DOWN GOES THE SWEET SCIENCE

Boxing has deteriorated gradually and inevitably through the decades, owing to several factors. Now, it lacks the passion, the brutal honesty and the charismatic characters that once made the sport so exciting, writes P. RAJKRISHNAN.

People don't realise what they had till it's gone. Like President Kennedy... nobody like him. Like The Beatles, there will never be anything like them. Like my man, Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.

— Muhammad Ali, former World heavyweight champion.

The Greatest was, but naturally, endorsing himself. But considering the shape boxing is in today, Ali may well have been making one of his famous `knockout' predictions about the sport itself. At its best, boxing is a riveting sport, which once changed lives with dramatic suddenness and discovered many champions from the streets. Today, its punch has weakened. Maybe we didn't realise what we had until it has almost disappeared... out of sight, out of mind. Virtually everything about the sweet science belongs to another time. When fans discuss the sport, they always speak about an earlier era, a glorious past, when fights sold out arenas and fighters were kings. They recall Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, boxing royalty, beaten, perhaps, only by old age. Then, they acknowledge that all the great fights are from days gone by, remaining only in the imagination or on DVD.

Boxing has deteriorated gradually and inevitably through the decades, owing to several factors. Now, it lacks the passion, the brutal honesty and the charismatic characters that once made it so exciting. Young men no longer see it as a "way out of the ghetto," as former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson once said. Forget paying for a ringside seat, youth now will have difficulty recognising today's champion. Why would they follow a sport that is rapidly heading nowhere?

The same people who labelled boxing barbaric and violent now complain that it has gone soft, that today's fights are safety dances. Ironically, that disgraceful, simulated mockery, WWE, is a bigger draw. In the U.S. boxing has not been on network television since the late 1980s. Most telecasts are on `pay-per-view' channels like Showtime and HBO where washed up boxers fight nondescript opponents, so hardly anybody tunes in. Even a reality series on NBC (AXN in India), The Contender, hosted by actor Sylvester Stallone of Rocky fame and `Sugar' Ray Leonard, who held world titles in five weight classes, failed to generate audience interest. However, a second season, which concluded in September, fared marginally better.

But where are the boxers, the top calibre fighters, who fought not only for a living but also found a means of self-expression in this sport? Boxing thrives on duality and individual brilliance but today, exciting fighters are hard to find. It is the heavyweight division that has taken the hardest knock. Essentially, Wladimir Klitschko, the current IBF champion and Oleg Maskaev, who took the WBC title from Hasim Rahman this August, are decent fighters, capable of getting the job done. But they don't have the supreme ability of a Muhammad Ali, the incredible power of a George Foreman or the irresistible menace of a Mike Tyson. Ali would have beaten them both in one bout. Nikolai Valuev and Serguei Lyakhovich, who hold the WBA and WBO titles respectively, are massive, powerful men, but limited boxers. In all fairness, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, who kept boxing alive through the 1990s, were the last heavyweights of any significance. While the methods favoured by Tyson outside the ring have reduced him to a Las Vegas sideshow, Holyfield, a four-time heavyweight champion, refuses to accept that his boxing days are over. And after Lewis retired in 2003, no one threw his hat into the ring. Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir's older brother and former WBC champion, was talented and looked like the heir apparent, but he retired in 2005 owing to persistent injuries. His WBC title defence against Hasim Rahman never happened after being postponed four times and there was talk that he wanted to steer clear of Rahman. But then the latter has been a lucky champion.

During his reign as heavyweight champion, George Foreman said, "People talk about my title, but it ain't mine. It belongs to the world. It's the same title that was around before me, before Muhammad Ali, before Joe Frazier; and it will be there when we're all gone." Today, that title, the championship belt that was once the grandest prize in one-to-one sport, has fallen low. Glory comes cheap; the concept of prize-fighting has been diluted in `alphabet title' soup. IBF, IBO, WBA, WBC, WBO... sounds like a game of scrabble? The B stands for boxing and each of these sanctioning bodies have its own titleholder. So there are multiple heavyweight champions, apart from the myriad winners in 16 other weight divisions, which foster some pretender champions. And the crowning folly — the WBA has fashioned a `super champions' category for those who hold two or more of the major belts. Come; let's play `Name the champ.'

