Boxing's ability to reinvent itself against heavy odds was never better illustrated than on the turn into the 1980s. Muhammad Ali was beginning his journey into a darkening world and it seemed reasonable to presume that the old game would never be the same again. It was as though the sun had gone in.
Quite simply, Ali could not be replaced. He was, after all, unique. No fighter could ever again touch so many people, he was so brave, so full of life and the capacity for outrage and, as he was so often quick to stress, so beautiful.
One bright morning he stopped the traffic on Eighth Avenue. He was past his best and about to meet Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden. They rushed down the steps from the garment-making factory lofts and the offices and went out into the street to walk a little with the great man and exchange the time of day.
The Shavers affair would prove a desperate fight for survival that was achieved only because of his nerve and his pride and the residue of his talent. After the fight, Teddy Brenner, the Garden's matchmaker, bleakly reflected, "I never thought I'd live to see the day when Ali's best asset is that he can take a punch."
The champion's medical adviser, Ferdie Pacheco, quit as Ali screamed for the lights to be turned off in the post-fight dressing room. He said they were burning into his eyes.
Pacheco said, "That's it, champ, I'm through. Every part of your body is being damaged now, your head, your liver and your bowels."
Of course, he fought on and three years later in Las Vegas strong men cried as they watched him being pounded by his former sparring partner Larry Holmes. That was in 1980 and it really did seem like the end of boxing as the sport that could capture more compellingly than any other, at least for an hour or so, the eyes of the world.
It was a baton too heavy, surely, for any one fighter to pick up and carry but remarkably it turned out that four men could do the job well, indeed just about perfectly, if they were good enough in their talent and courage and in their commitment to fight the best who were out there and not just those who might be brought to them like sacrificial victims by their managers and their promoters.
Yes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler could do the job, all right. They could make one of the greatest eras of boxing.
But then, why should we recall them now? In a word it is Manny. Pacquiao, the Pacman, the fighter who took his latest step last weekend towards making another version of boxing's ultimate dream.
It is the perfect fight, the kind which Emmanuel Steward, who as trainer of Hearns was at the heart of the era of the "Four Kings", spoke of at ringside after Pacquiao eventually overwhelmed the gutsy resistance of Miguel Cotto. "It has to be Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jnr. It is a fight made not by promoters but the people. It was the same when Sugar Ray first fought Tommy. The people demanded it, they had to see it and they wouldn't settle for anything less."
Pacquiao-Mayweather doesn't really need hype or contrivance, no more than those collisions of the Eighties, those unforgettable battles launched by Duran when he suckered Leonard into fighting the wrong kind of fight in Montreal and then refused to pay the price in humiliation in New Orleans a few months later and raised his arm and said, "No Mas". No more than Leonard-Hearns 1, which was so brilliant and cruelly intense that Sugar Ray's wife Juanita cried at ringside, "No more, baby, no more."
No more than Leonard-Hagler, after which some still swear that the latter was the real winner because Leonard committed supreme ring larceny with his brief bursts of judge-dazzling aggression.
No more than the fight last weekend's promoter, Bob Arum, invited Pacquiao and Cotto to reproduce, the three-round shooting star of Hagler-Hearns. Arum was asking too much, but what he – and all of boxing – received was generous enough. It was the performance from Pacquiao, who was winning his sixth title across the classic weight divisions from flyweight to welterweight that made the demand for him to fight Mayweather quite unanswerable.
The oddsmakers will no doubt lean to Mayweather and for some impeccable reasons. Unbeaten in 40 fights, and with 25 knockout wins, he is the master of defensive boxing, out of which, Ricky Hatton will testify, he strikes with the most measured brilliance. But then Hatton can also tell of the speed and the violence of Pacquiao, a combination which left him cast away like driftwood on the canvas of the MGM Garden Arena earlier this year.
Styles, they say, make fights and those of Pacquiao and Mayweather could scarcely be further apart, both philosophically and tactically.
It is a little soon, perhaps, to be discussing the make-up of a fight which has yet to be negotiated in any detail, let alone signed. But this is the effect of Pacquiao, particularly. He takes it out of the hands of the promoters and the hype merchants. He makes his next fight not so much a sure-fire attraction but an absolute imperative.
Ali spoke of the appeal of such fighters and fights when he attended, with his own time just about over, the first Leonard-Duran fight. "It's like chasing a pretty woman," he said. "For a little while, until it's over, it's the most important thing. It's like that with a fight. The world wants to know, 'Who's gonna win, who's gonna win?' Then it's over and the world goes back to its business."
But then how wonderful it is, the intrigue and the anticipation. Manny Pacquiao created a mountain of it when he beat Cotto the way he did. It wasn't Hearns-Hagler, but it was a real fight, one that took Cotto to his limits and had Pacquiao on his knees on the canvas, his head pressed against a corner post, praying for fresh conquests.
He is, beyond doubt, the champion of all the people. He is real and phenomenal in his cobra strikes and he has bestowed a supreme gift upon his sport. He has made its best days live again.
It's easy to see why Johnson escapes rough justice
Given his own unforgiving tendency in his days of glory as a player, the relatively mild critical treatment Martin Johnson has received so far as England coach may be a little surprising.
But then you look at the paucity of Johnson's experience as a coach and the calamitous level of the talent at his disposal and the gentle post-match treatment he received from his TV interrogator and former team-mate Austin Healey was a little easier to understand.
Johnson, after all, is not the disease afflicting English rugby but a mere symptom. The Rugby Union is in less need of a single scapegoat than a general admission it has got just about everything wrong as it affects a team that were champions of the world six years ago.
It should scrap all the fancy titles, not least the now risible one of director of elite rugby bestowed upon Rob Andrew, and get hold of men who more demonstrably know what they are doing. No doubt the southern hemisphere would be the place to start looking.Reuse content