What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions

A Chronology of the Death of Boxing – Part I

If you were one of the folks who ponied up the $100 to watch the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, you saw the death of boxing live on Pay-Per-View.  If this were one of those television medical shows, that fight represents the moment where the doctor angrily snaps off his rubber gloves, tosses them disdainfully toward the trash and mutters something like “if only we could have stopped the bleeding.”

Face it…that fight sucked. You had the classic defensive fighter up against an aging puncher with what we found out later was an injured shoulder.  So, in what is likely the last gasp for boxing in America, we got rooked for a C-note to see basically nothing.

Let’s be even more honest.  In the case of boxing, it really wasn’t a quick demise. in the 1950’s boxing was one of the “top four” sports in this country, but by the 1970’s things were starting to change.  That isn’t to say that boxing was in trouble in the 70’s; quite the opposite is true.  But boxing managed to take its massive popularity at the time and found a way to eat its own young. Boxing has been bleeding for decades since then, and all the ring’s cut men couldn’t make boxing whole again.

In my estimation, the cause of death for boxing can be traced back to 1974, but it was a couple of  Saturday nights ago in Las Vegas when the sweet science finally exsanguinated.   There’s several events which led to this bleeding out, some of which you may know, and some you may not.  But they all formed the combination which knocked out boxing in America.

Don King Stomps Into the Boxing World

In keeping with the medical show theme, this is the “first cigarette” moment; this is the moment boxing gets its first cancer cell.

King got his start in the sports world running a  bookmaking operation out of the basement of a record store, and graduated quickly to multiple murders.  Eventually, he was charged for killing two men.

don king mugshot

The first was determined to be justifiable homicide after it was found that King shot and killed a man who was attempting to rob one of King’s gambling houses. However, in the second case, King was convicted of second degree murder when he was found guilty of stomping one of his employees to death. to death an employee in a dispute over $600.   King was later pardoned for the crime in 1983 by Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, but keep in mind that a guy who violently kills somebody over money might have some shady business practices.

King’s entry into the boxing world came after he convinced Muhammad Ali to box in a charity exhibition for a local hospital in Cleveland.  Then in 1974, King negotiated a deal to promote a heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire; a fight which would come to be known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”  The bout between Ali and Foreman was a much-anticipated event, and while King’s rivals all sought to promote the bout, King was able to secure the then-record $10 million purse through an arrangement with the government of Zaire.

Feel free to read “arrangement” as “widespread graft and bribery,” although King was smart enough to do all this a in third-world country with a corrupt government where proof of such allegations would never be brought to light.

The next year, King solidified his position as one of boxing’s pre-eminent promoters by orchestrating the third fight between Ali and Joe Frazier.  Known as the “Thrilla in Manila,” this match represents two major accomplishments for King.  As I will discuss later, this was the first fight available on Pay-Per-View.

It also firmly established King as the preeminent boxing promoter of the era.  King’s boxing empire continued to consume the world of the “sweet science;” he massed an impressive stable of fighters such as Larry Holmes, Wilfredo Benítez, Roberto Durán, Salvador Sánchez, Wilfredo Gómez, and Alexis Arguello would all fight under the banner of Don King Productions.

It only grows from there.  The tumor that was Don King continued to grow for two more decades  and eventually completely control boxing.  King’s list of fighters eventually contained almost every name of note in the sport… Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Julio César Chávez, Aaron Pryor, Bernard Hopkins, Ricardo López, Félix Trinidad, Terry Norris, Carlos Zárate, Azumah Nelson, Andrew Gołota, Mike McCallum, Gerald McClellan, Meldrick Taylor, Marco Antonio Barrera, Tomasz Adamek, and Ricardo Mayorga all came under King’s control, which gave him the power to both grow and destroy boxing simultaneously.

This is partially due to the fact that King never really stopped his criminal ways.  King was routinely under investigation for various and sundry unethical and illegal activities, including allegation of connections to mob kingpin John Gotti.  As to be expected, King never had a problem deflecting allegation of wrong-doing by playing the race card.

