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What's sporting about men pummeling each other?

Now that the super Bowl is behind us, we can turn our attention to the bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, Fight of the Century for this year. With luck, it will also be the last boxing extravaganza to hinder the lurching progress of mankind.

It says a great deal about the enfeebled state of boxing that no fight of broad interest can be concocted with existing pugilists. This one is being forced on us only by bringing back the fetching Mr. Leonard from retirement and then tantalizing our most sordid instincts with the gruesome proposition that he might come away from the proceedings no longer able to make out light and form.

Sadly, it is clear to me now that boxing is never going to be banned—not in the official way that bearbaiting and lynching are outlawed. Of course, any activity whose express purpose is to amuse customers with the "sport" of having human beings pummel one another is patently immoral and has no place in a society that aspires to being civilized, even one that embraces Rambo. But given the prevalence of such everyday crimes against humanity as starvation, homelessness and prejudice, not even a sympathetic Congress is going to waste its time trying to proscribe an activity that physically does harm to a relatively small number of poor people.

Nevertheless, boxing's greatest sin is not that a Sugar Ray may lose his sight, a Muhammad Ali his verbal skills, a Duk Koo Kim his life. The larger damage is that boxing poisons all who are exposed to its baseness. A child watching on television who sees one man rattle another man's brain while bystanders cheer wildly cannot help but come away with the conclusion that society approves of such amusement.

Boxing was bound to suffer its current decline, for it is simply too transparently mean to have escaped forever the harsh scrutiny it deserves. The regular and altogether ludicrous argument that you can't ban boxing and deny fans their blood, lest you deny indigent black and Hispanic boys an avenue to success, doesn't wash with any more logic than claiming that we must leave the Mafia alone rather than close off employment opportunities for industrious Sicilian tykes. The development of other professional sports, notably football, baseball and basketball, answers that labored defense in an even more direct way.

Still, it has always tickled me that boxing has done so much to destroy itself. The sport is so corrupt, so grasping, that for 30 years or more it has displayed all of its major attractions only for top dollar in theaters, while all other major sporting events have been seen on home TV. The result has been to remove boxing from the mainstream, sending it back to the time when bouts were forced onto barges. So now a whole generation of sports fans has grown up without having seen a live showcase boxing event.

In continuing this policy, the Blinding of Sugar Ray will be shown only on closed circuit. But it is my contention that when lesser bouts are displayed on weekend afternoons on the networks, or on ESPN or HBO in prime time, the cigarette-pack model must be followed. That is, for every hour of televised boxing, one minute must be set aside for Ali or some other poor wretched graduate of the sweet science to be duly exhibited, to mumble and shuffle and reveal how dangerous boxing can be to your health.

Gratefully, the removal of boxing to Vegasianna and to the barges-cum-theaters has also served to rob the sport of much of its literary allure. Because boxing is so primeval and dramatic, it has always attracted some superb writers, who have glamorized its cruelty and sentimentalized its nefarious ways and the scoundrels who plot its schemes. A. J. Liebling's accounts, which titillated the swells who subscribed to The New Yorker, epitomized this slumming genre.

Many people in boxing are indeed colorful characters. They sort of remind me of some of my old southern relatives, who always confounded me as I was growing up. Although they were among the most dear and charming humans I ever encountered, they had this one cuckoo notion—about nigras, in their case. They would give me all this mumbo jumbo about how it really had nothing to do with race (for goodness' sake!) but was all just states' rights and stuff like that. Similarly, with straight faces, boxing's defenders will claim that brutality is not the issue, that boxing is a noble exercise, equal parts art and a job bank for the disadvantaged.

Fortunately, those who profess these beliefs are a dying breed. Boxing has effectively choked off its future. However much attention the Leonard-Hagler fight might attract, if it is a Fight of the Century, it is not of this century but just some grim vestige of a time long gone.