Lost Youth: Why Boxing is Dying in America
24.07.04 - A three-part editorial series by Phillip Przybylo: There is no inclination on my part to dissect the erroneous decisions boxing fans are subjected to nearly every weekend. Nor will I take a hard look at the backroom corruption that is the life of many prominent promoters. These are reasons why much of the sporting public are not members of the boxing public, but I will concede those issues to more experienced veteran journalists like Pedro Fernandez, Charles Jay, Thomas Hauser, and Thomas Gerbasi.
Article posted on 24.07.2004
However, there are other reasons why boxing is losing its favor with its fans, with the American sports world, and with the potential future lifeblood of it--the youth. Some are intangible and others are clearer than a Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez fight (which, by the way, was pretty clear). I have sat back and watched enough. I am compelled to speak out.
I had thought boxing would always be placed on the mainstream media's version of death row, but it would survive and thrive as it has for the last century. Two words changed my way of thinking last year: Evandersfield Lewis.
Let me explain.
While sitting through some idle time at a part-time job, a college-aged co-worker and I struck up a conversation about sports. When the subject of my boxing reporting came up, he seemed to be more interested in my writing than the object of my affection. Odd enough. I absolutely had to ask, "How much do you know about boxing?"
His reply consisted of his knowledge of the heavyweight champ, that's right, Evanderfield Lewis.
After doubling over in laughter, I realized this was something to be sad about more than anything else. The last few years in the ring have been moderately eventful, but never consistent enough to garner the attention of a new generation of fans. It can hardly capture the American mainstream media's attention--Sports Illustrated has not ran an issue with a boxer on the cover since Evander Holyfield over seven years ago; the second biggest periodical for sports, ESPN The Magazine, has never ran a cover with a boxer on it during its six year existence.
It does not help that new US stars are relatively non-existent during that period.
The Class of 2000
Last weekend, 2000 Silver Medalist Rocky Juarez was placed in a fight that could have gone either way on the judges scorecards. Moreover, predictions on how it was to turn out could have gone either way as soon as his bout with Zahir Raheem was signed. For the first time, a 2000 US Olympian was going to be in a fight that he was not supposed to automatically win. Ironically, Juan Diaz, younger than all of the Olympians, won a world title before any of the Americans that same night.
This weekend, Francisco Bojado (although not a US Olympian, he calls the US home) will take on Jesse James Leija. Leija was a fine champion, but the man happens to be 38 years old. There is still considerable risk, but this degree of risk should have been considered over a year ago.
Other than these instances, the rest of the class has either been inept or held back. Here is a look on some the highly touted US fighters from the past Olympics.
--Brian Viloria. "The Hawaiian Punch" is still undefeated and is the current NABF Flyweight champion. The praise ends there. His bout for the regional title was against opposition sporting a 30-9-2 record, the highest winning pecentage of any fighter he has faced with over 10 bouts.
--Jose Navarro. Same story, different name. He has the WBC Continental Americas title in his posssession.
--Clarence Vinson. He may have been the most technically sound amateur on the team. He now carries a 14-1 record with him, and that one loss set him back a bit. He lost fought in May against a 23-23-2 opponent.
--Ricardo Williams Jr. Some (including me) predicted superstardom for the junior welterweight. Lacking intensity and discipline in training cost him as he routinely showed up a few pounds overweight before fights. He lost last February by a close margin to a bigger man, and then lost this April by a close margin to a journeyman. Holds a 9-2 record, but I cannot count him out. I cannot count him "in," either.
--Jermain Taylor. Experts agree that Taylor (21-0) is bound to carry some gold around his waist. No one can agree on when that is. He last took on and took out Raul Marquez over a month ago. That was a risk, right? The fight looks a lot less risky when one takes into account that Fernando Vargas took the same fight when Marquez was five years younger and six pounds lighter. Vargas did this less than three years into his pro career (heck, he was the defending champion in the fight). Taylor did this in Year Four.
--Jeff Lacy. Lacy provides a very similar story to Taylor's, save for the fact that he has not fought the same level of competition. Lacy is awesome against his limited competition, looking like a 168-pound Mike Tyson...with skills, no less. He last fought to a No-Contest in an IBF eliminator for the #2 spot, which would put him at least a year away from a title shot.