Boxing has never been entirely free of mob control and the less said about fight promoters, the better. Now 74, Don King, the king of all doubtful operators and the bane of many a gifted fighter, wants to organise a unification tournament that would deliver an undisputed heavyweight champion. The idea sounds great but true boxing buffs will wonder... can he be trusted? The best possible matches never take place because promoters no longer want to create spirited contests or invest in new talent. Many young boxers are badly used by `managers' who only manage to damage their careers and become wealthy in the process. If they clean up their act, the title jigsaw puzzle could be put together, with some unification fights. A single regulatory body might bring some order to the chaos, but the boxers must unite before the boxing associations do. Instead of evading fights to maintain `zero loss' records, they should fight more often. Some promoters make novices think they are God's gift to boxing. They don't lose merely because they seldom fight.

Also, the 12-round bouts, which came about when Doo Koo Kim died after fighting Ray Mancini in 1984, have seen many controversial decisions given on points. An infamous example is `Sugar' Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler in 1987, when Leonard, with stylised craftiness, did a neat job of making the judges believe he won. Many feel that Hagler would have knocked him out if they had gone three more rounds. Now we'll never know. Reintroducing the 15-round format could help, as going the distance means a stern test of skill, nerve and fortitude. We'll find out how many of today's boxers are from the old school: men who can throw a mean punch, take a tough knock and fight back from the brink. Or whether they can learn more from a loss than from a win and live to fight another day.

For the casual fan, boxing is only as big as its heavyweights. But serious observers look beyond the glamour division and rather unexpectedly find that the dullness fades somewhat. Proven talents such as Oscar De La Hoya, `Winky' Wright, Shane Mosley and Jermain Taylor (all middleweights) are, unlike the heavyweights, not wary of facing each other, and square off with gusto. Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has won titles in four weight classes and now fights in welterweight, is the best pound-for-pound fighter in years. Emmanuel `Manny' Pacqui�o, the WBC super featherweight champion, is a `bit' of a legend in his native land, the Philippines. They call him `The National Fist.'

Meanwhile, America's infatuated quest for a new heavyweight hero seems endless. Experts such as Emanuel Steward and Izyaslav Koza have maintained that the next generation of heavyweights will not be from the ghettos in America but from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union. Klitschko (Ukraine), Valuev (Russia) and Liakhovich (Belarus) are already here, albeit with incomplete skill sets. When Maskaev, 37, born in Kazakhstan, dropped Hasim Rahman to win the WBC belt, it meant that all the heavyweight titles belonged to Eastern European-born fighters. Promoter Bob Arum billed the bout `America's last line of defence' and projected Rahman as the last remaining American heavyweight against an `Ex-Soviet' fighter. Now, he may well be contemplating an all-European unification series! Incidentally, Maskaev's first title defence will be in Moscow, probably against Peter Okhello of Uganda, in December. Injuries have dissuaded him from meeting Klitschko in November. Sultan Ibragimov (Russia), Ruslan Chagaev (Uzbekistan) and Vladimir Virchis (Ukraine) are exciting prospects, waiting for their chance. Russian Alexander Povetkin, the super heavyweight category gold medallist at the 2004 Olympics, looks like he is something special. Koza has called him "the future of boxing." But all said and done, it doesn't matter whether they come from Baltimore, Belarus or Jamaica as long as they can pack solid punches.

All sports need heroes, idols — matchless performers who create new identities for the sports they grace with genius and sheer winning habit. The non-appearance of someone to idolise, someone who inspires by skillfully settling duels, has been an unhealthy burden on boxing for some time now. A truly gifted fighter could be the quick fix solution for the fight game's situation. He will be a timely respite for its apologetic fans and the single most significant element in its revival. If he captures the sporting public's imagination, his trade will gain spontaneous reacceptance. Boxing will cease to be yesterday's sport, thrill audiences again and generate better copy. Before retiring, Lennox Lewis said, "Someone will emerge after I'm gone. A new star will be born and the cycle will continue." So, being boxing admirers, let's not throw in the towel. Let's wait for the man who would be king, the new lord of the boxing ring.