How Boxing Became a Niche Sport

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After the lightweight world championship bout on Saturday Juan Manuel Marquez walked into the post-fight press conference with a slit for a right eye. His opponent's thumb had gone into the socket in the fourth and eighth round and the eye was swollen shut. Marquez, 36, is a product of the barrios of Mexico City and is a tough hombre. He brags about drinking his own urine for strength. He gave a sly smile and in Spanish said, "I felt his thumb going in the eye. I felt the sting of the thumb." Marquez appeared to think that a digit jabbing into his eye socket was pretty funny.

Ten minutes later, Juan Diaz, his just-vanquished opponent, faced the boxing writers. He was a little late because he had to get stitched up. He wore designer sunglasses to hide his swollen eyes. His lip was cut in two places and his face had hematoma blotches from his chin to his forehead. In 12 rounds, Diaz was hit 288 times, and he seriously lost his equilibrium three or four times during the fight. At ringside, it was easy for me to see Diaz, a 26-year-old, who goes by the nickname "Baby Bull," spit blood onto the canvas as he approached his corner between rounds. It had been an exciting fight.

The bout was being held in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. (Just a few hundred yards away an Adam Lambert concert was in full swing.) The promoters of Marquez-Diaz II had pitched Saturday's fight as a worthy sequel to Marquez-Diaz I—a thriller, held in 2009, which had been named "fight of the year." Diaz had been the title holder, and he was a young, burgeoning star with good looks and a nice backstory. Unlike most pro fighters, Diaz has a college degree, has written an editorial against Arizona's immigration law, and is studying for the LSATs. The articulate Houstonian told me he is interested in studying sports law. "There are two sides to me: a regular human being, a man; and me as a fighter," he says. "The good guy and the bad guy. It is my job to be brutal in the ring, and knockout the other guy. I love it. I don't dwell on getting hurt—Parkinson's, coma, brain damage—or I would probably never fight."

In their first meeting, at 2:34 in Round 9, a tremendous right uppercut dropped Diaz flat on his back in the center of the ring. Without beginning a count, the referee immediately waved an end to the bout. It had been, as boxing writers like to describe such contests, a "war" and "epic." The Baby Bull's boxing career had been derailed. He fought several times since with varied success. Saturday's rematch, he hoped, would be his redemption. He told me a week ago that he had been working on a strategy to avoid exposing himself to Marquez' vicious upper cuts. He was full of confidence.

While there was excitement in the boxing community for Marquez-Diaz II, the promoters couldn't quite fill the arena. The crowd numbered 8,383 in the 12,000-seat capacity event space. And it was not difficult, as it is at most boxing matches in this country in this century, to see that boxing has become a subculture sport. It is treated with reverence in many immigrant communities, but mostly ignored by the mainstream media. When Diaz described himself to me as "a regular man in the ring, fighting at a championship level, that gives hope to everyday people," it was implicit that he was talking about being a role model for people in the American underclass—many immigrant newspapers treat boxers as heroes. Most of the cheers were in Spanish. Most boxing press conferences are held in tongues other than English.

In the last couple weeks boxing has taken some direct hits in the mainstream press. The sport, and its fans, had been praying for a megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao in November. That was not only supposed to be the fight of the year, but of the last 30 years. Both men are considered the best boxers of the last decade and the fight was supposed to make them $40 million each. Alas, the secret negotiations fell apart when one side claimed that no negotiations had even taken place. The non-negotiation negotiations turned into bad soap opera combined with pure farce and the sports media took boxing's incompetence to task—yet again. And then a writer for the New Yorker—which published A.J. Liebling, author of The Sweet Science and America's greatest boxing writer, for goodness sake—belittled the sport in a story about Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather. As Bert Sugar, the boxing historian, lamented to me recently, "If you look at the amount of hours dedicated to it on television, poker has become much more popular than boxing."

It's too bad that the sport has fallen out of favor. There are a variety of obvious reasons—the emergence of pay-per-view, the alphabet soup of belts, the lack of an American heavyweight champion—but perhaps the aesthetic of the sweet science has fallen of fashion. While not a classic, Saturday's fight proved that boxing can have its compelling and appealing moments.

Baby Bull, clad in black shorts with baby blue trim, began the bout by jabbing Marquez and then circling out from his reach. It was smart, but there was the slightest bit of predictability to the strategy, especially against a boxer with the caliber of three-time world champion Marquez, who adjusted quickly, came inside at tricky angles, and hit Diaz with a variety of combinations. The Mexican outlanded Diaz in every round. Despite holding the fight on American soil, the MARQUEZ! MARQUEZ! chants tended to be louder and more consistent than cheers for Diaz. Each round was relatively equal, but Marquez was just a little better, a little craftier, and more of a master of the intricacies of the sweet science. By my calculation Marquez won nine of the 12 rounds, and the judges agreed giving him the unanimous decision. After the fight, Diaz contemplated retirement—and law school—while Marquez stood on a neutral corner rope and saluted the crowd. "Like every true Mexican warrior we fought with our hearts and left it all in the ring," he would say. He was once again the lightweight champion of the world.

He told the crowd that he wanted to fight Manny Pacquiao, who is considered the best pound-for-pound champion in the world, a Congressman in his native Philippines, and one of the more compelling stories in the beleaguered sport. The two men have fought twice: once a draw, and another fight that Pacquiao won in a very controversial split decision. Said Marquez: "The trilogy with Pacquiao is what I want. It's good for all fight fans, for Mexicans, for the Filipinos. Everyone wants to see it." Post-fight, Richard Schaefer, who promotes Marquez, told me that he would "love" to see Marquez take on Pacquiao in a mega-fight, but thought it was highly unlikely. Of course, a brawl between two great champions makes sense, but in boxing, unlike most sports, promoters must agree to get two superstars together. Pacquiao is promoted by a rival outfit, and both sides are feuding over the Mayweather-Pacquiao non-fight. As always lately, boxing just can't seem to get out of its own way.

Marquez and Diaz were finished for the night. The two men, blotchy faced, sore, and facing different fates, left the press conference, as the time neared midnight.

"There were no losers here tonight," said Schaefer.

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