Is Boxing Committing Suicide?

By Wrigley Brogan on August 11, 2018
Is Boxing Committing Suicide?
Promoters are masters of propaganda. Never believe anything they say. (Wrigley Brogan)

Boxing is the easiest sport to manipulate. Attempting to fix a baseball game requires the participation of many people. Not so with boxing…

Since its inception Boxing has lived in a maelstrom washing against the waves of honor, corruption, decency, gangsterism, heroism, deceit, integrity, treachery, morality, duplicity, nobility, cheating, betrayal, and pride and anything else between good and evil in the Thesaurus.

Boxing is known to exist since 1500 BC, and was probably practiced long before that. Babies, after all, enter the world with clenched fists as if they are ready for a fight. It was a mainstay at the Greek Olympics by 686. At the time not much was mentioned about any chicanery. If true, it might have been the cleanest time in boxing history.

Homer, in the Iliad, speaks highly of boxing and boxing represented the ideal of the classical Greek hero. Fairness was judged as highly as valor. During funeral games Epeus faced off against Euryalus in a bout that could have taken place last week in Las Vegas. These men would never consider fighting in a dirty way. (OK; that might be a bit different than today.) They faced off in a classical stare down and pranced around to let the spectators size them up. The crowd circled around. At the signal the fight began.

Homer wrote, “Both champions, belted tight, stepped into the ring, squared off at each other and let loose, trading jabs with their clenched fists, then slugged it out—flurries of jolting punches, terrific grinding of jaws, sweat rivering, bodies glistening—suddenly Euryalus glanced for an opening, dropped his guard and Epeus hurled his smashing roundhouse hook to the head—a knockout blow!” Damon Runyon or A.J. Libeling could not have said it better.

Homer shows boxing and wrestling to be the two most important manly sports of the ancient world—constituting the front line of the drive to become a true hero. Of course it is the Gods who give the participants their strength and skill and one can only imagine Athena accepting a C-note to hold back a bit of concentration from Euryalus.

Writing during the early 19th century, Pierce Egan praised the combatants of the day and often mentioned their rise, downfall and collapse, often tumbling into disgrace. In Boxiana he wrote:

“No men are more subject to the caprice or changes of fortune than the pugilists; victory brings them fame, riches and patrons; the bruises are not heeded in the smiles of success; and basking in the sunshine of prosperity, their lives pass on pleasantly, till defeat comes and reverses the scene: covered with aches and pains, distressed in mind and body, assailed by poverty, wretchedness and misery, friends forsake them, their towering frame expired, their characters suspected by losing, and no longer the playthings of fashion they fly to inebriation for relief, and a premature end puts a period to their misfortune.”

Nothing has changed. Notice the line “characters suspected by losing…” A hint of larceny remains. Boxing is the easiest sport to manipulate and fixed fights are common, at least in the minds of fans. Attempting to fix a baseball game requires the participation of many people. Not so with boxing. Only two people need be involved: the person wanting to fix the fight and the boxer. If the boxer will not cooperate then others can be brought in: referees, judges, etc.

Boxing continued to swing from one end of legality to the other but has always remained popular with fans. On May 26, 1818, when boxing was outlawed in England, more than 30,000 fans trudged through the rain and mud to see Ned Turner battle Jack Scroggins. When the fight did not occur it was announced that another fight would be held three miles away. Most of the 30,000 fans arrived to discover that the magistrates, hearing of the contest, had arrived to shut it down. Word went out that another fight was being held five miles away. The weary fans trudged the five miles to watch Holt and O’Donnell battle it out. Boxing refuses to be smothered.

Pay-offs and dirty dealings have always been a part of boxing like the fight between the Englishman Dick Burge and American Bobby Dodds in 1898. Gamblers backing Burge sent for Dodds’ manager. The manager, suspecting a bribe, took another fighter with him and claimed he was Dodds. The gamblers paid big money for Dodds to take a dive. Everyone agreed. The ringer trained as if he were Dodds while the real Dodds trained in secret.

The night of the fight, the gamblers were surprised to see the real Dodds enter the ring. Burge, thinking the fight was fixed in his favor, did not train and was severely thrashed by Dodds. The double double-cross was something new in boxing but now became a standard practice whenever possible.

