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Brian Keelan's picture

The sweet science?

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 10:08 -- Brian Keelan

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by big-time boxing events. I remember hearing about Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, and in Feb of 1976 when I went to Las Vegas for the first time, I walked in the front door of Caesar’s Palace and there was Joe Louis himself to greet me: “Hi there. Welcome to Caesar’s Palace.”

The first boxing match I ever saw was on TV: Rocky Marciano, who retired undefeated in 1956 fighting a guy named Ezard Charles. After that we had Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson and then in came big, bad Sonny Liston. He demolished Floyd Patterson and then went on to face Cassius Clay. I was one of the un-believers who could not see how a trash-talking smartass like Clay could beat a monster like Liston. But beat him, he did… twice. In those days, we used to go the Capital Theater a few days after the fight to watch it on film. It cost about 50 cents.

 Clay then fought (and beat) Floyd Patterson followed by what my dad called, “one helluva fight,” against George Chuvalo in Toronto. Nothing much happened in the boxing world after that until the US Government took away Clay’s (who had by now changed his name to Muhammad Ali) license to box for refusing to be inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam war. Three years later he got his license back and that set up the first of three brutal fights with Joe Frazier interspersed with fights against Ken Norton and George Foreman. The Ali-Foreman - “Rumble in The Jungle” - produced what many say, and I agree, was the greatest fight ever. Watch the movie, When We Were Kings to see what I mean.

In those days, you paid good money to go to an arena and watch the fight on closed-circuit TV with three or four thousand other guys. I’d gather five or six of my pals to go out for a steak dinner and then go to the fight. It was a classic example of manly men doing manly things… at least to us it was. I mean you don’t get six guys together for beer and barbecued red meat and then go see The Sound of Music.

Then came the era of Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, Roberto “The Hands of Stone” Duran and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. That era culminated, for me at least, on April 15, 1985 when Thomas Hearns fought Marvin Hagler. I went to the fight with three guys from Sarnia having obtained great seats from some guys I had met the month before in the Bahamas who owned Brass Ring Productions in Detroit.

They booked a lot of concerts at Pine Knob, Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Hall back in the 70’s and 80’s. As one guy at the fight told me, “They have the most interesting Rolodex in the state of Michigan.” They were staying at this scuba diving resort just down from the house I was renting on the beach of an island called Spanish Wells. I used to go down there at cocktail hour to listen to all their stories and tell a few myself. One night I invited them all back to the house for a party. All I can, or will, tell you is that it was, “one helluva party.”

When I asked them where the best place to watch the Hearns/Hagler fight was they gave me their card and said, “Royal Oak Theater is by far and away the best place to watch the fight. Call us man. We’ll get you some good seats.”

Turns out, they owned the Royal Oak Theater and I watched the fight from the centre of the 7th row. Bob Seger sat a few seats away from me. I actually had a better seat than Bob.

Now here’s the sad part. At the end of round one, arguably the most exciting round of boxing in the history of the Sweet Science, the crowd was on their feet. Everyone in the theatre was juiced by what they had just seen. The guy beside me lit up a cigarette. I thought I had kicked my 25-year addiction to nicotine the previous November but as I watched him take his first drag, I looked at that cigarette with such desire in my eyes that he shrugged and offered me one. I took it and instantly re-became a pack-a-day smoker and would remain so for another 15 years.

After the Hearns/Hagler fight, boxing had very few big nights. George Foreman had a few monster mashes and Mike Tyson bloomed for about twenty minutes before he disgraced himself and everyone else who used to like boxing by trying to eat Evander Holyfield’s ear. The Mixed Martial Arts/Ultimate Fighting thing seems to have taken centre stage over the Sweet Science, but unless it really is fake on some level somebody is either going to get killed or severely maimed. I mean talk about concussions in football and hockey and then watch those guys!  

I was thinking about all that last Saturday while I was waiting for the Conor McGregor / Floyd Mayweather fight to begin. I wound up going by myself because all the guys I used to go to these things with are either dead or it’s past their bedtime. Truth be told, it was past my bedtime too but being the great planner that I am, I took an extra long nap at 4 pm and didn’t have my usual Saturday night pre-dinner cocktail(s) so I was raring to go at 11 pm when the main event was supposed to start. It didn’t start until just after midnight so I sat there and nursed a few beers while I marvelled at how things had changed since the golden ear of the great Ali fights.

Now, instead of being cooped up in an arena with three or four thousand testosterone and beer fueled guys, I was sitting at a picnic table outside Valley Axe where the old Bluewater Fun park has been replaced by an outdoor theater that is adjacent to the main building where people go to enjoy the ancient sport of axe-throwing and drinking. They had two 30-foot screens hooked up to HD projectors and the view you had of the fight was much better than being ringside and a damned sight better than the old black and white closed circuit, low-def broadcasts of old.

I had great expectations for this fight. I was hoping to see a brash 29-year-old Irishman named Conor McGregor from the mean streets of Dublin, who terrorized his ultimate-fighting opponents, climb into the ring with Floyd Mayweather, a 40-year-old boxer who was 49-0 and the fight world was going to change when he did. This would be Mayweather’s 50th fight and he would break Rocky Marciano’s record of 49 wins in 49 fights… if he won tonight. Then he would retire, an undefeated champion.

But Conor McGregor was to going to show this guy what tough was all about, at least that’s what he was saying over and over again during all the pre-fight hype which I finally succumbed to and paid $10 for the ticket. I had to hand it to Mayweather. He wasn’t going to make his 50th win an easy one. This McGregor guy was no patsy. But you know the old saying, “A man never walks away from a fight he thinks he can win,” and both these guys thought they could win this fight… or so I thought.

I expected the kind of fireworks I saw in 1985 at the Hearns/Hagler fight. By the way, Marvin Hagler won that fight in the third round by knocking out Thomas Hearns, but nobody ever thought poorly of Hearns for losing. It was one of those things where you don’t really remember who won, you just remember what you saw and the excitement of watching two guys give it absolutely everything.

I went to this fight because I figured it had the potential to produce the same kind of juice. Thomas Hearns did too. He was right there at ringside with LeBron, A-Rod and J-Lo.

Alas, it was not to be. Conor McGregor gave a decent accounting of himself but it was nothing like the kind of excitement he had promised. You watch him hit guys in UFC bouts and he’s really something, but you could tell he didn’t want to get too close to Floyd’s 49 – 0 fists. In the end, he got a real lesson in boxing. It was Floyd’s swan-song and he went out in style.

On the drive home, I got to thinking about why 500 people had showed up in the makeshift outdoor theatre to watch an event that many people who feel they are living their lives on a higher plane, think is not just ridiculous but bloodthirsty and savage as well. I cannot argue because if it had gone down as promised the 500 or so would have been lustily cheering them both and feeling that their money (and time) had been well-spent.

It was interesting to note that the poor people bet on McGregor and the rich people bet on Mayweather. I know this because some analyst said that there were more individual bets on McGregor and they averaged $92 in value while the fewer bets on Mayweather averaged around $8,000. At least five people bet a million on Mayweather but only got 1.2 million back for their troubles. The argument could be made that the smart money was the big money. They bet with their heads while the McGregor fans bet with their hearts. I like to point out that I do not bet on sporting events because I have learned that I like them even more if I am not worried about losing money and I can enjoy watching the best man/team win.

Last Saturday night the best boxer won and that is as it should be. Mayweather might not have won in the MMA/UFC cage using Conor’s rules but then maybe that’s why the “smart” money bet on Mayweather: he brought the beast into his lair.

That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong. But I’m glad I didn’t have any money on the outcome. I’d have lost.

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