by Myron Usher
As we approach the end of a year it is only natural to reflect back upon the Fight of the Year, Fighter of the Year, Knockout of the Year, Round of the Year, Upset of the Year and so on. This year, however, we should also pay homage to the giants that boxing has lost. A colorful writer and boxing historian, two legendary and highly respected trainers of the highest caliber, a talented but troubled ring showman, an old-time Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Hall of Famer from the 1940’s and 50’s, one of the best amateur boxers in history, and almost a year ago one of the greatest heavyweight champions who gave us three of the most thrilling fights of all time against the Greatest of All Time.
This diverse mix of accomplished men advanced their professions as they captivated us with their words, knowledge, style and boxing acumen. With them in mind, a special acknowledgment goes to a man whose impressive reputation was built in professional baseball fighting for the rights of the pro athlete. Marvin Miller died last month (November 27). Miller, the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), was, arguably, one of the 10 most important people in the history of Major League Baseball. He fought for and won unprecedented rights and benefits for baseball players, taking them from indentured servant-like status for the team owners to one of the most powerful labor forces in the United States.
Today’s free agency system was developed by Miller and subsequently adopted by all major sports leagues in the United States. It led to competition among clubs and fair market pay for the talent. These tremendous victories for the players coincided with prosperity for the teams and leagues despite tooth-and-nail opposition by ownership. While these leagues are far from perfect (PEDs, spoiled athletes, overpriced tickets, etc.), the best young athletes now dream of playing in these leagues. The best teams play each other and we love their playoff systems. Not to mention, MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL fans get to see nearly all of the leagues events on network television or basic cable.
In boxing, the fans, media and boxers have for too long accepted what we know is far from the ideal system to entertain fans, determine the best fighters and grow the popularity of the sport. The loose connections of promoters, sanctioning organizations and television that control the professional boxing at its highest levels will never unilaterally change a system that has filled their pockets for decades. Miller had to convince professional baseball players that they were worth much more based on the revenue that the sport was generating and the limited supply of talent available with their skills. Boxers, as other athletes and entertainers, are in a unique business position as both labor and the product.
Miller would surely find it unacceptable that the money generated in boxing does not filter much lower than the top 5 percent of all boxers and that few dollars are directed back into the sport to grow its popularity. Leon Spinks, Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali, are some of boxing’s elder statesmen that should have had better protection afforded to them during and after their years of service in the ring. Recent greats, like Evander Holyfield, are allowed to hang on much longer than their skills and age warrant. Countless other boxers have had the much lesser blessing of retiring and/or dying virtually bankrupt including Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson (before his rebirth in the Hangover movies). And those are just the most famous examples.
Earlier this year Manuel Perez beat Edgar Santana on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights to set up a fight for the WBA interim light welterweight title. Perez has two other jobs aside from professional boxer – as a trucker driver and stocking shelves for a liquor store. Could you image a player on the today’s San Francisco Giants delivering pizza then playing in the World Series the following week?
It is in our own best interests as fans to see that boxers are fairly compensated and respected, from top to bottom. We want the best young athletes to pursue professional boxing, want more big fights on free television and we want the best boxers to fight each other much more frequently. Fairness and respect for professional athletes through better labor conditions has almost always led to better conditions in the industry for management, teams and fans. Boxing has had great people in all parts of the business throughout time except for a leader that can galvanize boxers to demand what is rightfully theirs.