Let’s get two things straight. One, last September I was fired from The Ring, the venerable boxing magazine, along with editor in chief Nigel Collins and most of the editorial staff. Two, I had it coming.
So I’m not as bitter about my dismissal as you might expect, even though no one from the company told me I’d been canned or even informed me that my next column and a scheduled feature were no longer welcome. As a non-employed contractor in our brave new world of semi-employed twenty-first century servitude, I had to perceive I was fired. We all know how these arrangements work. Non-employees float in an opaque legal gelatin that can wash out from under us at any time. But remember, I had it coming.
Who killed Davey Moore …
“Not me,” says the boxing writer …
No, you can’t blame me at all.
—from “Who Killed Davey Moore?” by Bob Dylan
The brain damage detected in so many ex-fighters makes the sport basically indefensible. I didn’t wait until I was fired to say that. My Ring column pointed out for years that basic safety rules were routinely ignored without consequence to presiding officials. I issued anti-awards, called Magoos, to dangerous twits like Arthur Mercante Jr., the New York referee who stood in the ring and watched George Khalid Jones methodically beat twenty-six-year-old Beethavean Scottland to death in 2001. Mercante and others like him earned Magoos over and over. Nothing changed. Most fans get angry when a corner or a referee stops a fight. They want to see losers punched unconscious. If a guy’s eyeball is hanging from a string, heck, it’s still attached, isn’t it?
In June 2009, after five and a half savage rounds, Victor Ortiz had been knocked down twice and Marcos Maidana three times. Maidana, a junior welterweight out of Argentina, employed his usual kamikaze strategy, charging through hails of fire with his devastating punch and iron will. Ortiz, twenty-two, a craftier tactician, was wobbly, his face a mask of cuts and bruises, including a huge Technicolor bulge under his left eye and a gash over his right eye. Were he out on the street, someone would have called an ambulance. After getting up from his second knockdown he turned away, shaking his head to signal he’d had enough. After the fight, HBO analyst Max Kellerman stuck a microphone in his face. “I’m young, but I don’t think I deserve to be, you know, getting beat up like this,” said Ortiz, who as a child had been deserted in a Kansas trailer, first by his mother and later by his father. Kellerman, decent and polite off camera, a history major out of Columbia University, characterized Ortiz’s statement as “shocking” and questioned whether he should continue his boxing career with a crummy attitude like that. As I wrote at the time in The Ring, like so many fans, Kellerman had confused a spectacle created for our entertainment with real life, with something worth dying for.
Terry Norris was the first fighter I ever interviewed for The Ring—a handsome young man of twenty-six who had a slick, Sugar Ray Robinson style. That was back in 1993. When I saw him six or seven years later, retired, he already had the telltale slurred speech of an ex-fighter. I had witnessed the circle.
I’d always told myself that if I ever sat ringside at a fight in which a boxer was actually killed, I’d quit. Then one night in Carson, California, I watched Victor Burgos, a mediocre but game junior flyweight out of Mexico, get hammered into a coma by the freakishly hard-hitting Vic Darchinyan. Burgos lasted into the twelfth round before collapsing. He survived a coma and brain surgery. Weeks later he left the hospital and melted into a barrio across the border. His promoter was Don King, and King’s spokesman at the time told me that King had paid Burgos’s hospital bills. Perhaps he provided for him in other ways as well. Perhaps not. The fight was in 2007. About a year ago I spoke with a bantamweight who had run into Burgos down in Tijuana. I asked how he was doing, hoping for a fairy-tale answer. The bantam just shook his head. Well, I still hadn’t seen a fighter die in the flesh. Not exactly.
My former colleague William Dettloff used to argue that by enticing high-risk youths off the streets and into gyms the sport does more good than harm. He’s got a point. Amateur programs are mostly positive experiences for the athletes. But when they graduate to the pros, using smaller gloves, removing headgear, and competing in additional rounds, it becomes a battleground. In fact, luring kids into the pros is remarkably similar to recruiting high school seniors to fight unending wars for vague purposes. In both cases you scoop up inexperienced youngsters from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
Fighters as a rule are the nicest, most personable professional athletes around. The impossibly rigorous training regimen usually drains them of the anger that got them into boxing in the first place. And there’s a measure of grace and purity in what they do. What we refer to as the sweet science, when it’s done right, is like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins dazzling us by turns, feeling their way through a composition right on stage. Buddha, thousands of years ago, elaborated on the suffering of change. Nothing you touch will stay the same. It will deteriorate and die unless you do first. But that doesn’t stop you from clinging to it. Eventually you might hang on to a dream or idea that’s imperceptibly replaced a greater purpose, as when Colonel Nicholson’s determination to build a bridge on the River Kwai supersedes his objective of defeating the Japanese Empire.
