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Can fans root for rulebreakers?

05
Apr

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2010.]

When spindly, effeminate Michael Jackson told the world he was “Bad,” we didn’t exactly quake in our boots. But when multiple young boys came forward and accused Jackson of molestation, that’s when we wanted to keep our distance.

There’s a clear distinction between being a “bad boy” as a means of promoting yourself or furthering your career and actually engaging in illegal, immoral or downright evil acts. We see this division in boxing all the time. The goal of a prize fighter is to make money by cracking skulls. We root for him to do just that. But can we still root for him when he takes those violent tendencies and imparts them upon others outside the professional setting?

Undefeated lightweight beltholder Edwin Valero is the latest in a long line of boxers whose troubles with the law earn him as many headlines as his exploits in the ring. Valero was arrested on March 25 in his native Venezuela for alleged domestic violence. Details remain murky and charges unsubstantiated but we know that Valero’s wife, Jennifer Carolina Viera, was treated for a punctured lung and broken ribs, he tested positive for drugs and alcohol after being arrested, he got into a heated argument with the hospital staff treating her and he entered a rehab center three days later. And this was not his first indiscretion. A drunken driving arrest in May of last year cost him his U.S. visa.



It remains to be seen whether Valero will be tried in court, but the boxing public began putting him on trial the moment the news started to spread across the internet. His fans are now facing a dilemma: Do they ignore his mounting outside-the-ring rap sheet and root for him because the knockout artist they fell in love with is still the same person professionally? Or do they stop rooting for him because the sins he has allegedly committed supersede in their minds the entertainment value he brings as a boxer?

RingTV.com reader Andrew Palmer sent an e-mail to site Co-Editor Michael Rosenthal last week expressing an opinion likely shared by many fight fans.

“I have no respect for Edwin Valero now. And I do not care to see him fight,” Palmer wrote. “The only reason I would like to see him fight is to see him get his ribs broke and knocked out.”

Some observers, however, aren’t so quick to cut the cord with Valero. Among American boxing writers, nobody is more directly linked to Valero than RingTV.com co-editor Doug Fischer, who unofficially “discovered” Valero nearly a decade ago and later jokingly labeled the fighter “my son.” Fischer notes that he isn’t nearly as close with Valero as people assume; his connection, at this point, is based almost solely on a writer’s pride from spotting a talent early and watching him pan out as predicted.

Still, Fischer spent a reasonable amount of time with Valero when the now-28-year-old fighter was in his early 20s, and he saw things that made Valero’s future troubles unsurprising.

“He was trained at the time by Joe Hernandez,” Fischer recalled, “who also trained Daniel Ponce De Leon and Mike Anchondo, and if one was fighting, the other two would travel along with him. When alcohol would get involved in the situation, at some point things would turn surly. Every time, on every trip, the two fighters who were not boxing would end up fighting each other. Anchondo had a fight one time, and Valero and De Leon got into it in the hotel lobby. There were chairs turned over and blood everywhere. These three, they had a particular dysfunction with alcohol. When they got drunk, they got crazy. Valero is already a stubborn guy, and when alcohol enters in, he becomes a maniac. Of course, that doesn’t excuse anything that’s been alleged of him. There’s never an excuse to raise your fist against your wife or children.”

Still, Valero is neither the first nor the worst offender in boxing. Countless fighters have served jail time for serious crimes, many in the primes of their careers, from Mike Tyson to Tony Ayala to Ike Ibeabuchi to Paul Spadafora to Diego Corrales. James Kirkland is currently in prison. Johnny Tapia is apparently headed back there. Even the highly spiritual Evander Holyfield is now facing domestic violence allegations. Sonny Liston could never escape the stigma of being an ex-con. Carlos Monzon was found guilty of murdering the mother of his child after his boxing career ended.

David Greisman, a columnist for boxingscene.com, has carved out a niche compiling fighters’ offenses in his “Boxers Behaving Badly” notes, a weekly feature since 2006. Rarely does a week pass without some boxer, retired or active, famous or obscure, popping up on the blotter.

Greisman believes that most fans detach the personal from the professional in most cases, and only in rare instances is a career ruined by external illicit behavior.

“I think we separate the act from the athlete, and that doesn’t just apply to boxers,” Greisman said. “We can watch O.J. Simpson in archival football footage or in the Naked Gun movies or look back at Chris Benoit’s wrestling matches, knowledgeable of and disgusted by their criminal cases, but enjoying them within the context by which we first knew them. How many people welcomed Michael Vick to Philadelphia?

“It’s even easier to separate the act from the athlete when it comes to boxing. We can be disappointed in Mike Tyson for derailing his career and disgusted by what he was convicted of doing. But Tyson going to prison didn’t ruin the season for a baseball or football team that we fervently follow. Ben Roethlisberger’s legal case, even if it goes nowhere, distracts from the team. Also, we see fighters so rarely — no more than an hour in a night, no more than three or four nights a year — that what they do outside of the ring doesn’t have as much bearing on how we view them when they are inside of it.”

Fischer takes it a step farther, observing that in some cases, a fighter can actually gain new fans by getting into trouble with the law.

“There really is a significant population, in America and abroad, that’s done jail time,” Fischer said. “Most people who go to jail, they’re not going for life, they’re only in there for a year or two, and then they get out and they’re trying to get their lives together. And when they find an athlete who’s gone through a similar experience, they attach themselves to that guy and they root for him.

