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SBJ/December 3 - 9, 2001/Opinion
Aging fists bring new life to boxing
Published December 3, 2001
Years ago, Alfred Hitchcock made people laugh with "The Trouble With Harry," a comic movie about a corpse that wouldn't stay buried. It comes to mind (to mine, anyway) every time boxing is on the verge of making a splash.
I know, boxing isn't dead, or even nearly so. It has a regular television presence and flourishes in areas of the country with large Hispanic populations. It retains a loyal corps of supporters of various backgrounds whose admiration for the skill and courage of its better practitioners more than compensates for its seamy aspects. But only rarely does it burst from its circumscribed paths into the broader consciousness.
One of those times seems to be near.
When Lennox Lewis, who's been the world's best heavyweight boxer more often than not in recent years, a couple of weeks ago repaid Hasim Rahman in kind for an earlier knockout loss, the drums began to pound for a match between Lewis and Mike Tyson, the sport's one-time terror. Such is the allure of that duel that it could become the richest one-shot sporting event ever, with a take that could exceed $120 million.
Boxing is able to scale such heights now and then because of its access to pay-per-view television, a medium other sports can't tap. A main reason for its unique status in that medium is political. Mass-audience events like the pro football Super Bowl and baseball World Series, which could reap riches beyond imagining from the home box office, are barred from doing so because of the uproar their switch from "free" TV would trigger in the nation's legislative halls.
Bearing no such burden suits boxing fine. The record pay-per-view audience was about 2 million homes for the 1997 Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight, at $50 a pop, and Tyson-Lewis could exceed that. Add receipts from the "live" gate, foreign and replay TV rights and merchandise sales and the $120 million figure would be topped with room to spare.
It's of more than passing curiousness that Tyson-Lewis looms as the engine of such a bonanza. The two men aren't nearly the best boxers extant, and at ages 36 (Lewis) and 35 (Tyson) aren't as good as they used to be.
The large and cosmopolitan Lewis (he was born in England, raised in Canada and has a home in Jamaica) is adept enough, but has been disinclined to rumble in many of his fights. He KO'd the semi-skilled Rahman in four rounds last month, but his overweight and fat-headed loss to that same fella previously showed he was capable of less.
Tyson was a prodigy, flashing a fast and furious style that made him a world's champion at age 20, but lost his moorings inside the ring and out after the 1988 death of his manager, Jim Jacobs, and never regained them. He was out of boxing from 1991 until 1995 while serving a prison term for rape, and for a year-and-a-half more for the fistic sin of biting off a chunk of Holyfield's ear during their June 1997 go. He's fought just 19 rounds that count since then, none of them reminiscent of his glory days.
Tyson is so rusty he's booked a January tune-up outing. If he gets through that intact, and if an accommodation can be worked out between HBO and Showtime, the cable networks whose current contracts divide the combatants, Tyson-Lewis could come off this spring. We Yanks will pay up to see it because of the hope — probably vain — that we'll see something memorable, and because of our fascination with boxing's heavyweight division.
The competition to be the one who can echo the turn-of-the-last-century-champ John L. Sullivan in saying he can "lick any man in the house" continues to hold us. John L. should have copyrighted the line.
Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.