Thoughts on The Match

In 1947, Joe Louis was a legend. Louis, having been introduced to boxing as a 17 year old kid in Detroit, MI was the longest-reigning world champion at any weight in the history of the sport. By 1947, he had held the title for an entire decade, defending 23 times, 20 of which came by knockout. Then he was challenged by Jersey Joe Walcott.

The former sparring partner of Louis, and the oldest man to have ever fought for the world heavyweight title, Jersey Joe was not expected to be a serious challenge. Yet somehow, Jersey Joe owned the match, and the heavily favored Louis was knocked down in the first and fourth rounds. By the 15th round, a split decision in favor of Joe Louis shocked the Madison Square Garden crowd, which had rallied heavily behind the underdog Jersey Joe.

After nearly completing the largest upset in sports history, Jersey Joe and Joe Louis decided to hold a rematch only six months later. The ’48 match was the first event ever held in pay-per-view, or what was then known as closed-circuit telecast (a form of pay-per-view in a movie theater), and again ended with a Louis victory. It was one of the most highly anticipated boxing events up to that point, between two guys who cared deeply about winning.

Contrast this to The Match, where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson faced off in a $9 million showdown of matchplay golf, shown on pay-per-view. Before the golfing world decides to once again subject us to anything like The Match, it should first consider the events that led to the 1948 fight explained above.

While Joe Louis and Jersey Joe had a short history, they certainly had a history. And in the second fight, they both had plenty reason to fight hard.

Woods and Mickelson have had overlapping careers, yet somehow have managed to avoid any meaningfully close matches. In the last 15 years of golf, the two have finished in the top three of a tournament together only six times (this comes from the 83 tournaments that Woods placed top 3, and the 61 tournaments that Mickelson placed top 3),the most recent being in the 2013 WGC Cadillac Championship. I’d challenge any golf fan to remember another.

The closest thing to a memorable moment that any golf fan would have between the two players is from when they played notoriously poorly together in the Ryder Cup. In 2004 at Oakland Hills, the duo was pounded by Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, setting the tone for an embarrassing 18 1/2 – 9 1/2  rout by the Europeans.

Lacking a coherent rivalry narrative, we were instead told that the personalities of Woods and Mickelson were what made The Match worth paying 20 bucks for. Mickelson has always been a stand up player, and has only appeared to be a gentlemen for his entire career (except for when he’s getting investigated for insider trading, or, more recently, this). Woods on the other hand, is simply not cut out for entertainment. While he is certainly the best player ever, he is not a big personality and I’d say it’s fair to say a pretty different dude.

What that left us with was a quiet twosome, and four hours Peter Jacobsen rambling about whatever was going through his mind at any particular moment. The Match, we were told, was supposed to help grow the game. Instead, I was forced to explain to those not familiar why Mickelson was giving Woods that 8-foot putt in the playoff (Answer: “Because this wasn’t a real golf tournament, and they didn’t really care about winning”), and why the announcer wouldn’t be quiet and let us hear the players on the few occasions that they actually spoke (Answer: “That’s Peter Jacobsen. This is what he does…”).

I don’t know what golf should do with this format. But next time, at least get players who aren’t on average worth about $500 million, aren’t at the very end of their careers, and aren’t afraid to show an iota of personality. Instead, do what they did in 1948, and ask us to pay for something worth watching.

Oh, and I think we could do without Peter Jacobsen too.

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