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Tattoo Anything But You

By Jason Probst, April 4, 2002

ESPN's Classic Sports boxing is a great pleasure for a fight fan. In catching up with the old-school matches it's nice to see a time and place where the fighters didn't have to worry about slipping on ring advertisements.

The canvas is, in fact, entirely blank, devoid of the centerpiece beer promos that have been standard fare for the past 20 years. Following the beer bits in the past decade have been ads in the corners. Then a few years ago ads on the sides of the ring crept in, followed by corporate shtick on the timer, the punch stats, and the corner posts. What's next, a pitch for Bryl-Creem on Steve Albert's hair? Needless to say, the ESPN Classic Bouts are a nice reminder of when the ring existed so fighters could fight. It's a reminder of a less commercialized age.

How ironic is it that just last week ESPN declared a ban on those ubiquitous 'back ads' on fighters. The harbinger of these temporary ads, Bernard Hopkins, saw his melt away in the sweaty opening rounds of the Trinidad fight last September, but a premise had been irrevocably set -- long dogged by short purses and creative bookkeeping, fighters started wearing the ads and online gambling sites stepped right in to fill the void. The hubbub seemed to have passed a critical sanctioning point when the Nevada Athletic Commission ruled against banning the practice of letting fighters sell body space for ads, but ESPN's ruling is a huge step backward.

The question is simple: what is ESPN gonna do when a fighter gets '' permanently tattooed on his back? Ban him for cosmetic reasons? Hardly. It wouldn't stand up in court, not with Johnny Tapia as Exhibit A for the plaintiffs, and in barring the temporary ads, ESPN's attempt at Prohibition will only force the issue to the next level.

It's not whether or not you think a fighter will actually get one of these ads permanently on his back, it's the fact that a fighter could do it, and therefore will be banned for it (and it will happen...any 16-7 last minute fill-in for an ESPN main event will gladly take a tattoo for an extra $20,000, especially as it can be converted afterward into a bust of 'Down for My Homiez' for a nominal fee).

It's also a curiously self-serving position that the casinos and networks seem to be in obvious collusion to eliminate sponsorship that A) Advertises for competitors and B) Furnishes fighters with a direct source of income. The only thing a casino hates worse than a cheat is someone with the gall to stay at home and gamble, not even bothering to make the trip to Vegas.

Online gambling houses are cutting into the entire reason for Vegas' existence. You don't have to hassle with flying in, a hotel, and drinking enough free booze to make up for losses you're likely to incur at the tables given an Internet connection and an easily established account. To wit: you can just as easily get kicked in the nuts in your own home, and that's a valuable shortcut in today's hurried climate of addiction and self-flagellation.

It's amazing that people would even gamble, knowing the odds against a live dealer (45% and holding nicely, thank you), but the fact that people actually do it against a computer with no given checks and balances built in to the game proves that these people are sheep waiting to be sheared. The problem is, there's millions of them and all of a sudden Vegas no longer has a monopoly on the harvest.

And that's what the threat of online casino advertising represents. All of a sudden, technology and the serfs have a match made in heaven, and the phenomenon circumvents the need for both casinos and middlemen taking the traditional cut of fighter's purses entirely.

If the garish nature of the ads were really the problem, today's boxing ring would not look like the Turkish Bazaar it's become. The canvas would look as it used to, covered in a plain white with blood, sweat, and the by-products of bodily combat, instead of glossy crap ads that fighters slip on. All of a sudden body art is a disgrace to the sport? Right.

What's a shame is when some cat in a $20 million dollar super fight is going to blow out an ACL after going ass-over-teakettle on a fitness advertisement, and your neighbors won't talk to you anymore because the De La Hoya-Trinidad rematch ended on an injury in round three and you still juiced them for the $10 because, after all, this is boxing, and Acts of God are part of the game.

You can order the s__t sandwich buttered or plain, but in the end, it is what it is.

Here's hoping some forward-thinking cat will get a back ad permanently tattooed to force the network into a position that's woefully indefensible in court. Litigation and the fight game go hand in hand, and at the end of the day that's how the intractable issues are resolved.

Regrettably, this didn't have to go this route, as fighters were using a perfectly legitimate means to make the funds while they can. Their bodies and skills are not like Twinkies; they do not last forever. A fighter's sole lucrative resource is making every dollar he can in an interminably short window of time. Here's hoping ESPN realizes the error of its ways and reverses the policy before some fighter forces their hand and slams the window open again, and in the process exposing them for the ugly stance they have taken. And any decent tat artist can convert it into something later, for those of you wondering about the aftermath, which doesn't exist; which is why it will, and more importantly, should happen, and soon.

Until then we'll have to look to ESPN Classic to remember what a commercial-free fight looked like. At least until they figure out a way to scan in ads on the old fight films, right? Everywhere, of course, except on the fighter's backs.

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