In June of 1982 the sports editor of the Tribune had a momentary lapse of reason and sent me to cover the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas.
My prior experience up to that point consisted mostly of Friday night high school football games and the occasional Suns contest at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, so it’s fair to say my eyes were wide open when I got off the plane.
The fight didn’t live up to the hype — Holmes dominated Cooney and won by TKO in the 13th round — but it did provide me with two indelible memories.
At the pre-fight party, I somehow found myself in a conversation with Farrah Fawcett. I don’t remember a single thing I said but I was 21, single and talking to one of Charlie’s Angels.
Some things you never forget.
I didn’t have a great seat for the fight. I was in the last row of the stands, high above the ring. But I didn’t need a great vantage point to feel the incredible anticipation and intensity that surged through the crowd just before the bout began.
A few older sportswriters had told me there was nothing like the final moments before the first round of a heavyweight championship fight.
On that warm summer evening, I finally discovered what they were talking about.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that same surge just before Sergei “The White Wolf” Liakhovich and Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs fought Saturday at Chase Field for the WBO heavyweight championship.
What I felt, instead, was sadness.
I used to be a huge boxing fan. I grew up watching the great heavyweights of the 1970s: Ken Norton, Holmes, George Foreman and, of course, Muhammad Ali. Later on, I was captivated by Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.
But the sport has lost its appeal to me, particularly what is supposed to be the crown jewel of the sport — the heavyweight division.
It’s a joke, what has happened to the weight class that once gave us so many memorable fights. You know who your heavyweight champions are this morning?
Wladimir Klitschko, Nicolay Valuev, Oleg Maskaev and the 34-yearold Briggs, who scored a 12th-round TKO when Liakhovich was knocked down and then, a few seconds later, fell through the ropes even though Briggs didn’t hit him with a punch.
None of the four would have lasted three rounds with Earnie Shavers — or are as entertaining as 73-year-old promoter Don King.
Why is the heavyweight division barren of excitement — and talent?
Certainly, America’s best athletes today would rather play football or basketball. The kid who might have paid his dues in the ring 20 years ago is now an NFL strong safety.
But the sport of boxing could have survived the defections had it a modicum of common sense. Instead, there are so many alphabet organizations — WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, etc. – and belts that even championship fights don’t mean much to the general public.
Ali-Norton was significant because we knew the winner would be the HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD!
Liakhovich-Briggs hardly piqued our curiosity because there are three other heavyweight champions.
Perhaps a great American heavyweight would rekindle interest in the division. Mike Tyson cut a wide swath through the public’s consciousness until he self-destructed.
But even a compelling figure like Tyson won’t return boxing to the forefront until the sport cleans itself up. A national boxing commission is needed to regulate fighters, promoters and trim the fat.
Until then, we’ll be left with Saturday’s, uh, spectacle. The first heavyweight championship fight to be held in Arizona drew maybe 5,000 fans. It was a Diamondbacks batting practice crowd. Even some ringside seats were empty — and at $519 a pop, why wouldn’t they be? The fans that bothered to show up were put to sleep. Liakhovich and Briggs lumbered around the ring and occasionally got close enough to each other to throw a punch. The booing started 20 seconds into the fight and never stopped. Barry Bonds got a better reception the last time he was at Chase Field.
“What a night. What a night,” King said. “The crowd was just tremendous. It was one of the most electrifying crowds we’ve ever had.” Oh, the man can lie.
But we cannot. Briggs may call himself a champion, but there was only one true outcome Saturday. Boxing lost. Again.