Longtime boxing observers find it difficult to remember a bleaker period for the sport than the first half of 1998. With Mike Tyson suspended for ear-biting, Oscar De La Hoya injured, Pernell Whitaker suspended because of drug-related problems, Roy Jones uninspired, and Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis unwilling to fight each other in what would be the only meaningful heavyweight bout right now, there has been little of interest to watch.
But while the sport has faded from view, it hasn’t faded from the memory of its fans. Give them something to watch and they will pay.
Example No. 1: When World Boxing Organization featherweight champion Prince Naseem Hamed beat Wilfredo Vazquez several weeks ago, the fight had a 10.2 rating on HBO. A week later, the fight between Jones, the World Boxing Council light-heavyweight champion, and Virgil Hill on HBO got a 10.1.
With a potential audience of 25 million homes, HBO was attracting a little more than 2.5 million homes for each fight.
And these weren’t even blockbuster events.
Example No. 2: De La Hoya’s defense of his WBC welterweight title June 13 in the Sun Bowl in El Paso against Patrick Charpentier of France, hardly a household name in this country, already has generated the sale of 38,000 of 51,000 available seats. The first 34,000 of those seats, priced from $30 to $350, were sold on the first day.
No, boxing’s not dead yet, although so many in the sport keep trying to kill it.
ON THE HORIZON
With Las Vegas cutting way back on its involvement in boxing, smaller markets west of the Mississippi are landing bigger shows.
Such as El Paso.
Such as Sacramento.
Next Saturday, Arco Arena will stage a twin attraction worthy of Caesars Palace or Madison Square Garden. Two potential De La Hoya opponents will be on the card. Fernando Vargas (11-0, 11 knockouts) of Oxnard, who has made a career out of publicly blasting De La Hoya, will face Eddie Hall (25-13-1, 13 knockouts) in a 10-round junior- middleweight bout. And Jose Luis Lopez (40-3-2, 31 knockouts) will take on Robert West (16-5-3, five knockouts) in a 12-round match for the World Boxing Assn., North American welterweight title.
Day after day, the star athlete stood in a Las Vegas restaurant and signed autographs, posed for pictures and told stories. He couldn’t have been more cooperative and congenial. Known for his glare and brooding manner, the athlete had switched to a happy face.
On one of the days, although he was obligated to be at the restaurant for only three hours, he stayed for a fourth.
So who was this goodwill ambassador? Michael Jordan? Wayne Gretzky? De La Hoya?
Would you believe Mike Tyson?
That’s right, the man last seen in action in Las Vegas biting off part of another man’s ear seemed to have undergone a personality transplant.
Not to be cynical, but you don’t suppose this had anything to do with the fact that Tyson, suspended last July for brutally attacking Holyfield’s ear, will be able to apply for reinstatement in a few months?
Tyson has done everything the Nevada State Athletic Commission could ask for during his banishment from boxing. He has avoided the temptation to fight in another country that did not recognize the suspension. He has stayed out of jail, no easy task for the old Tyson.
He finally has cut his ties to promoter Don King and co-managers John Horne and Rory Holloway.
And now, Tyson is trying to show he is a good citizen who can project a favorable image of boxing.
Will it work? Will he get his license back?
Here’s a better question: Would members of the Nevada commission turn their backs on what could be the richest fight ever?
Be assured that won’t happen. Tyson-Holyfield III might be staged as soon as the first weekend in November . . . assuming Tyson keeps wearing that happy face.
SPEAKING OF COMEBACKS
Former junior-middleweight contender Tony Ayala Jr., who has served 15 years in prison for rape, is scheduled for a parole hearing before the New Jersey State Parole Board on May 21.
If Ayala, 35, is granted parole, he could be released in June.
And perhaps back in the ring soon thereafter. Ayala has had no shortage of offers from promoters.
Mark Lewis (18-4-1, 14 knockouts) will face Jaime Ocegueda (18-2-4, eight knockouts) for the vacant state welterweight title on Thursday at the Irvine Hyatt.
But don’t bother to look for tickets because you can’t go. The event will be held at a private event put on by the Orange County Real Estate Assn.
Private fight parties are common in California, but it seems strange to have a state title bout out of public view.
True, it’s not as if boxing fans are clamoring to see a new California welterweight champion crowned, but they should at least have that option.