The Last Great Fight
Author Joe Layden Ponders the Demise of Boxing
by Ronald Sklar
With the increasing fragmentation of American entertainment, there is bound to be a few old traditions that will go the way of vaudeville. One of the more unfortunate examples as of late is the sport of boxing.
Once the king of early television and live venue (and the escape route for many impoverished tough guys), boxing has become less than an afterthought as a modern entertainment choice.
America in general, and youth in particular, has KO’d the sport by ignoring it in favor of mixed martial arts, professional wrestling and even videogames. The glory days of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frasier and even Mike Tyson are long over, and there seems to be no Great White – or even Black – Hope to appear as savior.
Writer Joe Layden has examined this downward spiral, focusing on what he calls The Last Great Fight (St. Martin’s Press). That historic event, which was considered one of the most dramatic upsets in the history of sports – as well as the death knell for boxing – took place in 1990, between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas.
In the years since, boxing has experienced agonizing repercussions, as painful as the ones suffered by veteran boxers themselves.
Layden’s well-received book illustrates in detail the blows against the world of boxing that has brought it to where it is today, which is not much of nowhere.
Tell us about The Last Great Fight.
It’s the story of the heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas that took place in February of 1990. It is generally regarded as the biggest upset in boxing history and one of the greatest upsets in sports history. It was an idea that kicked around in my head for years and years. I used to cover boxing when I was a newspaper guy, and I covered a lot of Tyson when he was coming up around that time. The paper I was working for at the time, like most papers in the world, didn’t think it was worth covering that fight because it would be a one-round affair, and nobody would ever remember it or care about it.
I always wondered what the bigger story was. I covered Tyson’s unsuccessful title defense against Evander Holyfield. I followed the arc of their careers after this fight and I figured there was probably a good story there. It was one of those stories that would not go away, and it kept grabbing me.
However, nobody backs boxing books too much because traditionally, they haven’t sold well. I do think there is great fodder for storytelling and narrative in the sport of boxing. And I ultimately decided that I would try to put this story together, because it kept talking to me.
Boxing is a sport that easily lends itself to the writer.
Boxing is very dramatic. It’s very visceral. Boxers are among the best people to interview and talk to. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are very open and pure about what they do, because obviously, there is something very pure about it. There is nothing more visceral and purer than getting into a ring, just two people, with no protection and nobody else to rely on and one person wins, and one person loses; one person gets hurt; sometimes both people get hurt.
Boxers are very honest and thoughtful about their craft. They are often damaged people in a lot of ways, and not just physically. In terms of introspection, they are among the best athletes to be around and to talk with. You can walk into any gym, anywhere in the world and find a hundred good stories.
Why has the spirit of boxing lost its punch?
I think there are a lot of reasons. I don’t think boxing is the only sport that’s happened to. You can point to horse racing; you can even point to the major sports and see a deluding of the audience.
It’s attributable to a lot of things. One is the shortening of our attention spans, the competition of the entertainment dollar, the pervasiveness of the internet, digital television, and a hundred different things that didn’t exist in 1990, when Tyson and Douglas fought, when people got their information through newspapers and basic television.
As well, boxing has certainly done nothing to help itself in terms of promoting itself. There are too many governing bodies, too few charismatic fighters, and the appearance of impropriety at too many different levels. All of this has caused the fans beyond the hard-core fans to lose interest in the sport.
It has done pretty well on an international level, and in certain pockets of this country. It’s still a very popular sport in the Hispanic community, but in terms of mainstream American culture, it’s obviously lost a lot of its appeal, and I don’t see that coming back any time soon, and probably any time ever.
The last time it was at a really enormous level with the popularity just transcending the hard-core boxing market, I think, was when Mike Tyson was champion.
Why did Tyson and Douglas unravel?
Tyson’s career unraveled so publicly and so tragically. Right around the time of the Douglas fight, his personal life was already beginning to unravel. People didn’t see the extent of that on the night he stepped into the ring with Douglas.
