On a night in 2004, two wheelchair-bound boxers rolled into a ring and began pummeling each other. That same evening, midgets strapped on gloves bigger than their torsos and bounced against the ropes, tiny fists crashing into tiny heads in a display for the amusement of all.
These are not arenas where nobility and respectful approximation of warfare take place. This is the land of the freak show, and people are watching -- in some cases, in greater numbers than for the real thing.
Showtime posted its second-best MMA viewership number ever -- 517,000 viewers -- for its Jan. 30 show, featuring the headlining-by-proxy fighting debut of NFL player Herschel Walker; Kimbo Slice, a modified street fighter, participated in two of the UFC’s highest-rated fights; James Toney, Ricardo Mayorga and Shannon Briggs are all boxers who plan to titillate audiences by risking their femurs against leg kicks.
Celebrity boxing? Try celebrity homicide. But the idea of contorting fight into spectacle is hardly a new concept.
Primo Carnera, born in 1906, was a circus strongman with a bear neck and a heavy punch who was said to have been manipulated by organized crime into an illegitimate ring attraction. (One opponent was reputed to have fallen to the ground six times in one round, though Carnera had never appeared to actually hit him.) Rather than expel Carnera as a parody of athletics, the public loved it. He drew 75,000 people for a big fight in Mexico; 70,000 for one in England. A hulking 6-foot-5, he was a man who audiences perceived as a superhero in the flesh: Bob Sapp’s prototype.
Could he box? Not really. Could he win via promotional manipulation or simply leaning on smaller men? He could.
Carnera was followed by a fleet of boxers who carried into the ring few qualifications beyond a human interest story: Joe Savage was a bare-knuckle boxer who was mauled by pro Bert Cooper; female kickboxer Lucia Rijker lost to a man in a muay Thai match; Margaret McGregor fought male Loi Chow and won a decision. (Mike Tyson was the best of both worlds: a legitimate fighter who ran roughshod over the sports and police blotters.)
Still, the participation of men like Walker and Canseco have riled men like Don Frye, who have chastised the sport for giving shelter to these types of spectacles. Is Frye forgetting that the idea of a firefighter pitted against a 400-pound sack lunch in the form of Thomas Ramirez -- the first “pro” fight on his resume -- is a freak attraction at its least diluted? And what about Dana White, who scoffed at Walker while conveniently forgetting he once tried to organize a boxing match between himself and Tito Ortiz?
Rather than bemoan the oddities of combat sport, it might be more pragmatic to see how they act as fuel. When Carnera circulated, boxing had taken a nosedive after the departure of Jack Dempsey. Lump of nothing that he was, Carnera nonetheless reignited passion for prizefighting. The UFC of the 1990s was nauseating, but it self-corrected and evolved into something special. If it weren’t for the morbid curiosities of the paying public, Frye and White wouldn’t have jobs.
Anomalies continue to intrigue us. Brock Lesnar had a decorated career as an amateur wrestler, but did the hundreds of thousands of people buying his first few fights expect to see a clinical demonstration of a pin fall -- or a grunting man-rock tossing people over the cage padding? And didn’t the athletes appearing underneath Lesnar benefit financially from his participation? As a sponsor paying an athlete to wear your brand, do you want his ass-billboard on a card headlined by Lesnar, or by Thiago Silva?
The danger in criticizing the Herschel Walkers of the combat sports world is that it ignores the basic human interest story. We watch fights because we have an emotional investment in the outcome, and that investment is tenfold if the athletes participating have endeared themselves in other endeavors. If you grew up watching Walker play football, you’re probably going to be intent on seeing him fight. If Jean-Claude Van Damme actually has a muay Thai match -- as he’s alleged to have set up for later in the year -- he will attract a sizable number of people who can quote “Bloodsport” chapter and verse.
There is a point of saturation, and inviting wheelchair-bound athletes into a beer hall is probably going past the overflow tube. But a man who can pass a physical, can display a reasonable aptitude in the gym to defend himself and is understanding of the risk involved shouldn’t be the victim of elitist bashing.
They should listen to the call of P.T. Barnum: They should step right up.
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