Boxing hasn't been driven underground so much as it's been driven south of the border. The game now belongs to the Hispanic crowd (both fighters and fans), and anybody who doesn't get with the program is condemned to watching desultory, overhyped and irresponsibly made heavyweight fights and trying to figure where that $54.95 went on a Saturday night—some pay-per-view idea that seemed good at the time but now feels like a bad day at the in-laws'.
The more open-minded, those who aren't so particular about issues of language and nationality, are in for a decidedly better time, and at bargain prices. Last Saturday's rematch between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales may not have equaled their match in 2000, which was voted Fight of the Year by Ring magazine, but it gave more bang for the buck than almost any other fight this year. That Barrera's victory at Las Vegas's MGM Grand was as suspect as Morales's win two years ago is bonus material; on top of world-class action, you got intrigue, carping and paranoia. And all for $39.95 to your cable distributor.
Hispanic fighters, particularly at the lower weights, have been carrying the load for some time now. Julio C�sar Ch�vez, Oscar De La Hoya and F�lix Trinidad have come through to restore our interest in boxing (usually after a lackluster heavyweight performance). But this fight, which had to be promoted to the hinterlands on the basis of athletic prowess alone, might have been a turning point in the sport. An estimated 400,000 households (not to mention a crowd of 12,709) paid to see two fighters whose name recognition anywhere beyond the Southwest was roughly on par with that of a U.S. cabinet member.
The good thing is that those willing to convert, to abandon their old favorites (done with Mike Tyson, anyone?), can do so without a Berlitz course. Many of the Hispanic stars are English-friendly, but even when they aren't, as in the case of Barrera and Morales, the action is easily translated. Some nuances may be lost—without a map of Mexico and a little understanding of class warfare in that country, you miss some of the fun—but the big picture is easy to handle. These guys are delivering frantic fights at cut rates.
The first meeting of the two fighters was one of those mythic matches in which the winner (Morales, by a controversial split decision) threw 868 punches—72 a round. The pace was staggering. The rematch, which took two years and $2 million per featherweight to put together, was pale only by comparison. Morales and Barrera threw only 600 punches apiece, just 50 per round. But the ebb and flow produced easily as much drama as the first fight and, with another debatable decision, certainly as much bitterness. And the great thing is, the two fighters already hated each other anyway!
Whether there's a third meeting, which would be a good place for the casual fan to sample some international fare, is probably up to the money men. Both Barrera (proudly unmarked) and Morales (quite a bit worse for the wear) were willing to book the third leg of the trilogy. But at evening's end Morales's promoter, Bob Arum, was still stewing over the injustice of the decision. "How can anybody watch boxing anymore?" he asked, which is a curious thing to hear from a man who makes his living convincing people that they absolutely must watch boxing. "I'm finished with this s—-."
It was, however, one of those fights in which it was possible to justify any decision. Morales controlled the first half of the fight, bringing the action to a surprisingly reluctant Barrera. Then Barrera forced himself upon Morales, swelling the defending WBC champion's right eye and bloodying the bridge of his nose. Complicating matters—or, rather, supplying an important debate point—was a body blow that Morales delivered in the seventh. Most observers would have scored Barrera's fall to one hand a knockdown. Referee Jay Nady ruled it a slip. The difference would have produced a three-point swing on two of the judges' scorecards and given Morales the victory.
"A slip," said Barrera afterward.
"A legitimate drop," said Morales, who was so upset by the final decision that he stormed out of the ring upon hearing it (only to recover his sportsmanship and quickly return). "I thought I did enough," he said.
Barrera, who felt so strongly that he was jobbed two years ago that he had to be cajoled into this rematch with promises of top billing, thought all you had to do was look at their mugs after Saturday's fight to see who'd won. "Most important," he explained, "I'm going to celebrate with a clean face."