When he called boxing "a rough, dangerous, and thrilling sport, the most basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions and -- at its best -- one of the purest of art forms," Red Smith, who could be romantic on rather short notice, was writing of the sport, not the business. Boxing as a business is no art, but it is complicated.
Thomas Hauser's book shows just how complicated it is. He brilliantly crafts the story of Billy Costello's rise to the superlightweight championship, ending with his successful defense of the title in November 1984, against which he counterpoints the individuals and institutions who profit from the business. And because few of the 5,000 to 10,000 pro fighters worldwide make money at it -- TV, the print media, promoters and managers greedily grab the lion's share -- the book's emphasis is on the business rather than the sport.
To start with, boxing is corrupt. 'Twas ever thus. Barney Nagler's "James Norris and the Decline of Boxing" (1964) detailed its criminality as it foundered after the retirement of Joe Louis. The fistic and oral gifts of Muhammad Ali coupled with the insatiable needs of TV brought a renaissance in the present era, providing the pivots of Hauser's book. He is weak on history, often awry on facts and tradecraft, and his style is uneven (John Schulian's "Writers' Fighters & Other Sweet Scientists" is easily superior on rendering the purely fighting aspects in felicitous prose). His writing is littered with howlers but these graceless lapses are compensated for by his deft delineation of what makes boxing -- a sport in which only the ring is square -- flourish.
Hauser lived hundreds of hours with Costello and his management, got access to the internal files of two TV networks and sat in on multimillion-dollar negotiations in promoter Don King's office. From this rigorous research he concludes that boxing today is where American business was in the age of the robber barons -- monopolistic without effective antitrust control, extremely remunerative, but a business in which the boxers themselves get only crumbs from the pie. Licensing and scoring procedures vary with the state, and rather than being directed by a national commission, boxing is administered (for which, read "exploited") by promoters, TV executives and an alphabet soup of national and international bodies.
Fighters don't last and don't make money. Promoters do. Since Ali's rise there have been more than 100 champions in the expanded and quality-diluted 15 weight divisions, but really only two promoters, Bob Arum and Don King.
Fixed fights are common if not new (Jake LaMotta once commented, "You win some, you throw some"), and, because most managers don't want a competitive opponent, many fights are mismatches, increasing the risk of injury or death. Duk Koo Kim, killed by Ray Mancini on TV in 1982, was not even listed among the top 40 Korean fighters. Ring deaths (more than 500 since 1919) averaged only three a year through 1940 -- the heyday of boxing, when some 5,000 local clubs in America ran weekly shows -- compared with double that since 1970, which suggests that contemporary boxers are in far poorer condition or subject to more mismatches (to catch the current flavor, Oklahoma in 1983 let middleweight Benny Harjo fight with a pacemaker regulating his heart!).
Against this background, Billy Costello in 1978 begins his quest for a championship. With a good manager and expert trainer, a Golden Gloves title and powerful fists, he mows down has-beens and never-wases and wins the WBC superlightweight division in 1984. The only fighters of note he beats, however, are journeyman Ronny Shields and over-the-hill veterans Bruce Curry, Leroy Haley and Saoul Mamby. Through it all, Costello never really learns to think in the ring, and his technique remains mechanical and predictable.
On top, he muses, "I want to retire with one million dollars when I'm thirty years old. But one punch in the wrong place and I wouldn't even be champion anymore." Prophetic words these: On Aug. 21, after this book went to press, Costello met unranked Lonnie Smith, a heavy hitter managers usually avoid, was knocked out and retired from the ring (for five days) just short of his 30th birthday. Had he stayed retired it would have meant that, despite having had an honest manager, a championship, a 34-1 career and parsimonious spending habits, he would have made less money as a boxer than he would have had he remained a meat cutter. His return to the ring after losing to an unknown promises even smaller paychecks ahead.
So Costello's saga contains a twist author Hauser didn't foresee -- that boxing is sordid even for the fairly successful. It is so bad that even that egregious establishmentarian, Howard Cosell, has called for its abolition with these words, "You'll never clean it up. Mud can never be clean." Because boxing -- the most violent activity known to man short of police work or war -- can't be made fair, much less safe, Cosell is right: It ought to be banned by civilized nations. After finishing Hauser's book, thoughtful readers will come to share Cosell's view.