Forget about the hype.
Forget about the sleazy, self-serving promoters. Forget about the manufactured pre-fight drama, forget about HBO’s 24-7, forget the press conferences. Forget about the 120 second long ring entrances, the matching flashy robes, the trunks plastered with sponsors’ logos.
Please forget about Floyd “Money” Mayweather.
Take those things, and for now–just for a little while–put them aside. Put them in a box and shut it. We will come back to them later.
What’s left? Two men, wearing remarkably little, standing in a ring, engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The ring in which they fight is small: a raised platform around 20 foot square, with an inch of canvas-wrapped padding under their feet. In the ring with the fighters is one referee, watching closely to ensure the immediate safety of the combatants, as well as their adherence to the rules of the fight. Three judges sit on three different sides of the ring, as close to the fight as is possible, without physically entering the ring. The judges are tasked with scoring the fight on a round-by-round basis, and at the end of the scheduled number of rounds–should human physiology not first intercede–those scores are collected, tallied, and read aloud to announce a victor. One referee, two fighters, three judges. Everything else is noise.
I love boxing. I detest the bullshit that surrounds the sport, but in the protective, publicly defiant way one detests a ne’er-do-well family member who gets hammered every Thanksgiving and hits on your wife. Yeah, he’s a scumbag, but he’s my scumbag, so watch your mouth when you talk about him, pal. And don’t let my enthusiasm for the sport fool you; there is a lot of bullshit that comes with being a professional boxing fan. A lot. Allow me to enumerate.
Sanctioning bodies suck. Most major professional sports have a single organization acting as a governing body. Think MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR. These organizations are responsible for things like: dictating the rules of play, scheduling, negotiating broadcast arrangements, maintaining a farm system in which young pros can develop their skills. Broadly speaking, they ensure all of the moving parts are working together to achieve a common goal: delivering a high-quality fan experience, where supremely talented athletes/teams face off against each other in competitive, compelling matchups, typically over a given period of time. Following the regular season, the top athletes/teams advance through some kind of playoff system, culminating in one being crowned WORLD CHAMPION. Pretty straightforward stuff. Sports 101.
In contrast to the organizations above, modern professional boxing is a convoluted nightmare of a thing, embarrassingly disorganized and chaotic.
Imagine for a second that you want to start a professional kickball league. You decide that the best way to do this is by picking four 10 year olds from different parts of the world, and telling them to come up with the rules and regulations. Separately. Then, once those four different kids have created four different leagues, you tell each one they are now the boss of professional kickball, good luck kid.
That is boxing. Instead of one professional umbrella organization, there are approximately nine-thousand “sanctioning bodies” with their own rules, rankings, and title holders. Most of them are worthless, existing only to give second- and third-tier fighters a belt, which the fighter could–if he’s lucky–parlay into a chance to get destroyed by a top 10 guy who’s looking for a tuneup between PPV bouts. So, out of those nine-thousand sanctioning bodies, only four really matter: the WBC, WBO, WBA, and IBF. As mentioned, each one has its own ranking system, title belt, governing rules for who-must-fight-whom-and-when. Explaining it completely and cogently would take hours, if I could even do it. Shit, I’ve been a boxing fan for 15-plus years now, and I understand shockingly little about how the whole system works. The upshot of all this is that, at any given time, there can exist four different recognized world champions in one weight class. Or, we could get lucky and have a “lineal” title holder, or a “unified” champion, or an “undisputed” champion, all of which mean different things than the “consensus #1” or “universally recognized champ”. Huh? Yes. All true. Pro boxing is so fucked that we rely on a loose collection of sportswriters and a bullshit magazine no one reads to tell us who the “real” champs are. As a fan, it’s fucking infuriating; can you imagine if the AL East was decided on a vote cast by a writer for the Kansas City Star? Can you? Some guy with a name like Milt Stevens (lifelong Royals fan no doubt) gives the nod to the Sox despite having a worse record than the Yankees, because the Sox scored more runs overall or some shit? New York and Boston would burn to the fucking ground. Immediately. The federal government would take over MLB, and the Kansas City Star. Poor Milt would need plastic surgery and a new identity.
In boxing? Happens every goddamn day. No one gives a shit. In any situation, “normal” is an interpretive concept, often defined by those least qualified to do so; the ones on the inside, the ones who lost all objectivity long ago. No sport exemplifies this phenomenon better than boxing. It sounds absurd, right? “But it’s norm–” NO IT FUCKING ISN’T NORMAL YOU IDIOT, IT IS INSANE.