The most-telling commentary on King came from the mouth of Mike Tyson.  The former undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing Champion and convicted rapist said of his former manager, “[King is] a wretched, slimy motherfucker. This is supposed to be my ‘black brother,’ right? He’s just a bad man, a real bad man. He would kill his own mother for a dollar. He’s ruthless, he’s deplorable, he’s greedy … and he doesn’t know how to love anybody.”

The Dawn of Pay-Per-View

As previously mentioned, the “Thrilla in Manila” was the third and final match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This fight is ranked as one of the best in the sport’s history and proved to be the culmination of the bitter rivalry between the two champions.

muhammad ali joe frazier don king si cover

Also as previously mentioned, this fight was the first to be shown on Pay-Per-View.

In order to accommodate the large television audience in the U.S., the fight was staged at 10 AM local time.  This created several problems, not the least of which was the extreme conditions in the tropical climate of the Philippines.

Ali’s ring physician Ferdie Pacheco said, “‘At 10 a.m.the stickiness of the night was still there, but cooked by the sun. So what you got is boiling water for atmosphere.”

Denise Menz, who was part of Frazier’s contingent, also noted the conditions that day inside the aluminum roofed Araneta Coliseum by saying “It was so intensely hot, I’ve never before felt heat like that in my life. Not a breath of air—nothing. And that was sitting there. Can you imagine being in the ring? I don’t know how they did it.”

Joe Frazier estimated the ring temperature at more than 120 °F, which was not helped by the additional lighting used for purposes of televising the fight.[ Ali would later say that he had lost 5 pounds that morning due to severe dehydration caused by the conditions.

As the fight wore on, it was clear the conditions played as much of a role in the bout as the fighters themselves.  At the close of a very trying ninth round, a visibly tired Ali went back to his corner, and told his trainer “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” In the opposite corner, Frazier was suffering from pronounced swelling about the face – the result of an accumulation of hundreds of punches exclusively aimed at his head.

For Frazier, who was nearly blind in his left eye since a training accident in 1965, this was a calamitous development. After an 11th round, in which Ali landed frequent right hands to Frazier’s face, Frazier indicated to his trainer Eddie Futch that could not see some a lot of those punches coming.  Adding to Frazier’s problems was his corner’s inability to maintain a functional icebag to apply to his eye because of the oppressive heat inside Araneta Coliseum.

The crucial point of the fight came midway through the thirteenth round when Ali landed a vicious right which sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying.  Ali seized on this moment and hit Frazier with a barrage again in the fourteenth round.

Between the fourteenth and fifteenth rounds, the conditions had clearly beaten both fighters.  It was clear to Eddie Futch that sending Frazier out for the final round was far too risky.  Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, Ali ordered cornerman Herbert Muhammad to cut his gloves off, saying he was “through. ”  This order was ignored, and Futch got to referee Carlos Padilla. Ali was declared the winner.

Even though this proved to be one of the great fights in boxing’s history, it really represents two thing which would prove to be problems for the sport.  The advent of Pay-Per-View is the main reason why boxing eventually disappearance from network television.  While PPV allowed for a new revenue stream which went directly to the boxing promoters, the lack of national network exposure shrank the market boxing enjoyed in the business of televised sports.

PPV also killed any chance for boxing to0 reclaim that market on basic cable.  Shows like Top Rank Boxing on ESPN and now Premier Boxing Champions on NBC Sports Network had no shot then, nor any chance now to draw a big market because every “big” fight now belongs exclusively to premium cable or PPV.

But the big issue this fight exposed is that guys like Don King made it clear that doing whatever made money for them clearly came before the welfare of the fighters. This will prove to be a major problem as we move through this post-mortem.

Muhammad Ali Loses The Heavyweight Title To Leon Spinks

Leon Spinks is actually one of the odder characters in the history of all sports.  Spinks came to professional ranks via the storied boxing program of the United States Marine Corps, which produced legendary fighters like Carmen Basilio, Barney Ross, Gene Tunney, Mike Weaver, Chuck Wepner (the real-life fighter the character “Rocky” is based on), and noted referee Mills Lane.

