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With Friends Like This, Boxing Doesn’t Need Enemies

by Johnny Walker

A Response to Stephen Brunt’s “Requiem For Boxing: The Decline of the Sweet Science”

In Canada, the city of Toronto and its inhabitants are often the subject of snide humor among non-residents. “The center of the universe” it is mockingly called, because Torontonians often seem to think that nothing outside of the city’s borders exists, a sort of mass solipsism.

That attitude is typified by Toronto-based sportswriter and boxing scribe Stephen Brunt in his recent Globe and Mail column, “Requiem For Boxing: The Decline of the Sweet Science” (the essay can be accessed at Subscription required).

To refute all of the specious arguments in Brunt’s lengthy, often nostalgia-soaked and maudlin column, would take more time and space than I want to spend on it. Much of it reads like the lament of a man entering his 50s who can’t deal with the fact that his childhood sports heroes have now been eclipsed by other athletes. But a couple of Brunt’s assertions are so illogical that they must be addressed.

Brunt writes, “On Saturday night, 55,000 paying customers will fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto to witness the first promotion by the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Ontario. Until this year, mixed martial arts (MMA) … was banned in the province. This show will be the single biggest sporting event of 2011 in Canada’s most populous city, barring an unlikely Toronto Blue Jays run to the World Series. In part, that is an expression of pent-up demand from the outlaw years. But mostly it is a true and legitimate measure of the popularity of the sport and its No. 1 marquee attraction, Montreal’s Georges St-Pierre.”

Brunt then goes on to lament boxing’s supposed comparative lack of popularity in 2011.

First of all, Brunt seems to think that because an initial MMA event in Toronto can draw 55,000 people, this has some wider implication for boxing. I suppose this is because Toronto is or was such a boxing hotbed, eh Stephen? Funny, I am huge boxing fan and I lived in Toronto for 10 years, and can’t recall a single major boxing card that I ever attended while I was there – because there wasn’t one! I saw more live boxing during my very brief tenure as a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia, than I ever did in Toronto.

So the fact that the UFC can finally get licensed in Ontario and draw 50,000+ might simply mean that Dana White was smart enough to exploit a heretofore untapped market for combat sports in the Toronto area. Not to mention that the card, as Brunt points out, featured a Canadian UFC star, Georges St. Pierre, which also no doubt heightened interest in the event. But to make some sweeping judgment from this UFC event in Toronto and conclude that boxing as a sport is dying or dead is either very naïve or purposefully obtuse.

What really rankles is this line from Brunt: “As MMA has grown, boxing has evaporated except in a few isolated outposts (Quebec and Germany, most notably).” Here we get back to my original point about the solipsism of Torontonians. If it ain’t happening in English Canada, or in Brunt’s heavily mythologized version of America (such as only a Canadian can muster), it just ain’t happening!

Brunt’s sheer arrogance here is breathtaking. There is some rich irony, of course, in a Canadian calling Germany an “outpost.” The world heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, regularly draw crowds of close to 50,000 people to their fights in Germany, but Brunt ignores this troublesome fact because Germany is an “outpost,” so it doesn’t count. This is intellectual dishonesty, and shame on Brunt for trying to get away with it.

“There’s no arguing with the marketplace. Fifty-five thousand people can’t be wrong,” Brunt writes. Unless they are Germans attending a Klitschko fight, of course.

Even worse for a Canadian, Brunt labels an entire province in his own country, Quebec, an “outpost,” presumably because it isn’t Ontario. So when boxers Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins sell out the Bell Centre in Montreal (home of hockey’s immortal Canadiens) as they did a few weeks back, again, this is not proof for Brunt that boxing is alive and well, because those French-Canadians, like those Germans, well, what do they know?

The theme of Brunt’s column brings to mind the old Stranglers song whose refrain was “No more heroes anymore.” When his column starts into its flowery, nostalgia-drenched passages on Ali and Frazier, it becomes clear what Brunt’s real problem with today’s boxing is. He can’t stand the fact that boxing has changed, that its current stars are not the stars of his youth or even reasonable facsimiles thereof. For Brunt and those of his ilk, like Burt Sugar, nothing that happens now can be as great as it was in the mythic Golden Past when America ruled the boxing world, and more specifically, ruled the heavyweight division.

“Nothing that boxing could produce today,” Brunt writes, “could … mean much of anything. Even before MMA began its assault, the sport was edging toward irrelevance. There’s no boxing conversation to be had. Even heavyweight champion of the world – that great, all-encompassing title – has been rendered close to meaningless.”

Meaningless for whom, Stephen?

Brunt implies that because there is no-one similar to Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali in boxing today, there is no-one left to admire or idolize. The Klitschkos, two educated, intelligent men whose own inspiring back-story includes their improbable rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union and their escape from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl — are by implication discounted by Brunt as almost meaningless champions. Yet I’m very sure there are many, many young boxing fans in Ukraine, in Russia, in Germany, and indeed from all over the planet for whom Wladimir and Vitali mean every bit as much as Ali did to Brunt and his ilk. Some will no doubt will be inspired by the Klitschkos to take up the sport themselves in search of fame and fortune. But Brunt, trapped within his own narrow frame of reference and in mourning for his own lost youth, can’t or won’t acknowledge that fact.

What has really happened in boxing’s marquee division is that American fighters have declined at the same time as the fall of the Soviet Union has opened the floodgates for Eastern European talent that before had no chance to compete in professional boxing. The Klitschkos led the way, becoming superstars in Germany and then across Europe. Now many Europeans, Eastern and Western, are following them up the ladder, with names like Denis Boytsov, Robert Helenius, Alexander Dimitrenko and Tomasz Adamek being the top heavyweight contenders. This leads old-timers like Brunt, who is Americentric and who longs for another Ali, to make declarations like “Boxing Is Dead,” when that is not at all the case.

The truth is, boxing’s power base has shifted and it is alive and well across the globe.

Alive and well, except in the minds of those sad nostalgists who long for a past that is never going to be repeated.

In that sense, Stephen Brunt’s column about the death of boxing is accurate, in what might be termed a microcosmic, as opposed to a macrocosmic, sense.

Boxing is indeed dead: for Stephen Brunt. RIP.


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