Quick question: can you name the current professional boxing heavyweight champion of the world? WBA, WBC, IBF – any of them will do. I am willing to bet that unless you are a rabid boxing fan, you can’t.
Fifty years ago, professional boxing was one of the most popular sports in the country. Boxing champions were some of the best known celebrity athletes – especially the heavyweight champion.
Jack Dempsey. Joe Louis. Sonny Liston. Mohammad Ali. All the way up to Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. All iconic names.
Ali’s worldwide celebrity was/is maybe as great as any professional athlete in history. Even today, he is recognized throughout the world – more than 30 years after his last professional fight.
Today, professional boxing has been relegated to secondary status, at best.
The mismanagement of the business of professional boxing has certainly contributed to it’s downfall. But I ultimately come back to Ali. Because as much as he characterizes boxing at the height of its popularity, I think that his own personal physical deterioration in the past 30 years is more than symbolic of the demise of the sport. I would argue that Ali’s very visible physical deterioration has, in fact, been a direct contributor to the demise of professional boxing.
We have all witnessed Ali’s long battle with Parkinson’s, a disease that is common to head trauma experienced while boxing. And given what a huge personality Ali was in his prime – including for example, all the back-and-forth rapport with Howard Cosell – I believe that the effects of the Parkinson’s have really opened the public’s eyes, maybe for the first time, to the long-term consequences of a short life spend in the boxing ring. And now, with those consequences being laid bare, the public has, for the most part, decided not to support and abet that destruction of a human life.
I say “for the most part” because, obviously, there is still a segment of the population that will be attracted to the blood sport of boxing, although many of those with such “bloodlust” have now probably migrated to the even more brutal “sport” of Ultimate Fighting. But I think the distaste of seeing Ali – barely able to speak in interviews; violently shaking as he stood on the podium to light the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – has forever turned the majority of people away from boxing.
The NFL is a much bigger business than boxing ever was at its peak. And a much more sophisticated, professionally managed business. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if the agreement reached this past week between the NFL and former players to settle lawsuits stemming from the long-term health consequences of the head trauma that occurs while playing football is a harbinger of the future demise of the game.
I know many will disagree with me – but I think the answer is yes, this marks the beginning of the end for football. And I’ll discuss that in more detail next time.