Boxing suffering from opportunities to see it with the naked eye
Sitting ringside at Miguel Cotto-Michael Jennings a reminder of boxing's changes
Unlike other sports, boxing is no longer accessible for fans to see it in person
Powers that be would be wise to throw cash toward supporting local fight cards
NEW YORK -- Evoking A.J. Liebling at the start of a boxing column is a little like shouting the name Pavarotti as you prepare to launch into a karaoke performance: it only reminds your audience of what they're not going to get. Nonetheless, here goes: I couldn't help thinking of Liebling (the legendary author of The Sweet Science, whose coverage of the sport for The New Yorker from the 1940s into the '60s, earned him general recognition as the finest boxing writer ever) Saturday night as I sat on press row at Madison Square Garden watching the fight card that culminated with Miguel Cotto's thoroughly impressive dismantling of the overmatched Michael Jennings. Specifically, I was reminded of Liebling's classic essay Boxing With the Naked Eye, and of how far things have come since he wrote it.
Ostensibly a report on the June 15, 1951 bout between Joe Louis and Lee Savold at the old Madison Square Garden (the one, once known as the new Garden, which stood at 49th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan), the piece goes into great and loving detail about the pleasures of attending a fight in person, as opposed to watching it on TV. Foremost among those pleasures according to Liebling, is the chance to engage in a kind of running repartee with your fellow fight goers, shouting out instructions to the boxers, making observations and counter-observations just loudly enough to be overheard. "Before television," Liebling wrote, "a prizefight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man to think on his seat."
Amazingly, Liebling's seat wasn't even on press row. Perhaps out of concern for journalistic integrity, maybe just out of preference, boxing's best writer sat not with the boxing writers, but with the fans, in "a ten-dollar seat in the side arena -- the first tiers rising in back of the boxes." On fight night, he took a cab to the Garden, made his way through the crowd to his seat and there settled in for the action. As he wrote, "The newspapermen, acres of them near the ring, were banging out the leads for the running stories they had already telegraphed, and I felt sorry for them, because they never have time to enjoy boxing matches." Some things, at least, have not changed since 1951. Around me on Saturday night at the Garden writers sat with their laptops open before them, tap-tapping away, toggling between Web sites and shouting into cell phones even as the fighters were exchanging punches. My colleague Chris Mannix was squeezed in next to me busily updating a live SI.com blog on the fight (the cyber-equivalent, I suppose, of Liebling's oral banter) while fielding an endless series of text messages from sources for an unrelated NBA story.
It's pointless (though kind of fun), to wonder just what sort of live blog Liebling might have provided from the Louis-Savold affair. And fight fans should be happy to have such coverage available in addition to the pay-per-view option. For that's more-or-less what's keeping the sport (barely) alive. Still, it occurs to me that boxing suffers acutely from the dwindling opportunities it has to be taken in by the naked eye. All sports, of course, are awash in multi-media coverage -- regular TV, season-subscription packages, Internet, e-mail updates, blogs, YouTube replays and Twitters -- but they also remain for the most part available in, y'know, real life. You can take your kids to a big league baseball game (or, OK, a minor league game), or to a college football game or to some live manifestation of pretty much any other sport. The hoops fan checking scores on NBA.com knows what its like to watch a game in person; he or she can go straight from the computer to the local high school and take in a game. The connection remains and both ways of enjoying the sport feed the fan's knowledge and enthusiasm.
It's an old saw, but that arrangement went down for the count a long time ago in boxing. There are no more neighborhood fight clubs; most fans of the sport, such as they are, have probably never seen a bout in person. Network TV, long the next best thing in terms of providing the widest access, is no longer in the game. I'm not sure there's much that can be done to stem the tide, but perhaps it's time for a boxing stimulus package. Perhaps HBO and Showtime, Golden Boy Promotions, Don King and Bob Arum should throw a little cash toward supporting small local fight cards around the country, something that might give budding fans a taste of what this most accessible of sports is like in the flesh.
I rode home on the subway last night in a car full of young men who had clearly been at the Garden. A couple were draped in Puerto Rican flags and they were all talking animatedly about Cotto and his resounding destruction of Jennings. There was naked excitement in their eyes. It would be a shame to let it die.