Burt Young, who played Paulie in all the “Rocky” movies also served in the USMC, but he was never a boxer.

But I digress…

Spinks debuted professionally on January 15, 1977 in Las Vegas, beating Bob Smith by knockout in five rounds. He only had six more fights between this career curtain-lifter and the day he shocks the world.  On February 15, 1978, he beats Muhammad Ali in a 15-round split decision in Las Vegas. Spinks won the world heavyweight title in his eighth professional fight, which makes Spinks the fastest to go from 0-to-title in boxing history.

leon spinks si cover

Spinks really is just the “Buster Douglas” of his era.  The aging Ali had expected an easy fight, and did not take Spinks seriously.  Ali showed up for the fight out of shape, and got his ass kicked for it. He was clearly out-boxed by Spinks, who did not tire throughout the bout, largely because he was younger and in proper fighting condition. It was one of the few occasions when Ali left the ring looking like he’d been beaten.

And like Douglas, this victory marked the peak of Spinks’ career.

But there were two problems here that were bad for boxing as a whole. While the Spinks story made for interesting copy, it didn’t have legs over the long haul. Boxing needed it’s biggest star in order to keep growing, and this was as true in 1978 as ever. At that time, there was a shake-up happening in the American sports landscape.  The NFL was fast gaining on baseball as the most popular sport in the country, horse-racing was losing it’s grip as a “top-four” sport because off-track betting was killing track attendance, and boxing was enjoying a “golden age” which was keeping it near the top of the American sports food-chain.

Granted, Spinks was part of the 1976 American Olympic boxing team which captivated the country’s attention; this team included other fighters of note such as Leon’s brother Michael and Sugar Ray Leonard.  Thanks to Leonard, people started paying attention to ranks of boxing other than the heavyweights, but Spinks simply did not have the star power of Ali.  Spinks was the only man to take a title from Muhammad Ali in the ring, but that just wasn’t enough to make him a star.

It didn’t help matters that Spinks was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Council (WBC) for refusing to defend it against Ken Norton.  Spinks opted to take a payday by agreeing to a re-match with Ali for the World Boxing Association (WBA) belt.   Having been stripped from Spinks, the WBC title was then awarded to Norton, which made Spinks the last undisputed heavyweight champion until the arrival of Mike Tyson.

Muhammad Ali Wins Back the WBA Title

Nine months after he lost it, Ali exacted his revenge on Leon Spinks on September 15, 1978 in New Orleans.  This night went very badly for Spinks, as an in-shape Ali schooled Spinks for fifteen rounds, winning back the title by unanimous decision. This made Ali the first three-time heavyweight champion.

muhammad ali beats leon spinks

But it also created a new problem.  The WBA heavyweight belt now rested around the waist of an old man who really didn’t have much left in the tank, but he was the biggest star in the history of the sport. The problem was seemingly solved on July 27, 1979,  when Ali announced his retirement from boxing.  Upon his hanging up the gloves, the WBA belt went to Larry Holmes.

However, Ali was only writing  the book later to be mastered by Brett Favre.  His retirement was short-lived; Ali announced his comeback to face Holmes for the WBA belt in an attempt to win the heavyweight championship an unprecedented fourth time. Realistically, this fight was largely motivated by Ali’s need for money, and everybody knew what this was going to be.  Even Holmes didn’t want to take the fight because he knew Ali had nothing left and that it would be a “horror.”

And it was.

The fight took place on October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas.  Holmes swept Ali aside as if he were the Polish Cavalry in 1939. People who saw the fight (myself included) described it in terms like:

  • “Awful… the worst sports event I ever had to cover.”
  • “It was like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.”

Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee finally stopped the fight in the eleventh round, which made this the only fight Ali lost by knockout.

“No Más”

This is easily one of the most famous fight in all of boxing history, and it’s clearly the one I understand the least.  This fight is actually the second of three fights between two titanic welterweights, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Durán.

