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You never know. That's the beauty of boxing. You never know.
During my sophomore year in college, my buddies and I tossed a mammoth party that coincided with the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson championship fight in Tokyo. Remember those invincible Taiwanese Little League baseball teams in the '80s, or the dominance of the original Dream Team in the '92 Summer Olympics? That was Tyson, multiplied by a thousand. In the words of Mickey Goldmill, he was a wrecking machine, the real-life Clubber Lang. He didn't just knock out his opponents, he psyched them out, bludgeoned them and ripped out their hearts, a bully in every sense of the word.Back then, it never occurred to anyone that Tyson could lose in his prime, that a variety of outside forces would inevitably distract him, that such a troubled, misguided soul would have trouble maintaining the focus that a championship fighter so desperately needs. The guy was a walking 24-hour therapy session; we didn't care. We only knew that Mike Tyson delivered the goods. He was a wrecking machine. So we geared our party around him as a side attraction, mounting a 19-inch television atop a kitchen cabinet, just for that 20-minute interlude when the party would stop, everyone would huddle around the television and Tyson would deliver one of his highlight film knockouts, practically on cue. After he finished his work, we would turn off the television, crank up the music and keep the kegs flowing. But when the fight started, something weird happened. Douglas was fighting back.
The second round passed. Then the third. Then the fourth. If anything, Douglas was controlling the fight, giving Tyson everything he could handle. We couldn't believe it. Buster was a journeyman boxer, a nobody, a 30-1 underdog. Few of us had even heard of him. Now he was controlling the fight with his left jab and two-punch combinations, moving deftly around the ring, looking like a poor man's version of Ali. Tyson was growing more frustrated by the minute, lunging and missing, unable to mount an offensive. He almost looked -- gasp! -- helpless.And the party stopped. I'm not kidding. Everything stopped. I attended hundreds of parties during my four years in college (as my GPA can attest), but nothing approached this one on The Surreal Scale. It was like Frank Santos came in and hypnotized every male in the room. The girls were standing in one corner of the apartment, drinking flat keg beer, gabbing among themselves and getting increasingly agitated about everything that was happening. Meanwhile, we were huddled in the kitchen, absolutely mesmerized by a 19-inch TV. We looked like the people during the final scene in "Close Encounters," when the alien spaceship lands and renders everyone speechless and motionless. That was us. Douglas kept taking it to Tyson. The tension kept building; we were suffering a collective heart attack, hanging on every punch. By the sixth round, Tyson's right eye was swelling shut; the females in attendance could have been performing bachelor party routines on the sofa and we wouldn't have noticed. Tyson looked increasingly disheveled, even disoriented, the stereotypical bully who couldn't handle someone actually belting him back. And we kept saying to each other, "This isn't happening, is it? Is this really happening? This is happening, right?"
You could feel it coming. Everyone could. In the 10th, Douglas landed a thunderous combination, and Tyson went sprawling backward, like an oak tree, thudding to the ground... there he was, sprawled on his knees, awkwardly groping for his mouthpiece... and there we were, whooping it up like inmates during a prison riot.I wouldn't have even believed it, except I watched the whole thing. Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Absolutely, positively, the most improbable sporting event of my lifetime, as well as my favorite party in four years of college. Sure, every girl in the apartment was gone by the eighth round ... but that's beside the point. When boxing is working -- when it's really working, which isn't often anymore -- it's still the most exciting sport in the world. Warts and all.
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As for the boxers themselves, the talent pool seems to be dwindling, as the same world-class athletes that once gravitated to boxing -- strong guys with superior hand-eye coordination, lower-class backgrounds, looking for a way out -- now gravitate toward basketball, baseball and football (where top stars earn more money and escape with their brains intact).For every fighter who climbs the ranks, beats the odds and becomes a contender, hundreds of failures are strewn along the way. Many fighters absorb serious punishment, especially in the latter stages of their career, and those damaging effects are usually permanent and inevitably fatal. And if that's not enough, the ultimate goal of every fight is for one man to punch another man senseless, which makes any good-hearted person at least a little uneasy. As a lifelong boxing fan, I always find myself straddling the invisible line between passion (for everything that happens inside the ring) and guilt (that my passion implicitly condones the sport as a whole). It's like a dance. You hop back and forth. No other sport crushes your self-esteem quite this way, makes you doubt yourself, makes you ashamed just to admit you're a fan. I feel like an unwitting accomplice every time a boxer finishes his career with a bank account as empty and useless as his brain. I see Muhammad Ali mumbling his words, and it breaks my heart. I remember fighters like Gerald McClellan -- once a wonderful middleweight, now blind and handicapped, just five years older than me -- and never want to subject myself to another fight. I watch great boxers return again and again after their primes, almost like a mandatory rite of passage, their skills slipping a little more every time, the joyless repercussions too painful for any true fan to accept. On the other hand, there's boxing itself. The buildup. The hype. The drama. The machismo. Those suffocating minutes before the first bell when your heart pounds, when you wouldn't want to be anywhere else but sitting in front of your television set, when the potential for greatness hovers over everything you're about to watch. No other sport has a ceiling quite like boxing. That's the bottom line. You never know. You never, ever, ever, ever know.
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On Saturday night, we had a pretty good idea. Throw Gatti and Ward in the same ring -- two bona-fide warriors with no regard for their own safety -- and the odds of a LaMotta Era donnybrook were off the charts. Gatti controlled the fight for the first four rounds, ultimately making the crucial mistake of hitting Ward below the belt (losing a point in the process). That seemed to awaken Irish Micky, who turned up the pressure in the middle rounds, almost like he found an extra gear.Everything built toward the improbable ninth round, when Ward knocked down Gatti with a vicious left hook to the body, nearly polishing him off before wearing down midway through the round ... and then Gatti came roaring back, punishing an exhausted Ward with combinations, almost like target practice, to the point Ward looked headed for the canvas. Then Gatti punched himself out ... and here came Ward again, throwing bombs and nearly ending the fight in the final 20 seconds, as Gatti was practically out on his feet, wobbling like a bad actor in a second-rate boxing movie. But Ward had punched himself out twice in the same round; he couldn't even muster enough strength to pucker his lips and blow Gatti over.
|If you missed the fight between Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, you can catch the replay Tuesday at 11:05 p.m. on HBO2.|