Detective McNulty: If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?
Witness: You got to, this is America, man.
The Wire, the late HBO series that can best, and most simply, be described as being about how a city (specifically, Baltimore) works, and more importantly, how what doesn’t work stays that way, is my favorite television series of all time. The Wire surpasses all other televised entertainment in its stubborn refusal to play by the established rules of fictional drama – the good guys act bad sometimes (and not in a cool antihero Tony Soprano kind of way), the bad guys can be disturbingly sympathetic, mistakes accumulate, complexities abound, and there is never a neat bow to tie everything together at the end. The essence of The Wire is that people find themselves in institutions – law enforcement, the drug trade, the shipping industry, education, the media – that are long established and irrevocably damaged. No matter how people respond to these institutions, be it by taking advantage of their flaws for personal gain, struggling in vain to make things better, or simply trying to go with the flow and survive to see tomorrow, the institutions never change. They never improve. They just steamroll on, leaving a trail of bodies and broken dreams in their wake.
Like the institutions in The Wire, boxing is hopelessly flawed. Some of us involved in boxing lash out at the elements of the institution that we consider the most corrupt, but they never change. Some take advantage of the flaws in the system and line their pockets. Some just float by day to day, punching in and punching out and trying to get as little dirt on themselves as possible in the time between. All of us are powerless against the beast. Nobody has any answers.
There is no better reflection of the fundamental flaws in boxing than the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito debacle. Fans and supporters will choose their sides, but there are no good guys in this story. There is no triumph over adversity or growth or evolution. There are no winners. There are only flawed men trapped in a failed institution.
The media has long decided that Pacquiao is the hero of this tale and Mayweather the villain, because Pacquiao has heroic qualities and Mayweather is villainous, and it’s an easy narrative to advance under a deadline. The media, after all, is just another flawed institution. Ultimately, however, the boxers are simply the foot soldiers of this sordid game. Perhaps Pacquiao and Mayweather have ascended above the rest of the foot soldiers, perhaps they could be considered street generals, but ultimately, they are still out on the streets. They have power over nothing and nobody but themselves. No matter how often Mayweather’s indifference toward fighting again this year is spun as an unparalleled tragedy, Mayweather’s flaws represent a very small crack in a giant, crumbling wall. Whether Mayweather fights tomorrow or never again, the fundamental flaws of boxing will remain ingrained.
Even Margarito, a fighter whose illicit behavior prior to his welterweight fight with Shane Mosley has made him a target of scorn and derision, is more of a symptom of the problem than a root cause. Margarito’s actions were deplorable and his lack of regret despicable, but, ultimately, what is more disgusting – that he tried to bring weapons (loaded gloves) into a boxing match, or that the sport is powerless to prevent him from continuing to fight, struggles to properly punish him, and, in fact, is set to reward him with the richest payday of his career despite the fact that he is currently not licensed to fight in the United States? Is it a bigger problem that he cheated in a highly dangerous fashion, or that boxing is ultimately indifferent to and/or too impotent to properly punish his cheating? I lean towards the latter.
My favorite target to blame for boxing’s woes has always been the big promoters, namely Bob Arum, Top Rank, Richard Schaefer, and Golden Boy Promotions. These are the real power players, the ones who make things happen, the ones who draw up the contracts and distribute the money and start the chain of falling dominoes. These men are deeply flawed and destructive, powerful and petulant and given to rock the foundations of the sport over personal grudges and petty slights. They are less likely to be criticized by the media because their influence runs deep, but they are still a regular target of justifiable outrage. The disgrace of the Pacquiao-Mayweather negotiations – in which gag orders were established then immediately ignored, key players would not meet with other key players due to individual grudges, and ultimately the two sides could not even agree on whether or not negotiations ever even took place – is emblematic of the corrosive influence these power brokers have on the sport.
The problem is, while there is little to like about the influence of Arum and Schaefer over the sport, and even less to like about the egomaniacal ways in which they wield their influence, these men are no more the root of the problem than Floyd or Manny or Margarito. They are more troublesome symptoms of the problem than the fighters, since their careers are limited only by lifespan rather than athletic prime, but they are still not the root problem. If Arum and Schaefer were to fold up tent and go away, the immediate power vacuum would be filled by another greedy, shameless, opportunistic corporate titan, who would undoubtedly bring his own character flaws and shortcomings and degradation to the game. (Kind of like when Marlo Stanfield took over the drug trade from the Barksdale crew.)
