Last Saturday night I did something that felt very old-fashioned: I watched boxing on broadcast TV. The two main-event fights on the inaugural edition of NBC’s new “Premier Boxing Champions’’ — variations on the theme of a superior technical boxer handling an opponent endowed with more courage than skill — averaged out to not much better than OK. But as a cultural artifact the show was worth considering a bit.
Its pageantry and up-to-date camera work mimicked the flash of mixed martial arts, a competing bloodsport that boxing regards as a dangerous contender for the attention of younger fans, but the broadcast also had a consciously cultivated aura of nostalgia. Between the stegosaurian announcers — Marv Albert and Al Michaels, joined by Sugar Ray Leonard, a star of the 1980s who might as well have been Sugar Ray Robinson to most people under 40 — and the references to bygone heroic eras, the whole thing also felt like an excursion into history.
NBC’s experiment in bringing boxing back to “free” TV consciously recalls two glory-days eras. One is the 1970s, when Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, and other dreadnoughts of the heavyweight golden age traded broadsides on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports’’ to the honkingly erratic accompaniment of Howard Cosell’s blow-by-blow call. The other era evoked is the 1950s, when NBC’s “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,’’ known as the “Friday Night Fights,’’ featured Robinson, Willie Pep, Archie Moore, Rocky Marciano, and other greats.
The “Friday Night Fights’’ commanded an audience share as high as 24.8 — nearly a quarter of all American televisions on at the time. It was just one of several weekly boxing shows back then, when the fights were at the tail end of their run as a major sport. Boxing was already beginning its long slide to niche-sport status, and football was rising to take its place as the major sport built around hitting.
I think the nostalgia that suffused last Saturday’s telecast was not just for a time when boxing was a mainstream sport but for the very idea of a mainstream, exemplified by the quaint notion of an event on network TV on Saturday night that everybody would talk about on Monday morning. This first evening of NBC’s boxing experiment was considered a success because it gained an audience share of a mere 5, enough to win its time period among the broadcast networks in several categories of adult viewers. In our media environment of endless choices to match every individual consumer profile, the concept of the mainstream has lost much of its currency and authority. Almost everything, with the possible exceptions of the Super Bowl and fear of terrorism, qualifies as a niche enthusiasm these days.
Because boxing in our time is permanently imbued with a throwback feel, harking back to some dimly remembered prelapsarian age when men were good with their hands and less likely to sue when concussed, it encourages nostalgia of all kinds. Mere mention of the “Friday Night Fights,’’ for instance, inspires in people of a certain age vivid memories of their father watching the fights on TV.
There is, in fact, a subgenre of poetry devoted to that subject. “My father,/in the stuffed chair/facing the Zenith,/throwing so many punches/no one could/get near,” writes Stuart Dybek. Ronald Wallace remembers himself as a child on the couch and his father in his wheelchair, the two of them looking on as Marciano and others “fought and won the battles we could not./Him, twenty-nine and beat up with disease;/me, counting God among my enemies/for what He’d done to us. We never touched.”
The TV boxing literature is not confined to fathers and sons. Children these days are mystified when the story of Eloise, the girl who lives at the Plaza, gets to the page on which she spends her Friday nights watching the fights with her nanny, who drinks room-service beer and smokes cigarettes.
My daughters, not used to seeing me in front of the TV on Saturday night, looked in on me repeatedly to ask who was winning and to root for the guy with the braids. If NBC’s plans for prime-time boxing pan out, perhaps sometime in the 2050s they will be moved to write bittersweetly reminiscent poetry about their old dad watching the Saturday night fights.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’