From the turn of the twentieth century until the 50’s boxing was at its peak. Many of the great names we know today came from that era, names like Jimmy Wilde, Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, Max Baer, Sam Langford, Tony Canzoneri, Freddie Welsh, and Jack Dempsey, just to name several. It seemed there was boxing across the country almost every night. And with it came thrown fights, bribes, cash under the tables, and gangster connections. It seemed that everyone was making a buck except the fighters. Then came television.

Some old-timers claimed that television ruined boxing. Some people saw it as a benefit. Gangsters like Owney Madden, Mike Jacobs, Blinky Palermo, Jim Norris, and Frankie Carbo, saw great opportunities in television and in controlling boxing at Madison Square Garden. They went beyond simple bribes and threats. Their control of boxing extended to beatings, and killings, in possibly the greatest time of boxing fame. They also contributed to its downfall. Their histories are well documented in such books as “Boxing Babylon” and Kevin Mitchell’s well-written account “Jacobs Beach.” Even novels (boxing being a favorite subject) like “The Harder they Fall” showed the dirty side. In fact most novels and screenplays show the criminal side, crime being more interesting than honesty, integrity, and justice.

There was money to be made in television—big money. So much money that there was little left over for smaller fights. Fans no longer needed to get dressed and actually support boxing by attending bouts. Fans could sit in their underwear in their living rooms, fart, smoke cigars, eat hot dogs and pizza, scratch their crotches, and drink beer, just like they did at the fights except they did not have to drive to the event and were often required to keep their pants on. Television was the earlier and larger version of the iPhone where pleasure could be had without effort. What was lacking was the actual thrill of the engagement, the smells, the energy of the crowds, the atmosphere, the thrill of a community adventure.

The smaller venues started to dry up. As the smaller venues started to disappear, new boxers had no place to learn and practice their trade. According to some experts the quality of boxers started to decline. There remained a few decent boxers at the top, but no quality boxers below them.

People had few complaints about the mob manipulating television fights or the Garden. There was no advantage to fixing fights. The mob usually owned a piece of both boxers. That was part of the deal: turn over a piece of the fighter, fight in the Garden or on television. Fixed fights, to build a fighter, were arranged in other parts of the country. Primo Carnera was the champion of fixed fights, a perfectly innocent and decent man who was abused miserably and knew nothing of the fixes. He fell victim of his own propaganda.

Many of the writers of the time were not just complacent of mob influence, but willing participants. Living off salaries from newspapers or other publications was not an option they could afford. The pay was often good but as the little girl said in a recent ad, “You want more, you just want more.” They were on the gangster payroll and after fights collected their envelopes stuffed with bills. Some of the worst fights (Braddock vs. Baer—real snoozefest) emerged on paper as spectacular contests of fisticuff art. Writers sold their integrity cheaply, or dearly, depending on their skill and reputations. (Don’t many writers wish it were like that today? A few extra bucks comes in handy after several days in New York or Las Vegas on assignment.)

Boxing writers may have invented fake news, or at least perfected it. Budd Schulberg’s novel, “The Harder they Fall,” gives clear examples of the practice. Writers took the money and retired to Toots Shor’s to hang with the high rollers. As Gil Clancy said, “They all took the money, all of them. Regular envelops. We’d have the envelopes all ready to give to them after the fights.

Lou Duva said, “I’ll tell you one thing about the writers in those days. They were the best allies a promoter or fighter could have. They told in-depth stories. They had the reality, they built the fighter up or tore him down…”

Through all these ups and downs boxing survived. But will it survive in the future? Is it committing suicide? And what, exactly, is the problem? Greed, of course. Given enough time, money will bring about the downfall of almost anything.

The first sleeping pill on the way to suicide involved boxing divisions. For many years there were eight recognized divisions and eight world champions. Even people not involved in boxing knew the names of many of the champions, especially the heavyweight champion. Not knowing the heavyweight champion was almost un-American.

Eight champions means you can have eight championship fights. You can have as many as you like, but you are still limited to eight. Championship fights earn the most money. The way to make more money is to have more weight divisions; therefore more championship fights. Boxing has gone from eight divisions to 25—so many divisions that even diehard boxing fans cannot name them.

That scheme brought in a plethora of money. But, boxing moguls imagined, there must be a way to make even more money. Simple: for years there was only one legitimate boxing organization, the National Boxing Association (NBA) that recognized the world’s eight champions. Their first sanctioned fight was between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in 1921. A great way to increase revenue was to start more boxing organizations. The NBA morphed into the WBA. Other organizations soon followed: the WBC, WBO, and IBF. World champions have gone from eight to 100.

