Boxing: Counted out - reading the last rites for sport's greatest prize

Here, where the genius of Muhammad Ali was taken off the streets and nourished 50 years ago, they are preparing the last rites of heavyweight boxing.

Here, where the genius of Muhammad Ali was taken off the streets and nourished 50 years ago, they are preparing the last rites of heavyweight boxing. They are building the ring in the Freedom Hall Arena at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Centre where on Friday night Mike Tyson, two years after being destroyed by Lennox Lewis and, for the best part of 20 years, by himself, fights the 31-year-old Briton Danny Williams.

The reality is that for what used to be the most prestigious prize in all of sport, the right to say you were the best heavyweight in the world, they might as well be erecting a scaffold.

Heavyweight boxing is at the end of its rope.

Who says so? Well just about everyone, including some of its most brilliant champions, and the TV money men who underwrite the sport. Men like Larry Holmes, one of the great holders of the title who ended the last reign of Ali in 1980. "Tyson is 38 now and he hasn't been a real fighter for at least 10 years," Holmes says, "but he is the only one the people want to watch. Why? Because there's no one else to see. No one else to excite the crowd.

"Tyson is the last of the heavyweights ... he's the last man standing. Where did the others go? They got old and they never got replaced. They didn't get replaced because there wasn't enough dedication, enough heart - and because there was too much easy money."

The view is echoed in the muffled world of an Ali afflicted by Parkinson's Syndrome and too many punches. He recently observed in the seclusion of his farm in Michigan, "It just ain't the same anymore ... the hunger's gone.'

On North Broad Street, Philadelphia, the sentiment is endorsed by one of Ali's greatest foes. Joe Frazier is an occasional visitor to the gym where he honed his eviscerating aggression, but what his diminished vision permits now brings no sparkle to his eyes. He yearns to see a mirror of himself 30 years ago, the young Smokin' Joe, throwing the hooks and the searing crosses which lifted his wars with Ali into a class of conflict so compelling Frank Sinatra was required to scrounge a photographer's credential to get to ringside for their first fight at Madison Square Garden. Now Frazier sighs, "That kind of fight don't exist anymore."

George Foreman who, with Ali and Frazier, made the Seventies into a golden age, is of the same view. "There's no doubt it's as bad as it's ever been," says the man who pounded Frazier to defeat and then lost to Ali in arguably the most sensational fight in heavyweight history. "But you know I haven't quite lost all hope. We've been low before - people forget that when Ali beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach most of America believed Liston had thrown the fight. Everyone was saying the fight game was finished. Right now heavyweight fighting is dead, but they've said that before and along comes a hero who can change everything."

If the great champions take a bleak view, boxing's last major paymaster concedes that as far as the heavyweights are concerned he is finally ready to throw in the towel. Jay Larkin, the chief executive of Showtime television, brokered the last heavyweight extravaganzas, Lewis v Evander Holyfield (twice) and Lewis v Tyson - fights he conservatively reckons came at least five years too late.

"I'm afraid Tyson is the last show in town," he says. "When he's gone there is simply nothing left to catch the imagination of the people. I can't even tell you if the American team has a heavyweight in the Olympics. [They have, Devon Vargas, an Hispanic who is not expected to get through the early rounds.] In the old days the Olympics produced heavyweights like Ali and Frazier, Foreman and Lewis... now it throws up Audley Harrison, who, with all due respect, is not quite the answer.

"It is just incredible that after all he's been through Tyson is indeed the last man standing. He is the last authentic heavyweight, the last one who reminds you of the aura and the magnetism of being the world heavyweight champion."

For Larkin the reasons for this change stretch way beyond boxing itself. "Maybe a lot of it was for the wrong reasons, but when the world heavyweight champion was standing there in the ring, with the world wanting to know what he is going to do next, what he represented was the end of about 200 years of socio-economic history all packed into 20x20 of canvas.

"For me the story that sums it up best - and it is a fact, definitely not apocryphal - is the one of the convicted man being dragged to the execution chamber along Death Row in Sing Sing prison. 'Save me, Joe Louis, save me,' he shouted. There, you saw it, the fabled status of the heavyweight champion. You saw what the people thought of the man who wore the crown. Anything was within his power. Outside of Tyson, you don't see it now. You don't see heavyweight boxing touching people as it used to."