The flaws are everywhere. HBO, Showtime, and pay-per-view are the biggest televised outlets for boxing, and each brings its own sets of problems to the table. HBO develops cozy relationships with certain promoters and managers, creating an uneven playing field. Showtime struggles to one-up their bigger competitor with attempts at superior matchmaking and innovative concepts like the Super Six tournament but fails to capture an audience to rival HBO. And pay-per-view alienates fans who don’t have the means to spend $60 for a boxing card, as well as those who usually do not consider the cards that promoters present worth the money. All of these outlets are costly to fans, all are only interested in delivering good fights if it improves their bottom line, and none are going anywhere anytime soon.
When Pacquiao and Margarito engage in their sham of a fight, it will likely be on HBO pay-per-view (although initial reports indicated that the fight would be on HBO), despite many fans expressing outrage over Margarito receiving this unearned opportunity for a multi-million dollar paycheck. Fans who oppose Margarito fighting, yet are torn by the desire to watch the legendary Pacquiao, one of the few can’t-miss fighters in the sport, may be forced to choose between spending $60 to line the pockets of a certified cheat or to hop online and stream the fight illegally. Basically, fans like me could be forced to choose whether to financially support a criminal, or to act like criminals ourselves. There are no good guys, there are no winners.
With all this laid out, we still haven’t touched upon those who actually run the sport, which, depending on who you ask, are either the athletic commissions or the sanctioning bodies. Both are vile, though the sanctioning bodies have earned a special degree of loathing from boxing fans and followers. The athletic commissions vary wildly in their reliability, from the generally upstanding commissions in Nevada, New York, and California to the wildly corrupt Texas commission. The Margarito situation highlights how laughable the commissions are. While Arum desperately files for Margarito to get his license renewed in Nevada and pleads for California to lift its suspension so that upstanding commissions will follow suit, Arum knows he can count on greed and corruption if all else fails, saying, “There are other states that have contacted us that say they’ll give [Margarito] a license.” How wonderful.
Meanwhile, the universally-decried sanctioning bodies, who do not represent fighters or promote fights but simply decide, in an ever-increasingly naïve and/or corrupt fashion, who gets to fight for championship titles, add another level of sleaze to the sport. The early apologizers for Pacquiao-Margarito, the boxing writers who would like fans to believe that this is something other than a disgraceful matchup, like to cite that this fight represents an opportunity for Pacquiao to fight for a title in a record-breaking eighth weight class as a means of justifying this garbage. Never mind that neither Pacquiao nor Margarito is, or ever has been, a titlist at 154 pounds. Never mind that the fight will not even take place at 154 pounds, due to Pacquiao’s relatively diminished stature, and will actually take place at a catchweight of 150. Never mind that Margarito is the only one of the two to have ever fought at 154 pounds, and the last time he did so until his comeback was in September of 2004, in a fight he lost. One of the sanctioning bodies considers this fight worthy of deciding who the best 154-pound fighter in the sport is, and so it shall be. No matter how bogus and tinged with slime the decision might be, the title will be trumpeted from all corners, from the promoters to the network to the fighters themselves.
Of course, nothing is trumpeted publicly without the help of the media, and in the case of boxing, the media is as disgraceful and shameful as the rest of the sport. Golden Boy Promotions owns Ring Magazine, which bills itself as “The Bible of Boxing” and is still considered an objective news source, and a lot of people are justifiably uncomfortable with the relationship. Beyond that, I have seen firsthand that the occupants of press row are not always interested in recounting the action in the ring as much as they are interested in promoting the interest of a fighter they manage or represent. There are seemingly as many conflicts of interest on press row of a boxing match as there were in the Civil War. And even when boxing writers ringside are not financially beholden to a fighter, those who ply their trade on the Internet, especially, are often emotionally beholden. This may be an odd criticism for a boxing blog writer to raise, but the explosion in popularity of blogs and the “anyone can be a writer” mindset on the Internet has made distinguishing between reliable writing and blabbering idolatry nearly impossible. Sites like Examiner.com and BleacherReport.com, which routinely pop up in my GoogleNews feed, publish dozens of “stories” that consist of nothing more than a Manny Pacquiao fan calling Floyd Mayweather names. The result is that, rather than acting as an outlet for objective truth and a check for the excesses of the game’s power players, the boxing media adds just one more layer of corruption to the pile.
So, if the fighters are always selfish and cheating and not fighting the best, why do we watch them fight? If the promoters always take our money and don’t give us a fair return, why do we watch their fights? If the networks always overcharge and under-deliver, why do we watch? If the athletic commissions and sanctioning bodies always care more about money than doing their jobs, why do we watch their fights? And if the media never tells us what is really going on, why do we pay any attention at all?
We got to. This is boxing.