Trying to ban boxing is a punch that never has and probably never will land

June 08, 1995|By BILL TANTON

Should boxing be banned?

Should we conclude, after yet another ring death, Jimmy Garcia's, that it's time to halt this stuff?

At the fights at Martin's West Tuesday night, some of us were kicking those questions around.

The seminars were spurred by Alan Goldstein's excellent reporting on the subject, which led The Sun's sports section last Sunday under the six-column headline: Boxing Again Finds Itself Under Cloud.

"Boxing's not under any cloud," scoffed Al Flora, who promoted fights here in the '60s and is now a member of the State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing. "Nothing's changed. They've been writing that stuff for 50 years."

That's the point: Nothing has changed. Boxing has always been under a cloud.

For longer than anyone can remember, boxing in too many cases has been ruled by unsavory characters, often mob connected, and the fighters have been from a nether world.

What would you expect to come out of a pot stuffed with those ingredients?

Some time ago Flora gave me a marvelous book, "A Pictorial History of Boxing," by Sam Andre and Nat Fleischer. Yesterday, browsing through it, I came across a photo of a handsome, smiling Irishman named Luther McCarty at the weigh-in for his bout with Arthur Pelkey in 1913. McCarty was the No. 1 "white hope" to unseat black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.

McCarty died after the Pelkey fight, but even then people brushed off boxing's obvious peril. They blamed McCarty's death on a neck injury he had suffered when thrown from a horse some time before.

Nothing has changed.

People die in the ring and the reformers and politicians come forth and ask for headgear for the fighters.

George Foreman likes that idea, of course. If I were 46-year-old Foreman, faced with the possibility of fighting the likes of Mike Tyson, I'd ask for a suit of armor.

There has never been any doubt about the brutality of boxing.

In 1881, Jim Corbett fought a man named Peter Jackson. Those were the days of bare-knuckle fighters who soaked their fists in walnut juice. A round ended not after three minutes but when there was a knockdown. Corbett and Jackson fought a 61-round draw.

In 1962, the late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called boxing "the most barbaric game men work at in this country."

In the same decade, President Lyndon B. Johnson met D. Chester O'Sullivan, then as now chairman of the Maryland State Athletic Commission, and asked if O'Sullivan would be interested in becoming a federally appointed czar to clean up boxing.

"It wouldn't do any good," said O'Sullivan, who is now semi-retired. "Within two years, the wrong people would be back in the game."

There may never have been a tougher fighter than Rocky Graziano, who complained that strangers would ask him when a boxer starts getting punchy.

"What's the matter with people?" Rocky asked indignantly. "Ain't they got no manners at all?"

Yet whenever Graziano went in the ring, his wife would lock herself in the bathroom and sit in a tub full of water until the fight was over. She couldn't stand to listen on the radio. She understood this savage game.

At Martin's this week, Stu Satosky, a good promoter and a good businessman, was talking about finances.

"Vincent Pettway just got a $200,000 purse when he won the title against Simon Brown," Satosky said. "He probably got to keep $90,000. That's not bad for a guy who might make $30,000 a year in his regular job."

Satosky, who has earned his living running a bar in Pigtown for 25 years, was asked why he puts up with the aggravation of boxing.

"I ask myself that all the time," he said. "Sometimes I'll be at a show and I'll be saying this is my last one. And the next day -- sometimes before the next day -- somebody'll approach me about another show and I'll be off and running again."

Years ago, there were weekly boxing shows in cities all over the country. Baltimore's were held on Monday nights at the Coliseum on Monroe Street. There was a lot of work for fighters. It truly was a way out for many. Today, shows are scarce and in the age of pay per view who is getting rich? The Don Kings. The Mike Tysons.

In a civilized society, no man should have to take part in this vicious business. But boxing has always had a strange grip on spectators, as the "Pictorial History" shows.

"They're never going to outlaw boxing," said Satosky. "Not unless something so horrible happens. I can't even imagine what could be that horrible."

He's right, of course.

If we, as a society, are dumb enough to confer celebrityhood and riches on Kato Kaelin, then we still have a way to go before we are smart enough to eliminate boxing.

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