I got a letter from some boxing fans the other day. Opened it, read it, it said they were suckers. They wanted me mad about Jermain Taylor or whatever, picture me giving a damn, I said never.
Boxing's latest blood farce came in the form of Jermain Taylor, former middleweight champion and the victim of several brutal knockouts and a brain bleed in recent years, challenging awkward, middle-aged Aussie vet Sam Soliman for his alphabet trinket, picked up earlier this year when he outpointed faded, perennial Euro titlist Felix Sturm in a rematch to a 2013 Soliman decision win that had been overturned when Soliman tested positive for an illegal stimulant. Whew. #Boxing
Even in today's absurd climate where title opportunities are more often based on convenience and managerial machinations than in-ring merit, Taylor finding himself in a position to vie for any of the major belts was a stretch, since he has not beaten an actual rated middleweight contender in seven years. Taylor-Soliman was a veritable Pu Pu platter of cynical disillusion and opportunism. What was more offensive? That a fighter who had done nothing to merit a title shot was getting one based on a hilarious over-appraisal of his fame and reputation? That a fighter who had just a couple years ago suffered a potentially career-ending brain injury and exhibited plenty of erratic behavior in the interim, including shooting his own cousin just weeks before the fight, was being legally licensed to enter a sporting contest where he would inevitably take more punches to the head? That a network had signed off on the whole fiasco and was presumably footing the bill for something that belonged in boxing's darkest corridors, not under its brightest lights? There was something for everyone to be outraged about, from the anti-alphabet zealots to the compassionate concussionists to the network muckrakers.
Myself? I was most upset about the fact that I so grossly overrated Soliman based on some totally misguided respect for the now clearly past his sell-by date Sturm. Soliman had beaten Sturm twice, I reasoned, so there was no way this shell of Taylor could compete with him, styles be damned. Perhaps the only thing dumber than Taylor getting a "title shot" (which, frankly, has become so meaningless that anyone in an uproar about these meritless alphabet opportunities is just tilting at windmills at this point) was me saying on TQBR radio this week that should Soliman get past Taylor, he would be one of the more suitable middleweight opponents for Gennady "Our Lord and Savior" Golovkin. Er....can I get a do-over on that one? You see, dear readers, I had neglected to consider one very important fact: Soliman's just not very good.
Taylor, a man pretty obviously ravaged by time and damage taken in the ring, surprisingly didn't spontaneously combust at the first punch he absorbed. Bear in mind, Taylor's brutal knockouts and losses all came against genuinely world-class opposition, or at the least, world-class punchers. Soliman was neither. Soliman probably still had enough craft and guile to potentially win, had he not suffered a Sergio Martinez-esque leg injury about halfway through the bout. But mentioning Soliman in the same breath as Golovkin was an embarrassment, a travesty, and borderline sacrilege. For that, I apologize sincerely to the man from Kazakhstan.
As far as the brain bleed, the shooting incident, his wild post-fight ravings after being dropped by Caleb Truax in a comeback fight two years ago, and the abundance of reasons people have put forth about why Taylor should not be pursuing his boxing career, I found it hard to get too worked up. Boxing has never been synonymous with longevity. These are highly trained, powerful athletes punching each other in the face and body over long periods of time. Boxing has long been a sport that discards its greatest heroes, from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali, leaving them penniless and embittered or physical shells of once-beautiful specimens. Jermain Taylor is not an isolated case, nor the worst case, of a man with potential issues relating to the health of the brain, being allowed to fight. He's just the highest profile case at the moment. And in fairness, I can't think of any others involved in a shooting incident just weeks before their fights. But was ESPN ponying up and carrying this fight any worse than Showtime airing the sanctioned assault of Rod Salka by the bigger, better, infinitely more accomplished Danny Garcia? Any worse than HBO approving completely unknown, unproven and undeserving Cedric Agnew as cannon fodder for their heavy hitting star Sergei Kovalev? What did Salka and Agnew's brain scans look like after those fights? What about the woefully overmatched journeymen getting knocked out all over the country, every weekend, to add names and wins to the ledgers of rising prospects, most of whom will end up suffering the same fate? What about their brain scans? Do we know? Do we care?
Like most boxing fans with any sense of morality, I struggle with following and supporting a sport that inevitably damages its participants, in ways we probably don't fully understand. I take no pleasure in seeing fighters without the facilities and talent to be competitive thrown into mismatches where a mild concussion knockout loss is their best case scenario. But that's boxing. It's a dark, grimy sport run by dark, grimy men. If watching and being a fan makes me somehow complicit in the fates of men like Ali and Magomed Abdusalamov and many others, so be it. I have no choice but to own that if I want to continue following the sport. Perhaps a greater, more moral man would walk away from it. I cannot.
Most of the boxing fans I know have a love/hate relationship with the sport anyway: We love the drama, the grace, the unparalleled physicality, the courage, and the skill. We hate the long-term effects on the fighters' brains, the corruption, ineptitude, sleaziness, and the influence of shadowy racketeers to whom the fighters' best interest rates somewhere well below lining their own pockets.
I would never be so presumptive as to tell someone what they can or cannot feel. If you chose not to watch Taylor-Soliman because of discomfort over Taylor's past head injuries, because of the ridiculousness of Taylor being allotted an opportunity his recent ring record didn't come close to warranting, because of Taylor's Instagram lunacy and pending criminal issues, or any other reason, that was your right, and I respect it. I did watch, and my biggest moral pang in doing so was that it was a shitty fight, and by watching, I was tacitly condoning shitty fights more than anything else. As long as it's boxing, there will be concussions, brain bleeds, slurred speech, and every other horrifying thing you don't want to think about at the end of a great fight card. But shitty fights don't need to happen, at least not on the rare occasions when a major television platform is available for a good one. And in that sense, Taylor-Soliman was no different than Garcia-Salka, Kovalev-Agnew, and ninety percent of the dreck we've been served on the two premium cable networks this year. At least it was competitive, but in terms of relevance and future implications, this fight will lead to nothing but more outrage and disapproval when Taylor moves on to a more dangerous opponent than the defanged, legless forty-year old Australian in front of him Wednesday night. And boxing will march on.
Whether it's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao or Miguel Cotto-Saul Alvarez, we'll all soon forget about the dark side of the sport and go back to cheering and being excited for one of those rare events that does merit the brightest lights and the biggest stage, when boxing is at its best, and concussions, brain bleeds, and wounded cousins take a back seat for a night.