He was having difficulties in his personal life, in his marriage, in his relationships with his trainers and managers. Don King was beginning to move into a position to take over his career. [Tyson] was losing interest in fighting. Fighting became what he was known for and what gave him confidence and notoriety, but he lost interest in fighting at a relatively young age and became a person who was fighting just for money and survival after that. It was a downward spiral that just took on a life of its own, I think.
He didn’t train the way he had before. He wasn’t surrounded by people who had his best interests at heart. Of course, he is responsible for his own actions, and he made some terrible decisions, that lead him to wind up in prison and be bankrupt. It just sort of swallowed him up.
His career, unfortunately, is going to be remembered for what’s happened to him in the last eighteen years than for the four or five incredible years that he put together before that.
Douglas is a sadder story, but at least has a relatively happy ending. Douglas’ career after the Tyson fight quickly went downhill, for some of the same reasons. There were managerial problems and personal problems that lead him to not train properly for his first title defense against Holyfield. He was woefully unprepared for that fight when he stepped into the ring in October of 1990.
I was in Las Vegas for that fight, and when he stepped out for his weigh in, it was clear that he was grossly overweight and under-trained. There were audible gasps in the room. Not just shock, but like, ‘how is this guy going to get into the ring tomorrow night and fight Evander Holyfield?’ And, of course, it turns out that he was not ready for that fight and he was knocked out in the third round. And he just went away.
Buster went into a deep depression after that, because he is fundamentally a good person who felt terribly guilty and saddened by his performance and lack of preparation and probably by taking $23 million and not earning it. He ate and drank himself into a diabetic coma, which nearly took his life a few years later.
Fortunately, he was surrounded by family and friends who really did have his best interests at heart, and they helped him get back into shape and get healthy. He has some very, very good people around him, most notably his wife, Bertha, and his trainer and best friend, John Russell, and together they got him back into shape and back into the ring, and although that part of his career was not that notable, he did get his life back.
How is Don King the villain in all this?
King is painted as a villain in any number of ways. He’s an incredibly slippery, clever, smart businessman, if you want to call it that, who has learned how to ingratiate himself with the people in his fort. He’s learned how to gain control of people through any number of different ways. Somehow, he manages to get out of situations that nobody would be able to get out of. He avoids jail time and he avoids prosecution and he avoids any number of things that you would think would have ended his career a long time ago.
He manages to have a piece of so many different fighters. He was the promoter for both Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson. So, obviously win or lose, he’s the winner. Regardless of who wins the fight, he wins. But he became more than just a promoter. He was really managing many of these fighters. He took exorbitant promotional fees; he put various people on the payroll, and he controlled people’s careers and lives to an extent that was just extraordinary.
Certainly, when Tyson gravitated toward King, he gravitated away from the people who made him the fighter that he was, the people who took him out of the environment that he had been in and gave him a life and a career, and that proved disastrous for Tyson. He wound up suing King as so many fighters do.
Ultimately, we’re all responsible for the decisions we make, and for the lives or careers that we build or tear down. By gravitating toward Don King at a relatively early age, I think all of that was accelerated and it certainly proved disastrous for him.
How did everything get tangled up in the courts?
After the Tyson-Douglas fight, Douglas tried to break his promotional contract with Don King, claiming that King had tried to undermine his efforts and his career. Basically, what Don King did was try to orchestrate an over-turning of that decision immediately after that fight, by claiming that Douglas had benefited from a long count by the referee. I delve into that very deeply in the book. It turns out that they were totally claims without foundation. But King did that because, even though he owned a piece of both fighters, he stood to make more money with Tyson as the champion than with Douglas as the champion. So he threw his weight behind Tyson in the aftermath of that fight.
What happened is that Douglas then struck a deal with another promoter and tried to break his contract with King. Months dragged on in the courts, trying to determine who would get to promote the fight, who would pay for it and who would owe whom money. They settled on a certain payout for King, with the Mirage and Steve Wynn hosting the fight. That was the Douglas-King story.
Tyson’s deal with King ended up in the courts much later on, in the mid-nineties, when [Tyson] determined that his promotional contract with King was unfair, and that King, in Tyson’s eyes, was taking far more money than he was entitled to. So, Tyson sued King for many, many millions of dollars.
