The Business Of Boxing

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I it was a bout that didn’t need much promotion; everybody could see that this was high drama. There was the grudge aspect. Louis felt that Schmeling had humiliated him in the first bout. Schmeling, for his part, resented the fact that Louis had been given first crack at Jimmy Braddock the year before. Politics had a lot to do with it too: it was 1938, and Schmeling was vehemently pro-Hitler. It was clear that the majority of the fans in Yankee Stadium on the night of June 22, 1938, were in Louis’s corner.

Louis didn’t disappoint them. He’d spent two years planning his revenge. The fight lasted exactly 124 seconds. Schmeling was knocked down four times and was hospitalized afterward with internal injuries. For sheer devastation, there was never a fight like this one. And when it was over, Louis wasn’t just a champion; he was the allAmerican hero who’d whipped the Nazi.

This bout didn’t affect only boxing. Eventually it affected the entire American spectator-sports industry. This one fight finally established that black athletes could—and must be allowed to—compete with whites on equal terms. The National Football League was integrated soon thereafter, and major-league baseball admitted its first black players in 1947.

Louis held the title from 1937 to 1949, the longest uninterrupted reign in history. He kept building his image. Twice, during World War II, he fought for nothing, donating his entire purse to the Army and Navy relief funds. He was not so much admired as adored. He fought many more great fights, but the last of his bouts to have a major historical impact was one of his poorer efforts.

On December 5, 1947, Louis defended his title at Madison Square Garden in New York City against lightly regarded “Jersey Joe” Walcott. Walcott, a kind of black Rocky Balboa, shocked the world by knocking Louis down twice and losing the fight by the narrowest of decisions. It was a surprising, tension-filled bout with a controversial ending, but what made it so important was that it was the first world heavyweight title bout to be telecast nationwide. As such, it was the harbinger of a whole new era in boxing.

Boxing had been televised before, of course. But in the late 1940s the W set was just starting to come into its own as a basic household necessity. By the early 1950s most families had one. And every weekend the Gillette Friday-night fights were beamed into several million living rooms. This was good for boxing in a way. TV revenue brought more money to the sport, meaning bigger purses for fighters. Televised boxing turned fight night into a family ritual. Instead of Dad’s going down to the fight club for an evening with the boys, he stayed home and watched the fights with Mom and the kids—who also became fans.

 

But television hurt boxing severely by killing the small clubs. With the sport available free on TV at least once a week, only the very dedicated fans would pay to see it live. There were so few of these that by the end of the 1950s, neighborhood boxing clubs had largely disappeared. Today there are only a handful left. In New York City and Philadelphia, once America’s two main fight towns, there’s very little live boxing anymore. The big fight towns now are Las Vegas and Atlantic City, because to induce a large crowd to show up at a fight these days, you have to offer other recreational options.

Many experts believe that the death of the clubs led to a decline in the quality of boxing. There’s some truth to this. Fifty years ago a fighter had to work his way up through the ranks, slowly perfecting his craft. By the time he got a shot at a title, he’d be a seasoned veteran. Immortals like Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Fritzie Zivic, and Archie Moore all were products of the club era, and all had more than two hundred fights and knew every trick of the trade.

Today, with the sport almost entirely dependent on television, there are fewer boxing venues, thus fewer fights. Where a boxer might have fought twelve times in 1941, he might fight twice in 1991. A fighter challenging for a world title in 1941 might have already had eighty fights. Today it’s routine for a fighter to land a title shot with fewer than twenty pro bouts under his belt. And less experience means proportionately less skill.

Television and its variations—closed circuit, cable, pay per view—have hurt boxing in another way. With the death of the small clubs, there are no more local heroes. There are few fighters who can attract constituencies in their hometowns and fill the arena whenever they fight. Today a fighter has to be nationally known or he’s nothing. The TV-viewing public has been spoiled; it just doesn’t appreciate a good club fight between two willing youngsters who may never be champs. It’s hard to hype a fight unless it’s billed as a world-championship contest. So, to inflate the significance of any given boxing show, promoters have created an incredible number of dubious “championships” for which fighters can contend. It’s almost reached the point where there are more championship belts than there are fighters to wear them.