Up Next

Beauty at the beach knocks U.S. boxers out of prime time from Rio

Boxing is now ignored after giving America great moments of Olympic glory

Amateur boxing in America isn’t dying; it’s dead.

There, I’ve given you the naked truth, even if others might not echo my thinking.

What was left of the sport’s flickering heartbeat has flatlined since the ’08 Summer Games in Beijing – its plug pulled for a handful of reasons. No. 1 on the list is that amateur boxing – and, consequently, professional boxing – is no longer sexy enough for a TV viewer’s tastes.

There, I’ve said that, too. What better reason might you think of for why the sport gets no mention during the nightly roundups of the 2016 Summer Olympics?

More than a week into the 2016 Olympics, we are hard-pressed to name a single member of the U.S. boxing team, a team built with black and Hispanic athletes. NBC has broadcast not a single round of their sport in prime, although I’ll confess the TV network slipped in a bout or two early in its morning coverage.

One American man remains alive for gold – Shakur Stevenson. One fighter, light fly Nico Miguel Hernandez, has won a bronze, having done so absent fanfare.

Boxing’s demise as must-watch Olympic TV began long before the summer of 2016. In the past few Summer Olympics, the sport has gotten less and less TV coverage, shoved out of prime time in the rush to showcase the half-naked bodies in beach volleyball and to overexpose women’s gymnastics.

Of course, gymnastics have always been an Olympic staple. Their acrobatics have captivated fans and given them some of the most celebrated names in sports. From Nadia Comăneci to Mary Lou Retton to Carly Patterson, gymnasts have earned their place in Olympic history.

And so have boxers.

No sport has given the public the star-spangled array of talent that boxing has. Think Olympic boxing, and if you are of a certain age, you remember well gold medalists Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis, Pernell Whitaker, Joe Frazier, the Spinks brothers (Michael and Leon), George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mercer and the champion of champions: Cassius Clay.

Years later, all of them would wear a champion’s belt in the hurt business, and the loquacious Clay would shake the foundation of sports when, as Muhammad Ali, he would become the most identifiable figure in the sports world.

In recalling these Olympic champs of long ago, we might have been seeing boxing as more glamorous than the sport really was. We certainly never saw boxing the way the TV networks did.

Yet it’s difficult not to let nostalgia take over here. For in replaying the skill of these old fighters in our minds, in heralding the brilliance of Olympic champs such as Ali, Sugar Ray and De La Hoya and men such as Floyd Mayweather and Riddick Bowe, who fell short of gold, we envision the sport in its purity, as brutal as it can often be.

The glory days are gone

Since its glory days of 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988, boxing has been relegated to the margins. To network execs in this millennium, the sport doesn’t matter at the Olympics, just as boxing doesn’t matter to them outside the Summer Games. But if a pro boxer can still take home the eight-figure paydays like the ones that fattened Mayweather’s and Manny Pacquiao’s bank accounts in 2015, how can anybody argue boxing is dead on the professional level?

Look, not another sport in America hasn’t been hurt by the ever-rising popularity of football – high school, college and pro. To think other sports are equal to football is to believe Tupac is alive and living in Cuba.

The big hits draw us to football, and big hits are what made boxing popular in its halcyon days.

Unlike what its critics think, boxing isn’t a blood sport, though boxers do spill blood. The sport remains what it has always been – a competition about self-defense. It’s hit and not get hit; it’s hit harder than the fighter on the business end of a man’s gloves.

We’ve duped ourselves into believing we dislike the gore those gloves produced. We love it, though; we love it for the same reason we gawk at a car wreck on Interstate 71.

TV executives used to love the gore, too. Years ago, they routinely broadcast boxing at the Olympic Games, and we watched up close the thrill of Sugar Ray’s victory in 1976 and the agony of Evander Holyfield’s controversial loss in 1984.

The losses (and the victories) were played out in public; audiences understood and appreciated boxers for spilling blood for the sport, which produced champs whom we celebrated throughout the last century.

Maybe our admiration of fighters such as Leon Spinks, De La Hoya and Ali was purely a product of our lust and not so much our fondness for a man’s artistry inside the squared ring.

Now though, our prurient interests have fully trumped artistry.

“I want to see the naked women,” a friend told me the other day. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

My friend has gotten his wish at the Summer Olympics.

For in terms of prime-time exposure, Hernandez got none; neither did Stevenson. Both men lost on a knockout to the body beautifuls.

Justice B. Hill grew up and still lives in Cleveland. He practiced journalism for more than 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He quit May 15, 2019, to write and globetrot. He’s doing both.