BOXING’S BOASTS, BARBARISM ARE JUST GLANCING BLOWS NOW

There was a time, back in college, when I laced up boxing gloves and tried to prove myself in a ring. I was not very talented; I did more ducking than hitting. But one night, while sparring with my coach, I tagged him, unsuspecting, and he straightened up and blinked. At that moment, I felt a surge of naked power, almost primitive, as if my blood had thickened and I was bloated with muscle. It was a manly thing I had done. I felt manly. And then he pounded the hell out of me.

A far less pleasant feeling, that was, like putting your head inside a metal drum and rolling down a hill. What amazed me was how quickly I lost my senses; it was less than seven seconds before I could find the corner. My jaw ached the next morning, and my shoulders felt like bricks pinning me to my bed.

That was a long time ago. Today, I will board an airplane and fly to Atlantic City to see a fight. Heavyweights. Larry Holmes vs. Mike Tyson. And just like when I began in this business — when I would arrive a week early, take notes at the workouts, talk with the fighters — this time the main event is just hours after my plane lands. And Saturday morning, as soon as I can, I will fly out.

Boxing has dimmed; it is embarrassing now. The pre-fight remains cartoonish. The boxer says: “I’ll kill him.” The promoter says: “He’s the greatest.” It’s the worst sort of theater. Everyone is full of it.

Yet I am still going to the fight. Nuts to blood and guts

Why? What is it with boxing? You do what Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns did out in the street, they book you for assault. I sat ringside that night in Las Vegas. There was blood on my notebook by the second round. After one brutal exchange, Hearns wobbled away, grinning stupidly.

“Jesus!” screamed the guy next to me. “He’s laughing after that?”

“He’s not laughing,” I mumbled.

Moments later, Hearns was flat on the canvas. His smile, which seemed the height of arrogance, was actually his body saying, “Good night.”

Tonight Larry Holmes, 38, who once promised he would never be as foolish as Muhammad Ali, returns to the ring at the same age Ali finally sank. Soft and powerless, Ali was pounded then by a younger Holmes, and Larry was almost in tears afterward, having demolished a mentor who should never have been fighting.

Yet tonight, Tyson, 21, gets to bang Holmes’ old bones. And if he slaughters the ex-king, it is not likely he will cry.

Nor will anybody else.

“I like the idea of putting $3 million in the bank,” Holmes admitted recently. So much for his motivation. Where is ours? Do we even have any?

Remember that once Ali left the stage, it seemed there were no worthy heavyweight champs. Holmes wore the crown against nameless blobs, until Michael Spinks gained weight and took it away. “Ah, they all stink,” we would say.

We cannot say that now. Mike Tyson is a legitimate champion, all power, from his black trunks to his black shoes with no socks. He has beaten everyone. Yet we’re remarkably uninterested. Why? Perhaps because, unlike Ali, Tyson’s personality is not jolting. He does not scream, does not taunt the world. He is a good fighter. So what?

Norman Mailer once wrote that “ego” was what made Muhammad Ali obsessive to us. We could not ignore him. But these days the sports world has Dexter Manleys, Brian Bosworths, Reggie Jacksons. What’s new about ego anymore?

So Tyson can say, “no man on the planet can beat me,” and people yawn. There are no new boasts left. Personality has cheapened, and when you take personality out of boxing, all you have left is two men slugging each other.

And that, in this violent age, is no big deal. What’s the point?

Duk Koo Kim was killed in the ring by Ray Mancini. George Foreman tries to punch and preach. Ali mumbles, a husk of his old self. The horrors of brain damage are common news now. People cluck their tongues in disgust.

I think the cumulative effect is finally taking hold. Boxing may be great copy — Hemingway and Mailer penned majestic works — but it is brutal, repulsive, bloody, and in today’s world, nearly pre-historic. There’s no point anymore.

And I am still going to the fight. What is wrong with me? That same mix of compulsion and revulsion — the breathy moment when I stunned my instructor, the dizziness I felt after his pounding — still lures me. But it grows weak. I go less. I arrive late. And I imagine I will soon say: “Forget it. I can’t cover this stuff anymore.”

Which will be OK. Maybe I should be saying it already. This much I learned on the canvas of that gym a long time ago — there is only one good conclusion to the seductive punch of boxing: if you’re lucky, you come to your senses.

When we come to ours, the sport will be gone.

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