Those times will never return, principally because the American national television giants turned their backs on boxing, leaving powerful cable stations Home Box Office and ShowTime to scrap over the spoils. Inevitably, as with other sports, audiences have been reduced and stars are not so easy to package as they were a generation ago.
Today, the American "Golden Boy", Oscar De La Hoya, is the closest thing boxing has to a superstar. Given the marketing problems, his success is remarkable: as well as drawing the highest audience rating on HBO last year for his effortless three-round win over the No 1 contender, Patrick Charpentier of France, he also attracted a live crowd of 45,368 to the El Paso Sun Bowl open-air arena in Texas.
Last weekend in Las Vegas, De La Hoya came out with his ego bruised but his unbeaten record and World Boxing Council title intact after a strange, flawed display against a dangerous Ghanaian, Ike Quartey. De La Hoya won a split decision in a fight in which both men were dropped in round six, and then Quartey again in the 12th. Afterwards television critics and American writers compared the battle favourably with those of Leonard and Hearns, who were both at ringside.
The excitement of the moment may have been responsible for that. Apart from the explosive action in rounds six and 12, I thought it was a frustrating fight with De La Hoya below his best and Quartey unable or unwilling to commit himself to the kind of attacks which would surely have brought him victory.
Quartey was unhurt when put down early in round six, and got up to dump De La Hoya with a thunderous left hook to the jaw. The Californian took several rounds to get over it, and yet Quartey failed to press his advantage. Imagine a Duran or a Hearns having a man hurt, but easing back suspiciously instead of going for the finish? It just wouldn't have happened. In the last round De La Hoya let his punches flow, knocked Quartey down and almost stopped him, and in doing so made sure of the points win.
When the history of the 1990s comes to be written, De La Hoya will be one of the major players. He is no longer the wide-eyed innocent who used to dispatch his schoolwork home by express post from international amateur duty. Almost in spite of the "Golden Boy" marketing process, he has developed into a rounded human being with all the fragilities which that entails. He has a son from a short-lived relationship with a fan, an enjoyment of gambling - his promoter Bob Arum asked Caesars Palace to put a limit of $25,000 on his spending at the tables - and shortly before he fought Quartey he announced his engagement to a former Miss America, Shanna Moakler, who is pregnant with his second child.
The signs are that he is stung by critics who insist he is too much pretty boy, not enough real fighter. In his previous fight with the Mexican legend, Julio Cesar Chavez, in Las Vegas last September, he chose to fight head- to-head instead of use his long-range skills. He took risks, fought Chavez's fight deliberately, and, in effect, won the tough way.
Against Quartey, when he had the chance to box on the move and revert to a relaxed, combination-punching style, he seemed to crave this same kind of psychological brinkmanship. His boxing adviser, Gil Clancy, who trained the great welterweight champion of the early 1960s, Emile Griffith, said to him: "You're fighting like you're in mud."
De La Hoya admitted he had a potentially suicidal need to push back the barriers. "I wanted to beat Quartey at his own game," he said. "I was wide open when I punched... I made it a tactical fight. It wasn't supposed to be like that."
De La Hoya will now let his bruises heal and wait for the next move to be made. Quartey grumbled that he was robbed, and wants a return. It is possible. On the undercard in Las Vegas, Oba Carr of Detroit also entered the equation by winning an eliminator against an ancient and fading Frankie Randall, who was a light-welterweight champion five years ago.
And last night in Madison Square Garden, New York, the International Boxing Federation welterweight champion Felix Trinidad of Puerto Rico was due to return to the ring against veteran Pernell Whitaker. De La Hoya has already beaten the crafty, 35-year-old Whitaker in a dull fight, but a match with the Don King promoted Trinidad, while difficult to arrange, would be a mouth-watering finale to the decade... and maybe, just maybe, a fair comparison with the great days of Leonard, Hearns and Duran.Reuse content