- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

They stood in a room yesterday at RFK Stadium, these longtime keepers of the dying flame, still trying to fight the good fight.

Nat Williams, president of the Boxing Information Center, presided over a press conference to announce another effort to keep amateur boxing alive in Washington. Williams was promoting a new tournament, the Capitol Gloves Amateur Boxing Invitation Tournament, that will take place Saturday at the D.C. Armory.

“We’re like farmers trying to plant the seeds for a new generation of boxing,” Williams said.

But the famine may be too great to overcome. Boxing continues to fall further down the ladder of niche sports in America as a generation of youth turn to other sports and attractions.

“Yes, it’s a hard sell today,” Williams said. “But hopefully we can bring it back with more programs like the Capitol Gloves. That’s the only way we can do it, and it’s important. It can give kids something to work for.”

To keep American kids interested enough to be competitive amateur boxers, the sport needs to stay on the radar screen. Oscar De La Hoya can put all the beatings he wants on the likes of Ricardo Mayorga, as he did Saturday night. But if he does it on pay-per-view, he might as well be fighting on Mars for all the interest it will register among younger sports fans today.

Mixed martial arts is a different story. Boxing has been taking a beating in the city in which it has been king from a form of mixed martial arts called Ultimate Fighting.

Ultimate Fighting Championship — one company that features mixed martial arts — is selling out shows at venues like Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, putting on lucrative pay-per-view events and producing one of the most popular shows on Spike TV.

The sport has been cleaned up since its brutal early days. A sign of that — and it’s one that shook the boxing industry — is the departure of one of the most influential figures in boxing to the UFC.

Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission since 1992 and one of the most respected figures in the industry, is leaving his job Saturday to take a position with UFC, which is run by Lorenzo Fertitta, a former commission member.

Ratner said the opportunity was too good to pass up and that he was “amazed” at what has been happening with UFC.

Ratner looked at the future and saw an octagon — the forum in which Ultimate Fighting takes place — not a boxing ring.

“We know that the UFC is something that will have to be reckoned with,” said Marubian Affinii, the national program director for the District-based Boxing Information Center, a nonprofit organization that helps promote amateur boxing. “But we are offering more than just sport. We are incorporating life skills courses and homework programs.”

Again, it is a good fight, but you have to get them in the church to convert them.

That’s hard to do when the force that drives boxing — the heavyweight division — is dominated by fighters from the former Soviet Union. That might create a lot of interest in Ukraine, but it means nothing on the streets of the District and other cities in America.

Three of the four generally recognized heavyweight title belts — the fact that there are four different heavyweight title holders is itself a problem — are held by former Soviet fighters: Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine, who just beat Chris Byrd for the International Boxing Federation title; Sergei Lyahkovich of Belarus, who holds the World Boxing Organization belt; and Nicolai Valuev of Russia, the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion.

The lone American heavyweight champion is World Boxing Council title holder Hasim Rahman. Tomorrow, it will be announced that Rahman will defend his title against Oleg Maskaev of Uzbekistan, who knocked Rahman out of the ring in Atlantic City in November 1999. “I’m the great black hope,” Rahman says, joking.

But it’s not joke. White or black, America needs a new heavyweight icon to capture the attention of the country.

Maybe one will emerge at the Armory on Saturday. Brenda Davis, the matchmaker for the tournament, who, along with her husband, trainer Adrian Davis, has been involved in boxing in the area for more than 30 years, knows that is the challenge.

“We have to produce some new heavyweights,” she said.

They are facing the ultimate fight to do so.

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