Largely because of television's pernicious influence, boxing today is mostly about phoney fulmination and a ludicrous proliferation of titles

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The Independent Online
One of many pleasures in my life is to meet up from time to time with the American novelist Budd Schulberg who crafted a line of dialogue that Marlon Brando made famous and is sometimes recalled in conversations about chicanery in boxing.

Even people of a young generation may be familiar with the scene from Schulberg's gripping screenplay, Waterfront (as it was known in the States), in which Brando, as the punch-drunk hero Terry Malloy whose evidence rids a New York dock of corruption, reminds his hoodlum brother balefully of persuasion in throwing an eliminator for the middleweight championship.

When you think of great lines from the movies, "I coulda been somebody, Charlie; I coulda been a contenduh," is right up there with best of of them. In obvious association it became, like Bogart's "Play it, Sam" and Cagney's "Ya dirty rat", a boon to impressionists.

In creating the role that enabled Brando to give one of his most memorable screen performances, Schulberg drew on a passion for boxing shared historically by other notable literary figures such as William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and AJ Liebling.

Wilde was so attracted to the sport that he journeyed by boat from Liverpool to watch John L Sullivan and Jim Corbett in a contest considered to have been the first, officially, for the heavyweight championship. What Wilde would have made of boxing today is another matter.

Last week in Las Vegas, shortly before Mike Tyson's comeback in an alleged contest against Peter McNeeley, who might have struggled to overcome the ring announcer, I put it to Schulberg that boxing today can legitimately be compared with professional wrestling. Everywhere you look there is more hyperbole than substance.

Schulberg agreed sadly. "Apart from Tyson and a few guys in the lighter divisions there is hardly a fighter worth speaking about," he said.

More than 30 years ago, a Schulberg novel, The Harder They Fall, that alluded to criminal activities and was unquestionably based on the exploitation of a giant Italian heavyweight, Primo Carnera, who was briefly champion, caused a great stir in boxing circles. This was because many knew it to be not entirely fictional.

In the final scene of a film based on Schulberg's novel, a contrite press agent, played by Humphrey Bogart in his last screen role, types: "Boxing in the United States should be banned, even if it takes an Act of Congress." This was not what Schulberg had in mind. Part of his intention was to protect the sport from sinister forces, the gangsters who were jailed as the result of a federal investigation.

It isn't that boxing now is crooked but that it is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in the heavyweight division.

Before Tyson and McNeeley climbed into the ring last week, Bruce Seldon fought Joe Hipp, the first native American to be involved in a heavyweight title match. The World Boxing Association lists Seldon as a champion but that is a designation rather than a fact. Over the first six rounds it could be concluded that he and Hipp had negotiated a peace treaty. When Hipp was told that no further exertions were required of him and Seldon's hand was raised, nobody in the audience appeared to notice.

Tyson's next opponent on 4 November is Buster Mathis Jnr, another heavyweight of monumental anony-mity, indicating Don King's un-swerving faith in PT Barnum's maxim that all the people can be fooled some of the time.

Largely because of television's pernicious influence, boxing today is mostly about phoney fulmination and a ludicrous proliferation of titles. Occasionally a thrilling contest comes along but even those of us are drawn instinctively to the sport grow weary of exaggeration and mismatches.

Schulberg has recently published a new book, Sparring with Hemingway and other fighters. Apart from the eponymous champion it features Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and others. You may think the thought typical of my generation but Schulberg's latest work reminds us that we knew better times in boxing.

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