Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

50 years ago a boxing match stopped the world, now the sport could barely stop traffic — could baseball be next?

A statue of boxers Joe Frazier, center right, and Muhammad Ali, center left, is unveiled on the 50th anniversary their World Heavyweight Champion fight in Feasterville, Pa., on Monday.
A statue of boxers Joe Frazier, center right, and Muhammad Ali, center left, is unveiled on the 50th anniversary their World Heavyweight Champion fight in Feasterville, Pa., on Monday.
Image: AP

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of “The Fight Of The Century,” the first of three Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fights. Even though it took place a decade before I was born, anyone can glean the importance of it by listening to just about anyone who was alive at the time talk about it or even read a few paragraphs about it (Yes, Frank Sinatra did indeed photograph the bout for Life Magazine).

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There’s a wistful tone about remembrances now. Simply because it’s unlikely that any sporting event will pause the world in such a way. Sure, there are Super Bowls and World Cup finals and Olympics, but none of them have quite the same draw as that fight did. We’ve become just a little too fractured. It’s also kind of laughable to listen to a section of society bellow about keeping sports and politics separate when considering the background of that fight. In some ways it was just a micro civil war in this country, given what each man represented or representation they had bestowed upon them (which certainly wasn’t all that fair to Frazier).

Clearly, that fight told us that politics and movements have always had a place in sports, and that was 50 years ago. And a lot of what that fight stood for to people are still with us today. The fight against the establishment that has profited off suppression and racism and its desperate need to “keep people in line.” We’ve made progress, but not so much that the themes of Frazier-Ali don’t still ring clear today.

On another, less important level, it’s hard to believe how fast a sport can disappear from consciousness altogether. That boxing match was the center of the Earth 50 years ago. Even just 30-to-40 years ago, Mike Tyson fights could get most of the sporting world to notice. His loss to Buster Douglas was an O.J.-level story. People my age can recall trying to decipher what was going on in Holyfield-Bowe or Tyson-Ruddock through scrambled channels much in the same way we were trying to decipher porn the rest of the time. You actually tuned into ESPN’s round-by-round updates. Today, I, like most of the world, couldn’t identify pretty much any boxer.

Boxing isn’t the only sport to fade into Bolivian, as Tyson himself might put it. Horse racing is another sport that is on the margins, for some of the same reasons and some ones different. Too many self-serving interests, no cohesive leadership to wrangle them all in as well as guide the sport into a new age. Everyone worried about the next buck instead of the five down the road. And there’s the danger inherent to the competitors themselves, and the mistreatment of them by people more worried about money than health.

I wonder if 50 years from now if someone won’t be unveiling a statue of Mike Trout in Anaheim or maybe Fernando Tatis in San Diego or maybe a player whose name we’ve yet to hear as they did of Frazier yesterday in Philly, and everyone around at that time will have to be taught or reminded why they and the sport they played mattered once upon a time. It feels like such a long way to fall, and yet it also feels like MLB is intent on seeing if it can get there. I was aware of the World Series’ declining ratings, but I didn’t see it in clear relief until researching all of this:

Illustration for article titled 50 years ago a boxing match stopped the world, now the sport could barely stop traffic — could baseball be next?
Graphic: Wikipedia
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You can see some of the same problems. A lack of clear leadership, and those who are in position to do anything about it are too focused on the dollars right in front of them. A game and league with no idea how to relate to the changing times. At least baseball doesn’t have to concern itself with actively killing its competitors like boxing, but it seems to have the rest of the recipe for killing off its game down.

No one on that night at Madison Square Garden thought in just 50 years boxing would barely be an afterthought. It can happen quickly.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.