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It's pointless to predict boxing's demise—it's the cockroach of sport and will outlast even this nuclear winter—but it is fair to say the game is toying uncomfortably with its own extinction. How bad is it? Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward found himself at a Big Ten basketball game recently and was sufficiently moved by the sight of a 6'8" rebounder to offer a contract to the senior forward—to fight professionally. "I know," Steward said. "It's a joke. Normally." � No joke now. The talent pool is so shallow, interest so low, the sport so racially and ethnically marginalized, so invisible, so irrelevant, so desperate that it's impossible for even its many critics to muster a laugh. At its best, boxing has an appeal both considerable and horrible. The enjoyment of such violence is beyond explanation, unless it's to remind us that evolution is an ongoing process. But the enjoyment boxing can provide—all that naked desire, all that primal ambition—does seem to satisfy our Neanderthal blood lust, so long as we're safe at ringside.
We'd like to believe that boxing offers more than just guilty pleasure, that the nobility of such regulated fury somehow demonstrates our competitive potential (well, theirs, anyway). Society has always found a way to accommodate its brutishness. The sport will survive. But it's going to be close, and this time the problem is not that we've finally grown queasy about exploiting desperate men. The problem now is that boxing's just not very good.
Last Saturday's bout between light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. and WBA heavyweight champ John Ruiz is what passes for a significant event these days, even though it was little more than a novelty act. Ruiz, though a competent fighter, had zero appeal after plodding through three bouts with the aged Evander Holyfield. And Jones, so good that for years he has had no worthy opposition and thus has had to dream up stunts to create paydays (a rap CD here, a day job as a USBL point guard there), is known as much for the surety of his matchmaking as he is for his skill. Taking on a man who outweighs you by 33 pounds might have seemed a risky proposition, but as usual Jones knew exactly what he was doing.
Did he ever. It was a fight that didn't so much solve boxing's problems as address an age-old question: Does size matter? Well, no, not when someone of Jones's dazzling skill meets a middling talent of any weight. Jones, who bulked himself up to 193 pounds, completely outboxed and relentlessly battered Ruiz. Jones's mastery, on the way to his easy 12-round decision, was breathtaking. But what did it prove, except that he's better than anybody—at any weight?
And now what? The other marquee names are all faded, tarnished by age or defeat. All the story lines of recent years—Oscar De La Hoya's redemption, to name one, Mike Tyson's comeback, if we must name another—are exhausted. Tyson, in particular, has let the sport down: He is, by his own admission, no longer fit for top-tier heavyweights such as Lennox Lewis. While there's already talk of matching him with Jones, he seems happy clocking the likes of Clifford Etienne on the sport's fringes, where a new tattoo can spur pay-per-view sales as much as the possibility of a 49-second KO.
The heavyweight division is problematic to begin with, increasingly staffed by Eastern Europeans of uncertain credentials. At the lighter weights the stars are largely Hispanic, and although their fights are consistently the best value in boxing, their proliferation leads some to fear that boxing is becoming a niche sport.
This comes after a year of great matchups and terrific payoffs. Lewis's demolition of Tyson was a satisfying conclusion to an eagerly anticipated event, and such fistic firestorms as Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales II and Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward (I and II) were well appreciated. De La Hoya over Fernando Vargas was another bout that justified its buildup. Then there was the emergence of Vernon Forrest in a pair of wins over Shane Mosley.
But all that, except for a third fight between Barrera and Morales, has played out. With Lewis looking toward retirement, he seems MIA. De La Hoya was also hoping to ease himself out with returns against Felix Trinidad and Mosley, the only fighters to beat him. But Trinidad says he aims to stay retired, and Mosley, who hasn't won in his last three tries, is insisting on more than the $4.25 million he's been offered, so De La Hoya may find himself facing Vargas again.
Any star you can name is faded. The once-glittery Naseem Hamed has been invisible ever since he was dismantled by Barrera in April 2001. Tyson has gone loco, Holyfield's gotten old, middleweight king Bernard Hopkins has somehow mismanaged himself sufficiently that he must find work on undercards in his own hometown. And those were the old reliables. No sooner does Forrest get anointed Fighter of 2002 than he gets flattened by wacky journeyman Ricardo Mayorga to begin this year.
This dead zone might have been a good place for the class of 2000 to step forward, but Olympic buzz has, nearly three years after Sydney, grown faint. The only Olympian to create a stir was Mexican bantamweight Francisco Bojado, groomed out of the amateurs to be a Hispanic Sugar Ray Leonard. And in the ritual career buildup, fighting carefully picked journeymen, he let himself go and got beat in just his 10th fight.