Nobody's marketing minivans to boxing moms, not yet, but it does seem that the sport has become a little more suburban than we remember it. Visits to promising athletes now take place in split-level homes, not tenement blocks. Standing by are parents (two at a time!), not wannabe mobsters hunched under the weight of their gold-nugget jewelry. And is it just us or do we smell more chocolate-chip cookies in training-camp kitchens these days than we do cigars?
Where are the tattooed orphans, the repeat offenders, the surly nose-bone-into-your-brain stars we've grown used to? Is it truly possible that the sport has been taken over by a bunch of kids with milk mustaches, guys who a year ago were playing trumpet in the school band? In other words, does the changing face of boxing now belong to Sugar Shane Mosley? And does it have to have dimples?
If Mosley, the undefeated IBF lightweight world champion—who last Saturday night in Indio, Calif., ran his record to a pristine 32-0 with an eighth-round TKO of challenger John (the Beast) Brown—is the standard-bearer for this new generation of fighters, as many in boxing believe, then the sport really is in for a transformation. It may never be civilized to the degree of, say, contract bridge (point of reference: a faded and shamed Mike Tyson remains boxing's biggest draw), but a good citizen-fighter like Mosley, who can't bring himself to move more than a block from his parents, could go a long way toward reclaiming the sport as family fare.
Think about this past year in boxing. While Tyson was appearing before state commissions to proclaim his sanity, and while his fellow point men in the heavyweight division were engaging in a series of dreary events, capped most recently by the Holyfield-Lewis debacle, Mosley tore through the lightweight level, creating excitement, not chaos. Since winning the title in August 1997 from South Africa's Philip Holiday, Mosley has defended it eight times, winning each fight by knockout. Honored earlier this month by the Boxing Writers Association of America as its Fighter of the Year, Mosley is a superb boxer and one of the most accomplished body punchers to come along in years. So dominant has Mosley been that the manager of one of his opponents, Jesse James Leija, who was KO'd in the ninth last November, pleaded with HBO to give his fighter one more chance on the network, "against somebody human." Through it all Mosley's entourage has held steady at one—his father and trainer, Jack (who, not coincidentally, was named Trainer of the Year by the boxing writers).
"He's the complete package," says HBO matchmaker Lou DiBella. "He's got that rare combination of speed and power, and he knows how to carry himself outside the ring." DiBella can afford to gush, as Mosley's fights helped HBO to consistently higher ratings in a year that was mostly devoid of big bouts. Indeed, the normally gloomy DiBella is cheered by Mosley and a group of like-spirited and similar-sized kids who have been reliable ratings warriors for him and other promoters. "Mosley's part of a new generation of young, quality fighters who are also pretty good citizens—guys like David Reid, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Antonio Vargas. They all have the sense that it's more important to be a fighter than a sideshow."
Until now, though, Mosley has been the best fighter nobody's ever heard of. While his talent has long been trumpeted among aficionados, it's been a secret elsewhere. "You could say that he's been under-promoted," offers his promoter, Cedric Kushner, "but you would be tragically understating the case."
Kushner does not indict himself for negligence. He didn't get ahold of Mosley until 1997, three lost years into the fighter's career. Before that, Mosley had been strictly a West Coast fighter, having boxed all but three of his 23 bouts in his home state of California. At that time Mosley was far more famous as a sparring partner—warring with the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez for $100 a week—than he was as a head-liner. "It was a slow start," Mosley says.
It was his own fault, you could say. He started boxing at age eight, when he tagged along to a Pomona gym with his father. By the time he was a teenager, he had become the class of American amateurs. In 1990 the U.S. team coach, Joe Byrd, said, "He's probably above and beyond any [amateur] in the world at his weight class."
However, he never got to the Olympic springboard, the one that sent Oscar De La Hoya (one of Mosley's amateur victims) toward his superstar status of today. Mosley, shockingly, failed to make the 1992 team, losing a questionable decision to Vernon Forrest.
Today Mosley says the upset never bothered him all that much. He was eager to get on with his pro career, and he assumed he would be ranked with his idol, Sugar Ray Leonard, in no time. That rosy outlook ignored Leonard's own use of the Olympic springboard. And it ignored boxing reality. A Southern California promoter who was new to the business of boxing—his money came from construction—could not move Mosley at all in the heavily networked world of professional fighting. For all his brilliance, Mosley remained a local fighter, far from the notice of the East Coast crowd, which shapes national opinion and offers TV contracts.