He Ain't So Heavy
For all of us who enjoy breathing the secondhand fumes of danger, the end is near. A heavyweight title fight, which used to nearly suffocate us in the smoke of vicarious jeopardy, no longer gives off even a thin vapor. Not a whiff. Evander Holyfield-Henry Akinwande on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden? The air above and around that bout is pretty clear, isn't it?
What is it about heavyweight boxing these days that produces more torpor than terror? It's not us, it's not that evolution has finally carried us beyond our appetite for personal disaster. We still watch Scary Police Chases II on Fox, don't we? It can't be the sport itself, which stubbornly resists all efforts to civilize it. We still have Don King, more or less.
Is it that badness, which is what heavyweight boxing is supposed to be about, is now the domain of sulking basketball players? To judge from the shoe company ads and sports drink commercials, today's gladiatorial arena is the NBA, a league ruled by an army of slammin', jammin', elbow-swinging intimidators. Meanwhile, off the court, players seem increasingly determined to give even Sonny Liston a run for his bail money. Holyfield, who defends his hard-won championship in boxing's most hallowed arena, ought to inspire more than caricature. He's a rugged, hard-hitting fellow. Yet the guy you really want to stay away from is Latrell Sprewell.
Maybe it's just Holyfield, with his droning Christianity. But we don't think so. Lennox Lewis, another heavyweight champion, also fails to produce night sweats in the rest of us. Even though he hits like a sonuvabitch and never spouts Biblical quotations, Lewis evokes more gentility than he does menace. Here's the test: You're standing in front of a plate-glass window, and here comes Lewis up behind you. Are you scared? Now here comes Charles Barkley.
Maybe it's just personality. When Mike Tyson was around, well, we didn't want to run into him unless conditions were strictly controlled. It turned out he couldn't fight much anymore, but the fun of his highly rigged comeback was seeing the intimidation reflected on the face of whatever boiled ham was brought into the ring that night. Of course, that only worked up to a point.
Maybe it's the talent level. Holyfield and Lewis are both in their 30s, and George Foreman, the other big draw, is 102. Everybody who has come along to try to replace this generation has failed in one spectacular fashion or another.
But those complaints have always been in play. Here's the more likely reason for the creeping irrelevancy of the heavyweight champion: He—Holyfield, Foreman, whoever—is boring and, bitten ears aside, predictable. These aren't the times for the ballet of boxing, for ritualized violence, scheduled destruction. Where's the thrill? Give us gloves thrown down on the ice, set-tos in the paint, brawls on the mound. Give it to us down and dirty, give it to us raw. Give us Jerry Springer and When Animals Attack IV. Sad truth: The smell of a safely shared catastrophe, disaster at a remove, is a comparative perfume, overpowered these days by the stink of spontaneity.