It was in one of his perceptive moments that the late and often clever Jimmy Cannon characterized boxing as "the red light district" of sports. This was certified once again last month when Buster Douglas prostituted the world heavyweight title that is supposed to stand for some kind of valor and gave boxing a worse name than was already burdening it.
Against Evander Holyfield, Douglas spat on the title he owned, trivialized it, never bothered to defend it, and accepted a third-round knockout. Two weeks later, in a television interview, he even managed to exceed the disgrace of that night.
Without apology for his ugly disinterest in making a fight of it, he said, "We all made out very well that night," thereby proving he is, additionally, shameproof. He seemed to be saying that handing over his title to Holyfield on a platter for a $19 million paycheck was not a boxing sin. He had been terminated by Holyfield with one punch in Round 3. Douglas was disinclined to get up off the canvas.
It was one more item in boxing's often unsavory history. On the sidelines that night was Don King, who, for agreeing to be uninvolved in the promotion, got a juicy $4 million payday. He had claimed to have some kind of contract rights on Douglas.
King and his machinations that enabled him to control the heavyweight title for more than a decade recalls the boast of the late famed fight manager, Al Weill: "Thirty years in boxing and never pulled on a glove."
It hasn't been a pure industry. Jake La Motta admitted in a congressional hearing that he accepted a $100,000 bribe to take a dive to Billy Fox in their fixed fight in 1947. For years, Damon Runyon concealed the truth that he owned pieces of so many fighters he publicized. Mobster Frankie Carbo, who decided who would and would not fight in Madison Square Garden, died in a California prison, where he was serving time for extortion. There were other scandals, of course.
Boxing's people easily excuse some of the lesser sins as mere peccadilloes. It is testimony that one fight manager who used to be a railroad brakeman was fondly called Honest Lew Diamond on the premise that he never stole a freight car.
Buster Douglas also became a candidate for a prize for sheer chutzpah when he suggested there could be a rematch with Holyfield. Certainly not by public demand. It was evident from the opening bell that only one of the two men came to fight. Douglas chose a new role for himself as the Ferdinand of Heavyweights, reluctant to do battle and showing up only to smell the $19 million paycheck for a short night's work. At an appalling 246 pounds, he brought into the ring with him a vast waistland, offering Holyfield a bay window of opportunity. Holyfield didn't ignore it.
There can be huzzahs for Holyfield. He could have licked better fighters than Douglas that night. He seems to have graduated from the light heavyweight class with honors, and has all the requirements of a valid heavyweight champ who someday soon will be in there with Mike Tyson.
Meanwhile, there is the George Foreman factor, which has become one of boxing's outstanding mischiefs. Incredibly, he will be fighting Holyfield for the title in April, back in there as a challenger 17 years after he was dethroned by Muhammad Ali. He is now a resurrected, 41-year-old relic of the ring, who ran out of breath against Ali in the eighth round in Zaire.
To accommodate American television, they fought at 4 a.m. local time, each getting $5 million for his share, and causing Bud Collins of the Boston Globe to observe the irony of it: "Two men caught fighting outdoors at four in the morning in the U.S. would be run in by the police."
No less than a miracle of our times is the creation of Foreman as a challenger nearly 15 years after he put boxing out of his life to devote himself to Godliness in a Houston storefront church. He has evolved as an ambling Alp of a fighter, hideously overweight and waddling, yet has become a gate attraction despite his wooden movements in the ring that bear little resemblance to the boxing arts he once knew.
For this new venture, Foreman will get an $8.5 million payday, but his advantage in height and reach will be as meaningless against Holyfield, as were Douglas's. Like Douglas, he never gets up on his toes, and on the flat of his feet, forfeits the big reach advantage. Realistically, Foreman is a knockout waiting to happen, and not in his favor. Holyfield will probably leave him for ring dead early in the fight, which will go into history as boxing's latest hoax.