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?
* In the meantime, as network television shies away from the bad-boy image and high cost of boxing, promoters like King and Bob Arum stage their biggest shows in vast casino settings far from the big cities, charging five grand at ringside, 200 bucks for a nosebleed seat and $49.95 to watch Holyfield/Tyson on pay-per-view TV. As a result, the urban, working-class throngs that used to be boxing's bread and butter have been priced out of the market: While a precious few get richer, boxing's chaotic, bickering hierarchy keeps punching its own sport right in the kisser.
This takes us right back to the opening bell. Was the Holyfield/Tyson fight, first scheduled for 1991 and long postponed by Iron Mike's date with his jailer, a fixed affair? Was it an attempt to give boxing itself one last standing eight-count before America decks the old palooka for good? Who knows? It was hard to tell by watching. Pretty ambiguous. But here's betting no book in Vegas would give you 6-5 that the thing was square business.
You have a pretty good season going when your star running back loses the ball at the five-yard line, calmly dribbles the bouncing, pointed thing off the turf with his left hand, regains possession and dives into the end zone for a touchdown.
That's what Terrell Davis did Sunday, en route to the Broncos' 34-8 demolition of the dangerous New England Patriots. In another season--a season unblessed by fate--Davis's fumble would have caromed sideways into the hands of some startled Patriot linebacker, who would then have vanished down the sideline for the score that turned the tide of the game.
Not this year. This year the ball is destined to bounce straight back up to Terrell Davis. Because your Broncos are not just good--very, very good--they're also lucky. And you need a little luck to go all the way.
Consider recent history: On November 10 the refs transformed a Chicago non-fumble into a turnover, and the Broncos took tentative control of their worst-played game of the year. Then, in the last five seconds, a tackle-eligible dropped the Bears' winning TD pass.
On Sunday in Foxboro, Steve Atwater intercepted Drew Bledsoe at the Denver eleven and fumbled when he got hit at the end of a long runback. Instead of losing the ball, the Broncos watched it squirt out of bounds. Call it luck. Call it fate. Call it supreme confidence. Elway and company are living right. This season, Terrell Davis even gets to dribble the ball, gets to pretend he is Michael Jordan driving to the glass for a jam.
What playoff chance do the Buffalo Bills or the Pittsburgh Steelers have in Mile High Stadium in this magic season? You tell me.
The upstart Donks ultimately have their eyes on New Orleans, of course. But they're not the only local football team hoping to visit the Mississippi River this year. The CU Buffaloes want to be in St. Louis on December 7 for the first-ever Big 12 championship.
Their only stumbling block is--just a second, let's look at the schedule here. Oh, yeah. Nebraska.
As if the blood pressure of local football fans were not already shooting off the charts, the Buffs visit Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving, with a probable trip to the Sugar Bowl at stake. The big game in Lincoln comes five days after the 10-1 Broncs play in Minnesota and two days before they host Seattle.
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Rumor has it that the ski season is about to crank up in earnest, but unless we miss our guess, a lot of butts will be nailed to the couch while the powder flies. Our fair state has suddenly become football central, and the boob tube is gonna get a workout, along with all that leftover turkey. Only CSU's failure to hold on against its WAC title rival, Wyoming, on Saturday in Fort Collins broke up a local gridiron trifecta. Guess we can't have everything.
The way things are going, the Broncos will likely squeeze by the Vikings--even indoors, even on green plastic. And the beat-up Seahawks will have a hard time at Mile High.
But how about those Buffs? Like Nebraska, they are 9-1. Colorado is ranked number six in the nation, the Huskers number five. A beautiful matchup? Oh, yes. College game of the year. Look for Koy Detmer and CU's frustrated seniors, who have never beaten Nebraska, to lay a little Arizona State number on them: Buffs 21, NU 19.
Given a lucky bounce or two.