R.I.P. Bert Sugar

Oh, I hate to hear Bert Sugar died.  Rest In Peace.

There’s something about the old school sports writers that just have more character than the new, TV-ready versions. Not to say that Bert Sugar shied away from the camera. With his fedora and his cigar, he had the look of boxing arena (or casino) fixture. And Bert Sugar was brilliant in front of the camera. But you always got the idea he loved sports and he loved boxing – he wasn’t there to stir up controversy to get attention or just make a buck.

Boxing is down for the Count

You Gotta Love This Guy

The death of Bert Sugar is just another reminder that boxing is finished. Several other factors contribute to its demise, but four stand out.

I probably shouldn’t turn an obit post into a rant about the state of boxing, but when you have a sweet science historian die, it’s one of the few times a discussion of boxing seems appropriate anymore.

  1. Big Pay-per-View Events
  2. Fighters Ducking Fights
  3. Disorganized Mess
  4. Rise of MMA

Pay-per-View Killed Boxing

The first fight I remember that was pay per view was Holmes vs Cooney, though I think they called it closed circuit in those days. I can see why they went to this format, and I’m sure a handful of boxers and promoters have gotten very rich off the ppv format. But it’s destroyed boxing.

Originally, you could watch heavyweight boxing matches on free television. Holmes versus Norton was something everyone got together to watch, like it was the Superbowl, World Series, or NBA Finals. I watched Sugar Ray Leonard vs Wilfredo Benitez on free tv. CBS Sports Saturday had big fights all through the 80s.

These days, anything approaching a big fight gets sent to pay per view. Most of the lead-up fights are shunted off to some corner of the cable market, if you’re lucky enough to see it there. Much of the time, you can’t track a young fighter on his way up, so why should you care about him once he gets to the top? Boxing no longer engages people the way football, baseball, basketball, and NASCAR do.

HBO’s Boxing After Dark is still great, but many potential fans don’t get HBO. I can trace my waning interest in boxing to the demise of Tuesday Night Fights on USA Network. That show, which ran a good 15 years, was the first place I saw a lot of the famous fighters of that era. I got to know them before they became champions, so I wanted to watch them when they hit the big time. Despite ESPN’s and FoxSport’s broadcasts here and there, there’s nothing like Tuesday Night Fights anymore.

Fighters Ducking Fights

Riddick Bowe dumping one of his championship belts in the trash at a press conference so he didn’t have to fight mandatory challenger Lennox Lewis…Mike Tyson paying $3 million so he didn’t have to fight Lennox Lewis…when the #1 contender couldn’t get a shot at the title for years was when I first started charting this practice, though I know ducking fights goes back at least as far as the white fighters who ducked Jack Johnson.

The current fiasco between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather is the perfect example. I tend to take Pacman’s side, since Mayweather is so obnoxious, but I honestly can’t figure out which one’s ducking the other. Whatever the case, it’s a shame when these guys can’t put the big show on because they want to protect their brands.

Imagine if the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks had refused to play one another to settle who was world champion last summer. Or imagine if the New York Giants and New England Patriots couldn’t agree on who got what percentage, so the Superbowl was cancelled. Or worse…the Patriots played the 2-14 Colts in a grudge match and the Giants played the Syracuse Orangemen in a tune-up game.

Boxing is a Disorganized Mess

It’s a complete mess. Teams and athletes should not be able to choose their opponents. One reason I’m a little less interested in NCAA football is the fact that college football teams get to choose their opponents (some of them). Luckily, that nonsense is usually over 3-4 weeks into the regular season, so the Oklahoma vs UNT games aren’t perpetual.

Having the promoters, management team, and entourage choose your guys’ opponents means the sport is naturally going to have lesser matches, as people try to protect the brand with a string of easy wins. That’s bad for the viewer, bad for fan interest, and therefore bad for the sports.

I’m not one to say boxing needs to be regulated. But as long as Don King and Bob Arum and their ilk run the sports, boxing’s problems will continue. Since they or people like them are going to run the sports from now on, boxing is finished. This is never going to happen, but the only thing that could save boxing would be to get organized, have one champion in each weight class, and have the governing body pick the matchups.

Something like what the UFC does in mixed martial arts.

Rise of Mixed Martial Arts

I’m sure I wouldn’t like the UFC if I saw what went on behind the scenes with Dana White and the gang, but having a single vision helped MMA surpass boxing. I’m sure UFC has plenty of self-serving decisions, but they try to give fans what they want because it’s in their best interests to do so. I don’t get the idea they protect fighters in order to save their brand image.

So you have one fighting sport that’s organized, provides free matches regularly to promote their sports and build up name recognition, and tries to give fans good championship fights at regular intervals. The other sport is a disorganized mess, does almost nothing to promote its up-and-coming fighters, and tries to string out fans for years before they get to see the fights they always wanted. No wonder boxing has become such a niche sport.

By the way, I don’t buy the talk that MMA is “human cock fighting” and boxing is somehow more humane, because it has gloves and more rules. I’m convinced that MMA is less dangerous for a fighter’s longtime health over the course of a career because it is over quicker. In a boxing match, a fighter might get hit in the head 500 times. That’s never going to happen in MMA.

I say all this not because I hate boxing, but because I’ve enjoyed it so much over the years. I have the whole career of fighters like Tommy Hearns and Arturo Gatti on DVD – I love boxing.

RIP Bert Sugar

Anyway, maybe I should have filed this under “Rants”. It’s just sad that Bert Sugar died today and his passing just struck me as another symbol of a passing age. RIP Bert Sugar.


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