That’s the kind of the story with many of the fighters who have contracts with Don King. They look at it as if he’s giving them a chance or rescuing them or providing them with something they don’t have early on, and then eventually they come to the conclusion that they’ve been used and have had King in their pockets to an extent that they didn’t realize, and they want to be compensated. That’s the story arc of many of the boxers over the past 25 years.
Where is the talent pool for boxing today?
In the upper-weight classes, it tends to be Eastern European. Part of the problem, I think, is that there aren’t familiar American faces. The talents are all out there, but they’re all playing linebacker. There are a lot of young American kids who are physically capable of boxing, but there are too many other options, too many other ways to dream about becoming millionaires, and too many other avenues to pursue. So right now, they tend to be Eastern European and that doesn’t help with the marketing of the sport in this country.
In the lighter-weight classes, there are more Americans. There is a great young fighter named Kelly Pavlik who is from Ohio, who is a terrific stylist and a tough kid, and has galvanized the sport to a degree, but not to the degree that Tyson did, or any of the great fighters of the past. But he’s an interesting kid.
There is a fairly significant Hispanic audience and significant number of talented Hispanic fighters in the lighter and middle-weight classes, just as it’s been for a long time.
In terms of the heavyweight ranks, there is not a lot of hope that someone is going to come along and be the next Tyson, Ali, Joe Frasier, or even the next Larry Holmes. It’s just not out there right now.
Why is boxing still popular in Latino communities and Eastern Europe?
There is a historical component to it. It’s more of the mainstream sport in those places, in the same way that there is fervor for soccer in the Latino community. It’s still seen as a way out of difficult circumstances and poverty. It’s still seen as a viable route. And there are still a significant number of heroic figures for those communities.
Boxing still draws big audiences in Eastern Europe. They still get media coverage and press coverage that they don’t get in this country.
There are people who are big boxing fans who claim that the death of boxing is more about the death of boxing in America than it is the death of boxing worldwide.
American culture is so fragmented right now. There is so much competition for the sporting dollar and the entertainment dollar that I don’t know boxing goes about taking anything close to the place that it once held.
Mixed martial arts seems to be kicking its way into the audience for boxing.
That’s kind of taken me by surprise too. I only know a couple of mixed martial arts practitioners, and, frankly, I’m surprised that it’s become what it has.
As I understand it, it is hugely popular with white 18-34 and even 18-24-year-old fans. There is a huge crossover between professional wrestling fans and mixed martial arts fans. That’s a predominantly very young, very white male audience. It’s not the traditional boxing audience.
Meanwhile, many former boxers are suffering in a variety of ways.
It’s a sport in which you are a private contractor. You get what you can. It’s not like the NFL or the NBA. There is no union, no league, no employer, in the traditional sense of the word. There is no safety net for a lot of these guys.
A lot of people take big chunks of the money that you earn as a fighter. It’s very easy to lose a lot of it, and to end up with very serious physical and emotional problems, and by that I mean cognitive problems, stemming directly from the punishment that you’ve taken in the ring.
I have mixed feelings about boxing, because I love writing about it, and I think the people who take part in it are fundamentally admirable and courageous. But you can’t admire it without also questioning it: what it is and the effect that it has on the people who take part in it.
How do you see boxing differently now that you have written the book?
I’m very aware of the ugly side of boxing and always have been. One thing I’ve always told people who claim to be boxing fans: go to a local club show and sit in the first or second row. Get some blood and sweat thrown at you. Feel the sound. Hear the punches. Hear the grunting and groaning. See people bleeding. Really get a feel for what it is, and then decide if you like it, decide if you don’t like it, and decide if you admire or don’t admire the people involved. But understand what it really is.
My take on it is that I appreciate it and admire it on an athletic and physical level. In terms of my attitude changing about it, I wouldn’t say that. I still have admiration for people who box, and I still have questions about the people who run the sport, and whether it’s a suitable endeavor and something that a civilized society should promote and legalize. But I also find it compelling, and I can’t deny that. In terms of wearing my writer hat, I don’t think there is a better subject for a writer.
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 1, 2008.
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