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Original Issue

On the Ropes

With its heavyweight chumps and forgettable fights, the once mighty sport of King (Don, that is) is staggering toward oblivion

On the night after he chopped down Jess Willard to win the heavyweight championship of the world under a blazing sun in Toledo on July 4, 1919, Jack Dempsey awoke in his hotel room unsure if all that had happened had been just a dream. Racing out to the sidewalk, he stopped a passing newsboy who was hawking extra editions of the Toledo Blade containing a report of the bout. "Who's the heavyweight champion?" Dempsey asked frantically. The boy gaped at him and replied, "You are, you dope!"

It's hard to single out the most anachronistic feature of that story. Newsboys and extra editions, after all, have gone the way of rumble seats and spats. And dope would today no doubt have been replaced by a more colorful appellation. But the real shocker in 2005 is the idea that a kid stopped on the street would actually recognize the heavyweight champion of the world.

Boxing, a sport that for much of the 20th century was rivaled in popularity and importance only by baseball, has fallen so far off the cultural map that right now Hilary Swank and Russell Crowe are probably the most well-known figures in the game. (Sadly, only one of them can really fight--and she's not even a heavyweight.) The most recent attempt to market boxing to a mainstream audience more interested in reality shows and video games brought us The Contender, which added "reality" to what should be the most real of sports by editing the boxing to look like a video game.

Once there was no other moment in sports that could match the allure of a big fight. In 1926 more than 120,000 turned out for Dempsey's first bout against Gene Tunney; in '38 the whole world huddled around their radios for news of the Joe Louis--Max Schmeling rematch; when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met for the first time, in Madison Square Garden in '71, fans filled closed-circuit theaters across the country and Frank Sinatra shot photos at ringside for Life magazine; in the '80s and '90s people happily shelled out $35 to watch Mike Tyson's 90-second pyrotechnic displays on pay-per-view.

Now? Now alphabetized versions of subdivided championships are won and lost in obscurity on cable or ethnically-targeted pay-per-view. Sometimes actual fisticuffs aren't even necessary. The World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight title changed hands last week without a punch being thrown: Hasim Rahman became champ by vote of the WBC board after the reigning titleholder, Vitali Klitschko--who had postponed a planned match with Rahman four times because of various injuries--retired, reportedly to campaign for the far more prestigious title of mayor of Kiev.

And so the Balkanization of what was once sport's most glamorous property reaches a new extreme. Which of the four--count 'em, four--heavyweight champs excites you the most? The 33-year-old Rahman, who KO'd Lennox Lewis in 2001? (Lewis poleaxed him in a return bout seven months later, and Rahman went on to lose two of his next three fights, but hey, he looked good in his most recent outing, and he was elected fair and square.) How about International Boxing Federation titleholder Chris Byrd? At 35 Byrd is a technically gifted but punchless southpaw, and a very personable mild-mannered fellow--in other words a promoter's nightmare. Then there's World Boxing Organization champ Lamon Brewster, 32. Another nice guy, he also happens to be Byrd's cousin. If the two ever fight, it could be billed as the Thrilla in Vanilla. Finally, there's World Boxing Association champ John (the Quiet Man) Ruiz. The 33-year-old Ruiz actually lost his most recent fight, to former middleweight James Toney last April, only to have the decision changed to no contest after Toney tested positive for steroids.

Sure, there are still superb fighters and compelling match-ups out there, just not among the big boys. Lightweights Diego Corrales and José Luis Castillo have traded knockout wins and appear headed for a third bout, evoking comparisons to the Rocky Graziano--Tony Zale trilogy of the 1940s. Junior lightweight Manny (Pac Man) Pacquiao, a southpaw power puncher and an action film superstar in his native Philippines, is poised to rip through the lighter weight divisions. Alltime great Bernard Hopkins will be making what could be his last stand next month against rising star Jermain Taylor. And the only people paying attention are Filipino movie buffs and your uncle Al, who would still rather talk about Graziano and Zale.

No, if boxing hopes to reclaim mainstream relevance, it will need, once again, a heavyweight savior. Promoter Don King, who controls all four of the current titleholders, says he wants to hold an elimination tournament. Unfortunately, the only thing a yearlong roundelay among this less-than-fantastic four seems likely to eliminate is the last vestige of interest in the sport. On the plus side, of course, it might also finally KO King.

Now that would be worth an extra edition.

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Urbina and others allegedly doused the men with gas and set them on fire. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 32