Even Howard Cosell was disgusted as he walked away from his postfight interview with Muhammad Ali Monday night. Ali had just won a yawner by decision after 15 rounds of alternately holding Alfredo Evangelista and playing peek-a-boo with him. It was artful showmanship, nothing new to Cosell.
But Cosell gave his national television audience a dramatic recap of Ali's illustrious fights of the past, recapping the many triumphs against great odds. He concluded with a poignant question addressed to the Great One. "Why?" he asked. "Why this?"
For once, Cosell asked what we all wanted to know. But Ali's response seemed typical of a new, rather destructive attitude toward boxing. He brushed Cosell's penetrating question aside, pretended not to hear the adjective "dreadful" describing the fight, and launched into a free, nationally televised superhype for the upcoming movie in which he stars, "The Greatest."
Boxing used to offer a man of raw physical talent a short career and a long retirement in which to dust off the punch-drunk cobwebs in his brain. Today's boxers are a craftier group. Today there are few like Ken Norton who will bulldoze across the ring in Madison Square to thump a Duane Bobick and end a scheduled 15-rounder in 58 seconds. No. most of them realize that stringing out succes - even failure - is to their advantage.
And so, we are into the era of boxers as supershills. Those with heft and punch use up their time in the ring packaging and selling themselves. Those with nothing have no choice but to hawk parts of themselves for commercial spots and bank the money. They are not boxers but muscled billboards.
Alfredo Evangelista, two weeks a citizen of Spain and a native of Uruguay, strode into Capital Centre for his title fight Monday night wearing a knee-length, bottle-green velvet robe embroidered with his name and the curious word, "Interviu." It brought tears to many eyes when it was later revealed that his mother back in South America had sent him the robe after having it blessed at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes.
But the carefully stitched word, "Interviu," was not a religious leftover. No, the word, which also turned up on both legs of his boxing shorts, made Evangelista $20,000 richer (not counting his $85,000 purse for fighting Ali). Alfredo Evangelista, marketed in Spair as "El Durable," sold to an avant garde Spanish magazine named "Interviu" exclusive interview rights plus advertising space on his back and thighs.
When world lightweight champion Roberto Duran first appeared in the ring, there was the suspicion that he was advertising the popular American movie, "Rocky," which was inscribed on his shoetops. But no, that was not Duran's gimmick.
His ring attire was color-coordinated brown and gold; the brightly colored Panamanian flag was prominently displayed. The whole show was being viewed back in Panama, one of his countrymen said proudly.Curiously, Duran, who is know for his knockout punch, went the distance, winning by decision over Javier Muniz. Prominent on TV between rounds were the men in Duran's corner. They all wore shirts stitched with the motto, "Super Malta." Another Duran nickname, right? Wrong.
The man who earned, in the streets of Panama, the nickname, "Manos de Piedro," hands of stone, is not known as Super Malta. Super Malta is the brand name of what one partisan man in the cheering Latin crowd around Duran's corner called, 'The best Panamanian beer."
Not all the boxers sold pieces of themselves to outside interests. Alfredo Escalera, a self-propelled, oneman publicity troup, had curled up for a nap on a massages table in his locker room before his early fight with Carlos Becerril. Escalera's pet boa constrictor. Alli, was in a cage nearby. It was not so much for luck. It was because Escalera and his wife planned to make a fast getaway from the Washington area when the fight ended. "We own a farm back in Puerto Rico and there are things to do now," Liliana Escalera explained, saying they were booked on an early Tuesday flight.
Escalera dispatched his opponent and then allowed himself the public pleasure of a crowd-pleasing Latin conga step, only reluctantly sharing a somewhat nationalistic spotlight with the Puerto Rican flag and Gov. Carlos Romero Barcolo.
The pacesetter for the evening was, of course, Ali. he is the one man who has mastered the art of boxing while moonlighting with the fine art of conning. He now fights like he has given up the former but is still working on the latter.
In his defense, I guess it must be just as hard to act out a 15-round fight as to fight one. It must be just as difficult to hold up a 200-pound lug and make it look hard as it is to go after an angry Joe Frazier or a hostile George Foreman or an itchy Ken Norton when there is blood to let.
And it goes beyond Ali to the now desperate world of boxing. Commercialism is considered before talent. Promoter Don King had his logos, "Don" and a crown, branded on every inanimate object at Capital Centre Monday night. Everything there had a price. Even the lime-green imitation leather belt awarded Ali for his successful title defense was buckled with a huge imitation gold metal stamped at the bottom with an advertisement for Adidas.
I passed Evangelista in the hall outside his dressing room as he was leaving. He stands to get rich now boxing in Europe. He went the distance with Ali, remember? He was wearing a snazzy windbreaker with the letters, "Porsche," printed on one sleeve. I didn't have the heart to ask him if the car makers had bought that arm. I only asked about his raw right eye and he gingerly lifted a red rubber icepack to let me inspect it.
"De nada," he mumbled, which translates, "It's nothing." That was quite an adequate definition, not only of his fight but of all of boxing today.