The sense of loss is not simply generational, though that's certainly part of it. It is not mere nostalgia, a remembrance of flickering images watched with long-lost fathers on Friday-night television, or the profound impact of a sporting hero who so transcended the savage game in which he made – and then remade – his name.
Boxing's decline, and at least for now its eclipse by mixed martial arts, represents more than merely the sunset of a sport that was once extraordinarily popular and is no longer. Other diversions have come and gone through history (horse racing has similarly slipped out of mainstream culture), with only those who cling to a minority passion lamenting the passing. Six-day bicycle races were once front-page news; things change.
On Saturday night, 55,000 paying customers will fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto to witness the first promotion by the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Ontario. Until this year, mixed martial arts (MMA), which combines combat disciplines that include boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and muay thai, was banned in the province. This show will be the single biggest sporting event of 2011 in Canada's most populous city, barring an unlikely Toronto Blue Jays run to the World Series.
In part, that is an expression of pent-up demand from the outlaw years. But mostly it is a true and legitimate measure of the popularity of the sport and its No. 1 marquee attraction, Montreal's Georges St-Pierre, who UFC boss Dana White likes to claim is the most famous Canadian athlete of all time.
A decade ago, MMA emerged out of the murky world of tough-man contests, to be cleaned up and codified, and especially to be packaged brilliantly, borrowing equally from boxing and professional wrestling, by a company that, by beating out and buying out all serious competition, has established a de facto monopoly. It is a distillate, fighting in bite-sized chunks (no bouts are longer than five rounds), with loads of personality, loads of flash. A skeptic would say it's just the thing for the desensitized, short-attention-span, video-game generation – and perhaps that's true, but MMA's demographic reach seems to be ever broadening.
As MMA has grown, boxing has evaporated except in a few isolated outposts (Quebec and Germany, most notably), fatally handicapped by cutthroat, free-market competition among promoters, and its ever-diminishing stable of recognizable North American stars. The best athletes here now go elsewhere, to sports where there is the possibility of a college scholarship, a guaranteed contract, a union to protect their interests and at least some kind of a pension down the road, where they're not so likely to be used up and discarded.
(Boxing talent still flows from impoverished sections of Eastern Europe, and from traditional hotbeds such as Mexico and the Philippines, where those other options don't exist, but, with the exception of Manny Pacquiao, it hasn't produced a true breakout star.)
The truth is, a segment of the population has been praying for boxing's demise for the better part of 300 years, hoping that as we evolved as a species, the desire to watch men beat on each other for our amusement would inevitably become extinct (it must gall the abolitionist crowd that boxing has instead been replaced by another fighting game that, though it is technically safer, can seem to the uninitiated even more bloody and savage.)
The appeal of what the great Scottish boxing writer Hugh McIlvaney calls a thrill “as pure and basic as a heartbeat” is forever measured against its consequences, the primal pull of watching a fight, the intellectual fascination with the “idea” of a fight, matched against moral repulsion. “[Boxing]evokes not a poised ambivalence, but a tensed juxtaposition of opposites, a fascinated engagement and an outpouring of terms and images that are indissolubly linked to an awareness of what that enthusiasm costs,” literary scholar Ronald Levao writes.
Sometimes that translates very directly into art. Both Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs wrote protest songs about the death of boxer Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos in 1963, and nearly 20 years later, Warren Zevon, in his song Boom Boom Mancini, made reference to another ring fatality that played out on network television:
When they asked him who was responsible