Ho hum.

Photographer: John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images

Why I'm Not Watching Mayweather-Pacquiao

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

I really thought I wanted to see the fight this weekend. I expected to join millions of other sports fans in plunking down $100 to my cable provider to watch Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao pummel each other in what is being hyped as one of the great boxing matches in history.

And then I couldn’t pull the trigger.

It’s not the money. I don’t think I’d watch the fight even if it were free. Something has changed. In boxing. In the world. Maybe in me.

Boxing doesn’t enjoy the popularity it once did. There have been widespread calls for its abolition -- especially by the neurologists who see its effects. But I’m old enough to remember when boxing was the king of sports, when the greatest intellectuals of the age were drawn to it.

Take the “Rumble in the Jungle” in October 1974. Enough first-rank writers to fill the podium at the National Book Awards descended on Zaire to witness Muhammad Ali’s memorable upset of George Foreman. Hunter Thompson was there. Norman Mailer hobnobbed with Ali before and after the bout, and wrote about the episode in “The Fight,” one of his best books. The inimitable George Plimpton captured the atmospherics of this invasion of Western wordsmiths: “The experience seemed to affect them as it might Conradian characters bogged down too long in a strange culture. They stalked about like colonial planters, their khaki clothes, bought so long ago at Abercrombie and Fitch, hanging off them in folds.”

The whole world, as they say, was watching. There was no pay cable in those days, but people sat in theaters to watch on closed-circuit television. Others listened to bulletins on the radio. I was an undergraduate at Stanford at the time, and like most of my confreres a huge fan of Ali. But we all dreaded the result. That Ali would lose was a foregone conclusion. The question was how badly he would be injured.

Foreman was a machine, unstoppable. Mailer in his book relates the funereal atmosphere in Ali’s dressing room before the fight. “It was like a corner in a hospital where relatives wait for word of the operation.” In an ironic inversion, it was the fighter who had to lift the spirits of the entourage.

Back in Palo Alto, California, the tension was too much. My then-girlfriend and I went to a movie. With no cell phones and no cable news, it was a simple thing to stay out of touch with the world if you wanted to. Afterward, we drove back to campus, but with the car radio off. Still, in the end, we were drawn. We had to know the outcome, no matter how horrific. We drifted over to the offices of the campus paper, where I was an editor. My friend Vlae met us out front. We steeled ourselves for the worst.

But Vlae was smiling ear-to-ear. “He won!”

We thought he was making some vicious joke: That’s how certain we were of the outcome. And how invested we were in it. The campus exploded in celebrations that went on all night.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine college students in large numbers sweating over a boxing match, even one as big as Mayweather-Pacquiao. The sweet science no longer draws intellectuals. It repels them. Boxers are no longer heroes. Everyone knew Ali and Foreman, but today I doubt that 1 out of 50 Americans could name the heavyweight champion of the world.

The sport has been a long time dying. Because the younger crowd would rather watch mixed martial arts, we’re told. Or because the world’s best lack the larger-than-life personas of an Ali or a Foreman or a Joe Louis. Or because the sport’s famous corruption has driven away the advertisers who once supported the television broadcasts that carried the great bouts to large audiences. But I like to think that if the sport is dying, the true reason is our shared realization of what we ask of the men in the ring.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, somewhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of boxers suffer traumatic brain injury. The problem afflicts amateurs as well as professionals.

A professional boxer’s punch can strike with an astonishing force of 6,000 newtons or more. A knockout is really the result of a series of concussions, one following rapidly upon the next: “When the body reaches the point where the damage outweighs the body's ability to repair itself, the brain shuts down to conserve enough energy to fix the injured neurons at a later point.”

True, there remains something of a dispute about why some boxers suffer traumatic brain injuries and some don’t. Argument even continues over whether the Parkinson’s disease that afflicts Ali is a result of the many blows to the head he suffered during his sterling career. Still, there's a sliver of good news: Recent research suggests that the likelihood of brain injury may fall because today’s boxers fight less often and have shorter careers. But one can hardly deny that the fans are rooting for combatants whose actual job is to try to injure each other’s brains. Once that realization sinks in, it isn’t easy to look at the sport the same way.

As for Mayweather-Pacquiao, Gene Kilroy, Ali’s onetime business manager, calls it “the last big fight.” Maybe he’s right. And, if he is, maybe that’s for the best.

  1. Actually, there are two champions. Not that anyone cares. (Mayweather and Pacquiao are fighting as welterweights.)

  2. The use of protective headgear may make boxing more dangerous, because boxers are less cautious about blows to or by the head. The International Boxing Association, which regulates most amateur boxing, has recently banned headgear for this reason.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net