Boxing is under attack. A few weeks ago, television viewers all over the United States saw Benny Paret fatally injured in the ring in Madison Square Garden. I am sorry Paret died, but I believe that his death was an accident and that the attacks which have been heaped on boxing since are unwarranted and unfair. I say this as a member of the commission which approved the Paret-Griffith match. I'm tired of the abuse that the sport and the commission have had to take, and it's time some plain words were spoken in the midst of so much greatly exaggerated nonsense. I also want to offer some suggestions.
I have been a member of the commission for seven years, and in that time I have seen many people attack boxing to make headlines for themselves. This is an old technique. The Kefauver Committee did it, and the New York District Attorney's office has done it—and is doing it again right now. The same is true of some sportswriters, who find it easy to write with the benefit of hindsight; politicians, not only in my own state but as far across the country as California; psychologists, who are quick to give highly imaginative reasons why people supposedly enjoy watching fights; and professional do-gooders, who do not attend fights, do not know what they're talking about and thus become experts, such as television's David Susskind.
Their attacks are unwarranted. A death is not a happy event, but as a pure statistical fact boxing ranks low on the list of sports with fatalities. Boxers are not two brawling brutes seeking to maim or kill one another. They are two closely matched athletes seeking, through the use of such skills as footwork, timing, accuracy, punching and feinting, to determine who is the better man in the ring. Boxing calls for sportsmanship, discipline, self-reliance, sound physical fitness and courage, qualities which we have always valued. The President of the United States has himself called upon Americans to become aware of the necessity for physical fitness, and no sport is more demanding in this than boxing.
In my opinion, boxing is supervised better in New York than any place in the world. We have a medical advisory board that is easily the best. The boxer's physical welfare is our number one concern. Since the first of the year we have retired 12 boxers for their own good, but of course this doesn't make headlines. Any boxer who applies for a license in New York has to undergo strict examination as a matter of normal procedure. He gets an X ray, an electrocardiogram, an electroencephalogram, blood and urine tests and an eye examination. If he is knocked out, he is automatically suspended for 30 days, and he is not reinstated until he has had a neurological examination and an electroencephalogram.
What many of those criticizing boxing do not know is the service the sport renders to the people. There are very few places where a youngster who has been in trouble, or who is out on parole, can obtain work. Fortunately, boxing takes in many of them and gives them a chance at life. A good percentage of the boxers being licensed today are boys who have been in trouble with the law. Boxing gives the boys the opportunity to take pride in themselves.
Boxing faces its biggest challenge right now not from fatalities in the ring but from the TV camera. TV has taken a once flourishing sport and reduced it to a pitchman's stand for razor blades. Boxing needs a live audience. If it doesn't have one it will die. I have seen boxing in Madison Square Garden deteriorate from the pre-TV days, when an ordinary Friday night fight would be a sellout, to the present, when a world championship fight fills less than half the house.
Before TV came along, boxing was thriving. On almost any night of the week there was a fight club going in New York. Then TV came along and gave away a free Monday night show, a Wednesday night show and a Friday night show. This killed off the small clubs where a boy learns his craft. Now boxers are being brought along too fast, before they have a chance to develop, to satisfy the constant demand of TV for new faces. If a fighter wins a couple of fights, he's rushed up and boom—he's knocked off.
In time the fight ratings on TV began to drop, and the shows passed away one by one, just as the small fight clubs did. The TV people then moved the Friday night fight to Saturday night because Friday night time was too valuable to toss away on boxing. It won't be long before the Saturday night ratings get so bad that they'll want to move the fights to Sunday afternoon.
TV not only destroyed clubs, but took the personality out of boxing. The Garden has a yearly contract for fights on TV. They don't care if you or I fight. If a fighter comes up fast, they use him. In the old days a fighter not only had to be good, but he had to have a drawing appeal. Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, they had personalities. Billy Graham—here was a fighter who was never a champion but he had a great following. TV has killed all of that. Most of the ills of recent years have stemmed from the control of television through the auspices of Jim Norris, the IBC and their associates. They reduced boxing to the shell we have today.
Outvoted each year
Boxing can be restored, but only if TV is eliminated completely. By eliminating TV, boxing would go back to the small clubs and start rebuilding again. Whether the future will hold any of the glories of the past only time will tell. I have endeavored for the last three years to have the Garden's TV contract cancelled. This TV contract comes under the jurisdiction of the New York commission, but I have been outvoted each year. This year when the TV contract comes up for its annual renewal, I will try my best to see that it is not approved. I want boxing given back to the boxing fans, not a TV audience. I am convinced that much of the hysteria about Benny Paret's accidental death was due directly to TV. The way the TV camera replayed the tragedy in slow motion cannot be forgiven.
Representative Abraham Multer of New York has introduced a bill to outlaw the national televising of fights. I back this most heartily and lend it all possible support. I also think that closed-circuit television fights should be outlawed as well. I don't want to see a small group of men again control the destinies of boxing.
Besides forbidding the televising of fights, I would like to see the absolute elimination of return bout contracts for title fights. It's ridiculous to see two men, such as Patterson and Johansson or Pender and Downes, tie up a title for two or three years and stifle a division while they stage private tournaments. If a man wins a championship, he shouldn't have to win it twice to prove he is really the champion. The defeated champion should fight a top contender to prove that he is worthy to fight for the title once more. This would make for better matches and more fights. The Patterson-Liston fight has not even been approved anywhere, but already the terms for a possible return bout have been announced. For tax reasons this return fight wouldn't take place until the summer or fall of 1963, and to show how ridiculous this is, if Liston won the first fight and Patterson the second, we'd be treated to the sight of a third return bout in the latter part of 1964.
There are other possible ways to improve boxing. One is the use of head protectors. Another would be to have a longer layoff than 30 days after a knockout or even after a hard fight with no knockout. It might be better to cut rounds from three to two minutes each and make championship fights 12 rounds instead of 15. In championship fights we might use eight-ounce gloves instead of six-ounce gloves. It might be better to have three judges instead of two. The third judge would replace the referee as a scorer. The referee would then be able to concentrate fully on the conduct of the bout and the condition of the fighters. If a boy is in trouble, the referee would be able to check the corner immediately instead of taking time out to mark his card.
All considered, it would be foolish to abolish boxing. The history of the sport shows that when it is outlawed it just flourishes underground. There would be fights in garages; there would be no medical supervision and no protection against mismatches. If we can keep calm, a lot can be done for boxing, and boxing can do a lot for the country.