Remembering the Sweet Science

Boxing has always been romanticized. Among the “major” sports in the US, only baseball is clearly more romanticized. Baseball has had more written about it, in service of making baseball seem more cerebral or more connected to its past or more interesting. Full disclosure: I enjoy baseball but talk of green cathedrals and the beauty of the untimed game are not interesting to me unless delivered by Annie Savoy.

Unlike baseball, boxing is a brutal and often corrupt sport. Instead of being run by billionaire franchise owners who value the appearance of fairness and legitimacy in pursuit of exploiting athletes for profit, boxing has no appearance of fairness. Boxing is controlled by promoters who decide the next fight not by a tournament or a set of statistics but instead based on what will generate the most money. (To be fair, there are governing bodies and there are sometimes mini-tournaments to determine who wins vacant titles but the governing bodies only control fringe aspects of fights and those mini-tournaments often feature boxers without the cachet to generate significant pay-per-view revenues.) Outcomes in fights that don’t end in knockouts are determined by three ringside judges who may or may not use factors other than what happened in the ring to calculate their scores. And, of course, fighters may decide to take a dive for various reasons.

Floyd Mayweather is, according to his post-fight statement last Saturday night, done boxing. Mayweather is, without dispute, the greatest boxer of his era. Given that Mayweather ruled in a relatively down era in boxing is not his fault. (That Mayweather avoided opponents until he was certain their skills had eroded to the point that they were not threats to him is his fault.) Mayweather won on Saturday improving his record to 50-0, besting the legendary Rocky Marciano, who retired in 1956 with a record of 49-0. It is worth noting that Marciano was 32 when he retired, that he had those 49 fights in about 8 1/2 years, and that he never made millions of dollars in a pay-per-view fight.

Mayweather is a product of his era. Mayweather is 40 and his careers spans almost 21 years. He won his first title in his 18th fight, eventually fought all comers, and most importantly established his own promotion company in 2007. Mayweather, who’s nickname is “Money”, understood that the cancer at the center of the sport is the promoters, so he became one so that he could profit from his own labor. It was a genius move, one that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for Mayweather. It was a pragmatic move for a pragmatic boxer, a boxer who approached each opponent, at least in the ring, like a puzzle to be solved. Mayweather studied how his opponent was going to attack and defend, and would then develop a plan on the fly, never being careless, racking up rounds and protecting the money. (Note I am not opining in this about Mayweather’s character. He is a serial abuser of women, which means his not someone to be looked up to and is no one’s hero, but as a boxer and promoter he is superior.)

Last Saturday Mayweather came out of retirement to fight Conor McGregor. McGregor is a UFC superstar but this was his first professional boxing bout. Mayweather, ever the pragmatist, was cautious through the first three rounds, using the time to understand McGregor’s angles of approach and gaps in defense. This is normal for Mayweather and, not for the first time, this approach had fans in the arena cheering for the underdog or, more accurately, cheering for an opponent who would bring out the best in Mayweather. McGregor was not that opponent.

From the fourth round until the fight was stopped in the tenth, McGregor was game but overmatched, not able to hurt Mayweather and eventually looking discouraged by getting hit by clean Mayweather straight right hands. And I wouldn’t be bothering to write anything about what was an entertaining but hardly classic fight except for two things. The first was Matt Zoller Seitz mentioning boxing in my Twitter feed, which made me remember boxing when I was growing up. The second was McGregor talking after the fight about Mayweather’s “composure”. McGregor marveled about this, about how Mayweather was not so fast and couldn’t hurt him, but he was composed.

So let’s go back to the eighties, the first decade I remember well. Without looking it up, here are the boxers I remember from my childhood: Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, and of course the man who ruled the heavyweight division for years, Larry Holmes.

I remember before Hagler was the middleweight champion, when there were two other middleweights of note; Alan Minter and Vito Antuofermo. I may be completely wrong about this but I believe I watched Hagler defeat Minter to win the unified title, and I believe I watched it on regular TV on a weekend afternoon. (The fight took place at Wembley.) I remember being stunned when Leonard lost to Duran, and then being more stunned when Duran gave up in the rematch. I remember Leonard beating Hearns, and I remember seeing the clip so many times afterwards of Angelo Dundee telling Leonard in the corner “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it!” (This is the second greatest corner moment in championship boxing, second only to Duke telling Creed in his first fight with Balboa “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”)

And Larry Holmes held the heavyweight title for almost eight years, and was never as beloved as Muhammad Ali before him or as entertaining as Mike Tyson who came after. (Holmes beat an old, shadow of Ali and later had the favor returned when he was knocked out by an ascendant Tyson.)

Anyway, boxing in the eighties was amazing. All of the boxers I mentioned above were title holders at some point between 1980 and 1983, some in multiple weight classes. And boxing was on regular TV for the most part. Boxing was brutal and corrupt, but it was also compelling. There was a range of styles which made different match-ups compelling. (It’s when I learned the expression “Styles make fights”. It’s also when I learned “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”)

So what am I on about? Only this: for a moment, while McGregor spoke in wonderment (and punch inebriation) about Mayweather’s composure, I was reminded about how I used to feel about boxing. I was reminded that even though odes to the “sweet science” and to what happens in the “squared circle” are over the top, that there is something that boxing offers, particularly compared to the other major “combat sport” (a phrase I had not heard before the fight and would be happy not to hear again) MMA, which is naked brutality. A pragmatist like Mayweather (and Roy Jones, Jr. before him) would not excel in MMA, at least not in the same way. There is still room for thinking and patience and, yes, composure in boxing, and it is those things more than the slow motion replays of knockout punches that contain whatever redeeming qualities boxing has. McGregor made me feel like my twelve year-old self and I guess maybe that makes me guilty of writing the same type of paean to boxing I just said I hated. Oh well.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.