The first fight took place on June 20, 1980 in Montreal. Leonard was defending the WBC Welterweight Championship against Durán, who at the time was the WBC #1 welterweight contender.

This was always personal between these two fighters. In the first fight, Leonard abandoned his usual “slick” style, opting instead to stand toe-to-toe and trade blows with the puncher Durán. Leonard made this decision because he was angry with Durán over his numerous insults and wanted not to just beat the Panamanian, but to do so at his “own game.” Yeah, it was a great fight for those of you who like bouts which could have been staged in a phone booth.  But, the boxer couldn’t beat the puncher at his own game, and Durán won by split decision.

The rematch happened on November 25, 1980 in New Orleans.  This time, Leonard returned to his roots, using his superior speed and movement to outbox and generally befuddle Durán.  By the 7th round, it was clear Leonard had the advantage, and he began to taunt Durán.  The memorable moment came late in that round when Leonard wound up his right hand as if to throw a “bolo”punch, but instead snapped out a left jab and caught Durán flush in the face. Durán’s head snapped back, and it was clear that punch had more effect than just a mere jab.

In the next round, the embarrassment of Durán continued.  It was clear that if the fight continued, Leonard was going to exact a serious bit of revenge.  In the closing seconds of the 8th,  Durán turned his back to Leonard and quit, waving his gloves and saying to referee Octavio Meyran “No Más.”

roberto duran no mas

Durán’s resignation made Leonard the winner by a technical knockout at 2:44 of the 8th round. This meant he regained the WBC Welterweight belt.

So, here’s what I still don’t understand about this fight.

First of all, this is the 8th round of a 12-round match. Durán has no way of knowing this at the time, but he’s not out of the scoring at this point. At the time Durán pulled the rip cord, Leonard led by a small margin…68-66, 68-66, and 67-66 on the judge’s scorecards.  That means everybody in the building knows this is a close fight. Not to mention, Durán is the “puncher” in this fight; he’s got the best chance to be the knock-out artist in this case.

Secondly, to this day, Durán’s story doesn’t hold water. Durán claimed he quit the fight because of stomach cramps. He said the cramps occurred because he took off weight too quickly, then ate too much after the morning weigh-in.  Yet, that story doesn’t jibe with that of his manager.  Carlos Eleta, said Durán always ate that way before a fight.

“Durán didn’t quit because of stomach cramps,” Eleta said. “He quit because he was embarrassed.”

Durán’s stature in his home country, Panama, took a dramatic dive after the fight. The immediate reaction was shock, followed by anger. Within hours, commercials featuring Durán (in both Panama and the United States) were taken off the air.

Muhammad Ali’s Loss to Trevor Berbick

muhammad ali trevor berbick

Despite pleas to definitively retire after the Holmes fight, Ali fought one last time on December 11, 1981 in Nassau against Trevor Berbick. This was just a goddamn shame.  It was beyond sad or pathetic. Boxing fans had to sit back and watch a virtual nobody pummel the greatest star the sport had ever known.  Muhammad Ali was literally helpless in this fight.

It may very well be the most ingracious exit we’ve ever seen for a professional athlete.

The Fatal Month

Thee things happened in November 1982 which all helped to drive the final nails into boxing’s coffin.  One of them on their own wouldn’t have done it, but the fact they all happened within two weeks of each other proved to be a staggering combination.

  • The Battle of the Champions

That was a term used by promoter Bob Arum to tout a championship fight  between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello on November 12, 1982.  It’s become a bit of pejorative; suggestive of the night when the sport’s credibility took a pretty hefty blow.

Arguello had previously won three boxing titles (at Featherweight, Junior Lightweight and Lightweight) and hoped to become the first boxer ever to win world titles in four divisions by adding the Jr. Welterweight title. HBO had the broadcast rights to the fight, and had televised two of Arguello’s previous bouts. Pryor had never been showcased on HBO, despite having a 31-0 with 29 knockouts.

Both fighters had radically opposing public images. Arguello was suave, sophisticated, and extremely humble about his impressive accomplishments, which garnered him great admiration from both the boxing community and the media. On the other hand, Pryor was fearsome, intimidating and, didn’t get a lot of media attention largely because he was a bit of an asshole.

