The History of a Superfan and Why Boxing Continues to Die a Slow Death Part.1
I've wanted to write this article for some time now. A commentary where I could simultaneously describe how I came to have such passion for the pariah of the sporting world, and yet, even in my rabid fandome, be able to chide my beloved sport as crooked and shortsighted. Boxing is one of the greatest of all sports to me. Its been difficult to watch over the last few years because of its stubborn refusal to move beyond antiquated practices. I hope that insight and pressure from fans and boxing insiders will push the sport to make changes.
But for now, let me tell you my story...
The Hall of Fame and family ties
I grew up about an hour and half away from the International Boxing Hall of Fame(HOF). It was only 15 minutes away from where my paternal grandparents lived. So every trip to their house, we passed by. The small building, visible from the thruway, would always garner a comment from my father, and the talk of about boxing would fill the car.
For him and the many who grew up that close, I believe it played an important part to their collective identity. Canastota, NY, known for its Italian population and onion farming, is located in Western NY, its the home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. People from Canastota and the surrounding towns speak with exuberance about the history of boxing, and take great pride in being down home, gritty folks.
When my grandfather was growing up in the nearby town of Vernon, NY. His high school had a boxing team. My grandfather and some of his brothers fought on the HS club team. One of their teammates went on to be the famous 1950s Welterweight Carmen Basilio, a man who actually holds a victory over all-time great, Sugar Ray Robinson. That might not seem noteworthy to those outside the boxing fraternity, but to me, it made the sport and its history, that much closer.
I remember visiting the HOF as a kid. Its actually a small, rather diminutive place; not really capturing the bombast of a sport where people exchange blows to see who is superior. One of the highlights during my trips as a youth was the cast iron fists of the former champions. If you ever wanna see something scary, check out the fist of Primo Carnera and imagine getting hit by that!
Each year the HOF inducts its new class of boxing's top fighters, referees, promoters, commentators, or anyone else that has contributed to the sport in a significant way. Fighters from any country, any weight class are eligible. As part of the actual induction, the town and HOF host a weekend of events for inductees. For some of these fighters, it's been one of, if not the, first times they've been to the U.S.. I imagine their surprise, as they're literally paraded through the streets, in a foreign country, applauded, as heroes.
My fathers' uncle lived right down the road from the HOF. My great-uncle was a character and always had his share of boxing news. It wasn't just random news, it was always "insider" information, a friend of a friend type thing. Growing up, it just seemed like it was part of life for that side of my family. And so, it became part of my life too.
The road less watched
Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to start really following the sport, it was already on the downswing. Gyms were few and far between. Many of the notable champions from the 70's and 80's were gone or at least past their best years. Neary a school hosted a boxing team. And sports like football and basketball were gaining substantial TV airtime by comparison.
Although films like the Rocky franchise kept boxing in the minds of non-fans, it wasn't mainstream anymore. It was seen as the sport for the down and out; the fighters, men and women who couldn't get by on their brains forced make a living using their brawn. The fans too were type-caste; violence lovers, more interested in viewing beatings, instead of taking in more civilized sports.
It was also during the early to mid 90's the sport of boxing saw a dearth of transcendent stars. Outside Mike Tyson, Oscar De la Hoya and Felix Trinidad there weren't many fighters who were attracting more than casual fans. It didn't help that the internet had yet to reach its full potential as a news source. Outside of weak television coverage, boxing information was hard to come by. Conversely, sports reporting of superstars in other sports pushed boxing further to the wayside. Micheal Jordan, Shaquille O' Neal, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Brett Farve were all media darlings; helping to elevate their sports marketability and accessibility.
My non-boxing family, friends and most of American society were more interested in basketball and football than boxing, by far. And partially because of this, I lost contact too.
Fast forward near a decade to 2003. HBO and Showtime were being offered with most cable packages. These networks had become the major outlets for big fights. While ESPN still had their once a week boxing time slot, most fights were of a middling level. If you wanted superstar fights, you had to go to HBO or Showtime. Simultaneously, the internet had flowered into a all-in-one news outlet. You could get information, 24/7: fighter facts (American or foreign), insider stories, and news about upcoming fights. Revitalized television coverage and upgraded internet media essentially reintroduced boxing into my world.
I have a clear recollection of sitting in the University computer lab and stumbling onto ESPN.com. Fumbling through their boxing section, I saw a tab, Top 10 rankings. As I scrolled through the weight classes, I read the bios for each and every one of the fighters. Most were guys I had never heard of. Familiar or not, it was exciting. It gave a home for boxing news and a working idea of boxing's current roster of stars.
