Editor's note: This article appears in the June 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Boxing is stuck in a time warp.
There are still too many organizations and too many belts. The ring hasn't changed, nor have the gloves and the trunks. We are still forced to care about boxers who look like leftover extras from "Oz," who are administered to by seedy cornermen who look like slot-machine pullers on The Strip. The judges seem to be the same five or six people, just as you pretty much always recognize the male actor in every porn movie. The same two promoters handle nearly every fight. (What are Bob Arum and Don King now, like a combined 330 years old?) Even the announcers don't change: Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley have been together longer than every Hollywood couple except Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
So why do I love boxing so much? It's the little things. The networks hire interpreters so we will understand corner tips like "Stop getting hit!" and "Throw more punches!" But we need no help deciphering a referee's vaguely suggestive orders: "Take off some of that Vaseline!" and "Stop hitting him below the belt!" The competitive stare-down before battle is always awkward, but always mesmerizing. Two guys are on hand specifically to deal with open wounds. A boxer can be covered in an opponent's sweat and blood, but should his mouthpiece drop on the floor, there's a break to clean it. And winners exit wearing championship belts, which should happen in every sport.
I especially love the code words. For instance, a boxer described as a "young 35" probably has spent time in jail. An "experienced veteran" probably has a career record of 25-17-5. If a fighter is "unconventional," he clinches too much and the crowd will be booing by Round 3. But most of all, I love a good fight.
Problem is, I never know when I'm going to get one. Over the past month, I watched three of the four main TV events. The first featured James Toney and the excruciating John Ruiz. They may as well have been two exhausted hockey goons hanging onto each other for an hour. Toney dominated, which pushed Ruiz to announce his retirement afterward, to the delight of fans everywhere. A few days later, though, when Toney tested positive for steroids, the fight was awarded to Ruiz who immediately announced another comeback. He's Jason Voorhees we're going to have to chop off his head to get rid of him.
Winky Wright's domination of Felix Trinidad was more aesthetically pleasing, though once Tito realized he couldn't penetrate Winky's defense, his mail-in job rivaled DeNiro's in "Meet the Fockers." The postfight fallout featured two boxing staples: Winky complaining he doesn't get enough respect, and Trinidad retiring. Again. If we could wager on this stuff, I'd be rich. But even that ending wasn't as predictable as the Andrew Golota-Lamon Brewster disaster. So why, when Brewster dispatched Golota in 53 seconds, did poor Merchant have to kill 20 minutes while HBO execs searched frantically for their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tape of "Boogie Nights"?