We spent the autumn of 1998 watching baseball come back to life. Its resurrection was borne on the granite shoulders and old-growth redwood legs of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, whose ability to jolt baseballs heavenward captured the American psyche, reminding the citizenry of why, precisely, this game was once called Our Pastime.
When McGwire broke Maris’ record, there arose very few questions — strangely few, considering the bottle of adrostenedione a member of the media found in his locker during the summer. And any lingering skepticism was silenced by the din of millions of American lungs bursting with vibration as the 62nd home run of that season sped along a slight arc, cutting through the buggy Missouri night just over the left field fence.
Eight years later, they sat in front of Congress, a bespectacled, denying McGwire and a slightly pathetic Sosa feigning a lack of fluency in the language he had spoken more or less fluently for a decade. The allegations against them, that they were both rather enthusiastic steroid users, have tarnished their individual reputations. A good chunk of the country claims that steroid use has sullied baseball altogether. These people are liars.
Undeniably, that summer saved baseball. A game that suffered mightily from the 1994 strike, which curtailed a season that could have ended majesterially (Matt Williams was on pace to break Maris’ record, Tony Gwynn was just a few hundreths shy of .400 and the Expos had the best record in baseball) could not recover without a shock. Record-low attendance, by modern standards, plagued the seasons succeeding 1994. Baseball was in the ICU.
In 1998, it received its shock, its defibrillation. And although the pulses were administered by two men who allegedly were, themselves, administering a great deal of chemicals upon themselves, the pulses worked nonetheless. The home run — still one of the more electric moments in sports — revived baseball.
I’m not advocating steroids. I’m of the mindset that they should be banned. An unfair advantage is an unfair advantage. But there is a device in chemical reactions known as a catalyst, a process that provides a little extra ooomph in a reaction that needs it. Back then, baseball needed a boost.
The Game hasn’t looked back. Its parks fill up once again, its ratings climb. A surge in power, speed and precision has sent the game into a new era.
Not that baseball’s the only game affected. And steroids certainly aren’t the only reason that athletes have grown stronger, faster, more capable of decimation. They have helped, yes. But even without them, our athletes would be better today than their predecessors. Much better. Advancements in training and the knowledge of the human body have changed sports into spectator science, as bodies routinely find ways to crack paradigms.
But there’s one sport that has not benefitted from scientific advances in human physiology and the refinement of technique. Whereas in all other arenas, from baseball to football, soccer to cricket, sports have generally improved in dramatic manners in terms of their watchability as a result of those advances, one has regressed: Boxing.
It has fallen from a sort of epic status that, in mid-century, made it able to cleave society into halves. When Ali fought Frazier, The Champ made sure to play the race card hard, boasting that he was the one representing black folk, that Frazier was nothing but a dirty Uncle Tom. In every major fight, there were two distinct factions, a good and a bad. When Joe Lewis knocked out Schmeling, it was a win over the Nazis. When Rocky knocked out Drago, well, that just ended the damn Cold War.
Blame for the decline in boxing’s popularity circulates around widely. Certainly, the transfer of telecasts from networks to premium and pay-per-view channels did not help the sport in retaining a mass audience; however, such a trend could represent a symptom, not a cause. Why waste precious airtime with a sport that’s attracting less of an audience than the streetfight on 4th street?
Lots of fingers point to scandal, to fixed events and people’s ears being bitten off. But scandal’s been around in boxing as long as the two trades have concurrently existed. The backstory for On the Waterfront is that Brando’s character had to take a fall for the dockworker’s union, of which Brando’s brother was a big shot. A Senate investigation in the 1960s revealed the Cossa Nostra’s hand in the sport, according to this story from 2000. And crazy sells. It always has.
I blame the over-professionalizing of the sport. In Rocky III, Mick tells Rock that ‘the worst thing happened that could happen to any fighter — you got civilized.” Boxing got, in many ways, civilized. Its mean streak, its rawness, has been lost.
A sports cliche holds that playing games like baseball, football, soccer, hockey, basketball, they’re MIen playing a boys’ game. Nobody, well, nobody sane, ever made that claim about boxing. It was two hulking men, occasionally gentlemen, finding the best way to coerce the other into a state of altered consciousness.
In boxing’s prime, it was a clash of two men whom the audience assumed to be more or less superhuman. The allure was the primal nature of the whole thing, the way that the punches seemed to stem from history, rising up volcanically from man’s past. There was an art to it, a sweet science, as A.J. Liebling wrote. But it was a different art, one that was less planned than improvised, sort of like jazz. If only jazz involved bruises, blood, swelling, blurred vision, faltering muscles, failing wills and the absolute, utter basic battle of one man versus another.
Wrote Arthur Daley in a Times story from 1955, “Heavy hitters carry an instant and irresistible appeal, be the sport baseball or boxing. Carmen Basilio and Tony DeMarco, two artists with the left hook, will dabble on canvas for the entertainment of a vast television audience tonight and the color motif undoubtedly will be red, blood red. … [Last time they fought] it was one of those old-fashioned slugfests such as grandfather used to talk about with dreamy wistfulness. … They fought like street fighters.”
The language conveys a sense of wonder at the figures in the ring. Today, we have little of this vaunted language — boxers are perceived as over-hyped anyway. A lot of this derives from the fact that we see freaks of science (not nature; remember, modern training undermines nature a little bit by amplifying it) in all of our Big 3 sports. Boxers were once larger than life because they were, in short, larger than most people you see in life. Watching them slug it out was akin to watching two cars drive into each other over and over again. So what we’re dealing with here is the pernicious effects of scientific advancements in removing the mythological greatness of these figures (as science tends to do) because they look just like other athletes.
Tyson, Bowe and Holyfield were really the last of the straight sluggers it seems, with the former being the least refined and thus most exciting. He seemed to be an extraordinarily distilled id and thanatos, the incarnation of energy and rage. He swung because he knew that by doing so, he’d cause carnage. And people watched. As he descended, so did boxing.
The sport is now an overwritten script. Boxers admit no fear, no reservation, not the slightest whisper of trepidation at the pugilistic prowess of the men across the ring from them. But, in truth, the sport is now one of defense. Today, it’s mutually assured destruction. Boxers never want to let their guard down, because they know that the other is capable of some horrible things. Today, they never seem to want to open up. Just like the trap kills the pace of hockey, so does technically sound, overly defensive boxing.
It’s thus become a sport of isolation, two heavily defended forts lobbing occasional shots at each other. We paid for the De La Hoya/Mayweather fight last Cinco de Mayo, and I’ve never been more frustrated with an investment — including a run of CD purchases in 8th grade that included Vertical Horizon, Harvey Danger and The New Radicals. It involved the two men dancing around each other for a dozen rounds, with less than a handful of actual volleys of punches.
Is it salvagable? Perhaps. Without great storylines, the sport will still languish; however, this is another one of those symptom-or-cause things. The media won’t craft storylines if they’re not interested.
And the only way to get people interested is, well, to bring the fights back to the old-fashioned slugfests that grandfather used to talk about with such dreamy wistfulness.