The Square Jungle: Blame it on the ’80s
When Premier Boxing Champions revealed Phase One of “Operation Takeover” during a New York City press conference last year, it trotted out 1980s icons Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns for the assembled mass of handpicked media to gawk at. Later, the PBC announced its broadcasting crew, which included Leonard, Hearns, Al Michaels (once the blow-by-blow announcer for ABC) and Marv Albert (along with Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, one-half of the NBC ringside team throughout the 1980s). Then, as the Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter showdown drew nearer, Leonard and Hearns were again drafted as PR flashpoints. From the beginning, Al Haymon paid conscious homage to the 1980s – the last time boxing was close to being a mainstream sport in America – but, like one of those ubiquitous indie rock bands that sifts through the back catalogs of Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order or The Smiths for inspiration (but lack the gravitas of their forebears), the PBC has largely failed in living up to its own bombastic claims vis-à-vis the 1980s.
For the most part, as film critic David Denby once noted, nostalgia is history filtered through sentiment – but not if there are facts to back it up. After all, boxing in the ’80s was more than just multi-colored tube socks, Jheri curls and Sasson/Pony sponsorships. Yes, believe it or not, the Sweet Science was far superior in the 1980s. There were half as many sanctioning bodies during the early years of the decade and fewer weight classes. In addition, at some point or another in the 1980s, there were five undisputed champions in boxing. Heavyweight, cruiserweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight were all unified divisions. But what really set the ’80s apart from the moribund/marginalized sport of today is – plain and simple – competition.
Back then, with only a few exceptions, to earn a significant paycheck, one had to take a significant risk. Just think of the number of popular pros who won their first titles against future Hall-of-Famers. Leonard stopped boxing whiz kid Wilfred Benitez for his first title; Hearns atomized Pipino Cuevas, the most feared welterweight of his day and a man who genuinely tore heavybags and speedbags off their hooks (no need for special effects or stage props). Aaron Pryor waylaid Antonio Cervantes for his junior welterweight title. (At the time, Cervantes was on an eight-year run that saw him lose only once: a split-decision to Wilfred Benitez.) Barry McGuigan, much-maligned as a symbol of haywire Hall of Fame standards, defeated Eusebio Pedroza, who was making his 20th title defense against the windmilling Irishman. As a 20-year-old neophyte lightweight, Ray Mancini got his first title shot. He faced one of the true post-World War II greats: Alexis Arguello and this despite a lack of world-class experience. But “Boom Boom” losing in a dramatic fight made him more popular than ever and rocketed Arguello from a respected champion to a bona fide superstar.
Unlike in the 1980s, inconsequentiality is the dominant theme in boxing these days. There were plenty of mediocre matchups 30 years ago, of course, but quality control experts at each of the Big Three networks worked, for the most part, without the contractual obligations so prominent today. Nor did they suffer from Corporation-as-De Facto-Promoter Syndrome – a common ailment over the last 15 years or so and one that has created an entire generation of fighters whose careers defy critical analysis.
Two of the biggest examples of this are Andre Berto and Victor Ortiz, who shared the ring once again last April. Although Berto and Victor have provided years of comic relief both in and out of the ring, their accomplishments as professional prizefighters are negligible. In fact, beating each other might stand out as their biggest achievements. Another (anti) standout is Gary Russell Jr., already talking about retirement without having beaten a single pro of note except for a frazzled Jhonny Gonzalez. Similarly, Jorge Linares, a professional since 2002, has had over 40 fights, has won a slew of cheapjack championships and has never faced anybody more accomplished than a faded Oscar Larios or a worn-out Kevin Mitchell. Nor do his losses – a trio of stoppages at the hands of B-level pros – reflect well on him. And this applies to numberless artificial headliners across boxing today. Even so, the press releases are breathlessly written; the promoters continue to hone their “Dishonesty is the best policy” philosophy. The ringside TV crews for HBO, Showtime and the PBC are shriller than ever and the blognoscenti, who form a broadband-phalanx of killer mediocrity as destructive in its own way as their historical counterparts in Sparta, peddle their paperless purple prose to the delight of pinheads across cyberspace. (This disconnect between substandard product and its presentation is, in a way, unique to boxing. After all, athletes in baseball, basketball, and football justify their hype with hard statistics gleaned from batting averages, shot percentages, quarterback rankings, etc.)
Like Thurman (up until last week, at least), switch-hitting technician Terence Crawford is all potential, with his only signature win coming over Ricky Burns in 2014. (Ray Beltran was nothing more than a competent journeyman – in itself, an achievement worth noting but, in a career that began in 1999, Beltran has scored only one significant win – a hairpin decision over erratic Hank Lundy. A 2015 draw against Burns, which was highwayman robbery, only served to underscore his limitations, not the least of which is a lack of urgency in the ring. Still, he participated in a battle for the “lineal” lightweight championship of the world as decreed by rankings board members who control history.) Not surprisingly, having been billed as the next boxing supernova, Crawford sees his first legitimate test – against Viktor Postol – take place next month on pay-per-view, so exorbitant were some of the purses he earned against Thomas Dulorme and Hank Lundy.
(Ironically, it is pay-per-view, a technological innovation that dates back to the 1980s – and yet the poor VCR and the CD player are both distant memories! – that has allowed fighters to maximize revenue without having to appeal to a mass audience.)