There’s much to love about a sport packed with colorful, fascinating characters. The late cutman Chuck Bodak, for instance. If you watched boxing even a little back in the nineties you’ll remember Bodak, a gnome-like character who on fight night taped little photos all around his bald skull to inspire his fighters. Chuck was witty, interesting, and an inspired eccentric. He lived simply and gave away much of the money that came his way. Shooting the breeze with Bodak was light years more fun than covering sewer commission meetings for The Washington Post, a job I held in another lifetime.
In boxing journalism I’d found a refuge from tedium and the nagging suspicion back at the Post, surrounded by Ivy Leaguers and such, that I was an imposter. Violent though it may be, the boxing world is welcoming. Amateurs, hobbyists, and world-class pros train under the same roof. Anyone can enter a gym, walk up to a champion fighter or trainer and start a conversation. The fight game attracts interesting people. Even Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention Hemingway and Mailer. Because of that, Nigel Collins was able to acquire a classier stable of writers for The Ring than a magazine paying such awful fees could ordinarily expect.
Bodak, a few years before he died in 2009, told me he was fired from the corner of crossover superstar Oscar De La Hoya. Chuck said he never forgave him for delegating a flunky to break the news. De La Hoya is president and principal owner of Golden Boy Enterprises, the outfit that owns The Ring. So you could say he fired both of us.
Golden Boy, one of the biggest boxing promoters in the world, purchased The Ring in 2007, perhaps unaware that magazine readers and boxing fans are two distinct groups that rarely intersect. Add an $8.95 cover price to help cover the cost of the full-color glossy presentation and the balance sheet is already on the ropes, especially since it’s practically impossible to sell ads. That’s because Ring readers, though tenaciously loyal, tend to be middle-aged males with an alarming paucity of disposable income. The young spenders that advertisers crave are more attuned to mixed martial arts contests, which more accurately point to where our civilization is headed, and it’s not to higher ground. The owner of the media outlet that bills itself as “The Bible of Boxing” must think less about profits and more about maintaining a tradition that goes back to 1922. It’s like owning a floundering but storied ball club.
Of course, Golden Boy’s purchase posed an immediate conflict of interest. It was like CBS or Fox buying TV Guide. De La Hoya addressed the issue the day he announced the deal, pledging the magazine would “be held in an editorial trust” and operate “totally independent of any influence from me or others from the Golden Boy Companies as it relates to editorial direction or content.”
Added CEO Richard Schaefer: “If we do something wrong, we destroy The Ring value and the brand, and that means we made a pretty poor investment.”
Flash-forward to September 2011, when after four years of tension, the company broke off its tempestuous relationship with The Ring’s crew of editors and writers, sacking most of them, including the freelancers. It moved what’s left of the operation from the Philadelphia suburb of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, to its corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. Henceforth Michael Rosenthal and Douglass Fischer, who’d been running its website, an unabashed Golden Boy propaganda sheet, would also direct the magazine.
Schaefer, a former Swiss banker from a family of Swiss bankers, had apparently grown tired of dueling with the writers and editors he’d inherited with the magazine, writers and editors who dared to treat his promises as sincere. My very last column in the November 2011 issue disparaged not one but two upcoming Golden Boy fights. (Both cards did indeed stink.) I never specifically mentioned that these were Golden Boy events, but everyone knew.
The signs of this crack-up were there all along. When a publication wins a Pulitzer, owners bust buttons and champagne is served. Yet when our people won prizes in the annual Boxing Writers Association of America competition—our esoteric version of the Pulitzers—we never heard a thing from management. The pressure was always to sell the product, and the product wasn’t just the magazine. It was the whole company.
When I called Schaefer’s office for this article I was referred to Jeff Schowalter, Golden Boy’s vice president of finance. He insisted that all decisions about The Ring were made by The Ring, so he had nothing to tell me. I pointed out that editor Collins didn’t fire himself, and it must have been Golden Boy that moved magazine headquarters to Los Angeles since these things don’t happen by themselves. “What you have told me now is completely incorrect,” he responded. “Not factually correct. And that’s all I’m gong to say.” So according to him, much, if not everything you read in this piece is a fabrication.
