Why they fight, why we watch

A lot has changed in the 30 years since boxing last appeared on NBC in primetime -- but not the things that make us care

Boxing returns to primetime on NBC for the first time in nearly 30 years with the debut of PBC on NBC, part of the Premier Boxing Champions series, on Saturday, March 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET. Full fight details, schedule and coverage is available here.

Victor Ortiz tells a story about the meaning of boxing. When he was seven, his mother left for another man. He remembers her last words being: “You will never be anything.”

Ortiz was a sensitive child, a bit on the pudgy side if you ask him now, the sort of kid others made fun of. He liked music, not violence. He liked jokes, not fists. Ortiz’s father believed him too soft; Victor remembers the smell of alcohol on his breath and the feeling of his punches. One day his father took Victor to the local gym and told the trainer, “Put him in the ring. This one needs to learn how to be a man.”

“I didn’t want to box,” Ortiz says. “I got into the ring, and the other boy hit me, and I started crying.” Victor Ortiz admits he cried quite a lot in those days.

“So after it ended, my father took me BACK into the ring,” Ortiz says. “And he totally kicked my ass. He was saying, ‘You want to cry? Here! Cry about this.’ … The people at the gym kept saying, ‘Come on Vic, leave the kid alone.’ And he said, ‘No, he needs to be a man.’”

Not long after that, the father left the family too.

“When my father left,” Victor Ortiz says, “I decided ‘(Bleep) all of them, I’m going to be the best fighter in the world.”

* * *

People often ask what happened to boxing. But a more realistic question is why so many still care. What is it about this ancient and violent sport that still climbs inside us?

Keith “One Time” Thurman is the WBA welterweight champion of the world. They call him “One Time” – Keith sometimes refers to himself as Keith “One Time” Thurman — because it’s an answer to question: “How many times does Keith Thurman have to hit someone to make him fall?” Answer: One time.

“People don’t watch boxing to see us bang on each other,” he says. “They watch boxing to see elite athletes do elite things. They watch boxing to see our hearts, man.”

* * *

Sugar Ray Leonard sits on a couch across the way from Thomas Hearns. They are friends now, or something even more than friends, a connection only old warriors can feel after the fight has ended. This question comes up: What is the meaning of boxing? Why do millions still watch? Why does a big fight – like the upcoming Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight – still stop time?

Leonard looks right into Thomas Hearns’ eyes. The men fought twice, two ferocious and famous wars, the first a 14-round whirlwind that Hearns was winning before Leonard ended it with a flurry in the fourteenth round, the second a draw that most observers thought Hearns won. Then, with fights at that level of fury and artistry, winning and losing misses the point. These were fights that left spectators in awe of both men.

“Here’s how I see boxing,” Sugar Ray Leonard says quietly. “The twelfth round comes, and you are sitting on your stool, and there is no way to describe how you feel. There’s no way to way to describe how tired you are, how much pain you’re in. That’s when you have to ask yourself: ‘Who am I? What do I stand for? What do I have inside me?’”

Thomas Hearns looks at his old rival and nods slowly. Then he says the same thing in fewer words: “You fight. You have to fight.”

* * *

Robert Guerrero has never been knocked out. He has been a professional boxer since he was 18 years old, and you could call it a multi-layered career. He once was headbutted so hard that the referee stopped the fight and called it a no-contest. He once won a fight after his left eye was closed by repeated punches. He has won championships and lost them, he has dominated men and he has been dominated himself, once by Mayweather himself. He once vacated his championship in order to take care of his wife, Casey, who had cancer. They call him “The Ghost” because he seems to disappear.

Through it all, he has never been knocked out. It is his calling card. It is what he is about.

Keith Thurman, the man he fights on March 7, predicts that he will be the first to knock Guerrero out. Of course, this is boxing talk – the sort of thing people say in the sport to drum up interest – so Guerrero and his father and trainer Ruben respond by saying that Thurman will regret the day he signed the contract for this fight. These are all just words.

But underneath the words, simmering below the hype, there’s something fiercely personal at stake – a man called “One Time” ready to unleash his rage, a man called “The Ghost” looking to stand up to it.

“He doesn’t know what he got himself into,” Robert Guerrero says. “He doesn’t know what I am.”

* * *

When Victor Ortiz was 16, he moved in with his sister in Colorado. She’d just had a baby, and Victor would take his nephew to the Salvation Army gym where he worked out. His nephew would sit in a baby seat and suck on his pacifier while Ortiz jumped rope, shadow boxed, banged away on the heavy bag.

