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Requiem for boxing: the decline of the Sweet Science

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.

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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:

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When they asked him who was responsible

For the death of Du Koo Kim

He said, "Someone should have stopped the fight and told me it was him."

They made hypocrite judgments after the fact

But the name of the game is be hit and hit back.

Even though it is abhorrent to some, boxing was part of the 20th-century's lingua franca, its common ground, part of our shared history. Sporting eras were defined by the reign of heavyweight champions. Single fighters – Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali – were imbued with social and cultural significance in a way that even the most famous athletes in other sports were not. (Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson all meant something as well, but it's not even close.)

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Fights have been cast as political theatre, with the combatants as ideological stand-ins. The sport has inspired visual artists and photographers and poets, it has been the subject of beautiful and powerful and profound literature. It has a language, a pattern, a rhythm and an aesthetic, which runs so deep in the culture that other sports and other things are habitually described in boxing terms ("They were like two heavyweights slugging it out." ... "That was the knockout punch." ... "He gave him a bit of the rope-a-dope.")

And contained within a single fight, it is possible for an entire novel to unfold. Sit down and watch the brutal third bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila.

Mr. Frazier had grown up dirt poor in segregated South Carolina, before moving north, to work at menial labour – and stealing the occasional car – while fighting as an amateur. After winning a gold medal for the United States at the 1964 Olympics, he came home only to be fired, because the cast on his broken hand made it impossible to do his current job, slopping out the blood from the floor of a slaughterhouse.

He fought forever in Mr. Ali's shadow, though he beat him in their first fight in 1971.

He was cast by Mr. Ali as "the white man's champion," was labelled "the gorilla" and wasn't articulate enough, wasn't quick enough, to keep up in their verbal sparring. Mr. Frazer despised Mr. Ali.

When they met for the third time, both past their prime, as Mr. Ali socialized with Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, escorting a fashion model girlfriend who would eventually be confronted by his angry wife, Mr. Frazier dreamed about how he would kill Mr. Ali in the ring – not metaphorically, but for real.

You can see it in the fight, you can feel the anger – and you can see, also, an expression of Mr. Ali's own indomitable will. "The closest to death I ever came," he said afterward, a high compliment to Mr. Frazier's art and his intent.

After the 14th round, Mr. Ali asked his cornermen to cut of off his gloves. He wanted to quit, but they wouldn't let him. At that same moment, Mr. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to let his nearly blinded fighter continue.

Mark Kram, who would later write about the two boxers in the book Ghosts of Manila, described the post-fight scene in Mr. Frazier's dressing room for Sports Illustrated:

"Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet. 'Who is it?' asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around. 'Who is it? I can't see! Turn on the lights on!' Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will that had carried him so far – and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. 'Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city,' said Frazier. 'Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion.' "

No other sport, and arguably no other pursuit or art form, offers that, offers such a clear window into the primitive essence of the species, laid bare by two men standing alone, stripped to the waist, facing each other in a lighted square, working through patterns and movements choreographed as dance.

It is the opportunity to get close to something primal, and not just the opportunity for macho posturing (though there has been a fair bit of that as well), which has forever attracted writers to the ring apron.

It is the opportunity to experience from a safe distance pain, and danger, to understand instantly when a fighter is hurt, to see the other resist the human impulse for compassion and go in for the kill (which very, very rarely is actually a kill), and to frame all of that with stories of plucky poor kids and tragic heroes, and venal exploiters and miscast warriors, and a supporting rogues gallery of colourful and unvarnished and outrageous characters. (It would take quite the literary imagination to invent a Don King.)

If we don't speak that language any more, what replaces it? What would a literature of MMA sound like – or is that the wrong art form entirely? Can a sport that is equally bloody but significantly less dangerous, that has an entirely different set of patterns, that for all of its outlaw posturing is really a single button-down corporate enterprise produce the equivalent, or even anything close?

The sweep of history

Look at George Bellows's famous painting of the fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. It is all there, capturing the moment when the Argentine challenger nearly pulled off one of the great upsets in sport history, knocking Mr. Dempsey, the heavyweight champion, through the ropes and out of the ring. The early-20th-century superman falling helplessly like Icarus, the shocked expressions in the crowd, Mr. Firpo, savagely powerful and temporarily triumphant (Mr. Dempsey would be pushed back into the ring, and then knock Mr. Firpo out.) It is a moment not just in sport, but in time.

Boxing lends itself to larger interpretation, and extrapolation. It seems to mirror larger social shifts, emerging from its outlaw origins in the 18th and 19th centuries, civilized to a degree by the adoption of the Marquess of Queensberry rules (MMA devotees can argue with some authority that earlier forms of boxing, which incorporated grappling elements, were closer in spirit and practice to their sport than the entirely stand-up game it would become), producing in turn the first true sports superstar in John L. Sullivan, the greatest hero of sport's golden age in Mr. Dempsey, and the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, whose echoes could still be heard half a century later in the ascendance of Muhammad Ali, who was once the most famous man on Earth.

In the background, the very makeup of the sport – boxing has always been an option for those with few options, the poor, the dispossessed – created a group portrait of those who had to fight to survive: the Irish and the Jews in 1920s and 1930s, two 20th-century waves of Italian immigrants, a massive Hispanic presence beginning in the 1960s, and African Americans throughout. Sometimes it was an opportunistic reach, linking individual fights to the larger political and cultural ethos. Joe Louis, for instance, probably didn't really have the Italian invasion of Ethiopia on his mind when he battered hapless Primo Carnera in 1935. But three years later almost to the day, in his monumental second fight with Germany's Max Schmeling, there is no question that he understood the symbolism attached to the bout by a world on the verge of war (in winning, Mr. Louis would become a patriotic symbol and the first black athlete to be fully embraced by white America.)

Other signpost fights, at least in hindsight, are less explicitly political in their significance, but still seem to sum up a time, to represent a point of demarcation. Rocky Marciano's knockout of Joe Louis in 1951 was a symbolic beginning of the postwar era. Joe Frazier's victory over Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century in 1971, pitted two great African American warriors against each other, one whose stand against the war in Vietnam would cost him his title and three years in exile, and transformed him into a worldwide icon; the other, cast (unfairly) as an Uncle Tom, entered the ring as a proxy of the war-mongering Establishment.

Even the 1988 heavyweight title bout between Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson in Atlantic City now seems absolutely emblematic of the Greed Decade (now would be the Greed Decade, redux), with Donald Trump, the event's underwriter, at ringside – an earlier incarnation, the self-promoting real-estate developer Mr. Trump, not the reality television star/birther/freakshow presidential aspirant of the moment. Mr. Tyson, standing and sneering after dispatching Mr. Spinks in 91 seconds, his last moment teetering on the peak, was not the only one about to come crashing down.

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."

The Fight

Stephen Brunt is a Globe and Mail sports columnist.

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