It's gotten to the point at which you have to cover the fights in case a press conference breaks out. The actual sporting event is beside the point, and certainly dull compared with whatever tawdry histrionics can be staged in advance of it. Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis rolling on the deck, even in their street clothes, is what passes for excitement these days. Just let us know the next stop on their boorish barnstorming tour, and we'll have the cameras ready.
Not even the prospect of Shane Mosley and Vernon Forrest, welterweights of honest distinction, squaring off was enough to remind us that boxing can produce a wonderful spectacle. No matter the worth of their rivalry, they were elbowed off the front page the very week of their long-awaited title bout when Tyson went off on Jan. 22 at the announcement of his April 6 fight with Lewis, and the boxing world suddenly became preoccupied with acceptable parameters of sociopathic behavior. Should Tyson be allowed to fight if, as was reported, he bit Lewis, or will a sexual-assault charge against Tyson, being investigated in Las Vegas, quash the bout?
Fine print: Two undefeated fighters, one touted as the world's best pound-for-pound, were stepping into the ring in the 5,000-seat theater at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night. Sorry, but given the principals' preference for dignity, all action will be limited to the actual bout.
Publicitywise it was no contest. Tyson's reality show dominated the news. It's hard to compete with nervous breakdowns, especially ones staged so magnificently. (Tyson works a little blue, so you might not have seen his postbrawl comments in their entirety, but trust us.) The problem, as Forrest said during his modest press conference a day after the Tyson-Lewis spectacle, is that "we're gentlemen."
The solution, as it turned out, was that they are also two superb fighters, competing with more heart than a dozen heavyweights could produce, in the ring or on a dais. That boxing's brightest light was shuttered does the sport no harm. Decked twice in the second round and crumpled by horrible body shots in the 10th, Mosley probably did more to honor himself in defeat than he could have done in victory. How did he survive that second round, anyway?
And Forrest, who was plucked from a decade of obscurity on the flimsiest of pretenses (he held a victory over Mosley from their amateur days, thus a promotional angle), did not have to be a star in the pay-per-view hierarchy to ennoble the sport with his crafty win. So emphatic was his victory that by the end of the 12 rounds, the result no longer seemed stunning.
"Vernon did a number on me, didn't he?" said Mosley. "He stuck to his plan; he did his thing." Mosley was almost more appreciative than upset, although he wished that Forrest hadn't "boxed-clinched" so much and that their foreheads hadn't collided in the second round, an accident Mosley believed led to his being knocked down later in the round. Yet there was nothing he could say, the margin of victory was so wide. (One judge gave Mosley only two rounds.) "Maybe," suggested Mosley, "a rematch."
Bring it on, said Forrest, who used his three-inch height advantage (6 feet to 5'9"), a stiff jab and timely clutching to smother Mosley's speed. Forrest believes, and many witnesses will surely concur, that his style beats Mosley's every time. Mosley, who had outpointed Oscar De La Hoya in 2000 to become boxing's most highly regarded talent, was thought to have such quickness that he would cut through any opponent. At 30, with a record of 38-0 (35 KOs) and with the IBF lightweight and WBC welterweight championships on his résumé, he was expected to hold sway for a few more years, chasing De La Hoya, Félix Trinidad and Fernando Vargas through the upper weights into pay-per-view riches.
Forrest, also 30, wasn't thought to be in the class of such boxers, though he was undefeated in 33 bouts and (until he was stripped for taking this fight) an IBF welterweight king. He wasn't dazzling and had never faced a big-name opponent. He was left behind in a 147-pound hinterland as the other stars moved up. Only Mosley, whom he'd outpointed in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, lingered to give him a fight.
As grateful as he was for the chance, Forrest was frustrated by the buildup (though not to the point at which he felt he needed to bite anybody's leg). This fight was cast as a Mosley showcase, with the anointed adopting an air of puzzlement that they actually had to go through with it. "I can't understand what he could possibly do to take me 12 rounds," Mosley said, not unkindly, just bemusedly.