Time Out: 'Four Kings' a reminder of what we love - and hate - about boxing

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

A disgusted Jack Catterall walks away after Josh Taylor was awarded a split decision win in their light-welterweight world title clash in Glasgow on Saturday night. Picture by PA
A disgusted Jack Catterall walks away after Josh Taylor was awarded a split decision win in their light-welterweight world title clash in Glasgow on Saturday night. Picture by PA A disgusted Jack Catterall walks away after Josh Taylor was awarded a split decision win in their light-welterweight world title clash in Glasgow on Saturday night. Picture by PA

THERE was something mawkish about the way Saturday night’s TV schedule worked out. By the time the post-mortem that followed Josh Taylor’s controversial win over Jack Catterall ended, the debate was only really getting going.

The first 10 or so minutes straight after was pure shock and awe. The kind that almost takes your breath away. Single word texts were exchanged, mostly bearing only four letter words. After that, foam began to engulf mouths.

As is tradition, Twitter became the open arms host for the outrage of the masses. Some people had Catterall winning by seven or eight rounds, others had it closer, while the odd soul reached for the old ‘you have to rip the belts off the champ’ trope – even when the champ has just come off a clear second best.

Almost a week on it remains a huge talking point but, eventually, that anger will fade as everybody’s attention drifts off in different directions. The rest of us move on while Jack Catterall is left to pick up the pieces of a broken dream, talk of investigations and rematches somehow only adding insult to unimaginable injury.

Nothing will happen, and nothing will change. A bit like ‘the Teflon Don’ Donald Trump, that boxing has always walked a fine line between gladiatorial majesty and allegations of shadiness and subterfuge almost guarantees a roll of the eyes and a shrug of the shoulders on such occasions.

We’ve seen it all before, and it is to the sport’s eternal shame when nights like these overshadow - in the mind of occasional onlookers at very least - all that is so good.

Viewers didn’t have to wait long for a reminder on Saturday night, as no sooner had the programme ended at 11pm than archive footage of the mayhemic 1985 meeting of the late ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler and Tommy ‘Hitman’ Hearns was struck up.

With tensions still running high, this scheduling juxtaposition felt like a soothing balm on a burn and a kick to the balls all at the same time.

Yet for those in search of cleansing, for those who are wearied but haven’t given up in the wake of boxing’s latest – and certainly not its last – indiscretion, a form of renewal awaits. Not just in revisiting the fight that would become known as ‘The War’, but by immersing yourself in a golden era seldom seen since.

Earlier this year, US network Showtime’s four-part docuseries The Kings was finally made available on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of Discovery+, and it brilliantly captures the collective legacy of the men who became known as The Four Kings – Hagler, Hearns, Roberto Durán and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard.

That quartet showed boxing wasn’t only about the heavyweights. While that division lulled between the demise of Muhammad Ali in the late 1970s and the emergence of a young Mike Tyson almost a decade on, the smaller men campaigning between light and middleweight grabbed their chance to shine, trading off against each other in one unforgettable fight after another.

“It was the closing of an era,” comes the unmistakable New Yawk accent of trainer-turned-commentator Teddy Atlas, “but the curtain closes, then another curtain opens…”

For those who have read George Kimball’s landmark book, The Kings plots a similar course because the personalities of the pugilists and the politics of the era are all wrapped up and woven around what unfolded between the ropes.

Following on from his gold medal at the 1978 Olympics in Montreal, Leonard is the heir apparent to Ali’s throne; the golden child with the blurring hands, easy manner and a million-dollar grin – though appearances, as the other three would learn in the ring, are often deceptive.

“We just never saw a pit bull dog with a smile like that,” laughs Atlas.

Leonard’s rivalry with the fiery Panamanian Durán is soap opera stuff and, for all Leonard’s polish and pizzazz, Durán talks and lives as he fights – relentless, raw and, occasionally, filthy.

Footage is interspersed with past interviews and, for all his vulgarity, you can’t help but warm to ‘Hands of Stone’ as he cackles wildly when recalling certain episodes in his native Spanish, including the fall-out from the infamous ‘No Más’ fight with Leonard in 1980.

The political backdrop of the Panamanian-US relationship during the handover of the Panama Canal informs much of that storyline too, with all three Americans invited to meet President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office while the US military raided Durán 's home, believing he was hiding Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega.

If that was grist to his mill, Hagler and Hearns weren’t short on motivation of their own. Under the late Emmanuel Steward, Hearns brought a city along with him, his iron fists forging a way out of inner city Detroit. Unfortunately he never quite managed to escape its shadow.

The trappings of success might have brought Hearns a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove and a monkey during those years of excess, but the wars he helped illuminate and the brutality of boxing left him in a worse way than it found him.

The softly-spoken Hagler, whose first anniversary passes next week, was always striving for something more. During his fighting days ‘Marvellous’ bore a chip on his shoulder the size of Boston, with the commercial deals, respect and love heaped upon Leonard forcing him out onto the road each morning before daybreak.

Hagler wanted what he felt he had earned – that Leonard appeared to revel in that adds only to his ire and, at one stage, threatens to make ‘Sugar’ Ray the villain of the piece.

Yet no sportsman can truly capture the public imagination without flaws, and after a detached retina led to the first of many retirements, Leonard’s imperfections were played out in public during some lost years in the middle of the decade.

Infidelity, drink, drugs, money problems – fame so nearly claimed another victim, only for the golden child to complete the most remarkable of comebacks when he defeated Hagler after three years out of the ring.

There was plenty of controversy about that decision too, with barstool debates still raging to this day. The drama, the hard luck stories, the redemption missions – the uncomfortable truth is that’s a large part of what brings us back in each and every time.

Fists pounding a bag provide the soundtrack to the opening moments of The Kings before a quote appears from one-time Sports Illustrated writer Budd Schulberg that perfectly encapsulates the world of contradictions the game continues to carry with it – in the good days and, as was the case last weekend, the bad.

“As much as I love boxing, I hate it,” read white words on a black background, “and as much as I hate it, I love it.”