I love boxing, but its wretchedness is really beyond compare, the way in which it grounds down and exploits its heroes and champions, subjecting them to drubbing after drubbing once their skills have faded in order to wring every last dollar out of whatever lingering monetary value their name recognition might confer. There is no pension fund for boxers, no powerful league or national regulatory body to look after their financial, physical and mental well-being the way there is in other sports. There's no player's union. What does exist in this vacuum is a class of villains and lowlifes so unsavory and bereft of scruples that they seem to have walked directly out of the pages of a James M. Cain novel. This rogue's gallery takes the form of promoters, managers, advisers, baldly corrupt sanctioning bodies and just about every other possible iteration of grifter and sharpie, hovering vulturelike over the sport's money dealings, waiting to pick away at hard-earned purses until there are mere scraps left over for the fighters themselves. They are like the spawn of sewer rats and cottonmouth snakes, these men, seeking only to manipulate, defraud and endanger those athletes unfortunate enough to fall into their sphere of influence. Avarice in the form of immediate-term benefit is their only aim, capricious dishonesty the conventionally accepted avenue for achieving their goals. And that is their good side.
None of this is an original observation of course, and in fact all of it is part and parcel of boxing's vibrant lore, a condition which in turn contributes to the immense difficulty of bringing any sensible reform to the sport. Influential personages ranging from Senator John McCain to Howard Cosell to Muhammed Ali himself have advocated over the past decades for the sport's cleanup via the Federal Trade Commission or the creation of a federal oversight committee, only to have these concerns largely shrugged off by those both in and outside of the sport, seemingly accompanied always by the frustrating tautology: “That's just boxing...” Nothing less than subpoenas and days of televised Congressional hearings will suffice in order to investigate the claims made in a memoir by Jose Canseco, but boxing is always “just boxing.”
Owing to concerns over his health, the once great 42-year-old former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield is banned by the New York State Athletic Commission from fighting in this state. But you can always get a boxing license somewhere, and last week Holyfield brought his act to Dallas, where he notched the 39th victory of his storied career with a second round TKO over lowly regarded tomato can Jeremy Bates. I suppose it's Holyfield's right to continue fighting as long as he wants, but the concerns over his well-being are valid: in recent years he has manifested classic symptoms of becoming “punchy,” with slurred speech and slowed reflexes, and prior to that suffered from a dangerous heart ailment which a decade ago drove him briefly into retirement. He has not defeated an opponent of the remotest skill or significance in more than four years and has not been anywhere approaching the top of his game in closer to eight. The sheer welter of combat endured by this veteran of countless unforgettable confrontations places him in a precarious position every time he walks through the ropes to face a fighter of the remotest caliber and skill. In 2003 Holyfield was beaten up badly by a bloated but still dangerous former middleweight champion James Toney. The following year he dropped a listless one-sided decision to the journeyman Larry Donald, a fighter who would have been fortunate to last three rounds with a prime Holyfield. It is, of course, impossible to imagine any other major sport allowing one of its front-line stars to deteriorate so pathetically, so dangerously, directly in front of our eyes. When former NFL quarterbacks Steve Young or Troy Aikman — now both Hall Of Famers — began suffering from multiple concussion syndrome, both were quickly shuttled off the field and into successful broadcasting careers. Holyfield is denied a license to fight in New York so he goes to Texas and carries on against the advice. That's just boxing.
I saw Holyfield fight live at an Atlantic City in 1989, in one of his early heavyweight tests against top ten contender Alex Stewart. So legendary are his achievements in the division that it is easy to forget that the early portions of Holyfield's career began with his dominating the 190 lbs. cruiserweight division, and that there existed tremendous skepticism about his eventual ability to put on enough weight to routinely compete against the much bigger men in the heavyweight class. This fight was a typically pitched and memorable affair — both fighters were severely rocked and the momentum swung back and forth until Holyfield finally achieved an eighth-round stoppage. Walking around the floor of the arena prior to the commencement of the fight card, my friend Pete Hoffman and I, both sixteen at the time and hard-core boxing fanatics, had the opportunity to approach and chat with several of our favorite high profile fighters. We met the fine champion and Meldrick Taylor, as well as Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, arguably one of the twenty greatest fighters ever to live. They were present to show support for Holyfield, their 1984 Olympic teammate. The flamboyant Hector “Macho” Camacho was fighting on the undercard, and made a boisterous appearance working the pre-fight audience dressed only in gold bikini briefs and a cape. There was a large question mark on the crotch of his briefs, an image which both Pete and I have found difficult to shake throughout the course of our adult lives — we were later to parlay much of the exhilaration and trauma of this episode into our band the Mendoza Line.
