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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.

It also orders sanctioning bodies--a chaotic alphabet soup of titles and rankings that has turned the sport into a laughingstock--to justify their ratings, self-interest be damned: For instance, the obvious heavyweight champion, Holyfield, sanctioned by the WBA, isn't even ranked in the top ten by the rival WBC, while the WBA, IBF and WBO all neglect to list WBC welterweight champ De La Hoya in their top twelves.

The McCain bill also gives new powers to state boxing commissions and provides the muscle to enforce.

Meanwhile, entities such as Daniels's new promotion and management group, America Presents, could restore some integrity to the game. A businessman with an impeccable reputation, Daniels apparently means business this time, too: While in Denver, ex-King charge Tyson may also have been discussing a possible contract with America Presents, which is operated by Daniels's nephew, Mat Tinley. Under Daniels's wing, who knows what redemptions may lie in Iron Mike's future.

Ex-Laker Johnson, whose name is still magic in the sports world despite that business with AIDS, is also interested in promoting Tyson.

Still, you don't clean up a sewer in a day.
That fact got clearer Friday night, when the babe-friendly De La Hoya, the only fighter who can sell autographed pillowcases for $14.95 a copy, got into the ring for the second time with Chavez. In a career dating all the way back to 1980, Chavez had won 101 fights (84 by knockout), lost two and drawn two. But at 36, his skills have faded, and De La Hoya laid the kind of beating on him that everyone expected of an 8-1 favorite at the peak of his form and popularity.

"I got what I wanted," the ever-gracious Golden Boy said. "I made him quit."
Of course, our Oscar is not the kind of guy who wants his pretty face banged up. He's now 29-0, but his reluctance to face top fellow welterweights like WBA champ Ike Quartey or the IBF's Felix Trinidad has elicited scorn from all but the armies of young women who trail in his wake. In a previous bout, in June, De La Hoya took on French challenger Patrick Charpentier in El Paso, Texas. Almost before 45,000 witnesses had settled into their $50 or $500 seats, Oscar had knocked his man out.

This prompted one wit to observe of Charpentier: "I've seen tougher croissants."

Quartey and Trinidad are scheduled to go at it November 14 in a so-called welterweight unification fight: If De La Hoya fails to take on the winner sometime after that, his victories over the Charpentiers and decrepit Chavezes of the world will look pretty hollow and false.

As for the other principals in this weekend's sudden surge of boxing news, you can make short odds on one thing: Tyson-Holyfield 3 is a dead certainty. If the promoters have any sense, they'll book it into Kosovo, bill it as the "Battle to the Death," and give each man a machete and a mace.

Viewing from their rocking chairs, George Foreman and Larry Holmes might even find it great sport.

In this extraordinary baseball season, Roger Maris's 61 in '61 has been soundly thrashed, 37 years after the fact, by not one, but two home-run sluggers--Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Rocket Roger Clemens, now a Toronto Blue Jay, has made one of the most astonishing pitching comebacks in history, winning nineteen games and establishing a league-leading 2.63 earned-run average.

One of the most gracious men in the game, Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr., has voluntarily put an end to his incredible consecutive-games streak, at 2,632. Until Sunday, Cal hadn't had a day off since May 30, 1982, and has established a record that will never been broken. As you may know, he surpassed Lou Gehrig's Iron Man mark (2,130 straight) on September 6, 1995.

That leaves Hack Wilson in splendid isolation above his peers--then and now. At the All-Star break, it seemed that Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez, with 103 runs batted in, had a legitimate shot at Wilson's 68-year-old record of 190 RBI. But Juan Gone faded in the sultry Texas heat. As of Monday, he had knocked in 154 runs--a splendid feat, to be sure--but far short of the tragic, barrel-chested Cub who wore a size 5 1/2 shoe.  

Bad taste be damned. Today we raise a Dewar's-and-soda to you, Hackster. Way to go. You're still safe at home.


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