The fight began without incident. A pattern quickly emerged; from the opening bell Pryor charged recklessly at Arguello with combinations, while Arguello stood still in the middle of the ring, parrying or blocking Pryor’s punches while counterattacking with his trademark precise, hard, straight punches. Both fighters were hurt in the first round, and each took the opportunity to punish each other.

aaron pryor alexis arguello

That set the tone for the fight. Pryor tried to increase the tempo, moving more, punching more, hitting Arguello with slashing combinations while Arguello stayed true to his strategy…”I don’t have to hit him many times in each round, but I do have to make sure that every time I hit him it hurts.”  He waited for counter-punching opportunities and used both his own strength and Pryor’s momentum from coming forward to try to make every blow as explosive and painful as possible.

This fight went back and forth until the 11th round, where Arguello battered Pryor with a number of shots which seemed to shift the momentum of the fight in favor of the Nicaraguan.

However, between rounds it was noticed that a second, thus far unused water bottle was put into use in Pryor’s corner. Pryor came out with far greater energy in the 12th round, but Arguello attempted to match him blow for blow. In the 13th round Arguello hit Pryor with a tremendous punch, easily the hardest blow of the fight, but Pryor danced away and out of trouble. Pryor’s corner man, Panama Lewis, had a long and proven track-record of “kicking balls back on to the fairway” as it were, and between rounds, he could be heard requesting the second bottle and telling an aide “No, not that one, the one I mixed” when the aide offered the water bottle that had been used throughout the rest of the fight.

The same thing happened in the 14th round.  Another pull off the “mystery water bottle,'” except this time, Pryor battered Arguello around the ring for the first minute of the round, until a hard combination drove a staggering Arguello to the ropes.  At this point, Pryor unleashed a savage barrage of about twenty unanswered punches that nearly sent Arguello tumbling out of the ring. However, Arguello refused to go down, which allowed Pryor to lay upon him a beating so severe that after referee Stanley Christodoulou stopped the fight, Arguello was left unconscious for several minutes.

Viewers and Arguello’s corner men both feared he had been seriously injured. It was a truly horrible scene, yet it would pale in comparison to what would happen less than 24 hours later.

  • The Death of Duk Koo Kim

This wasn’t the final blow to boxing, but it was the one from which it would never recover.  The term “perfect storm” get over-used, but it really fits here. You have to remember that at the time, were barley past the pathetic last sights of Muhammad Ali in the ring, and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini had become the biggest star the sport has.  In fact, for a time in 1982, Mancini was arguably the biggest celebrity in all of sports.

ray mancini duk koo kim si cover

He was a lightweight version of “Rocky;” he was a blue-collar kid from a rust-belt factory town in Ohio.  He was exactly that kind of guy that could be the guy from down the street; that was the key to his popularity. but people like Frank Sinatra waited on line to meet him. Warren Zevon did a song about him on the David Letterman show.

On top of that, boxing was still a major sport in this country, unlike today. Big fights were a regular occurrence on network television; it was a staple of Saturday afternoon programming on the big networks.

That’s why on November 13th, 1982, the WBA Lightweight title fight between Mancini and Kim drew a huge national television audience.  Tens of millions of people (myself included) were watching on CBS that Saturday afternoon.  Nobody remembered Kim being carried from the ring after the fateful fourteenth round, but by the next morning, we all knew what had happened.  One punch caused the brain hemorrhage which killed Duk Koo Kim on live television and signaled the beginning of the end of boxing in the U.S.

To make matters worse, Kim’s mother committed suicide four months after the fight.  Richard Green, who was the referee for that bout, also killed himself in July 1983. He blamed himself for Kim’s death, feeling that he should have stopped the fight in the 11th round.

