No More: Roger Rosenblatt on Boxing

September 29, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Boxing pretends to be a morality play, but it is really a cockfight, nothing better. If you wasted a few minutes of your life to watch the brief, preposterous Mike Tyson-Peter McNeeley sort of fight recently, you know what I mean.

The fans inside the Las Vegas arena cheered Tyson at the beginning of his comeback as if they were cheering only a great heavyweight, not a man released from prison where he was sent for rape. The protesters outside the arena saw only the convicted rapist. Nobody acknowledged a person struggling to find his soul, which Tyson seems to be doing, but that is not the way of boxing. It is not boxing’s business to make moral distinctions or discover moral nuances. One guy pounds another until he knocks him senseless.

He raises his arms in victory; the crowd goes wild, as long as he keeps on knocking people senseless. That’s about as moral as boxing gets. Of course, if you believe fiction, novels, movies, theater, every boxer is a miniature classic hero, a little Odysseus or Beowulf contending against forces of evil to prove or regain his honor. In “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the tired old pug would not forfeit his innate decency to the wicked gambler.

ACTOR: I never took a dive for anybody. You know, I had 111 fights; I never took a single dive.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In “Pulp Fiction,” Bruce Willis refuses to take a dive in the same nobel spirit. The myth revives itself forever. All the “Rocky” movies are morality plays or morality playpens. “Rocky XXXV” should pit our champ against Gadhafi and Pol Pot. Yo, Adrian, I beat Pol Pot. The movie “Champion” came closest to the mark. Kirk Douglas was a low-life to the bone.

The only place where he could find his empty little soul was in the ring. And still the beating goes on, and the old lie, that there is something noble in the act of two grown men doing physical battle. Boxing fans know better, no hypocrites they. Morality has never tainted their expressions of love. They adored Sonny Liston, the brutal ex-con, until he was knocked for a loop by Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay.

Ali was sweetness and light, Liston a thug; they were equal in the eyes of the fans. Fans always forgive jailbirds–if they win. Once they even held a fight in a prison. Next to a gambling casino, it seems the perfect place to me. Preening beside Tyson in the Las Vegas bout was the remarkable figure of Don King. A known murderer, he is otherwise accused of stealing money from his fighters. The grand old man of boxing; everybody knows, nobody cares. Boxing draws crooks, creates crooks, exalts crooks.

Those who succeed at it leave the game battered, often for life. Sugar Ray Leonard quit while he was rich but nearly blind. He got off easy. Those who fail die young, usually broke. Some, like Duk Koo Kim, who was hit too hard by Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini, die directly from injuries. Some die in spirit. Who can erase the image of Joe Louis at the end of his life, desperate to pay off back taxes, working as a shill in a gambling casino?

Give me professional wrestling every time. At least there are a few laughs in wrestling. And since everything is fake, nobody gets hurt. Boxing is different. Americans pay millions to watch two men, who are also paid millions, knock each other silly. There can be but one reason for this that people prize the easiest demonstrations of power above everything else: the sight of one man standing triumphant over another. Who could ask for anything more?

So the fans yelled themselves hoarse as Mike Tyson began his heroic comeback against the hapless and ridiculous McNeeley. In fact, Tyson offers a rare opportunity for the fans to make moral distinctions. If they choose, they can cheer a winner, condemn a criminal, and feel for a man trying to reform himself, all at the same time. But of course, they won’t. It would spoil the fun.

My favorite fight was probably the boxing fan’s least favorite. It took place in New Orleans between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. After a few rounds, Duran, reputed to be tough as nails, threw up his hands, stopped the fight, and said, “No mas!”–no more! Roberto, I’m with you.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.