Shortly after this, by fate or happenstance I was hanging with some friends. Watching some TV we flipped to the HBO On Demand channel. No movies of interest we could decide. So we jumped to the sports section. The Boxing tab called out to me like a siren. Driven by my recent findings, I extolled the group to play a fight. They consented, fingers crossed, that somebody would get knocked out. Although that was the first full fight I had watched in over 10 years, I can't remember who fought. All I know is, it was a raucous bout, and everyone in my company was as enthralled as I.
And with those two events, boxing had become tangible again. I began to follow it relentlessly. Checking online everyday for new stories, upcoming fights and sometimes just rehashing what I already knew. Any fight I could catch that didn't require a PPV fee, I watched.
Monkey see, monkey do
After awhile though, it wasn't enough just to watch the sport, I wanted to partake. So I did what most people do, I bought a heavy bag and started hitting it. I thought I was pretty good too. Soon afterwards, I began to seek out a place to test this notion.
It was my last semester, and I had heard, almost like some sort of legend, of the dingy University at Buffalo Boxing Club. I was lifting weights, running and hitting the bag regularly, and because so, was fairly high on myself. I found the club in the dank basement of the University at Buffalo South Campus gym. It was gritty and worn, something I loved right away; something which boxing had always seemed to me. The coach was no nonsense. I liked him instantly.
I had gone in thinking my heavy bag training had prepared me sufficiently. My coach, on the first day, in the bluntest way possible, let me know right away, that whatever I thought I knew, was wrong! Boxing was more than just hitting a bag wildly. I would need to start from scratch.
My education began immediately. And like any good boxing tutelage, it began with the jab. Coach wouldn't teach me another punch for almost 3 weeks. Day after day, my left arm stiff and sore from constant use, I'd stop coach and ask if he could show me how to throw a right hand today. "Let me see the jab" he'd say, I'd throw it, he'd shake his head, correct me, and say "not until the jab is perfect!" Not long into my training, as I was still perfecting the jab, coach asked if I wanted to spar one his main fighters. Still pretty high on myself I was excited and confident. Hell I outweighed my rival by 15 pounds! How tough could it be?
Before I tell how things went, I need to explain old-school boxing tutelage. Old timers didn't believe in easing you into fighting. You got thrown into the ring and found a way to survive for 3 minutes, or, you took a knee and quit. You were expected to get beat up until you learned the subtleties. That might take a week or a few years, depends on how much you minded getting smacked around.
With that idea in mind, I had been set up. Coach wanted to test my mettle. I was beaten around for 3 minutes by someone clearly better and more savvy than I was. Coach just stood there, watching how I reacted to being outfought and beaten up. For my part, I never stopped, never turned my back, just covered up, moved and shot my jab whenever I could.
I actually got it on tape too. I must have watched that video 100x. It was one of the most humbling and thrilling experiences in my life. I was finally learning to box.
Learning to box only cemented my love of the sport.
While I've sparred hundreds of rounds and still box as a part of my workout, I never did have a fight, amateur or professional. After so much time watching boxing, I came to have a lot respect for what it took to be in "fighting shape". Anybody could look good throwing some punches on a bag, or going a couple rounds in sparring but take off that headgear and put a professional in front of you, someone who's throwing bombs back, and well, that's a different story. Never became a tough guy either. All the boxing and fight watching never changed my ego. As I've met fighters over the years, some of the baddest men in the squared circle were the most humble human beings outside of it.
Any time you invest a decade plus into something, it becomes more of a hobby, and so, I follow boxing more intently now. Tracking fighter careers; looking at how they developed over time and analyzing their styles. Are they on the upswing or were they "shot'? Becoming familiar with the different trainers; who's in their stable, what type of style do they train and how they are as a cornermen. In fact, there's barely a referee, promoter, judge and commentator I don't know.
I still watch live fights whenever I can. As I've lived without premium channels like Showtime and HBO for many years, I only get to view big matchups every so often. ESPN has gone on to do great things with their Friday Night Fights series; I actually enjoy viewing these middling level fights more than the blockbusters now. Guys that are still hungry, still trying to "make it", just a little rawer, they tend to put on a great show. Mostly though I just read articles and fight recaps. Because I know most of the fighters and have a pretty good idea of how any given match-up is gonna turn out, watching them live isn't a must, especially when they come out on the internet sooner than later. I even watch old fights on Youtube from time to time. I get a kick out of the fighters of recent antiquity battling in the epics from years ago.
I'd like to tell you that that's it. I just sit back and enjoy my favorite sport like any other sports fan. But, like anything you grow to know inside and out, you see the good and the bad. As much and for as long as I've analyzed the fight game, its only been in the last 3 or 4 years I've really come to observe the major issues dragging the sport down. These same aspects have pushed me away from enjoying the sport like I used to, and, has led me to understand why boxing isn't really mainstream anymore.
Please join me for Part 2 of The History of a Superfan and Why Boxing Continues to Die a Slow Death, as we explore the major issues eroding the sport from within.