At one time in America, the country’s sporting scene was dominated by baseball and boxing. Even as recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, boxing was still in the forefront of the American sporting mind with great champions such as Hearns, Leonard, Hagler, Tyson, and Holyfield. But today, boxing has completely fallen off the radar screen in terms of fan interest as the sport has been plagued by corruption, controversy, and public concern about underlying brutality.
What’s interesting, though, is that as boxing has faded from the glory days of Dempsey, Marciano, and Ali, the public is still captivated by the sport on the silver screen. Sylvester Stallone was just named to the 2011 Class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his work on the “Rocky” series. I bet you can probably name more boxing movies of recent vintage than actual fighters. In addition to “Rocky XXIII,” (or wherever the latest one is, I lost count) there was “Million Dollar Baby,” “Cinderella Man,” “The Hurricane,” “Ali,” and “The Boxer.” The latest example is “The Fighter,” which debuts today. The biopic of Lowell-based fighter “Irish” Micky Ward stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. It has gotten fantastic reviews and generated some Oscar buzz.
And now we have definitive proof that boxing has “jumped the shark” as a spectator sport in the United States. The most compelling fighter in the world today is the charismatic Manny Pacquiao. He has generated buzz all around the globe. But when Sports Illustrated went looking for a boxer to pose for the cover of this week’s issue, it wasn’t Pacquiao who got the call. It was Mark Wahlberg. (If you open the fold-out cover, you can see the actual inspirations for the characters portrayed by Wahlberg and Bale: Ward and Dicky Eklund.) In it’s review of “The Fighter,” SI calls it the “best sports movie of the decade.”
Boxing has always been a compelling sport for millions because of its primal nature and the individual drama that unfolds inside the ring. A great deal of the appeal of boxing going back to the bare-knuckle days, was that it was a venue for controlled violence. Americans could satiate their blood thirst from the safety behind the ropes. It seems that has changed. Maybe it’s because fans feel too complicit in the physical damage that can be done to the boxers in the ring. They are still drawn to the drama, brutality, and spectacle of the ring, but today fans head to the safety of their plush seats in the local Cineplex to quench their blood thirst—along with a medium popcorn and sixty-four ounces of Diet Coke.