It's a question we should all ask ourselves: what is our impact on the sport of boxing? Fans, journalists, analysts, commentators--all of us who take part in the fight game without ever having to set foot in the ring--what is our role in the sport we love?
I would argue that it is a large one. For the most part, big fights happen because the fans want them to. Small-time fighters put themselves through hell for peanuts, egged on by the cries of the crowd. As spectators, we hold the fighters' reputations for ransom in our hands, and it is a rare prizefighter whose pride won't compel him to give the fans what they want, even if only to prove them wrong.
We are even directly responsible for the sport's continued existence in this world that has repeatedly tried to snuff out the "brutal spectacle" of boxing, and will do again. Every time that lawmakers have tried to kill professional boxing, they are swayed by the opinions (and wallets) of the fans, and the fight game marches on.
It is for that reason that I think we ought to adjust our focus somewhat.
Last Saturday, Robert Guerrero fought Yoshihiro Kamegai to a thrilling twelve-round decision. I say thrilling because, much to the surprise of the average boxing fan, it was. Guerrero's opponent was expected to be something of a tune-up fight, but nobody expected him to warm to his task quite so enthusiastically. Kamegai (24-2-1, 21 KO) came dangerously close to upsetting "the Ghost" on numerous occasions, even closing Guerrero's left eye in the middle rounds. Guerrero (32-2-1, 18 KO) hadn't fought since his May, 2013 loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr., and he may be in for another long layoff after his brain-rattling battle with the Japanese tough guy.
Was it fun? You betcha. Was it the kind of fight that you'd want to show to a prospective new fan? Probably not.
Guerrero-Kamegai was anything but a fine example of the science of boxing. The fighters stood, toe-to-toe, and traded blows. Trading--we use that word a lot, but it truly applied in this instance. Guerrero and Kamegai seemed to have a tacit agreement that neither could hit the other without allowing his opponent to immediately return the favor. It was, in a word, a pretty brutal affair.
And yet, these are the fights that we applaud and celebrate as contenders for Fight of the Year. These are the fights we clamor for, and the ones that we encourage the boxers to take part in.
Since the initial adoption of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules, virtually every change to the sport has been in the interest of cleaning up its image. The fighters wear mouthpieces so that their teeth aren't driven through their lips by the force of an opponent's blows (that used to happen quite a lot). Gloves might prevent broken hands, but they have also changed shape and density over the years to prevent the gaping cuts and smashed facial bones so easily caused by a bare or barely-covered fist. Bouts of 20 rounds or more were replaced by 15-rounders, which have now been supplanted by the standard 12-round title fight. Instead of endless knockdowns and standing 8-counts, bouts today are commonly stopped after 1 or 2 consecutive knockdowns.
I encourage all of these changes, and they are all in the best interests of the fighters. Of the evolutions I mentioned, everything but gloves (arguably) helps make the fights safer--but, perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of things, they make boxing seem less brutal, allowing the athletes to highlight the skill and craft of the sport while mitigating the sometimes animalistic fighting aspect.
For some, the violence is all that interests them about boxing. They will have no problem with Guerrero-Kamegai, or the hundreds of other bouts like it. For others, however, the men and women who see combat sports as little better than "human cockfighting," this fight will serve as yet another reason to decry the practice of pugilism.
I don't mean to rain on everybody's parade, nor do I mean to imply that I didn't enjoy every minute of the fight, which I certainly did. In celebrating that festival of violence, however, we may be doing our sport a disservice, particularly when there was another bout featured on Showtime's main card that would do a far better job of selling the sport to the skeptics. I'm speaking of Devon Alexander vs Jesus Soto Karass.
Alexander and Soto-Karass had their own action-packed fight, but it was the kind of action that a trainer could be proud of. Rather than standing in place and willingly eating a buffet of punches, Alexander (26-2, 14 KO) moved effortlessly about the ring, peppering his opponent with crisp, sharp blows and slipping away from counters. He certainly wasn't afraid to be hit--he bravely stood his ground and countered in the pocket on numerous occasions--but he also didn't openly invite punishment the way that Guerrero did. For his part, Soto Karass (28-10-3, 18 KO) took plenty of punches, but used his guile and experience to adapt, paying Alexander back for his counters and winning several rounds. With the help of his corner, he lost without ever being completely dominated.
In short, Alexander and Soto Karass put on an exhibition of beautiful boxing. Their fight was back-and-forth and action-packed, and it was also a thoughtful, technical display of skill and intelligence from both men. It was the kind of fight that might actually cause a skeptic to reconsider their stance on the morality of this whole fistfighting thing.
Boxing has the potential to be the most accessible sport on earth. It's rules are relatively simple, and there are few stages more reliable than the prizefighting ring when it comes to producing dramatic narratives. Finishes are fun, but the fighters who refuse to be finished become incredibly heroic figures, if even for just the fifteen minutes before the next fight. In other words, it should be an easy sell.
But it isn't. Fights like Guerrero-Kamegai don't seem important enough to warrant the tremendous amount of violence displayed. Neither do either of the combatants come across as skilled, talented athletes when they abandon strategy in favor of simply testing one another's chins. These bouts are fun, but to the uninitiated they must appear little more than brutal, senseless bloodbaths, and we should never ignore the toll such a fight takes on the health of the fighters.
I don't know--my opinion could change tomorrow. It often does; to be a fight fan you almost have to be capable of Orwellian doublethink, acknowledging that the sport you patronize kills participants every year, and still celebrating the never-quit mentality that leads to most of those fatalities. It's just something you come to live with as a fight fan. On a certain level, I think we all understand and accept that.
But maybe, when celebrating unexpectedly entertaining fights, we could make a little more effort to sell boxing as a sport, and let the skeptics dip their toes in the water before asking them to wade knee-deep into the blood and guts.