But, for a moment, I’m going to concede the existence of IBF/WBC/WBO/WBA as separate, sovereign entities endowed with the mystical ability to crown champions. Not because it makes any sort of sense, but because I’m veering into “angry, delusional rant” territory and we’ve gotta keep shit moving over here.
Promoters are parasites, fighters are hosts. Bob Arum. The Klitschko brothers. Oscar de la Hoya. The DiBellas. The promoter’s primary function, their raison d’etre if you will, is to–stay with me here–promote fighters. On the surface, it’s simple: fighter X signs a promotional contract with Y Promotions. Y tries to get X the most favorable matchup currently available to them, with terms, conditions and stipulations most beneficial to X. The promoter is similar to a Hollywood agent, using relationships, power, and industry knowledge to advance the career of their fighter.
“But Kirk”, you ask, “Is this really a bad thing? Don’t fighters need an advocate looking out for them, helping them get quality, career-making fights?” I’M FINNA BREAK IT DOWN FOR YOU RIGHT NOW HOMIE, SO JUST CHILL THE FUCK OUT WITH THE QUESTIONS. I’ll address each in order. 1) Yes, it’s a bad thing. 2) Yes, they do. Obviously. Now, why is the current promoter-fighter dynamic bad for boxing: if you read the example sentence detailing what Y does for X, it seems pretty generic. Like, yes, duh, that’s what a promoter does, just like a film agent. Nothing revelatory there. EXCEPT BOXING IS NOT FUCKING HOLLYWOOD.
Acting is an “art” (or a “craft” if you want to be a pretentious cunt about it), and there is no way objectively assess an actor’s level of artistic talent and/or attractiveness, common attributes associated with successful screen actors. There just isn’t. George Clooney’s been A-list for the past two decades, and he’s as good looking as they come, but near as I can tell all he does is smirk and occasionally look down at his feet while crinkling the corners of his eyes. He delivers dialogue like he’s reading a nutrition label aloud; completely neutral inflection, zero emotional range. So yes, Clooney needs (probably not anymore, but just go with it) an agent to hype him up to the studios and get him that fat paycheck for the cinematic masterpiece that was Disney’s Tomorrowland. As a boxing promoter, you do the same thing. The thing no one ever mentions is that, strictly speaking, there should be no reason this role even exists. At all. Boxing, unlike acting, encourages (demands?) objective assessment of the boxer’s performance. Two men of equal weight fight. One is the winner, one is the loser. Two other men fight at that same weight. Again, we have a winner and a loser. Losers, go fight each other. Winners, fight each other. We now have a group of fighters who are ranked 1-4, based solely on their ability to punch each other in the head. But, with four different sanctioning bodies in play, and no hard-and-fast rules about mandatory title defenses and challengers, fighters, and by extension, their promoters, are left to their own devices when it comes to whom they fight, when, where, etc.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. The promoter isn’t promoting quality boxing. He’s promoting a boxer. They want money first, wins second, and quality scalps third. As a fan, my priorities are exactly opposite: I want to see the best matches above all. My favorite fighter’s record is a secondary consideration, and I only care about money if it works as an incentive to quality fights. Look at Mayweather-Pacquiao. There was conservatively, a bajillion dollars on the table for that fight. The hype machine was ROLLING. That shit cost $125 on pay-per-view!!! And what did we see? Two fighters with mismatched styles and skill levels, each well past their prime, dancing around in a 12-round tickle fest. It was horrible, and horribly predictable to even the most casual boxing fan.
In 2005, when Pacquiao was tearing through the best fighters in what seemed like 8 different divisions, and the whispers about Mayweather’s opponent selection were becoming louder, I would’ve paid $300 to watch that fight on PPV. Without hesitation. Are you kidding me? Maniacally aggressive, up and coming power puncher who throws like 700 punches a round versus the strategically brilliant, gifted counter puncher with freakishly fast hands and an unbeaten, if thin, record. YES PLEASE SIGN ME UP THANKS. But it didn’t happen. Because Floyd and his promoters didn’t want it to. And there was nobody around to make him. So he mired things down with ridiculous demands, used contract negotiation as a stall tactic for a decade, all so he could avoid fighting Manny in his prime without losing face publicly. Bob Arum wasn’t much better. Floyd spent that decade gathering straps by cherry picking opponents, alternating between guys no one’s ever heard of, and once-premier fighters juuuuuust past their sell-by date. (Probably does the same thing at the supermarket, scanning the shelves till he sees yesterday’s date, then hauling ass up to the front desk. Sweet, free avocados.) And while that 10 year pregnancy may have resulted in a $125 stillborn baby, we are now, mercifully, free from the presence of Floyd Mayweather.
