Maybe Boxing Fans Should Think Twice

In England, a member of Parliament, opposed to boxing, rose and demanded that every fighter be given an electroencephalogram to test for brain damage.

At the time, Archie Moore was getting ready to fight in London. Said Archie to the M.P.: "I will take the examination to test for brain damage if you will."

Boxing had survived another challenge in an indestructible history that finds this form of commerce still operative, catering to a public that asks, if not screams, to be fleeced, and generally is accommodated.

As a striking example, you have a gentleman named Roberto Duran, 38, matched against Sugar Ray Leonard, 33, in a fight of sorts Thursday night in Las Vegas.

It is billed grandly as the super middleweight championship of the WBC, not to be confused with a bowling tour, or the WEA, the WBO or the IBF, each of which recognizes a super middleweight champion of its own.

But the trumpets have been heard for months now, beckoning the flock, and it will pay up to $800 to watch this match in the flesh and up to $40 to watch it at home.

The product offered involves two interesting individuals, both playing the back nine in their professional lives but nimble in the field of sales.

The horsepower of their wooing, in fact, will suck in audiences on every continent, including some, you presume, long under water, and revenues will rise to a figure reported at $60 million.

With the normal markdown you take in boxing numbers, this means half, but it remains a lot of currency and a tribute to the principals, who, at this stage of reduced performance, can still work a crowd.

Actually, in the image they project, you see Sugar Ray on the sidewalk, selling a formula that will remove stains magically from the carpet, and Roberto, his confederate, stepping forth to buy the first bottle.

"Personalities sell fights," says Bob Arum, who is promoting this extravaganza. "Leonard and Duran are professional workers, each fascinating in his own way."

Nor is the promoter less fascinating. He is a Harvard man, reminding you of the most ancient of axioms, namely, "You always can tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much."

But then one who can raise a gate by disinterring Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard doesn't need counseling.

"Leonard is a recognized American industrialist," Arum is reminded. "Does Duran care about the money?"

"He couldn't care less. To him, it is a mortal sin to be caught with money in his pocket. He was born with none, and he'll probably die with the same amount, unlike Sugar Ray, who is shrewd and money-driven."

The skill of Sugar Ray at pulling the string remains a miracle of sports. Appearing in black tie at a solemn civic ceremony in Baltimore, he announced his first retirement in 1982. At his side, also in black tie, sat Howard Cosell, which indicates the historic immensity of the occasion.

In 1984, Sugar Ray took a fight, then announced his second retirement, a decision that would yield to his third retirement after fighting Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.

Nineteen months later, amid heavy self-analysis, he would be challenged by forces deep and profound, urging him to fight again, this time against a guy who looked like a Swedish tennis player, Donny LaLonde.

Living mostly on vegetables, fruit and nuts, LaLonde went bananas in the fourth round and knocked down Sugar Ray, who then proceeded to knock out LaLonde, count the money and flee.

And this would lead last June to another fulfillment of the soul--a match with Thomas Hearns. It ended in a draw, and the engagement with Duran has followed.

At the time of Leonard's meeting with Hagler, Marvin was in decline. LaLonde was never in ascent. Hearns was past his crest. And Duran is past it even more.

And Sugar Ray, knocked down once by LaLonde and twice by Hearns, shows slippage plainly, leaving you to admire his gift at selling recycled merchandise at Tiffany prices.

Leonard suggests a diva whose voice is shot but who continues in concert, singing, "Stormy Weather," and telling jokes.

"You can trace the magic of Leonard and Duran to network television," Arum says. "That's where vast audiences got to know them. Those fighters appearing on cable today reach only a handful. They never will develop the followings of the older guys who started on the networks."

So the old guys milk it once more, and the parishioners respond, proving the point made years ago by Archie Moore that when boxing is involved, you never know who should be getting the electroencephalogram.

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