Ken Jones: Bulk and mediocrity threaten to sour the sweet science

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The Independent Online

To think we actually choose the players, the teams, even the sports that still somehow matter to us in our adult years is like thinking we really choose our passions. It is, of course, a delusion. Our passions and our sports choose us. Personal history and individual temperament seem to make us susceptible to the lure of a particular sport, or just as surely to reject it out of hand.

To think we actually choose the players, the teams, even the sports that still somehow matter to us in our adult years is like thinking we really choose our passions. It is, of course, a delusion. Our passions and our sports choose us. Personal history and individual temperament seem to make us susceptible to the lure of a particular sport, or just as surely to reject it out of hand.

Football is undoubtedly the most popular British sporting pastime partly because on every social level it is perfectly respectable to be a fan. Rugby was given a lift by England's success in the World Cup, but, as with cricket, the wider interest centres on international competition. Golf and tennis haven't penetrated public consciousness on a grand scale. Horseracing has devotees from all walks of life. Further up the social ladder, polo remains the private passion of a set that gave Concorde a whirl even when it wasn't on the expense account.

Anyway it's always interesting for me when the conversation at some function or another comes around to favourite sports and I, after many years, including those of scratching a living from professional football, announce that nothing has ever thrilled me more than a terrific fight. Sometimes the reaction has been pretty much what I would have got if I'd said I adored cockfighting or mud wrestling.

The passion for boxing, first experienced in my home town Merthyr Tydfil, the birthplace of such notable figures as Eddie Thomas, Howard Winstone and Johnny Owen, came slowly, with time, attendance at some very good contests, and through sportswriting the acquaintance of wonderful fighters. With education came not the urge to distance myself from an early love but to understand it better, perhaps even to justify the one sport that should never be referred to as a game.

When A J Liebling wrote about boxing as the "sweet science", he struck a note that rang as true as the one Muhammad Ali discovered by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire 30 years ago come October. Alas, explaining this phenomenon, this perplexing love affair, is as difficult as convincing an anti-vivisectionist that sleeping canines never know the difference.

Boxing lives on but now the past overwhelms the present. This is particularly true of the heavyweight division which has never been in such a parlous state, its descent into mediocrity emphasised by events at Madison Square Garden last Saturday where Andrew Golota, 36, a serial quitter, was defeated by Chris Byrd for the International Boxing Federation title, eight years after giving up against Lennox Lewis. On the same card John Ruiz and Fres Oquendo, two conspicuously limited Puerto Ricans contested the World Boxing Association championship. A week earlier Wladimir Klitschko was smashed to defeat by Lamon Brewster in Las Vegas for the World Boxing Organisation belt.

Life among the behemoths continues in Los Angeles on Saturday when Vitali Klitschko and Corrie Sanders, of South Africa, contest the World Boxing Council title vacated by Lewis last year. Bulk is common to them all. A friend who watched the contest between Klitschko (Wladimir) and Brewster said: "Klitschko threw so many punches that he was utterly exhausted by the fifth round. These guys are simply too big. It doesn't make any sense to be coming in around 240lbs [17st 6lb]. And who teaches them?"

I put this, along with the dearth of heavyweight talent to Angelo Dundee the supervisor of Ali's training and one of the great corner men. "The big guys have grown bigger but size takes a lot away from them," he said. "At his best Joe Louis weighed around 208 [14st 8b]. Muhammad came in at 219 [15st 6lb] against Foreman who was a pound heavier. Joe Frazier fought at around 210 [15st]. Rocky Marciano, a small heavyweight even by the standards of his time, weighed about 188 [13st 5lb]. None of the heavyweights we see now have any mobility, no leg speed. It's sheer strength."

Still active in his eighth decade, Dundee does not hold out much hope for the future of heavyweight boxing. "As one era ended another began," he added. "Somebody always came along to get the public's attention. Louis, Marciano, Sonny Liston, Ali. Think of the guys who were around with Muhammad. Frazier, Foreman, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes, Jerry Quarry. After them came Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lewis. But who's out there now?

"The big kids try to make it in football, basketball, baseball. I remember people saying in the Fifties when Floyd Patterson was the champion that heavyweight boxing had never been in such a mess. It recovered, as we knew it would. Now I'm not so sure."

Presently showing at the Proud Gallery in London is an exhibition of photographs taken by Neil Leifer depicting Ali's astonishing career in the ring. They recall a time when heavyweight boxing mattered. No more.

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