--Michael Bennett. His weak chin was quickly exposed, even as he took on smaller opponents in the cruiserweight and "super cruiserweight" divsions. Took with him a 9-4 record before halting his pro career in May of 2003.
--Calvin Brock. The cast-off from the 2000 team (he was replaced before the Olympics). He has a respectable 21-0 record in the heavyweight division. He is beginning to make soft noise in the lackluster weight class, but he is still years away from facing off with big brother Klitchsko.
The Blame Game
In all cases, the young pugilists have not reached their potential. It is not their fault necessarily. Nor would I venture to assess blame on any particular promoter. The blame falls squarely on the unwritten rules of boxing.
With the sport ripe and hungry for new superstars, nothing happened. Promoters and managers are playing it too safe with their clients that one of two things happen: 1. The boxer loses in perceived "safe" fight because he is ill-prepared and ill-motivated, thus sending him on a mental slide that takes at least a year to recover from. 2. By the time the boxer gets to the top, less people will care and some fans will be resentful.
I understand and fully respect what it takes to build a star in the sport. I also understand that late bloomers (i.e.: Antonio Tarver) are as much a part of the sport as prodigies. But can anyone explain to me how the whole group of prospects cannot produce one champion in four years?
A Quick Look at 1996
I can make a tremendously long list of boxers who captured championships within four years after turning pro. To gain a better perspective on the matter, though, one need only look to the last class. The class had about the same amount of hype as the one from 2000 did. In some eyes, the 1996 US Olympians were looked on as a weak group. Yet--
Floyd Mayweather Jr. won a title in a little more than two years. Same for Fernando Vargas. Same for David Reid. Others like Eric Morel and Tarver later won titles. Even Lawrence Clay-Bey, plagued by injuries causing inactivity, fought the heavyweight fight of the year by the end of his fourth year as a pro.
Did 1996 Cause a Ripple Effect?
About a year ago, I spoke with Lou DiBella, who served as promoter or advisor for a handful of the 2000 Olympians at one time or another. I had the same bewilderment then as I do now on the slow rise of these once-heralded prospects and now current contenders.
"This is a marathon not a sprint," DiBella said. "The difference between the two classes may be intelligence. Vargas was under unusual circumstances where his weight allowed him to figure in with guys like De la Hoya and Trinidad, possibly prematurely. I don't think his career is on the upswing, and he's still a young guy.
"David Reid's career is over, and he's still a young guy. And Floyd Mayweather got too much too soon, and no one cares about him. He's a non-attraction right now. Even though he's got an HBO contract, he can't sell a ticket. I think maybe people have a little bit more sensibility than they did four years ago."
DiBella's viewpoint is one shared by a host of others. His points are based in concrete facts, afterall. Conversely, counterpoints can be based in fact.
Vargas is now a star who has appeared in national commercials. The two-time champion is respected by his enemies for his guts in the ring, and his drive to sign-up for the best available opposition outside the ring. He only has two losses, both of them to future Hall-of-Famers. The only thing hindering him from continuing his success in the ring is a back injury.
Reid was failed by a progressively worse droopy eyelid. He also had career-spanning problems with stamina. He faded after the sixth round of almost every fight that went a 10 or 12 round distance. I think he was fortunate to the accomplish the things he did with his limitations.
Mayweather, who is still undefeated, will always be on the cusp of stardom due to his supernatural abilities inside the ring. He is a lauded and worthy B-side opponent away from becoming a household name.
Boxing needed new blood more than ever these last two years. The sport had been making headlines via wrongful decisions in major bouts. It was also making headlines through a comebacking Arturo Gatti (and his trilogy with Mickey Ward) and the newly crowned heavyweight king/sensation/champion, Vitali Klitchsko.
A fresh face, with the intelligence all of the aforementioned class of 2000 have, would have flourished in the spotlight over the last 12 months. It would have raised the status of their former teammates by association, given respect to the 2004 class, and given boxing a chance to have a cover boy.
Instead, there is only conjecture and words like "potential" and "prospect" still floating around.
Fair or not, that is reality. Reality will also have more months of waiting in store for fans of boxing. I whole-heartedly empathize with those fans. They have waited long enough.
Coming in August: Parts II and III of Lost Youth
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