A Bout of Fraud

Is it too soon to speculate that Evander Holyfield's eleventh-round TKO of Mike Tyson on November 9 was an outright fix?

Nah. Probably not. In the dank sewer of professional boxing, you hardly ever go wrong supposing that chicanery is afoot--especially when the greedy, bellowing figure of promoter Don King is within fifty miles of the scene. You needn't be a cynic to suspect the fight game is deep-down crooked: Is there a perky kindergarten teacher in all of Kansas who doesn't believe just that?

Look at Holyfield/Tyson this way. In the days following the fight, the relatively affable new champ turned up on almost every TV talk show in America, from ESPN's Up Close to David Letterman. Striking his patented "Humble Warrior" pose, Holyfield murmured quietly about how grateful to God he was to win the title back. He repeated again and again that, no, he never hated Mike Tyson. He said that no, he never said he wouldn't get into the ring with a convicted rapist. He talked about how clean living and rigorous training had won the day for the good guy. He turned into a dying sport's last-ditch poster boy.

Who's to say the whole thing wasn't a put-up job? Who's to say Tyson's loss wasn't a covert investment in the future of a shaky game and--even more important to the Don Kings of the world--the prospect of a $150 million rematch?

And who's to say the wiseguys weren't in on the deal? After all, five days before the fight, Tyson was deemed unbeatable, and Holyfield was put on the board as a 25-1 underdog in the Vegas sports books. By fight time, the odds had mysteriously plummeted to 5-1. Go figure.

In any case, WBA champ Holyfield is generating the kind of top-notch free publicity boxing hasn't enjoyed since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were mixing it up in their three great tilts with heavyweight history. In terms of skill and magnetism, Evander is clearly no Ali. No one is. But when you consider the alternative, the guy looks and sounds like he dropped straight out of PR heaven.

The alternative is not just Tyson, a glowering brute with the charm of a car crash and three years of prison on his resume, but the laughable, down-in-the-muck image of the entire sport. If anything, it's even more sordid now than it was when third-rate mobsters in gray fedoras were fixing minor welterweights in Chicago.

Let us count the ways:
* Thanks to HBO and the evening news, the entire country got a look at the riot that erupted inside Madison Square Garden last July after heavyweight Andrew Golota was disqualified for low blows in his bout with Riddick Bowe. Amid flying chairs and bloodied faces, managers and seconds squared off, two dozen people were arrested for assault and the purse was held up. Quite a spectacle, but it's not done yet: The Bowe-Golota rematch is scheduled for December 14 in Atlantic City.

* Last year 46-year-old George Foreman, stuffed full of hamburgers, waddled onto the canvas to face a German heavyweight named Axel Schultz. To everyone's surprise, Schultz clearly outscored the former champ. But the judges in Las Vegas were apparently watching some other fight: Foreman got the decision--another fraudulent call in the game that invented fraud. Meanwhile, Foreman is but the most popular member of boxing's burgeoning golden-age club--which probably wouldn't exist at all were it not for the poor quality of younger fighters. Just one indicator: The current issue of Ring magazine, "the Bible of boxing," features a special section called "The 100 Greatest Title Fights of All Time." Of the top 35 bouts, only three took place in the last dozen years. Among the old-timers, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran are two former champs who couldn't give it up, and last week forty-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard announced the third comeback of his once great career--this one after a five-year layoff.

* Ali, the most popular champion in the history of the sport, won't be making his return anytime soon. On the contrary, this once sleek, swift paradigm of the ironically named Sweet Science was so badly damaged by his violent years in the ring that the puffy, palsied old man the world beheld hobbling through the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games seemed a virtual stranger--and the most dramatic argument of all time for the abolishment of boxing. Muhammad Ali is just 54. Still, he is one of the "lucky" ones: A dozen other fighters have died in the ring (or shortly afterward) in just the last five years. Meanwhile, the latest attempt to establish a federal boxing commission was quietly killed in committee in 1992.

* That's good news for the assorted scammers, sharpies and crooks who've turned a once-proud sport into a circus and a sham. In the game's heyday of the 1940s and 1950s, boxing had eight well-defined weight classes, with a single champion in each. In those days, a world championship held by Sugar Ray Robinson or Rocky Marciano really meant something to, well, the world. But by the mid-Eighties, boxing had spawned three competing sanctioning bodies--the WBA, WBC and IBF--and today there are eight little fight governments passing out title belts--in no fewer than seventeen weight classes. Quickly, now: Who's the current WBU junior featherweight champion? Exactly. Titles are cheap--the fight game's now got as many bogus "champions" as pro wrestling and just a little more credibility. Did you know that in the last two years alone, the ranks of alleged "world heavyweight champions" have included such fistic titans as Frank Bruno, Frans Botha, Henry Akinwande and Bruce Seldon?

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