Boxing embraces the ‘two headed snake’ of nostalgia and celebrity

“‘Remember when’, is the lowest form of conversation”

Anthony Soprano (James Gandolfini), The Sopranos Season 6

The news Felix Sturm, once a credible middleweight, will fight again this month, aged 41 and a full four years after his final bout, albeit successfully for a title at the time, comes as no great surprise. Just another unnecessary swansong from a chorus line of by-gone prizefighters who can’t quite let go.

It is a timeless fable for grizzled pugs. From Jack Johnson to Sugar Ray, Tommy Farr to Smokin’ Joe, fighters have always returned, financially or emotionally motivated far beyond the reach of their prime. And for those that don’t, the comeback is never far from their mind, or the lips of an inquisitor. Whether champion or chump, intact or broken, there is always one more fight. As another old heavyweight out of Philadelphia, himself no stranger to punching for pay in his fifties, lamented to his confidant, Paulie; “There is still some stuff in the basement.”

Currently, ever more old men are clutching on to that same straw of delusion or financial necessity. In part, they are inspired by the sport’s new money, flooding in from a forgiving demographic untethered from any grounding in the artistry boxing is the canvas to. And perhaps more broadly, just another manifestation of middle age rebellion in the 21st century. Against a back drop of perceived political correctness, of an expectation of empathy they were never extended and society’s belated pursuit of equality and a path away from the historic misogyny of power, ageing anti-heroes have enjoyed a renaissance. Providing an abstraction through which the enlightenment of today can be rejected.

If only by proxy, characters, grey of temple and grinding against a world changing around them capitalise on this skewed logic to those who feel displaced by progress. By projecting a version of the past that never truly existed or is best evolved, profiteers have used such ill-conceived rhetoric to take nationalism to the world’s nuclear thrones.

Cinema has reflected this narrative, of disillusionment, some more positive than others, by resurrecting Balboa and Rambo, creating Bryan Mills, green lighting Eastwood’s Gran Torino, twice running with Denzel’s reprisal of Robert McCall and, most topically, Mike Tyson appearing as Mike Tyson.

The old man retribution story has become a popular artistic vehicle.

Boxing’s capitalist motif ensures this demand for ageing heroes is embraced and nurtured too. Returning fighters, Martinez, Mayweather, DeLaHoya to name three who fight or tease their intention to, and exhibitionists like Iron Mike, Roy Jones and the presumed to be next Evander Holyfield, have noted a changing audience for sport’s oldest pursuit. Boxing has too. Or more specifically, its promoters and broadcasters have. The news Mike Tyson’s 8 rounds with Roy Jones sold over 1 million pay per views at $50 a pop in the US will only fan the flames of the concept. Projections suggest the figure may be as high as 1.5m, a $75 million purse pot for those inclined to contemplate and a long way from a similar venture in 2006, just a year into Mike’s retirement, when he boxed Corey Sanders to little media attention. Much has changed in the interim. Mike got older, but a younger audience grew up.

Alongside these nostalgic charades, and often an enabler to their lure, YouTube celebrities and entrants from other realms are slipping on the gloves and windmilling at each other. With huge social media entourages in their thrall, the quality of the action is of little consequence. Personalities bring new money, a new dynamic to promoting boxing and new eyeballs. The Fancy, as those who thronged around the fighting men of the 18th century were once known, is changing.

From KSI, to Mayweather in Japan, MacGregor, to the curio of Tyson versus Jones and Snoop Dog on commentary, boxing is suddenly flooded with innovation about how to present itself to the masses and what components draw a crowd. For purists, there are fears that the sport may bastardise the original text so much, that the meaning, the purpose, the craft that made heroes of the same Sugar Ray, the same Smokin’ Joe, could be lost and, over time, that which drew these interlopers will be sacrificed in a sea of ambiguity.

“Jake Paul. Who is he? They say he’s a youtuber…..what does that mean? What does he do on YouTube??”

‘Iceman’ John Scully, Retired Boxer, Active Trainer @IceJohnScully

By welcoming this new impetus, by affording them an indistinguishable platform to the true greats at work in boxing, by permitting them to fight without head gear, by licencing them, when patently ill-prepared, is a risky strategy. The already murky waters of what is and isn’t professional boxing are muddied still further. “Yeh, but look at these numbers!!” Promoter XY and Z might say. It is those numbers that is attracting the attention of fallen fighters, eagerly name checking the lucrative, zero risk YouTube star more readily than the contemporaries with whom they’ve already tangled. Self-interest is the only interest, the very pulse of the capitalism at boxing’s heart. When the dollar is King, short-termism will always prevail.

To that end, it would be easy to theorise that Felix Sturm caught wind of comments made by former foe Oscar DeLaHoya about a potential return. For those not new to the noble art, you will recall DeLaHoya was awarded a generous decision against Sturm on his way to the Executioner’s block. A decade ago. Or was it two?

Did Felix Sturm recline in the health and wealth of retirement somewhere in rural Germany, (I’m imagining a rural pile, stay with me), earned taking licks from Macklin, Murray, Barker and Soliman, and muse; ‘If Tyson can do a million buys, what might a DeLaHoya comeback fight make?……it might make me a few Deutschmarks for a start.’

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