One of the reasons there is a dearth of marquee fights these days has to do with networks signing fighters to exclusive contracts. This practice not only keeps fighters aligned with different networks from fighting each other but it also acts as a disincentive for boxers to face top-flight competition. In the 1980s, there were few fighters under contract. During the height of the TV boxing boom, when NBC, CBS, and ABC showed dozens of cards apiece in 1981 and 1982, only Marvelous Marvin Hagler (HBO) and Hector Camacho Sr. (CBS) had exclusive contracts. A free-market policy ensured quality control for each network, which could pick and choose fights as they pleased. A few years later, ABC signed a slew of 1984 Olympians and NBC began to sign fighters to exclusive contracts in order to create narrative continuity.
Where today exclusive contracts are in effect largely to protect fighters (while simultaneously allowing networks to brand them as unbeatable), in the ’80s, a long-term deal was no guarantee of safety. Flashy middleweight Michael Olajide, for example, was signed to a three-fight deal by NBC but one that looks completely different from the competition-free agreements so many fighters have had over the last 15 years. In his first fight under contract, in February 1987, Olajide beat Top 10 middleweight bone-breaker Don Lee, who was 25-1-2 at the time. Three months later, Olajide squeaked by undefeated Troy Darrell, a puncher with 19 KOs in 22 wins. Finally, the deal culminated in Olajide facing Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate, 20-0, for the vacant IBF middleweight title. Olajide dropped a 15-round decision to end a limited output deal more impressive than the entire careers of Gary Russell Jr., Andre Berto and Jorge Linares.
Another generation gap difference between now and then is, in the ’80s, the emphasis was placed on attractions and, most important, perhaps, action fighters. But contemporary network execs fail to distinguish between crowd-pleasers and stink-out artists. (In fact, Showtime not only adores ring bores but, perversely, re-airs their dreary waltzes in perpetuity on its multiplex channels.) How else to explain the mere fact that Vanes Martirosyan, Sergio Mora and Miguel Vazquez will continue to get television slots? Because boxing is now almost completely at the mercy of corporate enterprises interested less and less in the sport itself – instead using boxing as a brand extension or as an odd nod to Long Tail theory – matchups are secondary to content heightened by enough marketing hullaballoo to undermine the reality-based community at every turn.
With HBO staggering through 2016 like a punch-drunk journeyman, the PBC has a chance to make good on its early grandiose claim to have rebooted the 1980s. Can nearly a billion dollars in investment underwriting, hundreds of fighters under contract and a new willingness (based on pragmatic legal reasons, no doubt) to work with other promoters put the PBC where it wants to be, according to its own fantasy bluster?
Whether or not Thurman-Porter can act as some sort of turning point for the PBC remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Thurman-Porter could legitimately be billed as an above-average event and, as a fight, it delivered on its potential. (Thurman-Porter also drew solid viewer numbers for CBS and if there is one thing the PBC can glean from the 1980s, it may be this: The bigger the fight, the bigger the ratings.) As it is, their back-to-the-future moment is still a promise unfulfilled, even after producing a buzzworthy brawl.
Except for his demolition job against Paulie Malignaggi (who has been seeing PED phantoms ever since) two years ago, Porter has always been dull in the ring. Mauling, grappling and flailing are, more often than not, his signature moves. Indeed, the phrase “Winning Ugly” should be stitched onto his trunks before each fight. To Porter’s credit, however, he realized he had to ramp it up against Thurman, whose versatility is (allegedly) punctuated by serious TNT in either hand. Essentially a fighter who relies on conditioning, tenacity and work rate, Porter tried setting a tempo that would force Thurman out of his methodical style. It nearly worked. Although Porter will never win any style points, his wild fusillades pinned Thurman against the ropes in a Looney Toons blur. Occasionally, Porter even landed a telling blow. He rattled Thurman with a woomera-like right in the seventh, visibly affecting him with a body shot in the eighth, and cut him above the left eye with another arcing right. Because Porter lacks the coordination to double-up hooks – and because he finds it hard to remain upright when throwing one-twos – he was unable to score with solid combinations from round to round. But he stayed as close to Thurman as possible, in hopes of grinding his way to the final bell. Whenever any space opened between the two men, however, Thurman would smack Porter around as if “Showtime” were a tipsy bellhop caught rifling through the luggage. Between landing clean wallops with either hand, Thurman showed enough defensive guile while under fire to keep the damage to a minimum. At the end of 12 sloppy but fast-paced rounds, Thurman earned a unanimous decision, by scores of 115-113 across the board.
In outpointing Porter – whose lack of artistry belies his high ranking among welterweights – Thurman finally notched his first meaningful victory (a 12-round unanimous decision over welterweight piñata Robert Guerrero notwithstanding), an extraordinary distinction, considering how many times he has received top billing, the millions of dollars he has earned and the terabytes of HTML hosannas he has inspired among motherboard cheerleaders. To them, rhapsodizing over mediocrity is merit badge material. (For a little perspective on things, just note that Thurman and Porter threw a combined 1,201 punches…fewer than the 1,596 Zack Padilla launched by himself against Ray Oliveira in 1993.)
In this case, at least, Thurman and Porter united to produce the stuff of genuine prizefights, if not exactly dreams. Thurman-Porter was less Leonard-Hearns I than, perhaps, Frankie Warren-Buddy McGirt I but what separates it from much of what we have seen over the last few years is fighting spirit, that unique mix of pride, yearning, cicatrix. And, like a cruel earworm filtered through a Marshall stack, Mauro Ranallo was there to shriek about the historical ramifications of it all. But was it real or was it Memorex?
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.