The Business Of Boxing

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New weight classifications like “cruiserweight” and “super middleweight” have brought the number of classifications to sixteen, as compared with eight a generation ago. A mere three pounds differentiates “flyweight” from the next classification, “junior bantamweight.” There are also, at last count, four separate organizations—all hostile to one another and denying the others’ authority, like competing sects of a religion—that claim to govern boxing worldwide. The World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation, and the World Boxing Organization each recognize a different champion at each weight. That adds up to sixtyfour championships—which means that in the past thirty years there has been an eightfold increase in the number of people who can style themselves “Champion of the World.” Boxing has come full circle to where it was in the early years of the nineteenth century, when nobody in America knew who the champ was, and didn’t care. Today the sport runs almost entirely on individual personalities. There are a half-dozen or so fighters who are well known enough to attract a big closed-circuit or pay-per-view audience, and if they don’t actually hold a championship, one will be created for them.

“Those various governing bodies have changed the public perception of boxing,” Nigel Collins charges. “The multiple ‘champions’ have created a cynical attitude on the part of the public. There are fewer writers and broadcasters who are really dedicated to the sport, so people know less about boxing now. The talking heads on TV only get interested if it’s a megafight.”

This all didn’t happen overnight, of course; it was a gradual process. But there was one match that truly did begin the descent into the confusion of today. It took place on the night of November 30, 1956, when Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore fought for the heavyweight championship of the world, left vacant when Rocky Marciano retired undefeated.

This bout was no great promotional coup. Financially it was somewhat of a disappointment. But with the exception of Corbett-Sullivan, no other fight so clearly ushered in a new era. In just about every way imaginable, this was the definitive clash between the old order and the new. Moore was two weeks shy of his forty-third birthday; Patterson, three weeks shy of his twenty-second. Moore, who’d been fighting since the early 1930s, had worked his way slowly through countless small clubs all over the world, fighting anyone, anywhere, anytime, but had been studiously avoided by various world champions. (Ray Robinson, for instance, once remarked, “I’ll only get into the same ring with Archie if they let me bring a baseball bat.”) Patterson, a 1952 Olympic gold medalist, had been groomed for success right from the get-go, with a showy record established against carefully selected opponents. Moore had a scientific style of fighting that the true boxing fan loved but that the peripheral fan found too deep to be of interest. Patterson had been taught to box in a flashy, spectacular style specifically calculated to look good on television.

Moore was the Grunt, Patterson was the Glamour Boy. The only real similarity between the two men was that they both took a highly intellectual approach to the game. (Moore, trying to explain his complicated style to a mystified fan: “You’re thinking about boxing . What I do is philosophy .” Patterson, on what made him fight: “I am a coward. My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. You can be a winning fighter and still be a coward. … I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at.”) So perhaps they both knew that this fight was a passing of the torch.

Maybe the knowledge had a psychological effect on “Ancient Archie.” Although Moore was favored to win, Patterson flattened him in the fifth round. Patterson was only one remove, in the succession of champions, from Muhammad Ali. He held the title until 1959, lost it to Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, won it back the next year, and lost it for good to Sonny Liston in 1962. He was the only two-time heavyweight champ. Ali, the only three-time champ, won the title from Liston on February 25,1964, and didn’t lose it for good until 1980.

Ali (who then, of course, was known as Cassius Clay) made a splash as soon as he arrived on the boxing scene. He recalled that at the beginning of his career, he observed the wrestler Gorgeous George in action and noticed that George performed to packed houses every night because he was a loudmouthed villain whom the public loved to hate. “And I said, ‘Hey, that’s for me!’”

Ali, as you see, was nothing new after all. In effect he was the reincarnation of many great names of the past, all blended into one man. His glamour-boy image wasn’t much different from that of the handsome, cocky Jim Corbett. His incredible instinct for showmanship? Tex Rickard. His bad-guy act? Jack Johnson sold tickets exactly the same way. And as a national icon—well, Joe Louis had been there before.