On the Ropes

In the fight game, the fun never stops.
On Friday night, welterweight Oscar De La Hoya, boxing's undefeated "Golden Boy," took eight rounds to dispose of a faded ex-champ, Julio Cesar Chavez, in Las Vegas. De La Hoya had so bloodied his old enemy that Chavez could not answer the bell for the ninth, and it was clear that the Mexican legend has no more big paydays in his future. Of course, Chavez is 36 years old--an age when most fighters who still have room-temperature IQs have long since hung up their Everlasts.

On Saturday afternoon, another warrior of note, ex-heavyweight champion and convicted rapist Mike Tyson, appeared for more than six hours before the Nevada Athletic Commission, trying to convince its members (as he was unable to do in New Jersey) that his days as a cannibal are over and that he deserves to get his boxing license back. Last week Tyson had materialized here in Denver, to work out and to consult with assorted psychiatrists and lawyers. In Nevada he was reportedly on his best behavior--smiling and everything--and the chances of his being rejected for reinstatement are about the same as those of a pit boss handing out fat bundles of twenty-dollar bills to tourists sitting down at the blackjack table.

Tyson, after all, owes upwards of $12 million to the IRS, and he's still a huge box-office draw in Vegas. Everyone wants to get back into his pocket.

On Saturday night, the man who lent part of his ear to Tyson, Evander Holyfield, took twelve long, scary rounds in Atlanta to dispose of someone named Vaughn Bean. Before the fight, this particular challenger was so obscure, even to knowledgeable fans, that he was often confused with a behemoth named "Butterbean" Esch, whose specialty is not boxing but "world's toughest man" contests, in which the only apparent rule is that you can't carve up your opponent with a chainsaw.

If this sudden confluence of pugilistic events casts a pale light on a sport most Americans would like to forget, it by no means represented all that has happened to boxing in recent months.

For instance. Since last we surveyed the sweet science, a Brazilian super middleweight named Mauricio Amaral, scheduled to contest the main event on a June 26 card in Montreal, was found to be blind in one eye. So what's new? Amaral had been fighting one-eyed for fifteen years--a condition that had escaped the notice of his manager, who has been on the payroll since 1986, and of the doctors who supposedly examined him at each of his 36 pro fights.

Former WBA heavyweight champion Bruce Seldon was sentenced to a year in jail for smoking marijuana and having sex with a fifteen-year-old girl.

Don King, the numbers-runner-turned-fight-promoter, was acquitted on nine counts of insurance fraud in his federal retrial and immediately threatened reprisal against several big-name fighters who had recently escaped his clutches. In the midst of the trial, King called a suspiciously public press conference to announce a donation of $100,000 to the family of a black man who was dragged to death by racists in Texas.

George Foreman and Larry Holmes, a pair of ex-heavyweight champions whose years on the planet total 99, set a January 23 date for a ten-round bout. Presumably, the contract stipulates that both men live that long.

In Rochester, New York, former welterweight Charles "The Natural" Murray was arrested for punching out two policemen. Boxing manager Rock Newman has filed a racial-discrimination suit against Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for alleged interference in his attempt to buy a minor-league ball club. The aforementioned King is suing rival promoter Bob Arum for alleged interference in King's longstanding "business relationship" with the aforementioned Chavez. For his own part, Chavez was arrested in Mexico early this summer on tax-evasion charges.

Heavyweight contender Michael Moorer has disappeared again, and Henry Akinwande had to back out of a title fight because he came down with hepatitis B. But that didn't keep him from continuing to work out at a New York gym while he was still contagious.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali is still retired and still suffering from the effects of punches.

The idealists who want to save boxing--U.S. Senator John McCain, ex-basketball player Magic Johnson, cable TV pioneer Bill Daniels and three guys running the sports book at Caesars Palace--have quite a job on their hands. Imagine slinging a rubber band around the Titanic and yanking her up from the ocean floor. Or asking the Rockies to win the World Series this year. Or getting the president to zip his fly.

To save boxing from its own bad self will be tougher than all that and possibly not worth the trouble. But there's some rough beauty in the effort--even if it proves to be futile.

In 1996, McCain, a Republican from Arizona with a lifelong interest in the fight game, sponsored the Professional Boxing Safety Act, which prohibited fraudulent matches and established minimum safety precautions in an effort to clean up what he called "the red-light district of sports." This summer McCain introduced an even tougher federal measure on the Senate floor--the "Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act." It means to protect fighters from exploitation by mandating reasonable contracts and requiring promoters to account for all deductions made from their fighters' purses. It severs the financial ties between promoters and managers.

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