To me, boxing is a romantic sport, and partially, that’s why I love it*. Obviously, not the punching and the blood from the eyebrows and the brain damage and the hematomas, though there is a certain amount of gladiator romanticism I suppose. No, boxing is romantic because it reminds us of a great era of sports. And, I might add, a great era of sports writing.
*When people discover I’m a sports writer, the first question I invariably receive is this: so, what’s your favorite sport? I always tell them boxing, because 1) it really is my favorite sport and 2) it’s not what anyone expects you to say. Usually, they’re like, “Really?” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and then the conversation takes a different turn. Hardly anybody knows anything about boxing. Which is cool, because normally, I’d rather not talk about sports anyway.
I’ve thought about this many times, but I wonder how fantastic it’d have been to be a sports writer in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Never mind the Internet, and shorts and flip-flops to work, and anonymous comments on web sites. Give me train rides, fedoras, Western Union and (actual) letters to the editors. Yeah, I know it’s probably easier being a sports writer today (although it’s also probably more brutal as well). But it’s fun to think back to the times in which you’re grandparents went to war, came home, got married and had two kids. And then read the afternoon paper after getting home from the factory to see what Grantland Rice and Red Smith had to say.
If I had to sum up why I think boxing is romantic in 300 pages, I’d go with this: The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling. It’s got train rides and big-time fights and cigar smoke and typewriters. It’s also a time when the Jews were actually pretty good at sports. It was a time of Battling Levinsky and Maxie Rosenbloom and Lew Tendler. Jews weren’t only successful in banking and in Hollywood (and starring as the punchline in so many ethnic jokes). They were successful in the ring as well.
This, of course, was a long time ago.
On Saturday, though, another Jew – a rabbinical student, no less – will take his shot at retaining his world championship. His name is Yuri Foreman, and he’s making a name for himself (partially, because he is, in fact, Jewish). He was actually on the undercard on a fight card I covered years ago (Vernon Forrest vs. Ricardo Mayorga, part I), and he was kind of a novelty. He was a Jewish fighter who was talented but not much fun to watch. That night, he knocked out a 4-2 fighter named Will Evans in the first round. But his fights weren’t enthralling. He’s proven he doesn’t have much power (only eight knockouts in 28 undefeated fights). He’s not a draw.
Since I saw him seven years ago – in just the eighth fight of his career – his stock has risen. He beat a quality guy named Daniel Santos in his last fight to win a light middleweight world title. This Saturday, he’ll fight the most high profile opponent of his career in Miguel Cotto, once a ferocious fighter who might be on the downside of what had been a standout career. A Jew vs. a Puerto Rican in the middle of the Bronx. Does it get much more old school than that?
The fight won’t begin until about 11:15 p.m., because Foreman observes the Sabbath. Which means he can’t leave his hotel until after sunset marks the end of the Jewish day of rest. He’ll fight Cotto in right field of Yankee Stadium – another relic of the old fight game (except this obviously isn’t the same stadium where Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton and where Dempsey, Robinson, Louis and Marciano once showcased their skills)
I saw most of the Santos fight a few months back. Like most of Foreman’s bouts, he wasn’t particularly enthralling. But he’s one of my people, so I’ll watch with interest what occurs Saturday night. I’ll watch because he’s Jewish, but I’ll also watch because it’ll remind me of what I perceive boxing of the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be.
A time of romance where a Jew could be champion of the world.