I Miss Boxing
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The Paralysis Project of America just hosted their annual fundraiser, an evening here in Los Angeles whereby legends of sport are feted and brave individuals coping with spinal cord injuries talk about the hope of one day standing out of their chairs. A woman named Julie Alban, shot point-blank in the back by her boyfriend, a crime that severed her spinal cord, eloquently expressed the daily summoning of courage to focus on what she has, not what she's lost. The famous athletes in the room were duly humbled. Jose Santos, Kentucky Derby winner, rode more than 58,000 mounts in his career. He fell many a time, but the last one, breaking seven vertebrae, led his doctors to tell him that one more fall would no doubt result in paralysis. He retired early, filled with gratitude that this poor kid from the stables of Chile rode for the roses at the Derby, every jockey's dream. And paralysis, he said, is every jockey's potential nightmare. Superstar hoopster from Cal Berkeley and the Suns, Kevin Johnson, received the John Wooden Lifetime Achievement Award for the dramatic improvements he's made in his hometown community of Sacramento. KJ said the best coaching advice he ever had came from Coach Wooden who told him to live by two words only and all the rest would fall into place. The two words: Help Others.
So I'm keyed into all these moments of inspiration the other night when something turned my thoughts elsewhere. Former world champion boxer Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini was introduced by an film montage of his career from the 80's. Boom Boom and his opponents produced spectacular theater in the ring. The jabs were sharp, the feet danced like Fred Astaire, the bodies were cut to precision from devoted training. I was transfixed by the Mancini clips and remembered how much I used to love boxing. Back in the day, I went to so many Hagler, Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Frazier, Foreman, Ali, Holyfield, Tyson fights. The drama was palpable, the skill superlative, the heart undeniable. Boxing meant something to me. The great fights informed my love of sports. The death of the sweet science has created a gaping void in our culture at large. Perhaps ironically, once home from the dinner the other night, I sat down to watch Ukrainian Wladimir Klitshko go twelve deadly dull rounds of throwing nothing but distant left-handed jabs to beat Russian Sultan Ibragimov and unite the World Boxing Organization heavyweight title with the International Boxing Federation heavyweight title with the International Boxing Organization heavyweight title. No wonder the 14,000 disgruntled fans at Madison Square Garden booed throughout the fight. And, by the way, Klitshko won't really be the world champion until he beats the heavyweight from Kazakhstan who holds the World Boxing Council title AND the heavyweight from Uzbekistan who holds the World Boxing Association title. Are you kidding me?
Right after the Klitshko embarrassment came the first airing of HBO's Joe Louis documentary. The real deal Louis made Klitshko seem all the more a fraud. The Louis era, when the heavyweight champion was a worldwide hero and traveling ambassador, cast a long shadow over today's era, when the heavyweight champ is utterly anonymous. Later in his career, saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to the IRS, Louis was forced to resort to many money-making stunts, including professional wrestling. Think of the best pound-per-pound fighter in the world today, a fighter in his prime, hardly desperate for cash, Floyd Mayweather, who will stoop to cartoonery for $20 million on March 30 in Wrestlemania against a 7-foot 430-pound gulug named Big Show. Like I said, I used to love boxing. And, FYI, with all the impressive athletes the Paralysis Project of America honors each year, the only boxers invited are those of yesteryear.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Greg Haugen (L) trades blows with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, April 3, 1992. Photo: Otto Greule Jr