Lamenting the days when boxing was the sport of kings

THE nights are drawing in on us, you’ll notice, ahead of another winter, like the cinema lights dimming before a movie.

Having shuffled in from under another cloud-scarred sky of an evening, I enjoy kicking closed the door, sending the kettle towards its whistle-stop and snapping open a book like an umbrella.

Bob Dylan explained once that A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall was written during the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and enjoyed a unique journey into existence.

“Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one,” he shrugged many years after Kennedy and Kruschev steered us away from catastrophe.

I often think the same about all the books that are stacked high beside my bed in a mocking pile of uncreased spines; maybe I should read the first line of each... just in case.

One book, long since purchased on the recommendation of several colleagues on the Irish Examiner sports desk, has been keeping the cold from the threshold — or the storm raging at my door as Dylan would say. Let me pass on the recommendation Kevin Mitchell’s Jacobs Beach.

Journalism is, we are told early and often, about the who, what, where, why and how.

Well this book is about the Mob, professional boxing, Madison Square Garden and money. But the ‘how’ unfolds happily over a couple of hundred pages in sweat, blood and whisky-stained detail.

Stop someone on the street this afternoon and ask them who the heavyweight champion of the world is today and most would rub their necks before shaking their heads in surrender.

But there was a time when names like Marciano and Clay were filed under household.

When today boxing fights are dressed in the garb of a pantomime, introduced and hyped in the language of the school yard and boasting all the intellectual heft of your average celebrity-filled gossip- magazine, there was actually a time when fights meant more.

The epic duology in the late 30s between the black American Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling was widely regarded as a crude, intriguing metaphor for the looming struggle between democracy and fascism. Ali v Frazier echoed with racial connotations. There was more on the line than David Haye’s pride.

Dust off the romance of course and it’s clear that boxing’s heart did not beat true. In New York it was in the 50s that the mob really took over, easing out relatively respectable figures like the Irish-Jewish promoter Mike Jacobs, who had run the Garden venue for decades.

More sinister winds blew through the game with the mafia tightening a happy grip on the sports own mechanism, the International Boxing Club.

The sport’s honesty was on the canvas and it ‘haemorrhaged so much credibility’, writes Mitchell, ‘that it almost died of shame’.

Forgive the hyperbole, but you’d feel the same is happening now, watching Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather sometimes. I’ve personally long been a fan but Saturday night was embarrassing.

Mayweather Jr — one of the totems of the modern fight game — knocked out Victor Ortiz in boxing’s new garden, Las Vegas. He did so, you’ll probably know, with a highly controversial one-two that’s been tarred as the most inexpensive of cheap shots. I reckon it was Ortiz’s fault for not having his hands up — but the real showdown was after the bell anyway.

An 80-year-old boxing commentator Larry Merchant climbed through the ropes to ask Mayweather Jr about the fight’s inglorious denouement. With the questions feeling like jabs and the crowd’s boos growing louder, Mayweather lost it for the second time.

When he told the stunned HBO man that he knew ‘shit about boxing’, Merchant replied with a laugh: “I wish I was 50 years younger and I’d kick your ass.”

Mayweather and Ortiz are likely to meet in a re-match. One hopes that Merchant gets his too.

adrianjrussell@gmail.comTwitter: @adrianrussell

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