Ford and the notorious C.J. Ross somehow deemed that he had beaten Manny Pacquiao. On the face, no boxer seems less deserving of redemption than Bradley. He has been in two pay-per-view fights in the past two years that have netted him nearly $10 million in purse money. He wins all his close decisions. So why, when Michael Buffer announced that Timothy Bradley was still the WBO welterweight champion of the world, did so many in boxing feel like Bradley had finally had his moment?
Last weekend we had a major boxing match, a huge college football game, and a full slate of NFL games, including one of the most anticipated clashes of the regular season. The consensus estimate is that Vegas saw a 50 percent increase in sports betting handle, compared to the same week last year. That’s huge, but short of the historic heights some predicted.
General interest in Mayweather vs. Alvarez was, in some ways, stronger than the betting interest. Typically, action on a Vegas fight is strongest at the host property — where those attending will often bet the night of the event. Other Strip properties benefit from the overflow, generating strong handle on the fight. Sportsbooks outside of Vegas do not benefit in the same way. Saturday’s fight followed this formula, with Strip sportsbooks reporting five to eight times the action on the fight compared to the weekend’s most heavily bet football game — while offshore books reported less action on the fight than their most heavily bet football games.
On June 16, 2012, a week after the Tim Bradley–Manny Pacquiao decision that launched every conspiracy theory short of a fourth judge on the grassy knoll, HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant uttered possibly the most perfect quote I’ve heard in my 16 years covering the sport: “Nothing will kill boxing, and nothing can save it.” It’s unfortunate that those who insist on offering opinions about boxing despite never watching boxing didn’t hear Merchant deliver the line. In nine words, he rejected all of the dead-sport-in-need-of-saving rhetoric that ironically surfaces most on those nights when the sport is at its healthiest.
This Saturday is just such a night. In the buildup to boxing’s biggest event in six years, Floyd “Money” Mayweather vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, mainstream media outlets have informed the world that Mayweather is boxing’s last superstar, that this is the sport’s final moment of relevance, that all the fans are dying off or moving over to MMA. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what we heard and read when Mayweather took on Oscar De La Hoya in 2007 in the so-called "Fight to Save Boxing."
At its best, boxing is beautiful to watch. Graceful and savage at the same time, it can force fighters to reach back and discover reserves of strength and desire that seem beyond human. If we’re lucky, we might see some of that Saturday night, when Floyd Mayweather faces Canelo Alvarez in the biggest boxing event since Mayweather’s fight against Oscar De La Hoya in 2007.
What we hope not to see is this — or anything similar to it:
Tommy Morrison died late Sunday night at the age of 44, ending one of the most tragic and bizarre lives in a sport defined by tragedy and the surreal. All professional sports rely on the exploitation of the body, but I wonder if there has been an American athlete in the past 25 years who faced such a disparate, weird range of degradations. After turning pro at the age of 19, Morrison came up the way of every Great White Hope before him, garnering too much media attention for the anomaly of his skin color and his knockout power. It was a label he resisted. "It's racist," Morrison would later tell Sports Illustrated’s Richard O'Brien. "Second, most White Hopes never make it." But like it or not, Tommy Morrison, who claimed to be the grandnephew of John Wayne, didn't have much choice in how he would be processed by the boxing public.
Boxing's best recurring scene goes something like this: Two fighters who have beaten the living shit out of one another for 12 rounds meet in the center of the ring after the final bell and embrace one another in a show of mutual respect and sportsmanship. The more savage the beating, the closer one fighter comes to killing the other, and the more stubbornly the beaten fighter clings to his insane hope to turn the fight around, the better. It's yet another example of the barbaric, contradictory, yet somehow elegant rituals found throughout the sport.
After the final bell of their 12-round bout on Saturday night in San Antonio, Nihito Arakawa, his eye swollen out a good two inches past his orbital socket, held out his gloves and hugged the man who had been beating him in the head for 36 straight minutes. Omar Figueroa, for his part, said, "Great fight man. Nothing but respect, dude."
Was it a lucky punch or the inevitable outcome of 28 minutes of pressure? With 1:22 left in the final round of a 10-round bout on Friday night, John Molina Jr. swung blindly with a left hook and caught Mickey Bey on the chin. Bey slumped over, his arms dangling at his sides, his chin pinned to his chest, looking like sad Linus dragging home his blanket, and fell forward into the ropes. The button punch is one of the many oddities of the human brain revealed to us through boxing — a fighter can take 30 hard punches to the cheek, the side of the head, and the neck without getting wobbled. He can have his orbital broken and swell out a gruesome hematoma and still keep his wits about him. But if he gets hit where the jawbone meets the neck, God help him.
Traditionally, there has been no place for long-term thinking in boxing. If fighters permitted themselves much contemplation of the lasting effects of what they do for a living, few would become fighters in the first place. The same goes for fans, who either block out images of their punch-drunk former heroes or rationalize them by asserting that these old pugs might have been dead or in jail much sooner if not for boxing. On the business side of the sport, the short-term mentality is equally pronounced. Promoters and networks have spent the past three or four decades “enhancing” fights with alphabet-soup championship belts, and in the process they’ve cheapened all titles. And the pay-per-view model, television’s ultimate get-rich-quick scheme, has steadily separated boxing from its cost-conscious fans. Sure, charging $75 for a fight helps make Floyd Mayweather the highest-earning athlete in the world, but it also denies potential fans access to the sport.
In light of all of this, yesterday’s announcement that Lucas Matthysse and Danny Garcia will fight for the junior welterweight championship of the world on September 14 is probably the most un-boxing-like thing boxing has done since HBO and Showtime partnered to make the Lennox Lewis–Mike Tyson fight more than a decade ago. It’s not just that a major, obvious, must-see fight was signed (although, given what didn’t happen with Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, that does qualify as an accomplishment). It’s that the September 14 date was already home to the biggest fight in six years, Mayweather vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. And Matthysse-Garcia isn’t competing with it. It’s supporting it. It’s appearing on the pay-per-view undercard.
The first minute of Saturday’s middleweight title fight between champion Gennady Golovkin and challenger Matthew Macklin was uneventful. Macklin pushed his jab out, usually an inch or so short of Golovkin’s face, and Golovkin mostly kept his distance, springing forward at one point but holding back any punches when Macklin retreated. When Golovkin started to move his hands, he did so almost gingerly — a jab here, a left hook to keep Macklin from rushing in, a few more jabs. It was light work by boxing standards, just a champion feeling out his opponent. Then, a brief exchange in the corner: It was difficult to see from press row, but Golovkin sent a looping right down at a cornered, crouching Macklin, and it landed. When Macklin pivoted out of the corner and straightened out, he no longer looked the part of the confident, experienced challenger who was billed before the fight as the most dangerous opponent in Golovkin’s undefeated professional career. Now, Macklin’s hair was mussed down over his forehead, his lips were twisted in some frantic mixture of hurt and alarm, and the left side of his face was suddenly flush with a deep redness.