We spoke to several fighters that night, ranging from those who have faded into permanent obscurity to some who are now remembered as all-time greats. To a one they seemed funny and approachable, and seemed to deeply appreciate our enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport. Over the years I have had occasion as a hobbyist to visit a few training camps and attend other fights and almost without exception this has how my experience with actual professional boxers and their trainers have been. Courteous, accessible and generous to a fault with their time and gratitude. It is ironic but perhaps not surprising that fighters themselves seem almost inversely proportional in their decency to the men who handle their business affairs. In any event, 1989 in Atlantic City is how I prefer to remember Evander Holyfield. Still, “The Real Deal” presses on, making persistent and apparently serious references to God's plan for him to win the heavyweight title for the fourth time. I am not a religious person and have no idea what God's plans are for Holyfield, but I sincerely hope it is not a destiny fraught with full-fledged brain damage and dementia.
Is This What They Mean By “Poker Craze”?
A man of my centered bearing is naturally unaccustomed to accusations of severe derangement, and yet that is just what I happened to face a few short days ago, when I was asked point blank by a family member: “Are you mentally ill?”
The barrage was savage and unexpected, particularly at Grandmother's 90th birthday dinner, and entirely prompted by a completely unavoidable situation. It so happened that my brother Mike and I were roughly an hour late to the dinner because we had been down by the beach waiting to enter a Texas Hold 'Em contest, which was being held for purely exhibition purposes at a local bar called Peanuts. I can't quite imagine why this would prompt anything other than kudos for our collective bravery, but people often have strange ideas about all kinds of things and I have long since ceased puzzling over their bizarre bourgeois mores. The point is that when Mike and I saw the sign in the window advertising a “Free Tournament: Open To All!” we could scarcely fail to attend without making serious concessions to our sense of competitive decorum. Not going to Peanuts that evening would have been roughly akin to Ohio State turning down a Rose Bowl invitation. If we had we not attended, the long night's of staying up asking ourselves “What if?” would have taxed us both — perhaps beyond the breaking point.
None of which is to suggest that either of us have the remotest aptitude for poker, and in point of fact it became fairly obvious as soon as we sat down that “exhibition” or not, the two of us were in precipitously over our heads. The game was set at two large tables of twelve, and everyone present seemed to know each other exceptionally well, presumably from the penitentiary mess hall. When our names were called from the sign up list, Mike and I were seated near each other and a man with a face resembling a bear claw announced to no one in particular: “Look out for the Bracy Brothers!” This seemed to rattle the regulars — no one was certain if we were big city ringers — and the aura became progressively more unwelcoming. The woman to my left, who could easily have started at right tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, observed my sunburn with a perceptible expression of horror and shifted two feet in the opposite direction. (My skin is atypically fair, and when visiting the beach I tend not to take on a healthy glow, but to molt. Owing to some peculiar aspect of my Irish heritage, I am actually able to hear myself tan.)
As the game commenced, I also began to have my doubts about whether or not all of this was strictly a friendly exhibition. For one thing, I was somewhat surprised by the sudden appearance of two men in riot gear guarding a four foot titanium vault. This, coupled with the arrival of a small fleet of armored trucks outside, served to give me pause. The first hand was dealt, and Mike, seeking either an early advantage or an unimpeded path to the exit, quickly jumped all in with his unsuited 2-6. Within moments he was called by a walking tattoo with pocket Kings, and precisely ten seconds after that the motor on his car was running. I myself played a more judicious style, carefully folding anything less than a premium hand until such time as I was surprised to look down and discover that not only did I not have any more chips, but the dealer had consumed my Schlitz.
I think the lesson here is obvious, although clearly I have no idea what it is or I wouldn't keep getting myself into these terrifying situations. But as to the question of my sanity, I will defer to the wisdom of the ages. Following dinner that night I remained nonplussed and disoriented from the abusive slander, and sought the comfort and counsel of none other than Grandma herself. A half hour's search about the premises yielded no sign of her and finally, in frustration I asked my father for her whereabouts. “Don't bother her now,” he responded sternly, “she's is playing online bridge. She'll have a meltdown if you interrupt her.”