It passed almost unnoticed. In 2012, for the first time ever, the Unites States men’s boxing team did not win a single medal at the Olympics. The only saving grace is that U.S. women Marlen Esparza and Claressa Shields won medals in the debut of women’s Olympic boxing.
Over the years, the U.S. boxing team has won a record 108 medals at the Olympics, according to an ABC News article. In successive Olympics the U. S. produced champions Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay, light-heavyweight, Rome, 1960); Joe Frazier (heavyweight, Tokyo, 1964); and George Foreman (heavyweight, Mexico City, 1968).
The biggest year probably came in 1976, when the boxing team produced five gold medal winners (Leo Randolph, Howard Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and his brother Leon Spinks), a silver medal winner (Charles Mooney), and a bronze medal winner (the huge heavyweight John Tate). The boxing team was covered extensively on television with the blow-by-blow accounts frenetically supplied by Howard Cosell.
Despite having such an outstanding pedigree, the boxing team has been in a steep decline in recent years. The previous low point prior to London 2012 had been the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, when the boxing team won a lone medal, that being Deontay Wilder bringing home a bronze.
What has happened? Throughout most of the 20th century, boxing was one of the five most popular sports in America, often trailing only baseball. However, in recent decades boxing has clearly fallen out of favor with the American public. It once inundated network television, but now it is rarely if ever covered. The Olympic coverage in 2012 only gave a cursory mention to the boxing medals won by the two American ladies. When youngsters don’t see boxing anywhere, they don’t have anything or anyone to emulate. There are also fewer and fewer states that give out licenses to allow professional fistfights to occur within their jurisdiction.
Muhammad Ali was the very face of boxing for many years, perhaps the most charismatic champion of them all. To many people he became a living example of the ill effects boxing can cause on a person’s health. It is true people can contract the disease he has suffered from without ever stepping into a boxing ring. But can there be any argument that the accumulation of blows Ali sustained, especially during the later part of his career when he was no longer so elusive in the ring, contributed to his rapid physical decline? Once a loquacious, humorous, vibrant man, he became a shell of himself, no longer able to be the “Louisville Lip.”
More is being learned about the long-term implications of concussions. Sports like American football and ice hockey are reeling from the new discoveries, and are desperately trying to tailor and fashion their sports to be less dangerous. But how can boxing follow suit? Scientists and doctors are fully describing and detailing the reasons behind what had long been known in boxing as being “punch drunk.” Boxing is a sport where giving your opponent a concussion is the very object and goal of the contest. Can boxing co-exist in a society that is learning more and more about the long-term damage of concussions? Can boxing be rehabilitated?
Other nations still very much value boxing. Manny Pacquiao is so celebrated in the Philippines that he was able to win a seat in the House of Representatives there. Boxers, however, are no longer held in high esteem in America.
The United States may be taking the lead in no longer sanctioning and authorizing boxing matches, except in a few places like Las Vegas. Similar journeys have been taken with other sports. For example, dog fighting was once popular, but at some point the nation realized it was wrong and made it illegal.
Giving up on boxing may be the morally correct thing to do. But the many different weight divisions in Olympic boxing mean there are over 30 medals available on the men’s side alone. And the sport has now got a women’s side as well. That’s quite a potential medal haul to sacrifice in the name of progress. Should the U.S. redevelop its boxing program, just to make sure it is not missing out on so many medal opportunities? Time will tell.
“Sports Illustrated Presents the Complete Book of the Summer Olympics,” David Wallechinsky, Little, Brown and Company, 1996