Little boys learn which sport to love from their fathers. For some, it’s baseball, others football or basketball – even hockey. Although Pop liked all sports, he loved boxing.
Like a loyal puppy trying to please a beloved owner, I followed his lead, trailing him all along the way until the love he had for the sport became my own.
We would watch anything boxing related. Amateur fights, the Olympics, pro fights, you name it.
We followed some of the greatest fighters of all time.
In the 70’s, it was the heavyweights, Joe Frazier, George Foreman (if you only know him for the grill, shame on you), Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks with his trademark toothless grin, and of course Muhammad Ali. The decade was capped off with my personal hero at the time, Big John Tate, who took the title in 1979 and only carried it a few short months into the next decade.
Big John Tate’s career excited us more than any other because he fought out of Knoxville and called it home. He was “ours.”
I vividly remember the anticipation Pop and I felt leading up to his first title defense against Mike Weaver. I was granted preapproval to stay up late on a school night so we could watch the entire card. I was on cloud nine in the days leading up to it.
That Monday morning, while driving me to school, my Pop revealed that he had a dream that Big John Tate would get knocked out and lose the title.
He did – in the 15th round.
It was devastating. Tate had won the fight and only needed to get through the final round to retain his belt and win a unanimous victory by judges’ decision. Instead Weaver caught him with a left hook, and my first truly heartbreaking experience in boxing reared its ugly head.
The middleweights thrilled us in the ‘80s with the infamous plea of Roberto Duran for “No Mas” from Sugar Ray Leonard, who regained the title that Duran had captured only five months before. We witnessed the best first round in history when “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns threw everything they had at each other in a relentless battle.
I was enamored with the characters outside the ring as well. Howard Cosell was an integral part of a good boxing match to me. Mills Lane officiated with a charm and wit not matched by any other at the time. Lou Duva was my favorite manager and probably the best of all time. And Don King, who I could never quite find affection for, was still a perfect addition to the eclectic personalities outside the ring that helped form my love for boxing.
In 1982, we watched Mike Tyson in the Junior Olympics and I was so impressed with the strength of his brutal uppercut, I immediately declared to Pop that he would be the World Champion one day.
Throughout the ‘80s, we watched Tyson continue to dominate fight after fight, and Pop always happily credited me with a keen eye for noticing his skills so early.
As time passed, our love for the sport only grew. We scheduled our workdays around plans to be back in time to watch Tuesday Night Fights on ESPN. We monitored the TV page (back when there was a TV page) and circled the upcoming fights in the next week.
Boxing established a bond between us that could seemingly never come unglued.
In 1990, I watched Mike Tyson lose his title to Buster Douglas, creating a sorrow in me that I thought could never be matched until it was dwarfed a few months later when I lost my Pop to cancer. Just like that, our 20-year bond was broken. Looking back, it almost seems poetic somehow.
Though I still loved boxing after my Pop’s passing, my level of affection began to wane, thanks primarily to the boxing industry itself.
While Roy Jones Jr. kept me interested, Eric “Butterbean” Esch and his staged fights wore on me. The corruption behind the scenes became more and more visible, and in 1997, Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Like hundreds of fights before, I was watching that fight live. That moment, though, cemented my disgust for what had become of the sport Pop and I so loved. I turned off the television and have never watched another match since.
The recent fervor over last weekend’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, neither of whom I have seen fight, had me wondering if perhaps I should return to the love of my youth and rekindle the relationship. The excitement and news media buildup to the big night almost had me convinced I should. Almost.
The day after the fight, rumored to have grossed over a half a billion dollars with so many pay-per-view subscribers at $99.95 each that Direct TV and Time Warner systems crashed all over the United States, news reports rolled in that Pacquiao sustained a serious shoulder injury a couple weeks earlier. Meanwhile, Mayweather strutted around the ring paycheck in hand, showing it off to anyone willing to look. Let the conspiracies begin, as fans claim promoters hid the injury to ensure that the fight (or more importantly, that half billion dollars) was not delayed.
As for me, I’m glad I kept my hundred bucks, and if I get the urge to watch a truly great fight, I will pull up old videos of Hagler vs. Hearns from their 3-round war in 1985 and reminisce about when boxing meant something.
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© Michael L. Collins
* Originally published under the name “Boxing: it’s just not what it used to be” in the May 6th, 2015 edition of the Mountain Press.