Not to be left out of the money, organizations started to pop up like pimples on a teenager: IBU, NBA, WBF, NBA, WPBF, IBO, WBB, WBU, IBA, GBC, GBU, WBL, UBF, WBS, and the PBC. The list is not comprehensive. Of course, most of the organizations have smaller and more regional titles. All one has to do to start a sanctioning organization is to just start a sanctioning organization. To add up the number of titles available requires a math degree.

Because of this porridge of confusion there is no such thing as a world champion, only champions within various sanctioning bodies. Even when a title unification bout is announced, the bout usually unifies just two organizations. Boxers have sometimes won and lost a title after having only 10 fights.

The next sleeping pill is why many people do not accept boxing as a sport. Winning boxers often pick their opponents. They always pick someone they can beat. Imagine teams like the Rams or the Seahawks choosing whom they played. They would spend their time playing the local high school teams so they might end up with a winning season.

Boxers, managers, and promoters go to great lengths and expense to secure the right opponents. Their managers or sponsors will sometimes pay the purses of the opponents to get them to fight. They also pay the purses of their own boxers to get them on a card. This is one of the many reasons boxers leave the profession broke. All the money spent on them goes against their future purses. When they finally retire they barely break even or are in the red.

Boxers pick opponents in order to build their records. These days a boxer feels he must spend his career undefeated, or at least go undefeated until he gets his big shot at a title. Compare that with the earlier days of boxing. Most boxers got their shot at a title after 30 or more fights and they generally had several losses on their records against top opponents. When boxers went into a title fight the fans knew they could fight. Jake LaMotta had 13 loses on his record before he got a title shot. Rocky Graziano had 7. When I see an undefeated boxer today I cringe. It means they have probably fought no one of significance.

Fights are so mismatched today as to be boring. Fans sometimes need the boxers to come down from the ring to slap them in the face to wake them up. No wonder the current generation is turning to MMA. They, at least, fight.

I recently covered the Crawford-Horn match in Las Vegas. The night before the fight I lounged on the bed and looked over the card. I circled the winners of each bout. I only made one mistake, and that was due to something unexpected. I picked Antonio Moran to beat Jose Pedraza in the semi-main event. Moran got cut early in the bout which threw off his game.

Picking the winners is not difficult. Sometimes, if you go to the weigh-ins, the promoter makes it easy. Bob Arum was quick to point out the fighters on the card who fought for Top Rank or who had recently signed with them. Put those boxers in the win column. Undefeated boxers on the card also go to the winner’s side. They are not going to fight someone they cannot beat. Look at the records of any other boxers and see who they have fought. It will be easy to see who goes to the winner’s side.

Promoters promote. They are masters of propaganda. Never believe anything they say. Like everyone in boxing, they are in business to make money. Boxers are their products and they care no more for their products than any CEO cares for his products. They attempt to sell their products good or bad. The Pinto, Vega, Kaiser, and Henry J. were the best cars ever made. Just ask the companies.

Huge amounts of money are spent putting lipstick on a pig and calling it beautiful. A pig might be beautiful in its own right but it will never be a ring girl. (Shouldn’t that be ring woman?) The media, television, commentators, and writers are often complacent in this deceit. They are, after all, looking out for their best interests. They need a viable product to sell, or one that seems viable.

Think of the huge hype over the Canelo Alvarez vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight. One would have thought it was the fight of the century. In fact, Chavez never stood a chance of winning. Because of his father, he has always been a hyped and protected boxer. His name brings in money. He earned 3 million for the fight—Alvarez, 5 million. Chavez lost every round because he could offer no opposition to Alvarez. Yet, the media went wild over the fight.

The media, especially boxing writers, are often put into precarious positions. Telling the truth can be dangerous, especially for writers working for smaller publications. If they criticize an event, or even a fight, they are sometimes barred from future events. This is especially true at local events. It’s the worst kind of censorship, one through subtle intimidation.

Television is just as guilty. Propaganda all the way. The bigger they hype the event the bigger the payday. Then there is the problem of the promoters and television working together. HBO seldom lets their boxers fight on Showtime. Likewise, Showtime won’t let their fighters box on HBO. The most liberal of them all are Fox Sports and ESPN. As they earn more money and draw larger crowds that will probably change.

