By Sean Crose
Well over a hundred years ago, there was a man from Australia named Peter Jackson. Jackson was a fighter – and a damned good one. He fought Jim Corbett to a brutal draw in San Francisco and was widely regarded as one of the top boxers around. Yet Jackson never got to fight for the heavyweight title. Why? Because he was black. Champion John L Sullivan, for instance, conveniently used the racial bias of the time to avoid facing black fighters.
Sam Langford had it even worse than Jackson. One of the greatest fighters in history, he too didn’t get to fight for the heavyweight title because he was black. What made things particularly egregious in Langford’s case is that champion Jack Johnson, himself an African American, conveniently refused to give Langford a title shot (it was all so easy to claim that no one would want to see two black men fight for the heavyweight title). So good was Langford that Doc Kearns, the famed manager of Jack Dempsey, feared having Dempsey put the title on the line against the African American slugger – even though by that time Langford was forty.
Flash forward to today. Although we’re thankfully beyond the point where fighters can use skin color as an excuse to duck opponents, fighters and managers have nonetheless found new and inventive ways to avoid pesky competitors. The modern excuses for ducking a feared potential opponent aren’t as downright evil as the racial excuses of old, but they’re unpleasant and telling nonetheless.
Guillermo Rigondeaux is a prime example of what happens when a modern fighter is feared by other boxers and their respective camps. The small Cuban Rigondeaux is probably one of the best boxers on the planet, hands down. The problem is that the top competition avoids him like the plague. The excuse? That he’s boring. He’s knocked out over half his opponents, but Rigondeaux’s slick, defensive style doesn’t make for a fan friendly fight. And so the likes of Leo Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton can gleefully avoid fighting the best possible opponent out there because their backers (hello Barry McGuigan) can claim they can’t make any money fighting the guy (for the record, it’s been said that Rigondeaux is highest paid fighter in his division).
I wrote awhile back that Rigondeaux would be just fine doing what he had been doing in the ring.
Boy, was I wrong.
One of the best fighters in the world now can’t seem to get a major fight – even though he holds a legitimate belt and an undefeated record. Instead, Rigondeaux may well have to sit back and watch less talented men earn fame, glory and recognition. This can all be shrugged off to simply being the nature of the business, of course, but to me it’s like watching the Super Bowl being played between the teams with the second and third best records in the NFL. It may make business sense – but something just doesn’t jibe.
Rigondeaux isn’t the only avoided fighter in the game, of course, and he certainly won’t be the last. When a contender like Chris Avalos literally avoids a title shot against Rigondeaux because he might have a chance to fight the arguably less skilled Frampton, however, it says a lot about the state of boxing today.
Is this now a sport where fans and participants openly admit that being the best doesn’t matter? It may well be. If so, that explains a lot. Not so long ago, boxing was the fourth most popular sport in the country, behind basketball and ahead of hockey. Now it’s completely marginalized.
And it’s starting to become easy to see why.