There are certain lines you just don't cross. Family, race and illness are three of the brightest and boldest. They're no-go zones, places no one dares tread. Even the football locker room has started to yield to modern reality. The standard is the standard everywhere—except in the sport of boxing, the Wild West of sports culture.
In boxing, if a ring and a microphone are nearby, anything goes. There are no civilians in this world and none of the damage is collateral. Simply by existing, you make yourself a target.
Take Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao's Hall of Fame boxing trainer and center of an ugly scuffle (video includes extreme obscenities) Wednesday that saw words and blows exchanged in a frenzy of vulgarity, including a kick to Roach's chest. Roach has Parkinson's disease. His hands, the same hands that flew so freely in 53 professional prizefights, now shake, a tremor he can't quite control. When he speaks, it's with a slur. That didn't save him from the wrath of Pacquiao's opponent, Brandon Rios, and his team.
Rios himself once mocked Roach's affliction, followed by a questionable apology. Roach, however, hasn't forgotten. The brewing tension helps explain why a squabble over who had dominion in the gym for light workouts soon turned ugly, devolving into an awful display by a collection of awful people.
Rios was running over his allotted time and Roach needed the gym for Pacquiao, and wasn't satisfied with Rios trainer Robert Garcia's explanation for the delay. That's when the verbal dispute between Roach and Garcia turned physical as Rios' strength coach, Alex Ariza, who once worked for Pacquiao and was fired by Roach this year, kicked the trainer in the chest. Insults were exchanged and Ariza mocked Roach's Parkinson's to the joy of his gathered thugs, including phony tough guy Donald Leary, a Rios hanger-on who took a swing at Roach. Rios, throughout the incident, works out calmly on an elliptical machine, taking it all in.
Roach, if you watch the video above, doesn't come out of the altercation smelling like roses, either. He screams some racially charged expletives himself. It was an ugly scene, the kind you only see in boxing, the world's ugliest sport. HBO Boxing will air the fight on pay-per-view this weekend and was all too happy in the aftermath despite the altercation. Or, rather, because of it.
This pay-per-view extravaganza, featuring a fight between the relatively unknown Rios and Pacquiao, the superstar last seen face down on the mat after a Juan Manuel Marquez right hand, has the feel of a dud. In boxing, where there is no shame, this is exactly the kind of thing that might jump-start a fight between a never-will and a fading star.
Dignity, decorum and a baseline of respect for a former athlete who sacrificed his health and well-being to the altar of boxing? That pales in comparison to the opportunity to send out a media email blast and video of the incident. "Camps Scuffle in Gym in Macau" is the email's title. But the subtext is all too clear: come and see the spectacle!
HBO apparently believes that showing this collection of horrible people, both sides all too willing to drop homophobic slurs in a silly argument over nonsense, is going to sell this show.
I hope that's not true. But boxing is an anachronism, one of the lone remaining places the truly vile can thrive. In the music industry, Chris Brown has been widely shamed and shunned for his domestic assault. In boxing, Floyd Mayweather has walked away from worse and remained a hero.
Rios' team and Roach will likely emerge with their reputations untarnished as well. This is boxing, a place where anything and everything can be forgiven in the name of salesmanship. Was this an elaborate piece of modern art, a last-ditch effort to sell this show? Or was it a festering wound that finally exploded, the verbal pus flying everywhere?
I don't know. And I'm not sure it matters. Either way, it's despicable, a black eye on a sport that's already been beaten into an unrecognizable pulp. And it's the reason why boxing, increasingly, speaks only to those who have already heard her siren song.