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Esteemed Sports Journalist L. Jon Wertheim Reflects on the Sweet Science

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  • Esteemed Sports Journalist L. Jon Wertheim Reflects on the Sweet Science

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    By Rick Assad

    Boxing, baseball, college football and horse racing once ruled the American sports landscape. Of course, that was in the 1940s and 1950s when men wore suits and hats to sporting events. Today, baseball and college football remain important and so does boxing, but to a much lesser degree.Even if we step back to the 1980s when the manly sport was headlined by such titans as Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Julio Cesar Chavez, Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield, the sweet science seems to pale today, especially with the global emergence of MMA and UFC.

    L. Jon Wertheim, one of the most respected and accomplished journalists working today, has been the Executive Editor at Sports Illustrated since 2012 and a senior writer at the magazine since 1999. Wertheim has also been a correspondent since 2017 for 60 Minutes, one of the longest running news magazine shows in television history.

    A gifted and insightful writer on any sport and known for his exquisite tennis coverage, Wertheim published "Blood In The Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, And The Furious Rise Of The UFC,'' in 2010.

    Against this backdrop, Wertheim tackled a few boxing-related topics including whether the sport has lost some of its steam when compared to MMA.

    "I would say that if you are comfortable with combat sports (I am) boxing can scarcely be compared to MMA, which offers so many more ways to win, so many more possibilities, women fighters as well as men, a broader skill set, more unpredictability, fewer mismatches, little record-padding, much slicker promotion,'' said Wertheim, a 1997 University of Pennsylvania law school graduate who earned his undergraduate degree at Yale.

    "It also comes at a cost, mostly to the fighters, but the fact that the UFC makes the matches and can make the fights everybody wants - as opposed to boxing where we wait years for [Floyd Mayweather Jr./[Manny] Pacquiao - is another point in its favor. When we tell the history of boxing, we will talk about how the pay-per-view model earned a select few riches but worked to the detriment of the sport as a whole."

    This assessment doesn't mean that Wertheim, whose work has been included in the Best American Sports Writing series six times, can't find nice things to say about boxing.

    "There will always be something redeeming about the rawness of it all. Two guys, not even wearing shirts, stripped of pretense, bearing all,'' he said. "You could argue the purest form of competition. I like the technique, the crispness, the tableau. I am fairly libertarian so, as long as the fighters have agency and know what they’re getting into, I’m okay with it ethically."

    Wertheim finished his thought. "I don’t think it’s singular. The combination of the rawness, the risk-reward ratio, the culture, the history, the interplay of triumph and tragedy,'' he added.

    Both sports are potentially injurious to the participants. Boxing can be gory and dangerous, but in many MMA matches it's even more obvious. What's Wertheim's take on this matter?

    "In the short term, yes, in boxing you don’t see quite the assemblage of broken bones and snapped tendons and rivers of blood,'' he said. "Long term I think boxing is more violent. MMA is one punch (or choke) and it’s over; and boxing is the repeated blows to the head. I would hazard a guess that boxing has more serious CTE issues ten years from now than MMA."

    Candor and being open and available makes covering combat sports easier to convey a story, Wertheim said.

    "Absolutely, it’s one of the secrets of covering this sport. We love the rawness and the literary aspects, but we also love the damn access,'' he said of the story-telling ability journalists enjoy. "You can cover the Lakers for an entire season and not get a one-on-one interview with LeBron James. In my experience, boxers are not only wonderfully accessible but are also introspective and multilayered when you engage them in conversation. As you might expect from a sport so raw, there is a candor uncommon among team sport athletes."

    Does Wertheim, who has authored or co-authored 10 books, feel boxing would be better off with a commissioner or president in the mold of a Dana White?

    "It's not a perfect model but UFC offers a striking contrast,'' he said of the differences between the two entities. "There’s an organization with a powerful (autocratic?) leader who makes fights, fines fighters for ill conduct, deals with institutional flaws and runs the business like a business and not a collection of fiefdoms."

    Boxing is an extremely physical and demanding sport. Is there still a place for it or should it be tossed into the scrap heap?

    "I think it’s premature to talk about banning the sport, but it’s not premature to talk about making boxing safer, whether that’s changing weigh-in requirements, improving data or failing to license compromised fighters,'' Wertheim said.

    Wertheim, an analyst at the Tennis Channel, believes boxing and tennis have much in common.

    "I see a lot of similarities in terms of the brutal one-on-one nature, the ability/requirement to problem solve, the combination of competition and intimacy,'' he pointed out. "Obviously there’s no physical contact in tennis, but it’s very much the same range of emotions.''

    Wertheim revisited an earlier point about boxers and writers and why they've been seemingly interlocked forever.

    "There’s something immediately literate about two men stripped of pretense, engaging in violence to see who’s superior. There’s such a rich culture that lends itself to - prose and colorful reportage, from the venue to the matchmaker to the corner man to the ring card girls,'' he said. "But I think a lot of the appeal comes from the boxers themselves who are these alpha men, but so obviously (and often admittedly) vulnerable and damaged at the same time. If [Muhammad] Ali and Mike Tyson don’t give interviews and bear their souls, does boxing still exist as such a cool narrative nonfiction hangout?"

    That's an excellent question and definitely something to think about.

  • #2
    I do not know if MMA or UFC is a better view then boxing I never actually stepped into those sports as far as viewing. I do know when every time I talk about a fight when I am out and about a few days before a major fight everyone asks is that the UFC fight you are taling about ?. Or even worst they start telling me how much they are hyped for some MMA bout or the like. I have never had the urge to sit and watch the other fights, that I know nothing about techniclly speaking. Boxing for all it's bad behavour, poor match making, ugly promoters, blind judges, low level coverage.......I always seem to get up for the fights that matter.
    I have never been able to leave the game, thought I have many times but no I still show up-- there always seems to be some fighter I saw who was working his way into the minds of fight fans and caught my attention. A boxing match is still close to a street fight in a way I enjoy. It just brings out the raw power in us all. Everybody knows what it feels like to want to knock somebodies head off. Most of us know what it is like to follow thru with that idea it is in who we are. Boxing just feels a lot closer to that attitude, that way of carrying yourself then those other fight sport I know little about. Still I do not care what other people watch or enjoy, as long as they don't change the channel on my Television set when I am watching a Boxing Match bc I will knock them along side the head just as a matter of principle....... Ever been asked why did you do that ? And the most honest ansere was "It was a matter of Principle" boxing is like that in a lot of ways......