One time, as Ortiz tells it, the man who ran the gym walked over and said: “I’ve been watching you. I like what I see. You come to work, don’t bother anybody, do your job. Do you know who I am?”

“All due respect,” Ortiz said, “I do not know who you are.”

“Son,” he said, “I’m Ron Lyle.”

Ron Lyle was once one of the hardest hitters and most fearsome men in the world. When he was 19 years old, he was convicted of murder. While in prison, he was stabbed by an inmate, and he barely survived. He then learned how to box. When he was released after seven years, he began to fight professionally. His power overwhelmed. In his extraordinary career, he knocked out 31 men, hurt Muhammad Ali, twice knocked down George Foreman.

“Son,” he told Ortiz, “I could have been champion. Don’t make the mistakes I made.”

“I’m going to be the greatest fighter who ever lived,” Ortiz said.

“All right, champ,” Lyle said. “All right.” So it was Ron Lyle who was the first man to call Victor Ortiz, “champ.”

* * *

Adrien Broner is called “The Problem” – a nickname he says he got from his mother who would watch him go out with his twin brother Andre and say, “Oh no, this going to be a problem.” Yes, there often were problems. Broner says that he ran with gangs. He served time in jail. Many of his friends are dead. His mother saw him heading for the nowhere life, and that’s when she said something that Adrien repeats often to reporters and to himself: “You can’t be king of the streets and king of the ring. You gotta pick one.”

He picked boxing, and he left no misunderstanding about his goals: He intended to be king. He intended to make billions, with a “B.” With Broner, there was no subtlety in the ring or out. He talked, he boasted, he threatened, he taunted. He flushed $20 bills down the toilet to get attention. He battered a proud man named Carlos Molina, then called the fight a mere sparring session and got himself suspended for using a racist taunt. He tried to start a feud with Jay Z. He also knocked people out and won three titles. His model is also his hero, Floyd Mayweather.

This, then, is the problem for “The Problem.” Many see him as nothing more than a lower currency version of Money Mayweather. A little more than a year ago, he took a beating from a huge underdog, Marcos Maidana. In the fight, Maidana landed 100 more power shots and knocked Broner down twice – there was no mistaking what happened. And the questions were asked and are still asked: “Behind the hype, behind the talk, what is Adrien Broner made of?”

“I’ve matured some, you know?” Broner says. “Yes, I’m still Adrien ‘The Problem’ Broner, and I’m still going to dance, and I’m still going to talk, but you know, I’m 25 now. I’m not a kid. … When I was younger, it was middle fingers to everybody. It didn’t have to be like that. It’s not like that now. I’m a boxer. When people see me fight they’re going to say, ‘That’s a boxer.’”

* * *

Roberto Duran was once called “Hands of Stone.” Now, he laughs a lot. He says that the animal that raged inside him has quieted. But it’s still there, underneath the laughter. He knows the animal is still there.

“I liked to get hit,” he says, and laughs again, but he is not joking. Pain fueled him. Punches brought out the animal. He is talking with Sugar Ray Leonard, his nemesis and mirror. They fought twice. The first time, Leonard was determined to stand up to Duran, to bully the bully, to prove himself equal to the Hands of Stone. Duran raged louder and won the fight. The second time, Leonard danced and teased and mocked. Duran quit the fight. “No mas,” he said.

“I wanted you to hit me,” Duran says. “I needed you to hit me. Then I would hit you three times back.”

* * *

Victor Ortiz was once welterweight champion, but he has won just one fight in four years. He lost a crazy fight to Floyd Mayweather; he headbutted Mayweather, kissed him on the cheek, went through some form of apology, and then, forgetting boxing’s golden rule (protect yourself at all times), took a one-two combination from Mayweather that ended things. After that, Josesito Lopez broke his jaw. Luis Collazo landed a perfect right hook and knocked him out in the second round. Oscar De La Hoya promptly tweeted that Ortiz should retire and enjoy his life.

He does have quite a life. He was on Dancing with the Stars. He has acted in a couple of movies and has been told that he has a lot of talent as an actor. He is 31 years old, a former champion, handsome, connected, and he has proven countless people wrong in his life.

But retire? No, he does not talk about retiring. He does not forget why the little boy began boxing in the first place.

“I’m still going to be the best fighter in the world,” he says. “I know what people say about me. They talk about who beat me. They talk about me getting knocked out. But they don’t understand. I’m going to be the best. Nothing is going to stop me.”