The phone rang at 8:30 in the morning, the voice full with righteous fury.

"Did you see the LeDoux-Holmes fight?"

He used the word "fight" contemptuously, as if it carried fleas.

"What a mismatch. There ought to be a commissioner to disallow fights like that. They wouldn't let the Pittsburgh Steelers play some high school team. They should never have let LeDoux fight Holmes. LeDoux could have been killed."


The ultimate stain on the canvas begets the knee-jerk buzz phrase. It's one of the few things in contemporary American society -- just as on the day following an airplane crash people will demand increased safety in air travel as if in an epiphany -- that on the day after a Cleveland Denny dies from injuries suffered in the ring, some people will call for the abolition of boxing, and some other sofabed solons, not willing to go quite so far, will call for a national commissioner to prevent mismatches. As if mismatches were so irrefutably obvious, as if a commissioner would surely know. As if LeDoux was so hopelessly inferior to Larry Holmes that their fighting was tantamount to licensing and encouraging murder. What a glorious flag hindsight is.

This is neither to praise LeDoux, nor to bury the notion that he was mismatched against Holmes. In fact, LeDoux was LeDone from the moment the fight began. But what if it had gone the other way? What if one of LeDoux's ludicrous overhand rights had found Holmes' head in the manner of Ken Norton verses Duane Bobick? Holmes' chin isn't exactly carved on Mount Rushmore; he's been down before. What if LeDoux had knocked him out? What of the mismatch then? You wouldn't have heard a word about it. What you would have heard was the theme to "Rocky" played over and over again, and what you would be reading is the Scott saga -- a man who fought to get enough money to help a wife with cancer and a son with epilepsy -- written in capital letters on sheet music for trumpets and trombones.

Admittedly, LeDoux's strategy was bizarre, and made to seem almost repulsive by Holmes' speed. LeDoux would cut him down like a pine tree. LeDoux would allow Holmes to use him as a punching bag for 10 to 12 rounds -- as if LeDoux's face were a white wall and Holmes a Jackson Pollack -- in the hope that Holmes would tire, grow frustrated, and then, when Holmes was exhausted physically and mentally, LeDoux would cut him down like a pine tree. Even after the fight was stopped, LeDoux insisted the plan was working; he was catching enough punches with his face to tire Holmes, a dizzying claim. Yet, Ali had done it to Foreman. Weaver had done it to Tate. LeDoux had almost done it himself to Norton. Mismatches, right? Should never have been allowed. HE COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED.

Not that it is any endorsement of boxing, but in fact, LeDoux doesn't get killed. His career shows, if little else, that he can take punching. This is a capability much valued among boxers. After his fight with Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard thought it a point of personal pride that he absorbed a fierce beating without going down.

There is no way to look inside LeDoux's head to determine how scrambled his brain is, but you must give him some credit for knowing his limitations. Putting aside the obvious sympathy he engenders for his familialar situation and his noble sacrifice, LeDoux has been a professional fighter for many years now -- his choice -- and has an understanding of what he must do to win. (For the ringside commentator to say that "This isn't fit for prime time" seemed gratuitous. Had television not bought the rights to the fight for the express purpose of turning a profit the fight would never have taken place in prime time or any other time.) He is terribly slow and easily hit. But using that to whatever advantage there is inherent in it, LeDoux has won 26 of 38 bouts and was ranked eighth among heavyweights in the world. To the best of our knowledge he was judged medically fit to continue in that style, as self-destructive as it may seem.

In no way was this a Steelers-Phelps game. Given the rules of boxing -- at the same time savage, yet equitable -- in which people fight within their weight class and often within their experience level, this was more like the Steelers playing the Baltimore Colts. When football fans cry "Mismatch," Pete Rozelle says, "On any given Sunday . . ."

Only rarely will a nonentity be given a heavyweight championship fight. The public simply will not buy it. The last time it happened, Leon Spinks took the title from Muhammad Ali. HE COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED.

Without arguing against a commissioner -- in fact, having such a commissioner, assuming he was an honest man and insisted on having both an opthalmologist and a neurologist at ringside with the authority to stop a fight, might help clean up the corruption and shoddy medical practices in the sport -- why would anyone assume he would have disallowed the LeDoux-Holmes bout? Who is Holmes supposed to fight? Is he to be penalized for his apparent skill? What's wrong with LeDoux? Should his masochistic style keep him from a shot at a championship?

This commissioner, with the wisdom of Solomon and the compassion of Bambi, how does he come off telling LeDoux, "Sorry, you're just not qualified. Forget your ranking and your experience. It wouldn't be good for boxing. It wouldn't be good for you."

What's LeDoux supposed to tell his family? How is he supposed to get money for his excessive medical needs? It's not as if he's able to give up fighting and make $75,000 a year as a tax accountant.

Would a commissioner choose to deny LeDoux his right to earn a living in the way he sees fit? Would a commissioner want to tell LeDoux, "It's all right for you to risk getting your face mashed into oatmeal for $1,000 bucks per pop in a club fight, but you can't get a shot at the championship because YOU COULD BE KILLED." It can be argued if there is any heavyweight alive who won't be killed, it is Scott LeDoux. And if there is any heavyweight alive without a crippling knockout punch, just an array of excellent boxing skills, it's Larry Holmes.

You simply can't penalize LeDoux for being an opponent. Just as you can't penalize Holmes for being competent, for wanting to fight and for wanting to defend his title against someone he thinks he can beat.

When I was younger, I was taught that boxing was the manly art of self-defense, the sweet science. I am more inclined now to see it as brutal and socially unacceptable because of the wreckage it leaves, because of the sadness of a punch-drunk man, the tragedy of a death in the family. But boxing is historically and culturally imperative, there in Athens as it is today in Bloomington, Minn. It is the pornography of sport, appealing to our dark side, offering vicarious, cathartic release to our aggressions. The boxer, who carries a reminder of every glove that cut him till he cried out, is our surrogate courage and hero. Misplaced though the emotion may be, he wears our colors.

Scott LeDoux is one of them. As are bleeders like Vito Antuofermo and Chuck Wepner, and dancers like Ali and Sugar Ray. They put their mouths where the money is. It's all they know.

When his fight was over, LeDoux lucid and outraged, said convincingly, "This is what I do for a living. This is my job." I'm not convinced that the film "Rocky" wasn't the worst subliminal message of misguided machismo ever to surface, but in LeDoux's case, barring him from fighting Larry Holmes would have been paternalism of the worst kind. Short of banning boxing, how do you ban Scott LeDoux? Discrimination, even on the side of the angles, is discrimination. Whose life is it, anyway?