(This weekend's combatants Brandon Rios, Nonito Donaire, Tosiaki Nishioka and Mike Alvarado; photo credit: Chris Farina, Top Rank)
The perils of explaining the ins and outs of the current boxing game to anyone that's less than a hardcore fanatic are well-known to those who've tried. Your average boxing junkie has probably come up with stock responses to the puzzled inquiries by now, like, "He's not actually the champion," or "No, the judges weren't bribed -- just inept."
But when a body asks, "What is wrong with boxing?" in the wake of one of the sport's many follies, there's one generalized, all-encompassing answer: "There are a lot of things wrong with boxing."
And it's true. From lack of accountability, to rules that allow far too much interpretation, to copious amounts of champions and belt-holders, to bloodsucking men-in-charge that bruise the sport with every greedy swipe... There are a lot of things wrong with boxing.
What about what's right with boxing, though? If there are so many tooth-grindingly stupid things about contemporary organized pugilism, why do we keep coming back to it? Are we that entrenched in such an abusive relationship that we simply cannot leave?
(Don't answer that.)
The fact is we endlessly return for a host of reasons, many of which aren't often considered.
For many, a highly intriguing part of the sport is its rich history that has walked hand-in-hand with so many facets of society that one might not usually associate with a bloodsport: politics, social issues, war, economics, and so on.
Likely two of the best known occurrences where leather met the sociopolitical sphere are Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II, and Muhammad Ali vs. the U.S. Government. And those were world-altering events that helped define World War II and the Vietnam War/the Civil Rights movement, respectively, in hindsight.
But boxing seeped through society in a number of different ways, and in its earlier years in particular. For instance, women weren't allowed to attend boxing matches in most states until around 1920, which is exactly when they successfully won the right to vote in the U.S. Boxing also helped to fuel the demand for Thomas Edison's "Kinetoscope," and was one of the more popular things to record in film's early days. And the first ever voice radio broadcast was a 1921 bout between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray.
Few sports have the ability to keep pace with history in the same way.
Oddly enough, the decline in boxing's popularity in recent years seems to have also brought forth a unique camaraderie among its fans. Often boxing just isn't a sport that many can watch with a large group of friends that are all the type of fans that simply love the sport -- it's a non-seasonal niche sport that tends to be expensive to keep up with, much less become immersed into. It takes dedication. The type of dedication that makes for heated, emotional arguments, either in person, or over the Internet.
But righteous or not, at the end of the day, we're all simply fans. Miserable and cynical fans, but fans that love the company.
For fans of boxing who also love other sports, there just isn't much else that compares to the anticipation and borderline unhealthy anxiety we feel before a fight we've been frothing at the mouth to see. And before mixed martial arts rose to similar pugilistic prominence, no other sport had the ability to have its foregone conclusion wheelbarrowed onto its skull in a mere instant.
The beautiful brutality isn't for everyone. But those of us who it is indeed for, delight in sharing the thrills with fellow fans we know can appreciate them similarly.
Boxing is also a sort of last frontier in sports -- a "wild west" of personalities and antics that have been frowned upon so hard in the NBA and NFL in particular, that the suits in those sports seem to wear a constant scowl. Conduct policies in basketball and football have done everything from establishing dress codes, to limiting celebrations when something awesome happens.
In the NFL and NBA, nails that obviously stick out, like boxing's Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Naseem Hamed, have by now been mostly hammered down. Boxing by and large encourages these characters, whether it's by gaining followers who love the flamboyance, or people who'd like to see these types knocked off.
The HBO-televised card this upcoming Saturday just happens to be a fine example of a lot of things right with boxing.
Following a bit of downtime and a minor shortage of action, along comes a junior welterweight fight between polarizing character Brandon "Bam Bam" Rios and entertaining slugger "Mile High" Mike Alvarado that all but guarantees face-liquefying action. Both have scored come-from-behind stoppage wins, both are tough as nails, and both intend to playing for keeps when they throw.
On another (not quite opposite) end of the spectrum, Nonito Donaire squares off against Toshiaki Nishioka in a junior featherweight bout that should bring high quality, skills-laden fisticuffs. On the brink of serious pound-for-pound stardom, and strolling through a veritable orchard of potential opponents, Nonito Donaire is also in the midst of turning back naysayers by facing a string of worthy opponents and coming out on top. And Nishioka, though old-ish for a smaller fighter at 36 years old, is on a solid run himself, and very capable.
If nothing else, this card is just another indication that boxing goes on.
Making our way through the swamplands of frustrating decisions, absurd match-ups, failed superfights and the like is a tedious task, and best left to those of us with the scaly skin to take it in stride.
Ultimately, all the stings and bruises of the things wrong with boxing are healed by a lot of things right with boxing.
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