“I remember when Tyson went to jail for rape, people I knew who didn’t really follow boxing were like, ‘This is it, right? When he gets out, nobody’s going to be his fan. Who the hell can root for a rapist?’ And I remember telling people, ‘You know what, there are people who’ve been accused of rape, rightly or wrongly, there are people who’ve done jail time, and they’re going to identify with Mike Tyson and root for him in a way that you or I can never understand.’ I covered some of Tyson’s fights in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and, to be blunt, he was the thug king. The folks who came out for Tyson, it was like a thug convention. Mike was their guy.”

Like Tyson, “Chico” Corrales lost a couple of years in his prime after being convicted of a heinous crime — violence against his pregnant wife. But he possessed several key qualities that helped fans to get past it. He was well spoken and his honesty came through in every interview. More importantly, he was a great entertainer in the ring, one of the purest warriors of his generation.

“I think like a lot of things, time heals all wounds,” Corrales’ former trainer, Joe Goossen, said of the boxing public’s acceptance of the fighter. “I don’t think he lost his fan base at all. I think at first, there was a lot of disgust among boxing fans over what went down, a man imposing himself violently on a woman. But I didn’t see any evidence of fans continuing to hold it against him once he’d done his time.”

For Corrales, the demons eventually resurfaced, and he had a blood alcohol level of .25 the night he crashed his motorcycle and died in 2007. It’s endings like Corrales’ that make it harder for fans to believe their pugilistic heroes can make permanent changes for the better.

And it’s quite possible that no fighter in the sport is facing a steeper uphill battle to restore fans’ faith than Antonio Margarito, who returns to the ring on May 8 having committed an infraction within the realm of boxing, allowing trainer Javier Capetillo to attempt to load his hand wraps, possibly on multiple occasions.

If you get drunk and beat somebody up on your own time, fans will often separate the side of you that committed that offense from the side of you that they’re paying to see perform in the ring. But Margarito has made it very difficult for anyone to make that distinction, since his cheating and his boxing are intertwined.

“People love a winner,” Fischer said in response to the question of whether Margarito — another fighter whom Fischer supported in his articles before the public had fully caught on — can get all of his fans back. “If he wins and looks good and keeps winning, I think his core audience is going to flock right back to him. But I think his ability to be a crossover attraction — and he was right on the cusp of becoming one after the (Miguel) Cotto fight — I don’t think that’s going to happen now. I think that stigma of attempting to load his gloves is going to stick with him in the English-speaking press, and that’s going to affect his ability to attract new English-speaking fight fans. If you believe he cheated his way to the top, you can’t root for a guy like that.”

That puts Margarito in a category similar to Mark McGwire or Marion Jones. Valero is in a different category. He’s a man whose personal life is starting to overshadow his athletic accomplishments. Roethlisberger, who is facing his second rape accusation, fits that description. Tiger Woods, even without breaking the law, fits that description. A few years ago, Kobe Bryant fit that description, but the rape charge against him went away and, in the minds of many Lakers fans, it’s like it never existed. As the superstar player on the defending NBA champions, Bryant is more beloved in L.A. than ever.

And fight fans generally respond the same way. They’re momentarily mortified by a fighter’s outside-the-ring behavior, but if that fighter gets back to entertaining them, he eventually regains their favor.

Valero will eventually be back in the ring assuming he doesn’t dig his hole any deeper with further transgressions. Some fans will root for him to suffer the same pain his wife suffered. Others will be more drawn to him than ever because either they identify with him or they just can’t resist a “bad boy.” And some won’t care one way or the other about what he’s done outside a boxing ring; for them, if he remains the same macho wrecking ball who has knocked out all 27 opponents he has faced, that’s all that matters.

RASKIN’S RANTS

Joe Goossen has an interesting perspective, as a trainer, on Margarito’s loaded-wraps scandal. He said that the trainer has to be considered guilty but the fighter just might be innocent. Goossen believes a lot depends on whether the illegal inserts felt obviously hard and dangerous or not. If not, he’s willing to give Margarito a certain benefit of the doubt. “Boxers are students to their gurus and there’s a respect factor. They don’t necessarily question what they’re trainers are doing,” Goossen said. “When you’re getting your hands wrapped, if you trust your trainer, a lot of guys zone out, they have their headphones on. Until I see what was inserted, the jury’s still out for me.”

If you’re looking for a comment on Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones II, you’ve come to the wrong place. I woke up Sunday morning well rested and $50 richer than all you suckers out there.

Speaking of Hopkins, he finally got his wish as a Philly sports fan: Donovan McNabb has been run out of town. Too bad the guy most responsible for the Eagles’ shortcomings the last 11 years, fatally stubborn head coach Andy Reid, is still around to make sure B-Hop and the rest of Philadelphia aren’t going to see a Super Bowl champ anytime soon.

Is it just me, or does the “Tecate Friday Night Fights studio” voiceover guy’s accent get a little thicker each week? Eventually, he’s going to find a way to add a sixth syllable to the word “Friday.”

Inspired by Demetrius Andrade, I called my dad on Friday night and said, “Tell me I’m the best.” He told me to cut my hair and get a real job.

 

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