More than any other sport, boxing is a reflection of the socio-economic history of its time, and in particular that of America - for the story of the heavyweight division is essentially the story of American fighters.

"You can trace the history of America through the heavyweights, how they sprang out of the waves of immigrants," says Larkin. The Irish potato famine brought the first crop. Then the Italians escaping poverty and the Jews the pogroms of Eastern Europe.

"Black fighters like Johnson had to fight their way through so much prejudice. When Johnson beat the white hope Jim Jeffries he triggered race riots, lynchings. When Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling it wasn't just an American versus a German, it was the cause of liberty against the Nazis. The whole world watched. When Frazier fought Ali the first time two guys died of excitement, one at ringside."

The beginning of professional boxing, more than a century ago, was at a time of all kinds of bitter fighting - in the docks and pitheads and factory gates, where immigrants gnawed at each other's eyes and throats for the chance of a day's work.

In the 1890s the glory of being the heavyweight champion of the world gathered around the proud head of one man, John L Sullivan. The Irish poor of New England had found an authentic hero and his fights carried pugilism into the new epoch of gloved combat and, relatively speaking, respectability.

In fact, boxing was often outlawed in various states for its brutality and its "propensity to cause riots and all kinds of unseemly behaviour". Gentleman Jim Corbett dethroned Sullivan and then, in 1899, fell to the Cornish-born blacksmith Bob Fitzsimmons before a vast crowd in Carson City, Nevada. Wyatt Earp was one of the ring officials. It was the dawn of the century of the heavyweight champion, the fabled master of all he surveyed.

What has gone wrong? In Larkin's view, it is almost a misleading question. "If you want to be perfectly objective, some things went right. Boxing was always the passport out of the ghetto, whether you lived in the East End of London or the Lower Eastside of New York. Boxing could make a tough, poor kid's dreams."

But the conditions in the ghetto have changed. The big professional sports in America - gridiron, basketball and baseball - now take their pick from the outstanding young black athletes, who are lured to universities on dubious scholarships on their way to vast rewards of multi-year contracts with the pros.

When a boxing trainer offers the alternative of years of grinding work in the gym and on the road, the college arena beckons most persuasively.

"Now if a young guy has the athleticism, the talent, the charisma which used to go into being a world heavyweight champion, he's likely to take a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the NFL or NBA," Larkin says. "He doesn't have to be a fighter, he can find an easier way. Fighting, you have to remember, is the hardest thing any man can do.

It is also true, as the great champions Foreman and Holmes say, that heavyweight boxing has worked for its own downfall to a striking degree. In the Fifties and early Sixties America became convinced that the sport was corrupt and, of course, there are still huge question marks against the death of Sonny Liston in a motel room in Las Vegas. Many believe that the Mafia were responsible.

More recently the manipulations of Don King have also taken their toll, along with a series of scandalous decisions.

It means that early in the 21st century we go to the home of Muhammad Ali not to see a heavyweight fight, but to mourn the end of the greatest prize sport ever knew.

From Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali: five legendary heavyweight title fights that defined a division

Joe Frazier V Muhammad Ali (first fight, Madison Square Garden, 1971): Both fighters were paid $2.5m and were watched by 300 million in 146 countries. It was the first time two undefeated champions fought for the title and Frazier won a titanic contest. Their third fight in the trilogy, the Thrilla in Manila, was also an epic, but by then, six years on, both fighters were much reduced.

Cassius Clay V Sonny Liston (Miami Beach, 1964): The fight that changed boxing. Ali, then known as Clay, was a 7-1 underdog but he forced Liston to stay on his stool at the end of the sixth round.

Joe Louis V Max Schmeling (Yankee Stadium, New York, 1938): In the war of the ideologies, Louis gained pulverising revenge for a non-title defeat by the darling of Hitler.

Muhammad Ali V George Foreman (1974, Kinshasa, Zaire): The Rumble in the Jungle. The fight that shocked the world, featuring Ali's rope-a-dope sensation.

Mike Tyson V James Buster Douglas (Tokyo, 1990): Douglas, the 42-1 underdog, delivers the biggest upset in boxing history, knocking out Tyson.

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