Boxing’s Glass Ceiling

For a sport ensconced in the visceral, bound up with the most primitive forms of human interaction, professional prizefighting comes with a surprisingly lengthy set of criteria for those wishing to get ahead. Its participants are tacitly expected to tick a range of boxes if they are to succeed, with the chosen few ushered smoothly along this well-heeled path by figures whose sole purpose is to smooth out any and all bumps in the road. For the vast majority, however, routes remain uncleared and gates are never opened by design. It would appear self evident given the nature of the sport, but it’s a truth worth repeating that most are required to scrap if they want to reach the top, lacking as they do the right face, or style, or background to please the moneymen. It’s a route nigh on impossible to travel down alone, and thus is often fraught with swarthy, underhand dealings and the well known collection of necessary evils that a fighter must tango with if they are ever to appear under the really bright lights.

A finite number of television networks with sufficient reach, allied to an even more exclusive list of individuals who can claim the ear of the schedule-makers, results in a select few scrabbling frantically to retain control of the beast, or at least keep its reins in the hands of their chosen puppeteers. Yet probability dictates that some unknown quantities will slip through on occasion and reach the rarified heights that should never have been available to them. They will overachieve, in other words, given the expectation that they know their place within the grander scheme.

Tied up with this notion is a strange sense of unworthiness, of not quite satisfying enough of the demands on that diaphanous list of what it means to be a star. Boxing — a sport with a playing field so uneven it often resembles a sheer lubricious cliff — is no stranger to this curiously intangible virtue. Despite the fact that there is no superior style, no entirely sound mode of bodily comportment in the ring that will result in the mythical virtues of an impregnable defense or unstoppable offensive barrage, fighters are categorised early into haves and have-nots. And it is hard to break out of that early characterisation, whether it be positive or negative at first glance.

If you consider it on the most basic level, a fighter can overachieve based on their ability in the ring or their background and profile outside of it. It’s important to note that by this I don’t mean their humble upbringing or tumultuous home life. Boxing still likes to pretend it is a sport for the downtrodden, for those seeking a second chance, despite the facts pointing to it being extremely selective about which luckless individuals it chooses to deify. As such, it is extremely rare for a fighter lacking perceived quality in both professional and personal departments to ever break through. With the possible exception of Carlos Baldomir (pictured) briefly in the mid-noughties, I can think of no other fighter who has done it, and even Baldomir was pretty handy in the ring, even if it was a stretch to term him “world level.”

If we start with the more established, visible path, the one based at least superficially on events taking place between the ropes, then we are again brought swiftly back down the intangible route. Guys overachieving in this regard are often portrayed as simply lacking the x factor, being devoid of that certain je ne sais quoi that propels fighters from merely being good at everything to being perceived as outstanding. How often do we hear of guys who “do all the basics well?” Usually never again, if it can be helped by the powers that be. How many times are individuals singled out for having “sound fundamentals?” Normally only by anxious commentary teams eyeing up the power puncher on the other side of the ring and wishing he would let his hands go.

I suppose it boils down to marketability and the fact that it is a hell of a lot easier to rationalise when a fighter is clearly much better at one aspect of the game than any other, when he has a recognisable strength and it is presented in plain sight. Boxing is a sport that rewards extremes, in this regard. It likes to elevate participants who are abnormally good at one thing. If you don’t have a lot of power, use your footwork and showboat. If you don’t have a lot of lateral movement, get in there and bang. If you don’t have that much of anything, you’d better speak English and come from the right part of town! And so it goes on…

The second route is altogether more nefarious, and concerns the tiers in the sport which have grown more pronounced as larger promotional companies such as Golden Boy and Top Rank have come to dominate, and boxing has largely retreated from terrestrial airwaves. Simply put, there aren’t too many champions from the more remote parts of South America and inner Asia who were preordained for stardom. I’m talking about the guys who overachieve by the very virtue of making it into the conversation at all, who were never meant to be anything other than opponents for the lucky few. Yet somehow this subsection survives and competes in a sport which is so far skewed the other way it spent 50 years and countless millions searching for a needle in a haystack, namely The Great White Hope that would revitalise the heavyweight division. They didn’t find it, of course. The frantic quest was never satisfactorily resolved, despite the best efforts of Cooney, Morrison et al. But there will be other white whales in the future, and the sport will once again take up the role of Captain Ahab as it frantically pursues that most elusive of foes.

Permanently in the opposing camp, then, you have a collection of fighters who were never supposed to get as far as they did. Take the recent bout between Marcos Maidana and Josesito Lopez: a great fight between two guys who were meant to be opponents for Victor Ortiz, the photogenic young American who was deemed at one time to possess that certain something that justified his rapid ascent to the front of the queue. Both Lopez and Maidana beat him up. Badly. And so they were reluctantly ushered into the spotlight, despite there being little doubt that both the networks and promotional superpowers regarded them as somewhat of an inconvenience.

On another level entirely is Sergio Martinez, a man who is familiar to boxing fans nowadays as an elite pound for pound fighter and future inductee to the Hall of Fame. Yet he was for most of his career a man who had to bide his time in the unkempt corners of the sport, who waited until the age of 33 to get a significant fight on American TV — still very much the kingmaker in boxing despite the increasing presence of Eastern Europe and pockets of Asia as serious players. Here was one of the most athletically talented fighters in the world, but the legend goes that his promoter had to literally beg HBO to showcase him on one of their least glamorous calendar dates. He looked sensational, of course, and went on to dominate his division for a number of years. He broke through, in other words, despite the inordinate obstacles he was forced to overcome. But he is very much in the minority, and most will not emulate him despite what talent they have.

It is too crude a simplification to boil the situation down to issues of race, or creed, or colour. Those who are selected to make it in boxing must satisfy a far less formulaic, far less readily verifiable series of tests if they are ever to be anointed with that mysterious quantity known as star power. As if to prove the point, Sept. 14 will see Las Vegas play host to a fight that has a chance to eclipse the pay-per-view figures of all that have come before it. The world will see two certified superstars in Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez do battle in an event that took just minutes to sell out and is currently being promoted by a nationwide tour of the United States. It is the latest chapter in an ongoing war, one that has seen countless incarnations over the years: The brash, cocky American against the proud, quietly determined Mexican. In this case, one of them owns dozens of Bentleys and went to jail last year for domestic assault. The other has bright ginger hair and used to get bullied at school. In boxing, as in life, it really does take all kinds.