Last week I wondered what happened to American tennis.
This week, thanks to this article by Paul Beston, I am wondering what happened to the sport of boxing.
Can you name the current heavyweight champion of the world? (No search engines allowed!). I can’t. But if you asked me the same question in 1978 I would have known that it was Leon Spinks.
My father was a big boxing fan so I could not help but grow up following Ali, Frazier, Norton, Foreman (in his first manifestation), Holmes, Leonard, Duran, Hagler,and Hearns. I have fond memories of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal when five Americans–Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis–won gold medals. I also remember being heartbroken when “Big John” Tate was knocked out in the first round of the semifinal bout by Cuba’s Teofilo Stevenson (too bad Stevenson never had a chance to become a professional boxer). Tate ended up winning the bronze medal and would have a decent professional career. He held the WBA heavyweight title for a brief period between 1979 and 1980..
One of my fondest boxing memories was the night my Dad took me to see Sugar Ray Leonard fight Thomas Hearns on “closed circuit” television at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. (This was the first Leonard-Hearns fight. It was held on Sept. 16, 1981). I won the tickets by being the 10th caller on a local radio station (WMTR in Morristown). Not only did we see Leonard defeat Hearns that night, but we also stopped off at a diner (I think it may have been the Tic Tock Diner in Clifton) after the fight to get some ice-cream shakes. Since we didn’t get home until very early the next morning, I was allowed to skip school that day.
But enough nostalgia. Beston’s piece shows how the sport of boxing, until recently, has been central to American life. Here is a taste:
But that happens rarely today; few Americans could name more than one or two current boxers, if that. Boxing has become a ghost sport, long since discredited but still hovering in the nation’s consciousness, refusing to go away and be silent entirely. There was a time when things were very different. For boxing once stood at the center of American life, and its history winds a thread through the broader history of the nation.