What’s to stop it from happening again though? Nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, it’s happening again right now. Same goddamn thing, this time with Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.
Canelo is 25 years old, undefeated, and Mexican, with heavy hands and good head movement. He likes to mix it up. Good looking kid too, kinda looks like a ginger Tom Cruise. Currently fights at Jr. Middleweight (154), although he’s more of a true middleweight. Usually walks into the ring well north of 170 (which may explain his eagerness to mix it up when the guy in front of him only rehydrates to 165, but I digress). He’s the current golden child of the Golden Boy stable, and DLH is managing this situation very carefully, considering the potential young Canelo has to become a successful, top-level revenue stream/ boxer, for many years to come. If you watch his fights, the impression you’ll walk away with is something like “wow”, or “holy fuck, that kid can crack”, or “there’s nobody within 10 lbs of middleweight that can fuck with him”.
But you’d be wrong. Yes, he dispatched James Kirkland in spectacular fashion. Showed some boxing chops going the distance against (an aging) Miguel Cotto. I don’t anticipate him having much difficulty on May 7th with Amir Kahn’s wine-glass chin, either. The only problem with those guys–all good fighters, too–is that none of them are Gennady Genyadovich Golovkin.
GGG is a 34 year old Kazakh middleweight who hasn’t had an opponent go the distance against him in eight years. He doesn’t just knock guys out; he breaks their spirit, destroys their will to fight. Professional boxers, men who eat heavy leather for a living, quit on their stools after three rounds. Months of brutal training camp and preparation, and after nine minutes of GGG they’re done. Golovkin’s devastation of his opponents doesn’t just come from his power (hellacious) or his footwork (impressive), it comes from his relentless pursuit of the guy in the ring with him. He’s not leaping across the ring, à la Pacquiao or young Ricky Hatton; he’s actually quite subdued, to tell the truth. When you see him pre-fight, or in interviews, he doesn’t look like much. Kinda goofy. Big ears. Guileless smile. Plays the confused immigrant/nice guy/just happy to be here role well.
Then the bell rings. And his face goes blank. Not angry, not intense, not intimidating just … blank. He comes forward methodically, feet always working together to make sure he’s in perfect position to both take and throw punches. Chin tucked, he comes forward.
And comes forward.
And comes forward.
Instead of beginning with the dance, feeling out one’s opponent from a safe distance–customary for boxers–Golovkin applies pressure from the start.
Step-step. Jab. Step. Jab-straight right. Step. Pause. Step. Step. The opponent flicks his eyes, sees an escape to his right, start moving, and by the time his eyes flick back, GGG has occupied that escape route and rewarded his efforts with a left hook to the body. And so on.
Gennady Golovkin is the best middleweight in the world right now, and Canelo Alvarez should be doing everything in his power to get him in the ring. In the post fight interview this past Saturday night, following Golovkin’s complete deconstruction of Dominic Wade (after 5 minutes and 30 seconds’ total fight time), GGG was literally begging Canelo to fight him. “Give me my belt, let’s make good fight”. But Canelo’s not doing it. He won’t. Or his promoter won’t. I don’t know, or care, which. All I know is that the one fight everyone wants to see happen right now isn’t. And that’s why this sport sucks.
Boxing, minus the bullshit, minus the noise, is athletic competition in its purest form. No metaphors, no teammates, no excuses for failure or success. It’s not overrun by Nike, Gatorade, or Buick. You can’t watch it whenever you want on network television. The best boxers in the world still come from gritty, run down boxing gyms in neighborhoods that no one would describe as “up and coming”; the selection process, as it were, is still remarkably democratic. The skilled are rewarded, the weak are punished, and the best go on to do great things. I get frustrated with the colossal, seemingly insurmountable list of what’s wrong with boxing, because I see it as a complete and willful degradation of the sport’s purity, the very thing that I hold most sacred about boxing.
But I will never stop loving it.