SportsProf

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Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Fates of Boxing and Tennis (and Perhaps Wrestling)

Let's face it. No one really cares about boxing and tennis anymore, and perhaps wrestling while we're at it. At least at the Olympic level.

I have my theories on this. As for boxing, people cannot escape the thought that they think the matches are brutal and fixed. Brutal in that it's a rough sport, brutal in that some people think it to be human cock-fighting, brutal in that people aren't all that interested in the "force your will on one another and make them submit" type of sport. A basketball coach about whom I have written once attributed this string of thoughts to his father: "The strong take from the weak, and the smart take from the strong." Touche. People are more interested in sports where the smart and skilled can finesse matters instead of bludgeon their opponents. As for fixed, the judging can be very subjective (just ask Roy Jones, Jr. and Evander Holyfield, among many others). Not much more needs to be said about the judging.

In the glory days of Olympic boxing (1976, where Sugar Ray Leonard starred), boxing was one of the first things people watched, along with basketball and track and field. Not any more. Has there been any prime-time coverage of boxing? Have you watched any on the TV channels that cover the Olympics? I used to look forward to the Olympic boxing through, say, the 1984 Olympics (the year of Holyfield's disqualification) or even the 1988 Olympics (the year that Roy Jones, Jr. got the royal shaft), but not since.

I'll skip to wrestling, whose demise has been well-chronicled in the U.S., where many colleges have dropped their wrestling programs. In fairness to wrestling, the athletes who wrestle are in great shape, and wrestling, while a tough sport, doesn't have the brutality that boxing has. Wrestlers don't bludgeon one another. But, somehow, the "forcing your will" aspect where an individual can conquer another individual doesn't seem to have that much appeal anymore. Yes, Rulon Gardner, who is very charming, has given a bigger face to Greco-Roman wrestling than it has ever enjoyed, but wrestling, while never very popular, seems to be pushed further and further into the background with each passing Olympics. People like the team events better, or, more bluntly, with respect to the individual events, the ones where people are as much competing with themselves than against an opponent.

As for tennis, most sports fans think that tennis players are machines, enigmatic at best, flaky at worst, and usually spoiled. Tennis is a game for the wealthy, for the rich, preppy kids whose parents can afford the necessary coaching, you know the entire rant. Of course, no sport deserves to get painted, or tarred, in this case, with a broad brush, but the combination of a lack of personalities, the relative meaninglessness of all but the Grand Slam events, and the bad evolution of equipment (i.e., if you can serve it at 140 m.p.h., you can hold your own and perhaps win your matches without getting too tired) have combined to throw tennis so far down the list of preferred sports that no one really cares that Messrs. Federer and Roddick are out of the Olympic singles tournament.

Imagine if it were men's basketball, the 100-meter dash, or a headline-grabbing sport. But the big-name tennis players lose, they get headlines because they're big names, but really, no one cares. Do you?

In the midst of all of this, the interesting thing is that USA Baseball failed to qualify for the Olympics in the sport Americans invented, and there hasn't been a hue and cry about that. Why not? Probably because all baseball fans realize that unlike basketball, the best players in the world cannot make it to the Olympics because the Olympics fall smack within the pennant races of Major League Baseball. So while baseball fans will shake their heads in some amazement that the U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympics, they at least give themselves the anesthetic of a plausible (if not somewhat lame) excuse. An excuse, by the way, because of the timing of professional seasons, the basketball players do not get.

So whither boxing, wrestling and tennis? The sad truth is that few really care enough to answer the question.

Why?

Because they're too busy watching basketball, gymnastics and swimming, and they're waiting eagerly for the track and field events to heat up.

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