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Boxing fans had a great weekend…for weeping. They could sit at home and sob over what has become of Sugar Ray Leonardor that they’d paid about $35 per household to
be enlightened about a guy who in this decade hasn’t
beaten anybody but his ex-wife (or so she says). Those
on a budget and willing to grieve in public could go to
the local moviehouse and, for a mere $7.50 per capita, wail over the devastating impact boxing has had on Muhammad Ali. And vice versa.
Al Finley is more than a fan of the fight game. The son of South Carolina sharecroppers has been a fixture on the D.C. boxing scene since 1960, when he opened up Finley’s Boxing Club above his auto-service garage on 10th Street NE. Even today, at 68, the feisty Finley still rings the bell and tapes fists at his musty gym six days a week. Former champs like Bob Foster and even Leonard used to spar here, but these days Finley’s speed bags are more likely being duddle-uh-duddle-uh’d by a fitness-conscious Georgetown coed than by a promising pug. Regardless of gender, the dues-payers keep Finley too busy to cry about a now-stumbling Leonard or a now-mumbling Ali or the future of the sweet science. Not that he’d tear up even if he had the time.
“The longer you watch boxing, the more sure you are that boxing will never go away,” shrugs Finley. “There’s nothing new here. It’s all boxing. Same as ever.”
New or not, a lot about boxing in the ’90s is bothersome. When We Were Kings documents Ali’s greatestness, circa ’74. But the dark side of Ali’s influence on the sport was all over Atlantic City on Saturday.
The showboating skills that Ali first filched from pro wrestlers and manipulated so smoothly have fallen so far down the food chain that a fool like Hector Camacho can show up butt naked for his very public weigh-in and nobody blinksexcept those trying to get a glimpse of the fighter’s naughty bits. (“Muy pequeño!” was the review USA Today’s John Saraceno gave the Macho Man’s unit.)
“Ali was just smart enough to know how important it is to get your name out there, no matter how you get your name out there,” Finley says. “He may have been the best ever at it, but it’s still that way in boxing. I mean, look at Andrew Golota! I’m convinced he can fight, but that’s not why he’s a million-dollar-a-fight guy from now on! He’s a big-money fighter now only because people know him as the guy who hits below the belt. That’s boxing.”
Then there’s the scourge of pay-per-view. Long before cable took hold, Ali’s fights tipped promoters off to the promise of nonfree TV. The Big Three networks decided early in PPV’s development that they wouldn’t be able to compete with pay television for marquee fights, and not long after Ali got out of boxing the networks were out of the fight game altogether. (Look at the short shrift NBC gave Olympic boxing last year.)
The lack of free TV cost the sport its casual audience, and that in turn kept second-tier fighters and newcomers from gaining any name recognition outside the hard-core boxing crowd as they climbed in the rankings. So these days promoters make far more money by charging huge amounts for crummy fights with one or more caricatures like Leonard or George ForemanAli’s foil in Zaire 23 years agothan they do by matching able, young fighters whose talent tanks aren’t on empty. Ergo Leonard-Camacho, $35 per set.
“Doesn’t bother me,” says Finley. “Boxing has been depending on pay-per-view for a while now. I paid to watch the first Ali-Frazier fight at the old Uline Arena [a building in Northeast Washington now used as a trash dump], and I paid to watch Ali-Foreman at the Capital Centre. And it’s moved from the theaters to the television, but now I still pay to watch every big fight. If you love boxing that’s what you do. Nobody puts a gun to our head to make us pay.”
Boxing’s senior circuit isn’t thriving only because of the promoters’ greed. The fighters’ egos and wallets get reinflated by comebacks. Ali’s triumph over Foreman was at the very least boxing’s greatest, and maybe its only, “Old Man Conquers Young Man!” story. And the upset is still invoked whenever a has-been gets back in the ring. Several years after beating Foreman, a pathetic Ali made a financial killing by unretiring and nearly getting killed by Larry Holmes. A parade of 40-plus fighters has been marching back into the ring ever since, to the tune of ringing cash registers. For Leonard-Camacho, the beaten man brought home twice as much money ($4 million-plus) as the younger, but far from young, victor.
Only the unlearned would blame Ali for Leonard’s serial returns, suggests Finley.
“No fighter with any ability has ever quit boxing when he should have quit. Ever,” Finley says. “Whenever I say that, some fool comes back with something like, ‘Hold on, Finley! There was a fighter named…Joe Biggs from Chicago…and he quit a winner.’ And my response always is, ‘Who in the hell was Joe Biggs?’ Go through history, way before Ali, back all the way to Jack Johnson, and there’s nobody you can name! The real Sugar Ray, Sugar Ray Robinson, was the greatest fighter of all time, but he stayed around too long and took some bad beatings. Rocky Marciano? The only thing that kept Rocky Marciano from coming back was a plane crash. Coming back like Ray Leonard has again and again and again shouldn’t surprise anybody. That’s boxing!”
Finley, true to form, pay-per-viewed Leonard’s embarrassing showing Saturday night. He quit betting on boxing after putting $4,000 on Foreman for the Ali fight, and he was well aware that Leonard hadn’t knocked another fighter out in 15 years. But if he did still wager, Finley’s money would have been thrown the wrong way again.
“I was sure Leonard would win,” he says. “And the reason I thought he’d beat Camacho was because he needed that win to get Marvin Hagler out of retirement. I’ve been sure that fight will come off for a long time. Shows you how much I know.”
Even if his record in picking big fights is suspect, the cynicism that had him picking Leonard and keeps him thinking a rematch with Hagler might still be in the cards shows how up on the fight game Finley really is.
Two days after Leonard’s disgraceful showing, George Foreman announced he’d be coming back to the ring again in April to fight some no-name foreigner. On pay television. For millions of dollars.Dave McKenna