The polarization of boxing

In a world split over nearly every issue, how can we expect boxing to be different?

Originally Published: April 30, 2014
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

When ring announcer Johnny Addie grabbed the microphone suspended above the ring at New York's Madison Square Garden and faced the TV cameras, the raucous crowd watching on closed circuit inside the Philadelphia Arena suddenly went silent. There were no long-winded preambles or catchphrases, Addie got right to the point.

"Ladies and gentlemen, referee Arthur Mercante scores it 8-6-1, Frazier."

An angry buzz rolled through the West Philly venue, populated in the main by Muhammad Ali supporters. Then came the punch line that stunned the gathering as surely as Frazier's left hook had floored Ali in the 15th round.

"Judge Artie Aidala scores it 9-6, Frazier."

It took a second for the finality of the numbers to sink in. Then a hullabaloo erupted and shrieks of indignation drowned out judge Bill Recht's 11-4 score, also for Frazier. It was as if hope itself had been ripped out of the crowd's guts. Chairs began to fly and a full-scale riot seemed eminently possible.

It was March 8, 1971, and I had just risen from my seat when a stranger confronted me, his anguished face so close to mine I could smell his cigarette breath.

"Who won?" the man demanded.

I blurted out the magic word.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali,  Joe Frazier
Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesJoe Frazier and Muhammad Ali gave fans a fight for the ages in 1971, something Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have been unable to do today.

"Ali."

The stranger turned away without saying anything else and disappeared into the roiling mass of closed-circuit customers.

I had kept score on the back of my ticket envelope and had Frazier winning by the same margin as Aidala, but the lie popped out of my mouth without a moment's hesitation. This guy was not taking a poll. Besides, who won meant a lot more to him than it did to me. I was just happy to have witnessed such an unforgettable fight.

Tempers cooled as the crowd spilled out of the building and into the street. Anger gave way to grief and a pall of gloom hung heavy in the chilly March air as the crowd dispersed. The strangest part of the fans' reaction was not that they refused to accept what was fundamentally a fair verdict, but that the incident took place in Frazier's hometown.

It was a period of political upheaval, and African-Americans and the youthful counterculture led the charge. The battle for civil rights and against the Vietnam War propelled the movement, and Ali was a hero on both fronts. Frazier, on the other hand, was unfairly branded a tool of the establishment, and his fight with Ali was as much symbolic as it was pugilistic.

Boxing is a reflection of society, so it should come as no surprise that it has again become as polarized as it was in the days of Ali and Frazier. The difference is that instead of critical issues such as war and equal rights, the schism concerns matters so trifling it has made a mockery of the sport.

It has been more than four decades since the night Ali suffered his first defeat, and the lessons of the past are now all but forgotten. Today's politics are so acrimonious, our government barely functions, and a morass of hatred and greed has swamped much of the progress that came in the wake of the cultural turmoil of the 1960s.

Boxing is a reflection of society, so it should come as no surprise that it has again become as polarized as it was in the days of Ali and Frazier. The difference is that instead of critical issues such as war and equal rights, the schism concerns matters so trifling it has made a mockery of the sport.

Rivalries have always been a fundamental part of boxing, an indispensable element without which no sport would exist. The more contentious the feud, the greater the interest -- a situation that more often than not leads to good fights and good business. Of course, in order to achieve those ends, the two rivals have to actually fight one another, which leads us to the endlessly mooted but as yet unrealized match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.

In some respects the so-called cold war between the fighters' promoters, Golden Boy (Mayweather) and Top Rank (Pacquiao), mirrors the country's gridlocked Congress, bogged down by petty disputes and sham ideology. Moreover, the subscription television networks that bankroll them serve a purpose similar to that of the fat cats who throw tens of millions of dollars at super PACs representing the political operatives of their choice.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Mayweather Jr.
Getty ImagesFloyd Mayweather Jr.'s alter ego, "Money," has struck a chord that resonates with millions of folks who want to be just like him.