The other major promoters, without exception, never believed Golden Boy would keep its word and play it straight, and their behavior toward us changed when the sale was announced. But even hard-boiled journalists can suspend their bullshit detectors when they hear something they want to believe, and in the beginning we believed the pledges of editorial independence. “It was a bad marriage from the start,” Collins said after the carnage. “Based on my experience, I have very serious doubts that a partnership between a legitimate journalistic enterprise and a promotional company could ever work.”
A year after taking over the magazine, Golden Boy brought in its own people, working out of Los Angeles, to direct The Ring’s Internet presence, which was placed outside control of the magazine’s editors. A peculiar setup. Very possibly the company saw the website as a prototype of where it planned to take the magazine all along. On the site, fights and fighters promoted by Golden Boy bask in an eternal spring under the well-known Ring logo. If you click on “Fight Night Club,” a tab that’s part of the editorial content, a page provides information on Golden Boy fight cards at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. It’s not labeled as an ad. The site also streams live telecasts of Golden Boy fights, with a site writer doing commentary.
When De La Hoya discussed the sport’s future in a Broadcasting & Cable magazine interview published in September 2010, he sounded like a cross between John D. Rockefeller and the little chicken hawk that’s always angling to barbecue the mildly concerned Foghorn Leghorn. Golden Boy, he said, should “sign all the talent and get all the TV dates…. When you have five or six promoters, it’s very difficult.” Using a cliché to urge the pursuit of original ideas, he said it’s time to think outside the box and let his company do it all. Rival promoter Bob Arum responded with typical fight biz diplomacy: “I mean, this guy is really so dumb.” But that doesn’t explain Oscar, at least not entirely.
De La Hoya, who turned pro after winning gold in the 1992 Olympics, was a gifted lightweight and junior welterweight, lightning quick, courageous, and tough. When his body forced him to campaign at higher weights he lost effectiveness but remained boxing’s own Elvis. Young women threw him their underpants. He earned the biggest purse ever paid in boxing when he fought Floyd Mayweather, who beat him, but just barely. After all receipts were in, his take was around $50 million. A poor kid from East LA, he used to carry around a food stamp salvaged from his youth. He showed it to me years ago. “I don’t ever want to forget where I came from,” he said. When I first started covering boxing an old-timer told me, “There’s no middle class in boxing.” Either you travel to a fight in a private jet or an old Toyota. Oscar made it onto the jet.
When Vittorio Parisi, a Renaissance man from (where else?) Italy, learned of the coup at Ring he e-mailed his resignation from its ratings board in protest. (His name is still listed on the board’s roster, but Parisi says this is against his wishes.) He sent me a copy of the e-mail, and with the permission of Parisi, a symphony orchestra conductor who operates his own boxing website in Italian, I sent it around to others in the boxing world. Among the responses was one from Debbie Caplan, a contracted publicist for Golden Boy, who copied in all forty-two respondents: “I for one am glad to know that Ring will be in the most capable hands of Mike Rosenthal. The Journalists [sic] that will be joining the effort are true professionals and boxing experts.” This, by the way, is the same Debbie Caplan who’d insisted that a sensational series of photos depicting De La Hoya in drag were Photoshopped. When they first raged across the Internet in 2007, she told the New York Daily News, “They’re not real. His head’s too small and it doesn’t even look like his body.” Four years later, after coming out of rehab for cocaine and alcohol, Oscar, to his credit, admitted that was him in the fishnets and lipstick.
The Ring, like so many enterprises in the global economy, ended up a small piece of a much larger business network, and it wasn’t terribly important to the owners who controlled its destiny. It was “old” media that could be picked up cheaply—for less than seven figures, bragged Schaefer—by elements of the industry it covers. It’s as though General Dynamics bought Newsweek, which then pumped out prose favoring bigger Pentagon contracts. Not hard to imagine in a world where lifelong Republican fixer Roger Ailes runs a “fair and balanced” twenty-four-hour propaganda network. Maybe the rest of the world is just catching up to boxing, which was corrupt and brutal from the start, but at least entertaining.
Ring provided me with a forum to raise intractable issues I couldn’t personally resolve. By the time it snatched my years-long refuge, the magazine embodied much that was loathsome about the fight game. I’d already said just about everything I wanted to say about boxing in my 2009 novel The Barfighter. Golden Boy, for all the wrong reasons, tore me away from the sport at last. I didn’t have the strength to do it myself, but the parting was inevitable and overdue. Now I try to mimic the attitude of ex-fighters. Invariably broke six months after retirement, they voice no regrets.