I was hooked. Not so much on the sport’s violence, or its bloodlust, or its frequent controversy, its oft-rumored corruption, or the sometimes-colorful characters involved. No, I think I became hooked largely by something else that I would not identify until later in life -- the sheer courage of the combatants.
I would go on later to serve a little time (a phrase not altogether uncommon in boxing) as a sportswriter, and my favorite sport to cover was always boxing. If you have never sat at ringside and been splattered by blood or spit, then you haven’t really seen a boxing match. If you haven’t had a grown man land practically in your lap gasping for breath after taking a shot to the liver, then you don’t understand the significance of working the body as well as the head.
I remember once interviewing soon-to-be world bantamweight champion Gaby Canizales in a rundown gym in Laredo, Texas. He was there that evening to watch his kid brother, who was all of about maybe 10 years old, in a sparring session. The little guy seemed to be all knees and elbows as he and his opponent flailed punches at each other. Those punches were mostly harmless, it seemed. But the two little guys stood in bravely against each other and traded their best shots.
Gaby beamed with pride as he leaned over to me and said, “Someday he is going to be the best.”
I kind of chuckled. “How the hell can you tell?” I asked him
“Just wait and see,” he said. “Just wait and see.”
In his little brother, Gaby had identified the quality of courage and the presence of a big heart. Characteristics Gaby possessed as well.
Years later that kid brother, Orlando Canizales, would, like his older brother, hold the world bantamweight title. At that time, many considered him to be the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world. He would go on to defend his title an unprecedented 16 times. The two brothers have had a municipal boxing gym named in their honor in Laredo, and their accomplishments were jointly recognized by the Texas Legislature. They grew to be fine young men and community role models when their boxing days were over.
I was out of sports writing by the time Gaby won his first of two world championship bouts. But it is a great honor of my life to have known him and to have called him friend. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that what Gaby had seen in his little brother that day we talked in the gym were the heart and courage of a champion.
I experienced a golden era of boxing. I was born at the tail-end of the career of the incomparable Rocky Marciano, and remember tales of Sugar Ray Robinson. Leonard, Duran, Hagler, Hearns. Julio Cesar Chavez seemed to be on television all the time. Some of the greatest heavyweights ever – Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman – engaged in legendary battles. Those three almost made us overlook the fact that there were other big guys throwing leather out there who were remarkable fighters in their own right – Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Ken Norton.
But somewhere along the way, boxing lost its luster for me. I stopped watching. At one time I could have rattled off the names of every champ in every weight class. These days, I’d be hard pressed to name one.
And then came last Saturday’s latest version of the fight of the century, Mayweather-Pacquiao.
Having just had my heart broken by my beloved San Antonio Spurs, I needed something to cure my sports depression. But should I really plop down a hundred bucks to see an event that may only last one minute?
Still, if there were ever a fight that could rekindle my faded love of boxing, this one was sure to be it. The brilliant tactician (Mayweather) against the raging bull (Pacquiao). It was Ali-Frazier in 150-pound miniature.
OK, I’ll do it.
It isn’t often that one gets to witness two multimillionaires enter a boxing ring and flail harmlessly and aimlessly at each other for 12 rounds. And that is a very good thing.
I found myself thinking back to the day in the gym where I saw Orlando Canizales as a youngster. Those two kids may have lacked fully polished skills at the time, but they did not lack courage and heart. Mayweather and Pacquiaio possess the skills – at least it is said that they do – but last Saturday they did little except put on an exhibition of going through the motions..
On that Laredo day so many years ago, those two little kids left the ring, not with an almost incalculable paycheck, but with their pride. I wonder, in the long run, what is worth more.
No, I don’t.
I believe now that watching those two kids give it their best in an old gym on the Texas-Mexico border may be my fondest boxing memory. Sitting and chatting with a future world champion while doing so was some pretty nice icing on the cake, too.
I saw Orlando Canizales when he was 10 years old and had the courage of a lion.
Years and years later, I saw two millionaire con artists who reminded me of why I gave up on the sport and have come to loathe the characters who have ruined it.
At the end of the fight, Mayweather approached Pacquiaio, draped his arm around his neck and said, “We made a lot of money tonight.”
How’s that for a great post-fight-of-the-century quote?
In the days since, I have thought some about the greatest professional boxing match I ever saw – Ali-Frazier III – The Thrilla in Manila. Two of the most courageous fighters I have ever seen locked in what was nearly a grudge match to the death. Frazier coming on and coming on like some kind of frothing, rabid locomotive. Ali pedaling and dancing as well as his aging legs would allow, firing punch after punch at Frazier’s head. It was horrific. It was an awful spectacle to watch. Fearsome in its brutality. Yet it was somehow glorious. It was two remarkable athletes completely possessed by courage. Apparently, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
A few days after the Thrilla, a reporter asked Ali if he had watched a video replay of the fight. He said he had not.
“Why would I want to go back and see Hell?” he added.
Now, THAT, is a post-fight-of-the-century quote.
Since laying out that hundred bucks Saturday night, a couple other quotes have been running through my mind. The first is, “Fool me once, shame on you.”
But I prefer to paraphrase Chief Joseph.
I will watch no more forever.