In The NCAA Tournament, A Recurring Metaphor

At least once a day during the NCAA tournament, a color commentator calling a game on CBS or a SportsCenter anchor calling the highlights later on ESPN will say something along the lines of “It was like two heavyweights going at it.” Or, “This is like a championship boxing match where neither team will back down.” Or, “That may have been the knockout punch.”

I love March Madness a good deal. It’s one of the finest sporting events in the world. I’ve watched as much of it as I can, even though my bracket is in shards. But as a boxing fan first and foremost, it perks my ears to hear those metaphors. It’s actually fairly common in other sports — football, basketball, even golf — to hear boxing phrases evoked to describe the action. And the reason is fairly obvious: As good as any other sport is, there’s something elemental, fundamental, about the kind of one-on-one combat and dramatic competition of the sweet science at its best.

On one level, it warms the cockles of my heart that the sport I love above all compels commentators from more popular sports to draw comparisons to it. On another level, I could quibble — the heavyweights have always been overrated and are particularly bad now, so that metaphor isn’t particularly apt; maybe Gus Johnson, who does split boxing and NCAA duty, is lending boxing an assist and therefore it’s less of a compliment than it appears; etc. — but the major downside is that despite the metaphorical evocations, boxing still isn’t as popular as the sports for which commentators evoke it.

So this is my appeal to NCAA fans. I’m not suggesting they abandon their sport. But why not try, once in a while, to skip directly to the source material from which your commentators draw? I’ll get you started with some recent fights or at least their highlights. First, forget about the heavyweights for the time being. When they’re good, they can be very good, but they’re kind of like centers — bulky, slow, and only occasionally fun to watch. Like the NCAA ranks, where “true centers” are in short supply, I have little to recommend about the heavyweights now. But if you’re a power forward man (or woman), consider the cruiserweights and light heavyweights; last year, Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham held a real cruiserweight championship fight that was terrific. They’re big, but they’ve got some agility, and cruiserweights are roughly the size of the smaller heavyweights, like Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, who once ruled the land. If you’re a small forward man, take a look at the middleweights or welterweights, who are faster and still more agile. Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor had a real middleweight championship fight in 2007 that was one for the ages. If you’re a shooting guard man, then take a look at the lightweights, who score points in bunches. In 2008, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez put on a rematch of their 2004 classic that was every bit as good as the original and for the authentic junior lightweight championship. And if you’re a point guard fan, you’ll like fighters who are smaller still and never quit moving, like tough little waterbugs. Last year’s junior featherweight fight between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez completed one of the finest trilogies in boxing history, and it was for the authentic championship of their division. All of these bouts were finalists for the best fights of 2007 and 2008.

And if that whets your appetite, after the NCAA season ends, you might really consider plunking down $50 for the biggest fight of 2009 on May 2, when Pacquiao goes after Ricky Hatton’s junior welterweight championship belt. If you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms from that crazed environment where college kids and alum cheer on their school, you’ll find no more fanatical backers of their men than the respective audiences of Pacquiao and Hatton. It’s a pretty good month to watch boxing on any given weekend, too, and if you have HBO or Showtime, it won’t cost you anything extra. Really nice strength of schedule.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.