Here in the nation's capital, where you'd think news bulletins would really have news in them, the local NBC affiliate broke into "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" three times with a hot flash that Sugar Ray Leonard had won his fight with Thomas Hearns.
One of these needless interruptions came just as a parrot named Poncho was singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Two guys beating each other's brains out you can see any day; a parrot singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is a true treat. Some people have no sense of priorities.
The next night, Carson himself, who in 19 years on the air has almost never spoken out on any of the serious issues of the day, did get serious for a moment -- about The Fight. He complained that the judges were off base in the way they scored some of the rounds. For this he stopped the show in its tracks. You see, these big bang-bang boxing things come along and everybody goes crazy; sanity goes right out the window.
Nothing fans the fires of nuttiness so much as a charismatic champion; boxing keeps trying to die as a sport, but colorful or ingratiating figures come along and galvanize people and boxing gets another lease on life. Nothing so popularizes a charismatic champion as television, and Sugar Ray Leonard, whatever his prowess in the ring, can go 15 rounds with a TV camera any time. He's a champ when it comes to wallowing merrily in exposure.
Politicians now have to learn television before they learn statesmanship. Sugar Ray Leonard may have learned television before he learned how to fight; he's that good. Leonard and his promoters were shrewd enough to give just about anybody holding a microphone a chance at interviewing the champ before the fight in order to up the already ungainly ante. In addition to the pay-TV deals, rights to replay the fight on HBO or ABC were apparently being negotiated right up to the start of the first round.
So, no matter how uninterested a person was in the fight, it was almost impossible to avoid it. All the networks did their little pieces; there was a syndicated special playing around the country; and HBO, perhaps assuming it would get the replay rights, had a special too. In addition, local stations from many cities dug into their budgets to send their gung-ho sportscasters off to Las Vegas where Leonard was anything but unavailable.
He spent so much time talking with the press that you began to wonder if he was getting any training. Leonard is considered good TV because he's cute, he's personable -- so cute and personable that he stars in a 7-Up commercial -- and, unlike Muhammad Ali, he never makes controversial remarks. He really doesn't remark about anything more meaningful than boxing, and less meaningful than that you cannot get.
For one Washington sportscaster, Leonard playfully demonstrated his sparring technique. For another, he explained the brilliant strategy he would employ in fighting Hearns: He would take a poke at him, Leonard said, and then he would step to one side so that Hearns wouldn't be able to poke him. What a great idea! If Hearns had been watching that interview he might have won the fight!
But the fight promoters certainly knew what they were doing. They got more coverage (yes, from newspapers, too) than even they may have dreamed. On fight night we had the dubious privilege of being switched live via satellite to Las Vegas so that our local sportscaster could tell us who won the fight and how big which gash was over whose eye. They couldn't show the fight but they could stand there and tell us about it.
No matter what anybody says, these accounts always get down to the nitty-gritty of the sport, which is, how much damage one guy inflicted on the other. There are lengthy and loving descriptions of cuts and scars and spurts of blood. All this time, all this TV attention, all this profitable hoopla over something as primitive as one guy clobbering another into a pulp.
But it isn't the brutality that makes these big fights so annoying, really; after all, the average day's edition of "The Price Is Right" is probably more violent and hysterical (someday those women are going to turn into a rabid, rioting mob, and let's hope they go straight for host Bob Barker). What's more irritating is the way everyone hops on the bandwagon, the way the size of the circus grows and grows to take in every Jack and jerk who stands to make another dollar off the spectacle.
We're not talking small change. We're talking multimedia megabucks. The size of the purse becomes part of the fight's hype and increases the size of the purse. Money is hype; hype, money -- that is all ye need know. One might say "only in America" in reference to folly of this magnitude, but it could happen in other countries, too. Better to say "only on the planet earth," then buy the parrot a drink and ask him to sing "Melancholy Baby."