Thirty-five years ago, this month, professional boxing was rolling. Muhammed Ali had finally thrown in the towel following multiple ill-advised comebacks, and Sugar Ray Leonard had embarked on one of his periodic retirements, but the sport remained a ratings and financial bonanza replete with stars like Roberto Duran, Michael Spinks, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Hector Camacho and Larry Holmes.
Fights were a network TV staple, with an average of several televised bouts per weekend. Fledgling HBO had begun to impose its will on the fight game, and as the network gained more and more penetration into the market, it provided an imprimatur of prestige. Sure, the usual low-to-mid level corruption still permeated the sport, as it always had, with crooked promoters and unscrupulous sanctioning bodies exercising undue influence on matchmaking and payouts. But, as the month of November began, there was no special reason to suspect that the sport’s longtime hold on the American consciousness was in danger of declining. By the end of November, it had arguably entered into a spiral from which it never fully recovered. Here are three datelines in that trajectory:
November 12, 1982
Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello
One of the most anticipated lighter weight fights in history pitted the brilliantly elegant Nicaraguan 135-pound champion, Alexis Arguello, against the fire-breathing terror that was a young Aaron Pryor, who had accumulated a 31-0 record with 29 knockouts in the process of capturing the 140-pound belt. Pryor was a decorated prodigy who had twice beaten Tommy Hearns in the amateur ranks, but also a tough kid from the mean streets of Cincinnati and a wild card in and out of the ring. Particularly concerning was Pryor’s relationship to trainer Panama Lewis, a disreputable figure who once illegally lined his fighter’s gloves with plaster cast, nearly killing his opponent in the process. For Arguello’s part, his reputation was impeccable. A suave assassin with one-punch power in either fist, he could make a knockout look great for victor and opponent alike. Arguello went off as a slight betting favorite despite the challenge of moving up in weight. The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds.
What ensued from there was one of the greatest fights in history. A typically hyperactive Pryor–appearing near crazed–pursued and cornered Arguello at every turn. The Nicaraguan responded with a master class of counterpunching, at times nailing Pryor on the chin with dynamite that would have dropped a bridge. Pryor never buckled. Following a particularly effective Arguello assault in the 11th, Panama Lewis famously called for a special water bottle –“the one I mixed!”–to be administered to Pryor. Visibly revived, Pryor would go on to score a brutal knockout in the 14th, rendering Arguello scarily unconscious following a late referee stoppage.
It was a brilliant fight, but nothing felt right. What was in Panama Lewis’s special bottle and what role did it play in Pryor’s miraculous recovery? Why was such a brutal beating administered to one of the sport’s most admired stars? Concerns had already been raised about the length of championship bouts. Fifteen round fights had been staged for decades, but in recent years it had seemed that the so called “championship rounds”– he 12th through the 15t –were too perilous for even professional prize fighters to endure. Ali had famously referred to the 14-round hellscape that was the final of his three fights with Joe Frazier as “the closest thing to dying” he could imagine. And Ali won. Was this really an athletic competition or pure blood sport?
Boxing needed a good answer to these questions in the following weeks. The following day would prove a disaster.
November 13, 1982
Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim
Ray Mancini was a star. A charismatic Italian from the economically depressed town of Youngstown, Ohio, he radiated the working-class cool of On The Waterfront-era Brando, with tousled good looks and an easy charm. His was a ready-made narrative–Mancini’s father Lenny, with whom he shared the nickname “Boom Boom”–had been a top lightweight contender in the 1940’s, only to have his championship dreams dashed when he was wounded in World War II. Now the son would redeem the father’s lost legacy. Networks thrilled to it, and Mancini fights brought in huge ratings.
Plus, Boom Boom could really fight. Despite relatively slow foot speed and a congenital tendency to get cut, Mancini always moved forward, throwing combinations with abandon and firing up crowds in his hometown and beyond. Prematurely thrust into a title challenge against Arguello after just twenty fights, Mancini fought courageously but was over-matched and succumbed in the 14th round. The brave defeat only increased his popularity and when he eventually broke through with a title victory against Arturo Frias he appeared on the verge of becoming a household name.
The idea of Mancini defending his title the day after Pryor-Arguello was no coincidence. Matching him with the winner would be a big-money bonanza. The Saturday showcase following the Friday night superfight was the perfect opportunity to whet public appetites. Mancini’s opponent that day was totally unknown, virtually incidental to the proceedings. Duk Koo Kim was a South Korean, the owner of a 17-1-1 record and a regional Asian title. It is said that Mancini’s camp was so unfamiliar with Kim that they had not even managed to secure footage of any of his fights for pre-match scouting. And yet the general assumption was that the Mancini-Kim fight was a mere formality–one more showcase for a budding superstar.
To say that isn’t what took place is an understatement of the highest order. Mancini was just 21 when the bout took place, and from the beginning the older, seasoned Kim looked far from overmatched. Kim’s style, it turned out, was a mirror of Mancini’s. He proved adept at phone booth warfare, fighting effectively inside and rarely taking a step back. As the fight progressed, it seemed only too possible that Mancini would suffer a shocking upset. As the rounds wore on and the toll mounted, Mancini later admitted he had thought of quitting.
