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Boxing: The fierce jab of reality

LEAVING a work-out at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas this week, Riddick Bowe was grossly insulted by an impudent bystander, a notably mediocre Cuban-born heavyweight with ideas far above his station. 'Bowe, are you pregnant?' shouted Luis Gonzales, alluding to the champion's girth.

Doubtless, this was a put-up affair, a stunt to create interest in a faltering promotion, and Bowe was right on cue, responding perfectly. 'Let me get at him,' the champion roared from a distance of around 10 yards, simultaneously reaching out to check that restraints were in place.

Bowe's devotion to the cause reminded you of a time when Muhammad Ali was boxing's master salesman. It reminded you too that boxing today is in a parlous state. According to one of the most powerful men in the sport, the Las Vegas promoter, Bob Arum, widespread indifference to Saturday's contest between Bowe and Evander Holyfield for two versions of the heavyweight championship is indicative of a trend.

Arum has not got to where he is by adhering strictly to the truth and ignoring opportunities to rubbish rivals in business but his anxiety is not without substance. 'I'm telling you,' he said, 'support for boxing is dying off, literally. Look around, how many young people do you see in the audience? If they're interested, they settle for watching fights on television.'

Recently, when Sports Illustrated conducted a survey on the popularity of sports, there was not even an opportunity to vote for boxing. It is not in the schedules of a second 24-hour sports channel put out by ESPN, the cable network. 'See what I mean,' said Arum, his office walls adorned by framed reminders that he gained a law degree at Harvard and was appointed to Robert Kennedy's staff as an assistant District Attorney.

Fears for the future of boxing have proved groundless in the past, so will the trend be reversed, just a passing phase, cyclical? 'I'm afraid it's permanent,' Arum insisted. 'We went with television and the casino owners. We took championship fights away from the people. Now the casinos are begining to wonder if the investment is worthwhile. Would a major stage act, at a fraction of the price, generate as much business?'

Bearing this in mind, Arum has decided to revive boxing at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. 'There is still a great deal of support for boxing in the Hispanic community,' Arum added. 'They will turn out for it, but you can't hit them with fancy prices.'

Arum also believes that it is time to address the ludicrous proliferation of titles brought about by self-serving administrations. Coming from a man who further fragmented boxing by helping to launch a fourth group, the World Boxing Organisation, this is choice. However, a charge of meddling brought no denial. 'I'm a promoter,' Arum said. 'I don't claim to be a visionary.' His eyes glazed over in Tulsa last weekend when Michael Bentt knocked out Tommy Morrison in the first round to become the WBO heavyweight champion. Before the shock had subsided he was in a private jet, heading for his next promotion, in Phoenix. This weekend he will be at the ringside in Paris. 'If I stayed in Las Vegas somebody would trap me into saying bad things about the Bowe-Holyfield fight.' Famously, when accused of making a contradictory statement, Arum once said: 'Yesterday I was telling lies. Today I am telling the truth.'

In the light of history it is amusing to hear Arum go on about an obligation to boxing. But if there is a sales pitch in there, reality stalks. 'There is hardly a newspaper in the United States that has a guy covering boxing regularly,' Arum said.

Sports pages had been faxed to him from New York. The stories were not complimentary to Bowe versus Holyfield. It was being referred to as a mismatch. 'And this is the heavyweight championship of the world,' Arum said, shaking his head. Perhaps the future had finally been revealed.