Fight game is fading fast

Aug 22 2011 - 4:30pm

PHILADELPHIA -- No, matter how much, how long, or how well he fights, Bernard Hopkins cannot avoid discussions about retirement.

That's because anyone he really wants to fight or anyone we would really like to see him fight is . . . well . . . retired.

"I want the Joe Calzaghe fight so bad," Hopkins said recently. "I would cross the pond for that one."

One problem: The Welshman, who beat Hopkins in 2008, has been retired for 2 1/2 years.

Happily retired, it seems.

So Bernard presses on, a man without an era, conjuring grudges against fighters half his age with little or no market appeal. Chad Dawson, his Oct. 15 opponent, recently described his boxing style as "laid-back."

Quick, how do I order the pay-per-view to that one?

Truth is, with the number of brand-name fighters at an all-time low and the number of those brands at the higher weight classes practically nonexistent, Hopkins might soon have to leave the planet to find someone of interest to fight.

Quick -- name five active boxers besides Hopkins.

OK, name two.

Employees of HBO, Showtime and their subsidiaries are ineligible.

Not that they would do much better than the rest of us. But boxing still lives there, its followers not unlike those who tune into "True Blood" every week. On HBO, it's a biweekly event. With a dearth of self-made stars like Hopkins, Showtime created weight-division tournaments, the winner claiming one of the alphabet-soup titles.

Oh, yes. The refereeing is still a little suspect. On Saturday night, Abner Mares won Showtime's bantamweight tournament at The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas by repeatedly punching Joseph King Kong Agbeko in the um, hard rocks.

Well, they're hard now.

No, I'm not making this up. Apparently in this era of boxing, you must not only beat the champion, but assure there will be no children to exact revenge. The referee, Russell Mora, is getting the Richard Steele treatment, by the way, especially after his postfight interview with my old pal, Al Bernstein.

"First and foremost, I have to enforce the rules," Mora said. "Those punches were on the belt line. It's a fair punch. I have to call it fair. It would be unfair to give the other guy an advantage just because he says it was low."

He and anyone watching.

Here's an idea: Why not tape ketchup packets to the, um, area in question? That'll leave a mark.

I do miss that about boxing. I haven't been on the scene in almost two decades, but reading up on it is like stepping into a time machine. There are still bad decisions, there's still an IBF, there's still a WBC. And Jose Sulaiman, who I think just celebrated his 150th birthday, is still being criticized for unsavory machinations.

HBO's Larry Merchant is still channeling Howard Cosell, and Bernstein still doesn't look a day over 100. Bob Arum is still around, I'm told, although no one seems to be able to tell me whether Don King is retired.

Imagine that: Bernard Hopkins outlasting even Don King.

We didn't always get along, Don and I -- OK, he sued me once. But there were some good days, too, like those two weeks in Tokyo when he allowed me to be a member of Mike Tyson's entourage as he prepared to fight Buster Douglas. You think mixed martial arts is nasty? You ought to see Don devour a plate of chicken wings at 10 in the morning.

While arguing with George Foreman on the phone.

Anyway, I took way too much blame for the result of that fight, and our relationship was never the same afterward. But I miss him just the same.

Really, I miss the era, an era that I believe would not have allowed Bernard to hang around this long. Boxing was already in decline in the early 1990s, but you still had super fights that drew in regular sports fans a few times a year. In my first few months as the boxing columnist for The National Sports Daily, I covered George Foreman-Gerry Cooney, Vinny Pazienza-Greg Haugen, Tyson-Douglas, and Meldrick Taylor vs. Julio Caesar Chavez, the best of them all. Ray Leonard was still around back then. Roy Jones Jr. was just getting started. Evander Holyfield, Michael Moorer, Razor Ruddock, Lennox Lewis all fought inside that time span.

Amid it all, a little-known Philadelphia fighter named Bernard Hopkins was starting a string of 22 straight victories.

And to think we thought boxing was thinned out then.

MMA has hurt boxing not only at the gate, but through association. The dilution of titles and divisions was harmful enough. Now there is this hybrid sport -- low-brid, the remaining purists still argue -- that mandates that boxing pare down its pugilists and work harder to develop story lines. Thus, the various behind-the-scenes shows promoting upcoming fights: pay-per-view infomercials, really.

Hopkins once habitually fought with those networks over opponents and pay. Now he is their dream. A well-known, albeit well-worn, brand who shows up on time and in shape, ready to work.

It might not sound sexy to me or you. But in Boxing 2011, it's the definition of a superstar.

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