The Sweat Science

Postmodern boxing's hype & politics

There are times when Miami Beach smells like Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean in Kenya. A warmish, dampish camel-flop smell, an old horse blanket, or last year's sweat socks, curled and grimed from 10 months in the trunk of your Toyota. As Johnny Ruiz, the World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion galloped up and down the enclosed sandy rectangle on the beach at 21st and Collins a couple of Sundays back, he gave off something comparable in the olfactory sense: "Eeew!" squealed Sofia, a pretty Latina who'd dragged her sated boyfriend off their hotel beach towels to check out the fight crowd. "It's just like Metrozoo!"

But really it was only honest male sweat. Ruiz goes 6-2, 220 lbs. now, a medium heavyweight, down from his usual 230 to 235, so that he'd be able to keep after the quick and mobile Roy Jones, Jr., the lightheavyweight (175 lbs.) champion from up in Pensacola. Two weeks before their "historic battle" at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas last Saturday (March 1), Ruiz had hit his lightest competitive poundage ever. So he was happy, snuffling at the sea air -- snuh-uh, snuh-uh -- pounding by on a two-beat rhythm, pleased to be training in Miami again, scene of his earlier Mohawked terror fights, where he would blast guys out of the ring with awkward combinations and fuel-injected lefts . . . well, let's say no more about the chemistry of MIAB. That's why Alton Merkerson, Ruiz's trainer, and Don King, his promoter, moved Johnny up to Chelsea, Mass., where you can breathe the ocean air, too, but without all the pricey stimulants . . .

Don King was there, in his jumpstart haircut: "Ruiz will knock Roy Jones cold! He look like a movie star! He healthy! Don't matter what the odds imply [the Vegas line was 5-3, Jones], Johnny's time is nigh!" Then King quoted (and misquoted) Jesus, Lord Acton, Karl Marx, John Wayne, and George W. Bush: "If Roy Jones, Jr. refuse to disarm, Johnny Ruiz will disarm Roy Jones, Jr!"

illustration by Amelia M. del Castillo

The crowd laughed and clapped, and Johnny, still running windsprints but so deeply concentrated that he thought they were applauding him, rumbled like a mountain dislodging some boulders up near the snow line: "Tanks!" he said. "I'll get um!"

On February 22, Mike Tyson appeared to be dispatching Clifford "the Black Rhino" Etienne's head from his shoulders. He did it in 47 seconds of the first round, which is the way it used to happen back in the day. So naturally his erstwhile manager (nobody "manages" Mike), Shelly Finkel, who was more comfortable in Black Sabbath's era, booking metal bands into Astrodomes, began piping about a Tyson/Lennox Lewis rematch. That's Finkel's job of course -- no one would blow $49.95 pay-per-view again to see a repeat of last June's thrashing, in which the 6-5, 248 lb. World Boxing Council champ Lewis, humiliated Tyson before stopping him on a TKO. A couple of "knockouts" like "the Rhino," though, will get the suckers back in their seats (Etienne couldn't help taking his mouthpiece out on the way down, something truly unconscious boxers rarely do). Still, Tyson, the most hated figure in sports, has real drawing power, while Lennox, a handsome, well-spoken Brit, is about as exciting to watch as a man whitewashing cinder blocks in Opa-locka.

The same can be said of Ruiz's opponent, Roy Jones, Jr., who represents the ennui of perfection, like Mikhail Baryshnikov did in ballet, or Margaret Thatcher did in politics. The awful truth about Jones, which HBO's color commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and George Foreman labor to deny, is that he can drain the joy out of a firecracker, put you to sleep faster than Nytol. He punches fast. He hits hard. But he's only fought two opponents who had any chance of beating him, James "Lights Out" Toney, and Bernard "the Executioner" Hopkins, both of whom battled to a standstill but lost, and neither of whom got a rematch.

That's because the potential scores in big-time championships dictate matchups, without regard to who really deserves a fight. So once you've developed a brand name -- Tyson, Jones, Oscar de la Hoya -- you "protect" it, ensure its longevity. Thus bad, boring noncompetitive bouts litter TV and closed-circuit, and you have spectacles like Jones fighting a series of mail carriers and auto body repairmen, and then being declared "pound for pound best"; or Tyson matched with guys he feels he doesn't have to roll out of bed to train for; or de la Hoya's opponents coming from Central Casting (until he was finally shamed into facing "Sugar" Shane Mosely, who kicked his ass).

Even small-time sideshows like this Ruiz/Jones tête-à-tête generate serious bank account credits. Jones got $10 million, for example, while the lesser-known champion Ruiz, a good journeyman, received $6 million. But the serious dough, the numbers that make King and others beam, are $30 and $40 and $50 million to the winner, $10 million to the loser, and $30 or $35K after overhead for the promoter . . .

Those are Swiss and offshore islands backup figures, against the day when the feds finally get it together to prosecute promotional machers for malfeasance, misfeasance, and all points in between. This actually happens once in a while, like the time antitrust suits broke up James D. Norris's International Boxing Club (IBC), a "ratings" organization similar to today's WBC and WBA, with a malevolent stranglehold on the sport. Of course, that was 45 years ago.

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