What happened to the sport of boxing? It used to be that the heavyweight champion of the world was as respected as the president of the United States. Now nobody knows who the heavyweight champion is. Furthermore boxing, as much or more so than any other sport, played a great role in the culture and the advancement of black America. We produced many of the greats in the history of the sport, including most of the top heavyweight champions of all time. Now there is not only not a single African-American ranked in Ring magazine’s top ten heavyweights there’s almost not any American’s on that list period. Where have you gone, Jack Johnson? What happened to the glory that was Joe Louis? Where are the Sugar Ray Robinsons, the Sugar Ray Leonards, the Marvin Haglers, and the many gifted fighters who used to embody the power and the courage of black athleticism (not to mention Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Jerry Quarry and the many great Irish, Italian and other ethnic minority fighters who fought these fighters and were a part of the great community of boxing)? Black America used to produce fighters that regularly dominated what was from the turn of the century to even the 1980’s the nation’s most iconic sport. Some fighters whom our people produced were so great that they transcended the world of boxing and sports generally. Jack Johnson was a figure of tremendous social and historical significance (not to mention controversy). Joe Louis, the longest reigning (and some still say the greatest, though no heavyweight beats Ali in my book) heavyweight of all time arose in the 30’s in his two fights against German great Max Schmeling as not just the physical embodiment of American and western democracy’s existential stand against Nazi fascism, but in a broader sense as a living rebuke to the evil doctrine of Anglo superiority espoused in Germany (as well as to the only comparatively more innocuous racism that persisted in the United States). Many black boxers have filled the ranks of boxing through the decades at almost every weight class; many champions and great contenders left names and legacies of courage and character that still persist in the memories of many. Then of course, as said, there were those whose fame went beyond boxing to capture the imagination of the world and to inspire the country. Of these of course, the greatest was Muhammad Ali, and it is perhaps the greatest sadness about the decline of boxing that we may never see such a champion again.
Muhammad Ali was, in my opinion, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, period, bar none, over Louis, Johnson, Marciano, Tyson and anyone else you could name. In his prime he had faster hands and feet than anyone ever had over two-hundred pounds. But it was his courage that was truly legendary. Nobody who saw his fights with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman could deny that Ali’s spirit was indomitable (and keep in mind that in each of those fights Ali was actually already past his prime; only Cassius Clay could out move Muhammad Ali). Nevertheless, boxing was merely a spring board for Ali’s greatness as a personality and as a figure of great social and political significance during a critical period in America’s history. Ali made the idea of a “world” champion mean something. He was the first champion to fight in countries on every continent, from England to Venezuela to Zaire to the Philippines. And while it’s true that athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have approached near enough to the zenith of world fame to be roughly comparable to Ali in that way, remember that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods came along in the information age, the age of globalization. Their brands were based on their singular appeal as charismatic athletes and the unique commercial circumstance that allowed for shoes, clothes, video games and merchandise of all kinds to be branded with their names and images. But Ali’s fame was not carried in this way. Ali was known for his fighting, and so too was he loved and hated for his wit, his clever poems and his indisputable gift for self-promotion. But Muhammad Ali was loved and, even among those who disliked him, respected, for the courage he showed outside of the ring. In refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam war, (even though as a celebrity athlete he would not have seen combat) Ali brought the anger of the political establishment down on his head, and was stripped of his heavyweight title and exiled from boxing during what would have been the prime years of his career. Yet he represented the feelings of many people generally, crystallizing the objection of many blacks in particular when he gave reasoning, saying at one point: “No VietCong ever called me nigger.”
It was this stance that Ali took which set the stage for the real significance of the first Ali-Frazier fight, significance that went far beyond boxing. Hence the interest in the fight went beyond peoples interest in boxing or even sports generally, and spilled into the lives of people from all walks of life from around the world. Indeed, it is estimated that the first Ali-Frazier fight was the most watched and listened to event in all of human history. Even the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland stopped battling each other in the streets for a day, just to be able to watch the fight. The world stood still that day, and though he lost to the great and recently passed Joe Frazier, his epic career from that day forward solidified his standing at the top of the list of the great figures on the planet. I for one believe that only as a boxer could Ali have attained to this stature, this level of admiration as an athlete. There is an honor, an individualism, and a universal acknowledgement of the mortality of man that makes boxing compelling and allows it forge heroes in away that perhaps no other sport can.
Unfortunately that is gone today. For a variety of reasons boxing has ceased to be great. There are still some decent fighters, but big money lack of organization, corruption, the dominance of pay-per-view and some other factors has diminished boxing to the level of a side-show. Floyd Mayweather is a very good fighter, but his stature beyond the sport doesn’t attain to anywhere near the level of a Sugar Ray Leonard, much less Muhammad Ali. Furthermore, the classlessness that Mayweather (and Roy Jones before him) often exhibits in talking about his opponents (not even mentioning his alleged personal behavior) puts him far out of the tradition of Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard and the many great fighters who came out of the black community who would never stoop to such vulgarities. There is one real star left in boxing today and that is Manny Pacquiao. If and when he ever fights (and probably loses to) Mayweather there will be no more great stars in boxing, no more fights left to command the attention of the world, and no more hope to see the likes of the great figures in boxing that came out of the black community in the past (I can’t count Floyd as a great figure. Sorry.). And in any event, it takes more than one man. Ali would not have been Ali without Frazier, Foreman and Norton, just as Leonard wouldn’t have been who he was without Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran. Unless something changes, it looks like we’ll be stuck with the comparative dullness of UFC and mixed martial arts as the main pugilistic outlets for the world of American and black American sports for a long time to come. For me at least, that is a sad reality.