The European Heavyweight Era?
Just watched Ukrainian giant Vitali Klitschko destroy the much smaller Polish boxer, Tomasz Adamek, for 10 one-sided rounds before the ref mercifully stopped the fight. While it was fun watching the fight at a Cracow bar with a bunch of lively Poles, it was sad that Adamek never had a chance. The crowd did applaud their beaten fighter after the bout ended, commending him for his valiant but vain effort. And so, another non-Klitschko bites the dust in the sweet science’s glamour division. As ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael has recently tweeted, “no heavyweight alive has a chance against either Klitschko brother.” I completely agree, and I am reminded of a post I wrote concerning this issue, which I think holds up pretty well.
In boxing, however, things are a bit different. Today, the fight game is not nearly as popular as it once was to the broader American public, but it remains extremely popular among Hispanics. And while African Americans once dominated the heavyweight class to such an extent that it was mocked in the 1996 parody,The Great White Hype, now the sport’s glamour division is ruled by two Ukrainian giants, the brothers Vladimir and Vitali Klitschko. Great Black athletes who weigh over 200 pounds are turning to football and basketball, and to a lesser extent baseball, where there is more money, less risk, and the possibility of getting a college education through athletic scholarships. The integration and growing popularity of America’s other major sports sounded the death knell for boxing’s prominence in American life. In a sense, Jackie Robinson killed the African American heavyweight, though he died a slow, illustrious death, and lived long enough to give the United States Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson, among many other greats.
At the lower weights, however, things remain different. If you’re a great athlete, but only 5’5” and 125 pounds, your options are pretty limited if you want to make money in sports. Boxing may be your best or even only route. Indeed, this is probably true for men under 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, with some exceptions among middle infielders and point guards, and maybe the odd running back or tennis player. And so while Latinos (from the US and elsewhere) and now Asians and Europeans are an enormous presence in the ring, Black fighters in the lower weight classes still win championships, none more famously than Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Relatedly, I bought a bunch of books on my Kindle for this trip, including Gerald Early’s A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports, a collection of essays published by Harvard University Press. In it, he examines the declining presence of non-Hispanic Blacks in Major League Baseball. Once as high as 20% of the league, they now stand at 9%. To Early, the reason is this: African Americans were only really drawn to baseball when it was the only game in town, and when they had to organize their own league to play it professionally. Once they lost ownership of the league, it was no longer their game, and football and basketball soon eclipsed it. Those two sports, also, have a high profile college presence, and are seen as paths to education in ways that baseball is not. According to Early, ironically, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the MLB colour barrier led to the eventual African American abandonment of professional baseball.
Thinking about all this some more, and bringing it back to boxing, I think I’d like to extend my argument and call it the decline of the American heavyweight. This isn’t really about race. I just don’t think that many big athletic Americans of any background have much interest in boxing. Too risky, too little reward.
In Europe, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case. This is especially true in eastern Europe, which is producing a lot of today’s elite fighters, particularly heavyweights. Yet even there nobody can challenge the Klitschkos. And when they retire, the quality of heavyweight boxing will decline significantly. Indeed, maybe I should extend my argument and call it the decline of the heavyweight division. And now with the rise of MMA, boxing’s steady tumble from relevance seems like it’s only gonna get wore. For those like myself, who strongly prefer boxing to MMA, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the sport.