Does any guilty pleasure make us guiltier than watching two people smack the nasal discharge out of each other?
That must be the case, because over the last 60 years we’ve come up with allowable ways to indulge our habit while simultaneously painting boxing, the most natural and dramatic form of this pleasure, as brutal and inhumane. First it was pro wrestling, Gorgeous George Edition, and we convinced ourselves this was okay because it was only acting, and besides, Gorgeous George had his own perfume. How serious could that be? You put the sleeper hold on a guy who has his own perfume, it’s because he had it coming.
Then it was cartoons, and we convinced ourselves that was okay because cartoons were ostensibly for kids – but if they were ostensibly for kids, how come Tex Avery’s women all looked like they stepped off of the nose of a B-25?
Then it was football, with Hardy Brown and the snot-knocker and Night Train Lane with the clothesline, and we convinced ourselves that was okay because they were wearing protective gear, and besides, it was a game, like foursquare or tetherball.
Then it was wrestling again, Da Crusher Edition, and you couldn’t convince anyone that Baron von Raschke’s Claw could hurt a chipping sparrow, much less the ever-capable Kenny Jay.
Then it was cartoons again, then hockey, then wrestling again, the Ric Flair Edition this time, and then football again, and now it’s ultimate fighting, which has to be okay because one of its stars is named “Kimbo,” and there’s never been a violent anything where one of the major stars is named Kimbo. No matter that Kimbo will be walking around with a cranium full of guava jelly by age 40, if he’s not drooling his way around town in a power chair; boxing is worse.
More people profess a liking for Ron Santo as a broadcaster than like boxing. If boxing had a Facebook page it would be more friendless than the guy who was just pulled over for marinating a live cat in his trunk.
Furthermore, boxing titles are now like newspaper awards: If you place a sufficient amount of money in this box you can have one. And it isn’t even necessary to spell all the words right.
Well, at least boxing cards had nothing to do with the sport’s downfall. Boxing cards peaked at the turn of the 19th century and have been declining ever since.
Blame it on the audience. Boxers sold the product when the product was tobacco. Chewing gum? Not so much. The kids who had money to spend on a card-gum combo didn’t go to sleep with visions of knocking out Jack Dempsey dancing in their heads. Those were the dreams of the desperate, the street kids, the potato diggers, the kids with cardboard in their soles and chips on their skinny shoulders.
But for the last 130 years seemingly everyone has taken their poke at boxing cards.
Topps has taken several swipes, in the ‘50s and now. Goudey threw a few boxers into its Sport Kings set, and Leaf did boxers in 1948, so the field has not gone unplowed. And naturally, the heady atmosphere of the Handful o’ Landfill days convinced plenty of fledgling cardmakers that a pot of gold rested at the end of a rainbow-colored squared circle.
Never mind that the '90s were to boxing what Kansas in the '30s was to sustainable agriculture. Let’s start with Brown’s Boxing Cards because they sound so … well, friendly. Sort of like Grandma’s Boxing Cards.
Or Brown’s Boxing Cards, for that matter. In the great folk-art panorama of boxing issues domestic and imported Brown’s Boxing Cards were the painted plywood cutout of the bending-over grandma, bloomers and all. They were grade-Y cards of grade-Z fighters – what Joe Louis used to call “The Bum-of-the-Month Tour” – so they were better than you had a right to expect, but ultimately not very good at all.
After Brown’s came AW, which invested the money it didn’t spend on Rocket Ismail and the Canadian Football League on boxing cards. All told, AW Boxing was as fine a set as one could make for $14.25 Canadian.
Next up, Kayo. Kayo will be given its full measure later, when we tell the heart-stopping story of the Spring Professional Football League press release, but suffice it to say that Kayo did for boxing cards what Little Sun did for sportswriters: treated them extremely well to no effect. Kayo was the set that took in the mysterious lodger believing him to be the king in mufti, fed him the fatted calf, plied him with the old claret, and put him up in the feather bed, only to find in the morning that he was just a petticoat salesman from Dorset. Kayo cards looked nice, showed a reasonable assortment of fighters, included some Leroy Nieman art cards, sported a clean-but-unspectacular design, and had attractive, fact-filled backs, but had nothing after that first punch. Kayo couldn't answer the question I still can't answer: What’s the proper follow-up to a set full of big-name fighters – another set full of big-name fighters? How many Buster Douglas cards does a body need? For Kayo, the answer was a resounding, "One, I guess” – and then it was off to make skateboard cards. Love the kangaroo, hate the business plan.
Ringlords threw a ton of money at boxing cards with the restrained logic of a Liberian presidential election. It sold its product as a complete set only – a recipe for disaster even back then – pegged the price at Fleer Flair levels, put an image of what appears to be a sleeping weimeraner on the box cover, and had no idea of what to do for an encore. Rarely was such a high-end set so justified in failing so abjectly.
I have nothing against boxing or boxing cards. I believe that submitting yourself to a left hook in return for the right to deliver an uppercut to the jaw is a valid career move. The boxing cards that came out of the Handful O’ Landfill days are certainly better and more justified than the Harness Heroes set. But the companies that made them didn't appear to be thinking clearly.
Maybe it was the last shot to the guzzle that did it.