We live in facile times. Despite the many grave problems facing mankind, much of the United States' population seems more focused on the latest digital devices, celebrity scandals and so-called reality TV, which is, of course, about as real as the color of Leonard Ellerbe's facial hair. It's an environment rife with misplaced priorities and ass-backward thinking.

Mayweather's peerless boxing skills and dedication to his craft would have made him a standout in any era. He has outclassed almost every adversary en route to compiling a Hall of Fame résumé and collected so many title belts that alphabet organizations have invented new ones in order to accommodate him. It is not, however, these qualities that have made him boxing's most bankable star.

Despite Mayweather's undeniable virtuosity, his fame never came close to equaling his talent until he unveiled the "Money Mayweather" persona. This guise, which Showtime boxing czar Steven Espinoza says is "an exaggeration" of the fighter's real personality, has struck a chord that resonates with millions of folks who want to be just like Floyd.

The unrestrained self-assurance, conspicuous displays of wealth and belittling of opponents have created a cult of personality perfect for today's superficial ethos. True, Ali was also overbearingly confident and could, as Howard Cosell famously remarked, be truculent at times. But he stood for something beyond how many Bentleys he had in the driveway or how much money he had in the bank. His ultimate cause was the betterment of mankind, not a gilded monument to himself.

Pacquiao, on the other hand, rose to fame strictly on his fighting ability and the thrilling manner in which he went about his work. He didn't need to embellish his personality, insult opponents or boast about his worldly goods. He came from an exceedingly humble background, a poor boy more akin to a protagonist in a Horatio Alger novel than the George Jefferson character in "The Jeffersons."

Compared to the issues at stake when Ali and Frazier did battle, the Pacquiao-Mayweather ruckus is a ludicrous exhibition, made even more so by the fact that Pacquiao is not really a participant and seems bored by the entire affair. Floyd has certainly upheld his end by continuing to disparage Manny, most recently saying that he "fought like an amateur" in his rematch victory over Tim Bradley Jr.

Mayweather's need to ridicule his rivals notwithstanding, it has been his and Pacquiao's fans who have been doing most of the dirty work, slugging it out, mainly on social media, in a name-calling marathon that seems to have lasted longer than the Peloponnesian War.

Boxing fans have always been a passionate lot, and perhaps the virulent animosity and raw hatred that have been exposed by social media have always been a part of the sport. But I'm not so sure. When Frazier and Ali represented opposing factions, both sides readily admitted that their man was going against a formidable foe. That is not so today.

To Mayweather fans, Pacquiao is a washed-up nobody whose success is based entirely on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and if Floyd ever actually fought Manny it would be a one-sided walkover. Conversely, Pacquiao supporters accuse Mayweather of being a serial ducker whose record is built upon carefully selected opponents, a fraud that would be exposed if he ever dared to fight their hero.

The notion that both are great fighters is apparently a foreign concept, lost in the fog of zealotry that has enveloped so many of their followers.

[+] EnlargeMaidana
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesWith the powers that be unable to produce a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, Marcos Maidana will stand in Saturday as boxing's dysfunction continues.

On Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Mayweather will face Marcos Maidana, who is essentially a stand-in for Pacquiao. The bruiser from Argentina earned that distinction by thrashing Mayweather wannabe Adrien Broner. His chances of doing likewise to Mayweather are almost as remote as President Obama inviting Donald Sterling to a barbecue on the White House lawn.

Even so, bold Maidana is going to give it a go, which just might provide pay-per-view customers with a measure of entertainment in return for the hefty price tag.

That was one thing the fans at the Philadelphia Arena didn't complain about when the verdict went against Ali. The two fighters had given them more than value for money; they'd given them a fight for the ages. Consequentially, talk soon turned toward a rematch, and after that a third fight, which more than a few people consider the greatest heavyweight prizefight of all. But without the first bout, there would never have been a "Thrilla in Manila."

Boxing's dysfunctional alliances and their enablers have in all likelihood squandered the opportunity to stage what could have been the Ali-Frazier of the new millennium. That's a damn shame, but nowhere near as troubling as the larger problem: We live in a world where extremism is celebrated and working together is considered a weakness. Can we really expect boxing to be the exception?

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