What we are left with is what I call “legalized mob rule.” Boxing is controlled more tightly than at any other time and makes the former mob involvements seem like a minor inconvenience. Television controls boxing, promoters control boxing, and ratings organizations control boxing. And they do it all legally. Boxers suffer because of the manipulation and so do the fans. No wonder fans are turning to MMA.

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  1. fan 06:33am, 08/15/2018

    Boxing should go hand to hand with all parts
    Promoter ; most money.
    Organization : respect ranking.
    Fan : best fight available.
    Television : most viewers.
    federation : promote boxing culture.

  2. Paul Magno 02:35pm, 08/12/2018

    @Chico…the only thing keeping fans away is the fact that they’ve never been exposed to these guys and have no idea who anyone is…When pressed, they’ may say “too many champions, too many divisions,” but that’s just another way of saying “I just don’t know any of these people.” That’s not a function of too many titles, but of a bad business model and poor promotion…if anything, 4 world champs per division is allowing for more people to know more boxers than they should…realistically, nobody in the mainstream should know any boxers because these guys are stuck behind paywalls…Fresno, for instance, has becomes a boxing town because of Jose Ramirez and his run towards and capturing of a world title—something which would not have happened if there was one unified champ (Ramirez would be forced to fight on the road)....If unified titles mattered, Terence Crawford would be reaping the benefits of his feat and Bernard Hopkins, back in the day, would’ve been a household name…Unified titles is a pleasant cosmetic goal—and one eventually worth working towards—but can you honestly say, given the business as it is, that having one world champ in each of the original 8 divisions would suddenly bring in the mainstream public? Multiple world titles is the one promotional tool that has actually worked for boxing and, right now at least, it does more good than harm…

  3. Lucas McCain 07:25am, 08/12/2018

    On split titles—let me allude to Monty Python. First- I say “splunge,” as in taking both sides and not being indecisive (a business boardroom joke).  The Presocratic bit is Empedocles who declared Love and Strife as the ruling impulses of creation—the one drawing everything into harmony and Unity, the the other scattering and diversifying everything.  (Think Robert Mitchum’s knuckle tattoos in “Night of the Hunter.”) Either alone would be a bore—the pulsation between the two together makes possible the fertile and ever-changing patterns of our world.  Including the boxing world.  Split titles=more paydays; unifying titles=special events (even if not really special).  But what did Empedocles know?  He’s the guy who is also famous for jumping into the volcano, Mt. Etna.

  4. Chico Salmon 06:50am, 08/12/2018

    I don’t think boxing has had a fight that captured the general public’s attention since Holyfield-Tyson II, or Lewis-Tyson, at least not the general public in America. I have met people who had no idea who Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao are, and these two are arguably the two biggest names in boxing for the last decade or so. When Ali and even Tyson were ruling the scene, you had all sorts of people talking about “the fight” the next day at the water cooler. I can’t tell you the last time I heard someone talking about boxing at work, the gym, or any other social setting. And I have to disagree with Magno, these multiple champions AND multiple weight divisions are a HUGE turnoff to lots of people who might otherwise be interested in keeping up with or watching boxing.

  5. Paul Magno 12:52am, 08/12/2018

    As much as it irks the purists, the ONLY promotional tool that has worked for boxing in the last 50 years or so is the multiple world champions gimmick…not one single potential fan is staying away from boxing because they don’t know who the “real” super middleweight champ is…this is a boxing nerd’s lament and us nerds are hooked and ain’t going anywhere (but the grave)...having multiple world champs in this boxing market makes it possible for fans in various corners of the world to be hyped about “world class” boxing and to be able to see it in person, with fighters they relate to…it opens up markets and makes money..and, most of all, fans respond to it..going back to one champion per division would hurt the sport immeasurably, killing off revenue streams and drying up entire markets…Plus, of course, we all know that multiple world champs is not entirely a modern construct…there have been multiple world titles throughout boxing history, but we’ve simply chosen to recognize the NBA as the only sanctioning body of the past…Boxing’s biggest problem is that the sport’s promoters are old, lazy, and/or simply in it for a short-term pay-off at the expense of long-term growth…and when networks try to combat that by taking control of the product, they show themselves to be utterly inept—like HBO’s recent matchmaking blunder with the Kovalev/Bivol card…and, no, it’s not about HBO having the balls to match their guys “tough” (is there anyone who actually believes that HBO intentionally sought an opponent to knock off Kovalev or even push him to the extreme? lol…come on….they were clearly gambling on Sergey killing off the guy Adonis Stevenson was “ducking” and they hyped that fact several times)—it’s about them not having the brains to have a plan in place to take advantage of all possible scenarios…matching their guys against stylistically unfavorable opposition and not having a plan B, essentially exchanging one unplanned entertaining upset for a whole series of possible entertaining battles down the line…it was stupid from HBO’s perspective and the blunder will likely cost them all of their light heavyweight plans…and, yeah, the fans lose out in the long run because of this blunder…

