A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for – to see the bad guys get beat. – Sonny Liston
It’s kind of ironic that the two sports with the greatest characters, boxing and horse racing, have both been on the decline. In both cases it’s for the lack of a suitable hero. - Dick Schapp
I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. – Walt Whitman
The grand realization first occurred to me on May 5th, 2007. I had just finished my sophomore year at Vanderbilt and come home for the summer to work at Christ United Methodist as a youth group intern. It was just another first Saturday in May, like the couple of decades of first Saturdays in May I’d lived before. I found myself sitting on my couch, next to my dad, watching the Kentucky Derby. The favorite won, and we had another hopeful Triple Crown winner that would only disappoint us once again weeks later. But, with a few extra bucks in my pocket and nothing to do that night, perusing ESPN.com, I realized we had a “fight of the century” on our hands. Curious since (a) the century had just begun and (b) the match was two fighters I’d actually heard of and (c) and I was still on somewhat of a high after seeing Cinderella Man (a couple summers before sitting alone in a movie theater in Madison, WI one afternoon), I figured, “Why not?” I’d already enjoyed one great American sport of yesteryear on the day. Why not enjoy two?
As I watched the pay-per-view and the surrounding hype, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between horse racing that afternoon and boxing that night.
1) History – Both were sports of a past America, still giving some of us hype several times a year, but no longer dominating the sports and celebrity landscapes like years past. But there were and are still remnants of that past echoing on the NBC telecasts and pay-per-view broadcasts. Celebrities still flock to the Derby and to ringside for the big-name boxing matches.
2) Hype. Hype. And more hype! – I love hype. I always have. My friends in college called me the biggest hype man and some even used me as references for summer jobs just because they knew I’d hype them if called upon. And I did! So much about our American culture, for better and worse, is all about hype. And even though boxing and horse racing are but a sliver as popular as they once were, the hype is still there. The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports. Preview videos for this past weekend’s Mayweather-Cotto match are as filled with hype as WWE’s WrestleMania. HBO now even does short TV series in the weeks leading up to their big boxing pay-per-view matches hyping the training, personal drama, and intrigue, manufactured and not, of the two fighters. If you want to dive into the world of horse racing or boxing, you can lose yourself in each world, finding out the personal back-stories, the obstacles overcome, and the redemption paths the competitors, trainers, and owners hope to complete.
3) Stories and Characters – As Dick Schapp suggests above, these sports have characters. Heroes. Villians. Favorites. Underdogs. Corruption. Hype. Family drama. Legal drama. Ethical drama. Heartbreaking losses and goosebump-inducing, made-for-Hollywood finishes. You dive into the worlds and you’ll find all of these.
These are stories our great-grandparents and grandparents knew. Man vs. man. Horse vs. horse. There can only be one winner. Who is the fastest? Who is the strongest? These aren’t just stories and moments built into our American DNA, but also our human DNA. And that’s what makes the first weekend in May one of the most secretly patriotic weekends in America.
Time after time, we get the Kentucky Derby and one of, if not, THE top boxing match of the year within hours of each other. Baseball season is in full swing (the third in Historical America’s Holy Trinity of Sports). NHL and NBA playoffs are in full swing (won’t get any other commentary from me here on those… the Predators and Grizzlies are breaking my heart right now… especially this weekend… so we’ll dwell on Mericuh (phonetic spelling of a very patriotic way to say America) instead!). The better and worse parts of our nature are on full display. And, as summer movie season begins and the weather starts to warm permanently, the hope of an American summer straight out of Grease and Happy Days is on the horizon. Anything is possible.
And in that moment, we can connect with our forefathers who gathered around a radio to let the fighting men dance in our imaginations, rooting for our underdog hero to take out the pompous villain.
Cinderella Man listening on the radio:
We can pick our horses, sip on some mint juleps, and root on for our favorite horse to win.
Then, when one does, we can say, “I’ll Have Another!” and continue the celebration.
After dining with family and friends, we can then gather around the TV for the most primal of sports. Mano v. Mano. Belts on the line. Rap stars, pro wrestling stars, other pro athletes, and Bieber in your corner. Yes, Bieber. Justin Bieber tweets at Floyd “Money” Mayweather and hours later escorts him to the ring with one of his belts in tow. Looking like Fidel Castro at a Kennedy cabinet meeting, Bieber hyped up Money Mayweather, confounding and surprising all of us. You have to click the link and watch the video. It’s enough to make you want to subscribe to HBO just so you can see the replay next weekend of Bieber walking from the locker room to the ring with two of Money Mayweather’s belts and hyping him up.
Yes, boxing is dying in popularity. Yes, once we get Mayweather-Pacqiao, the sport may disappear forever into a mist of UFC and WWE. But who knows? With youthful fervor and support from Bieber, anything may be possible. Boxing may be saved by the Biebs.
But with closer looks and analysis, boxing’s popularity due to controversial figures like the undefeated Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and lovable Philipinos like Manny Pacquiao could have a bright future. This morning at brunch, while trying to explain why Floyd Mayweather was going to prison for 90 days (or as he calls it, being a man and taking on another obstacle), I discovered boxing may be more popular than I thought. When typing into Google search on my wife’s phone, I typed, “Why is”. The Google auto suggestions for my search gave me the following as the top 4…
1) Why is the sky blue?
2) Why is my poop green?
3) Why is the ocean salty?
4) Why is Floyd Mayweather going to jail?
The answer shows an even more tragic figure who will go down as one of the best boxers of all time. But the Google auto results show that boxing may not be as dead as we once thought. After all, boxers and matches often find themselves into the trending topics on Twitter many Saturday nights.
So Mayweather won again.
The son of the winning owner or trainer or something of the 2012 Kentucky Derby winning horse, “I’ll Have Another” is getting a hot tub.
But the rest of America, while wanting to see Manny Pacquiao beat Tim Bradley in June and want to see a Mayweather-Pacquiao match work out for a wonderful Christmas present or maybe even for the first weekend of May 2013, is hoping that kid gets more than a hot tub. We’re hoping that I’ll Have Another wins the Preakness and then the Belmont, giving us our first Triple Crown winner since Secretariat, who won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year and ran right into our inspiring Disney movie memories, ready to be shown to our grandchildren, introduced by the heir to Michael Eisner.
Because, just like our forefathers gathered around the radios to root for or against the hero or villain, wanting redemption in a time of strife, we want to see the greatest face off against the greatest. We want to see rappers, pro wrestlers, and Biebers in the corner of the greatest boxer in the world (maybe) on the world’s grandest stage. We want to see who the fastest three-year old horse is, who can make history and, for at least two weeks, possibly be the next Secretariat.
As Americans, we love good stories. We love gathering around a radio or a TV or the internet and experiencing the same thing millions around the world and country are. We want to see redemption. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we want to see heartbreak sometimes too. And for years now, and hopefully into the future, that peek from America’s past will keep shining on the most underrated of American weekends, the first weekend in May.