  • The Tex Cobb-Larry Holmes Fight

If the Duk Koo Kim tragedy was the “perfect storm,” then this was the epitome of perfectly bad timing.  A scant 13 days after the Mancini/Kim fight, heavyweight champion Larry Holmes defended his title against Randall “Tex” Cobb.  It was literally a bloodbath. Not only did Holmes win all fifteen rounds on two of three scorecards, he beat him so badly that Cobb was awash in his own blood. The spectacle was so gruesome that legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell vowed never to cover another professional boxing match…and he never did.

larry holmes tex cobb

Cosell’s statement was on the front page of every newspaper in America the next morning.  Worse yet was the fact that nobody in boxing really understood what a death sentence Cosell’s statement was. After Cosell’s decree, television ratings for boxing nose-dived.

Rocky III (and everything after that)

In the 1970’s, boxing was riding a wave of popularity in this country. There was was the star power of Muhammad Ali.  There was the 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing team which captivated it’s national audience. Also in 1976, there was “Rocky;” one of the greatest sports movies of all-time.  As mentioned earlier, the character of “Rocky” is based on a real person, an underdog club-fighter named Chuck Wepner who through circumstance got a shot at the title.

Nobody gave the guy a chance, but he took Muhammad Ali through 15 rounds in 1975.  Ali was guaranteed $1.5 million and Wepner signed for $100,000. This bout was the first time Wepner had been able to train full-time and with top-flight trainers and managers. It made a difference, because in the ninth round Wepner knocked Ali down.

muhammad ali chuck wepner

In the remaining rounds, Ali decisively out-boxed Wepner and opened up cuts above both Wepner’s eyes and broke his nose. Wepner was far behind on the scorecards when Ali knocked him down with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. The referee counted to seven before calling a technical knockout.

That story sounds a lot like the movie, doesn’t it? In fact, it sounds so much like it that Wepner spent years pursuing Sylvester Stallone for compensation claiming that Stallone had blatantly stolen his life story.  Ultimately he didn’t succeed, but that also isn’t the real problem with this story.

In the 1970’s the “Rocky” character is the prototypical American underdog.  There’s a great test to see if somebody is a dick. Watch the first “Rocky” movie with them. If they root against “Rocky,” they’re a dick. It’s that simple.

If you take the first two “Rocky” movies, edit them into one three-hour epic, you’d have one of the greatest ever made.  But you would have to burn everything else to keep the franchise from being ruined, because they fundamentally changed the “Rocky” character in the 1980’s.  The whole draw of the “Rocky” character was the fact he was that underdog.  but when they made him a cartoonish crusader in some warped “good vs. evil” screed, that draw was ruined completely.

We all knew it was over when Rocky got fisted by Hulk Hogan.

We all knew it was over when Rocky got fisted by Hulk Hogan.

So, what the hell does a bunch of bad movies have to do with boxing?  Boxing is a sport more dependent on the “casual” fan than any other, and those fans started to think that the Rocky movies were just like what real boxing was. The problem was that in the real boxing world, there was a guy named Mike Tyson coming up through the ranks destroying everything in his path, and he sure as shit wasn’t a good, likeable guy like Rocky.

When it became clear that the next decade-plus of heavyweight boxing was going to revolve around the feared and despised Mike Tyson, the “casual” fans left in droves, because they wanted a likeable champion…another “Rocky” is what they wanted, and boxing just couldn’t find one.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss the rise and fall of Mike Tyson, the proliferation of boxing’s sanctioning bodies, and why boxing has no future in America.

About J-Dub

What your view of sports would be if you had too many concussions

5 comments on “A Chronology of the Death of Boxing – Part I

  1. jbsptfn
    May 14, 2015

    I am not a big fight fan, but as someone who couldn’t stand Mike Tyson, I totally agree with your last paragraph.


  2. Pingback: A Chronology of the Death of Boxing – Part II | Dubsism

  3. sportsattitudes
    May 27, 2015

    Great summary of the period in question and brought back lots of memories when boxing was indeed a MAJOR sport.


  4. Ravenation
    May 29, 2015

    Reblogged this on First Order Historians.


  5. Pingback: The J-Dub Gambling Challenge 2020: Week 8 – The “B1G White Hope is Back! ” Edition | Dubsism

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