  6. george otto 04:40pm, 08/11/2018

    This article and all of the comments are valid.  Other problems include too much obvious permanent fiscal and physical damage incurred by the fighters and a shortage of USA talented boxers.

  7. Chico Salmon 10:01am, 08/11/2018

    “It’s never about the money. It’s always about the money.”—Bob Arum
    Snagged this little tidbit from the book, “Ali” written by Jonathan Eig. A must read for any Ali fan. By far the most comprehensive book on Ali that I have ever read.

  8. Robert Ecksel 09:20am, 08/11/2018

    Thanks for that, Lucas:

    ‘Writing during the early 19th century, Pierce Egan praised the combatants of the day and often mentioned their rise, downfall and collapse, often tumbling into disgrace…’

  9. Lucas McCain 08:52am, 08/11/2018

    Impressive work here.  Boxers and promoters will often insist they are only in it for the money—why else would one devote a life to smashing someone else?—but they are also being defensive.  Years ago, I was on a PBS discussion panel with Floyd Patterson and Robert Lipsyte, and after I waxed (somewhat) idealistic about the game, Lipsyte laughingly asked Floyd if he fought for the money.  Yes, said Floyd, but then immediately talked about how much he loved boxing, how much it meant to him emotionally. 

    I also agree about mismatches.  Not to revive an argument, but I admired HBO for putting Kovalev “in tough” and risking a hyped pseudo superfight. 

    (BTW—Forgive this:  If you are allowed to go back and revise a bit, Pierce Egan’s Boxiana was early 19th Century, the so-called “Romantic Age,” not 16th-17th.)

  10. Kid Blast 08:30am, 08/11/2018

    If a fighter is ever fatally injured and/or crippled by another who was on PEDs, Boxing would be done in a NY Second. Otherwise, there is no suicide; it will remain a niche activity with a relatively exclusive fan base.

    “Mismatches” however defined, are a part of boxing and that’s how fighters streak from the professional gate. Loma is an exception, of course. Boxing has terrible warts and flaws but they won’t result in a suicide.

  11. Gordon Marino 07:30am, 08/11/2018

    Thanks for the very comprehensive exam of boxing. The mismatches make me ill—it’s like they pull people off the street. But local fans don’t seem to mind. They just want to see the hometown fighter notch a ko.  May the Muse stay with you. 

    Ah and if I recall correctly the Greek champ killed about 1500 of his rivals. Where was the Athens boxing commission?

    May the Muse stay with you.

  12. Chico Salmon 06:46am, 08/11/2018

    Even if boxing had a large pool of talent, network television championship fights, 9 weight classes and 9 world champs, it would be hard pressed to return to its former status. A few boxer’s relatively poor performances in the octagon have also dug a hole for boxing. Part of the reason why heavyweight boxing was always the ticket in boxing is that the worlds heavyweight champion was thought to be the toughest man alive. Poor showings by Art Jimmerson ( entered the octagon wearing one boxing glove back in UFC1 and was tapped out by Royce Gracie in seconds), James Toney, and Ray Mercer, weren’t great advertisements for boxing. Mercer did defeat one of the UFC’s worst champions ever with via a knockout when he starched Tim Sylvia, but Mercer also lost to Kimbo Slice of all people. James Warring, the former cruiserweight champion was mildly successful as a kickboxer and MMA fighter, but other than that, the handful of boxers that have entered the cage were usually easily defeated by their opponents. Boxing lost the mystique of being the toughest of the tough, the heavyweight champion boxer is no longer, “the baddest man on the planet.”

  13. Chico Salmon 06:13am, 08/11/2018

    Spot on about what is wrong with boxing. One biggie that might be mentioned is quality fights that were once free for all to see on network television. Horse racing is probably a distant second to boxing when it comes to shady dealings and backroom negotiations.

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