Nothing that boxing could produce today could mean all of that, or mean much of anything. Even before MMA began its assault, the sport was edging toward irrelevance. There's no boxing conversation to be had. Even heavyweight champion of the world – that great, all-encompassing title – has been rendered close to meaningless. It used to be that everyone knew, even if not everyone cared. Gone forever, you would think, is that unifying point of reference, and all of the myth that goes with it. And it is certainly not the only one. Sit down and spend quality time with a good grey broadsheet lately, or gather the family 'round to watch the evening news?
UFC's poet laureate
Maybe it is there to be written, the great MMA novel. Maybe it's just a matter of understanding, of picking up the sport's rhythms, the way the lines and cadence of boxing, the footwork, the punch combinations, the eight count, the frantic 30 seconds between rounds, the championship distance, the finality of the knockout punch become a familiar recurring pattern like a 12-bar blues.
But no, it doesn't seem possible now. The stars of the UFC are magnificent, beautifully trained athletes who are, by definition, disposable and, for the most part, interchangeable – it makes better business sense that way. (The bigger they are, the longer they hang around, the more they can command.)
Someone like Georges St. Pierre is indeed iconic, but in a single dimension, contained entirely within the sport and its marketing machinery. No one in this sport – or in any other sport for that matter – will ever carry the political and social heft of an Muhammad Ali, or a Joe Louis, or a Jack Johnson. We consume sports, and sports heroes, in an environment of cynical brand awareness. Celebrity athletes tiptoe around any issue that is remotely politically or socially controversial, committed only to their own commercial enhancement. And none of them, however successful in their own games, can be what was the Heavyweight Champion of the World, because no title equals that – not even what is now the heavyweight champion of the world.
From a storytelling point of view, MMA is blessedly free of boxing's rank economic exploitation, in which the poor and desperate have forever been the cannon fodder used up by a long line of clever, amoral hucksters. It seems that MMA has little of that ugly underbelly. The fighters are mostly gym rats, who at some point in their lives had the luxury of training for reasons other than making a fast buck. So it is hard to imagine the MMA equivalent of Golden Boy, or Body and Soul, or Raging Bull, or Leonard Gardner's gritty and magnificent novel Fat City (which was adapted into a fine film by John Huston).
And the MMA fights themselves feel like fast food – sometimes extraordinarily good fast good – compared with what boxing at its best can produce, a three-hour, three-star meal. They feel like a tweet (though sometimes, a great, clever, provocative tweet), not a sonnet, and certainly not an epic, a really catchy jingle, not a fully realized popular song.
There's no arguing with the marketplace. Fifty-five thousand people can't be wrong. There's no turning back the clock.
And there's no point in trying to explain what's missing, because what's missing has already been, and is already gone.
Now Ali struck him a combination of punches fast as the punches in the first round but harder and more consecutive, three capital rights in a row struck Foreman, then a left, and for an instant on Foreman's face appeared the knowledge that he was in danger and must start to look to his last protection. His opponent was attacking, and there were no ropes behind the opponent. What a dislocation: the axes of his existence were reversed! He was the man on the ropes! Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman's mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman's arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the centre of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying day.”
Stephen Brunt is a Globe and Mail sports columnist.