If only one of them had.
In the 14th round, an exhausted Mancini launched one more attack against an equally spent Kim. Cornering him and landing brutal combinations, it seemed impossible that Kim was remaining upright, and even fighting back. The boisterous crowd grew anxious as an accumulating sense began to take hold that something unnatural was taking place. While it felt apparent that referee Richard Green should jump in and halt the brutality, the exact moment never presented itself. When Kim finally crashed to the ground seemingly everyone recoiled from dread. He never regained consciousness following the subdural hematoma he experienced in the ring and died four days later.
November 26, 1982
Larry Holmes vs. Randall “Tex” Cobb
Larry Holmes was many things: a great champion, a decent man, and an A-list star to sports fans. One thing he was not and never would be was truly loved. A close friend and former sparring partner of Muhammed Ali, Holmes had the misfortune to follow the Greatest as the standard bearer for the Heavyweight division, a bitterly difficult task made worse by Ali’s insane decision to come out of retirement to challenge him. Badly faded, Ali was no match for Holmes in his prime, and Holmes beat him, pulling punches throughout and begging the referee for a stoppage. To the general public, humiliating the celebrated Ali was the thing they most associated with him. The second thing they most associated with him was stopping Gerry Cooney in a heavyweight superfight that had been unscrupulously promoted with overt racial overtones. Holmes would be subject to racist abuse before and after the bout. He asked for none of this, and certainly didn’t deserve it. And then he was matched up in primetime against Randall “Tex” Cobb at the end of boxing’s worst month ever.
Randall Cobb was a palooka–a large lumbering man with an impervious chin and almost no other talent related to boxing. How it had been decided that he should be matched with the undefeated heavyweight champion in a fifteen-round fight–in primetime no less–was the sort of deranged wonderment unique to the fight game. A former kickboxer, Cobb had lost two of his last five fights. He had a less than zero chance against Holmes. But lord could he take a punch.
You could kind of see where this was going. Thirteen days after the tragic death of Kim, a nationwide audience watched the masterful Holmes relentlessly pound on the essentially helpless Cobb for fifteen rounds. Holmes hit him with everything he could, and Holmes hit hard, but Cobb simply would not go down. It was brave, to be sure, and laudable in a sense, but it was not a good look for boxing in that moment. Howard Cosell, broadcasting the fight for ABC, had seen enough.
Cosell became so appalled watching the slow-moving massacre that he vowed never to call another fight, a proclamation he ultimately stuck with. Massively controversial throughout his career and downright unpopular towards the end of it, Cosell remained a mineral element of boxing’s conscience, having sided with and legitimized Ali’s protests. When Cosell, who had seen everything ugly thing boxing had to offer, elected to walk away, it was national news.
Three Knockdown Rule
In boxing, three knockdowns in a single round triggers an automatic end to the fight. Boxing suffered three traumas in November, 1982.
Any one of these events taken alone would have constituted a serious challenge to the fight game. Taken together over the course of a single month, they represent a tipping point in boxing’s future, the beginning of an inexorable decline. A sport that once shared parity or greater with the NFL and MLB was now on a trajectory towards permanent niche status. There were other factors at work as well. During the heady days of early Reagan-era exuberance, advertisers had already begun flocking to better-heeled sports like golf, with its wealthier demographics. Increasingly boxing’s seamy underside became irreducible from the sort of violent and criminal underpinnings of early-American life that the country was hastening to forget. The Gipper’s City On The Hill sat uncomfortably alongside boxing, although boxing most resembled America in its hardscrabble underpinnings and sins best forgotten.
Thirty-five years later we remember. Pryor and Arguello are both dead. They became unlikely friends later in life and Pryor campaigned for Arguello when he staged a successful run for Mayor of Managua in Nicaragua. He won, but took his own life in 2009, suffering from depression. Cocaine derailed Pryor’s career at its height. He retired undefeated and badly strung out in 1980, returning later as a shell of himself. He eventually cleaned up his act and lived a life of public service until his death last year at the age of 60.
Mancini was badly scarred by the Kim fight and never fulfilled the potential for greatness that seemed present in him. He retired following convincing losses to Livingstone Bramble, only coming out of retirement briefly to lose a dull decision to Hector Camacho. He remains a cult hero and the much-deserved subject of a great Warren Zevon song. Richard Green, the referee who failed to stop Mancini-Kim before it was too late, committed suicide the following year.
Remarkably, Larry Holmes and Tex Cobb both thrived. Holmes would go on to assert again and again his inarguable status as one of the ten greatest heavyweights of all time, and eventually live out the fullness of his Ali worship by being ritually slaughtered in an ill-advised comeback against Mike Tyson. Cobb would find a second career as a colorful personality and actor, culminating in his indelible role as the “Lone Rider Of The Apocalypse” in the Coen Brothers’ classic screwball comedy Raising Arizona. Boxing kept trucking on, periodically producing great stars and managing extended periods of prosperity. But in many ways the good times were over for good.