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The sweet science

In the early 1900s, the top three sports in America were baseball, boxing and thoroughbred racing.

All are sports I still enjoy following. But they have slipped in the past century, falling far behind football and, to a lesser extent, basketball on the American cultural spectrum.

Boxing has hurt itself at the professional level with its many competing organizations, controversies and the circus aspects that surround so many fights. The average fan of the sport becomes confused. And in his confusion, that fan turns to something else.

At the amateur level, however, boxing remains a way to a better life for some, especially African-American and Hispanic boys. Thanks to the work of Ray Rodgers, one of the top amateur boxing officials in the country, Arkansas is somewhat of a center for the sport. That’s something the vast majority of Arkansans don’t even realize.

On Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon of last week, amateur boxers from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma filled the North Little Rock Community Center for the regional Silver Gloves tournament.

The state Golden Gloves tournament will be back at that location in March. Central Arkansas then will play host to the regional Golden Gloves tournament in April and the national Golden Gloves tournament in May.

I was at the community center Friday night and Saturday afternoon with my 16-year-0ld son. Even since he was a young boy, he has loved to watch fights on television and score them, seeing if he agrees with the judges. When I mentioned this to Rodgers last year, this boxing legend was excited at the prospect of finding young blood to insert into the pool of judges. So he took Austin under his arm and began training him. When Austin turns 18 in late February 2011, he will be able to become certified as an amateur judge and actually work events.

His goal, I can reveal, is to eventually be paid to fly to places like Las Vegas on the weekends and sit at ringside.

Why this fascination with boxing for a middle-class kid from Little Rock?

It can be traced to the excitement that surrounded the rise Jermain Taylor. Despite the recent bumps in the road, when we think of Jermain, most of us still have the words of Michael Buffer ringing in our ears: “The pride of Little Rock. Arkansas . . .”

Austin was age 7 when Taylor competed in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney and, frankly, was not paying much attention. But as Taylor began his march through the professional ranks, we would attend his fights at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock and what was then Alltel Arena in North Little Rock.

On the night Taylor won the middleweight championship against Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas — July 16, 2005 — I was attending the National Governors Association summer meeting with Mike Huckabee in Des Moines. Janet Huckabee, a huge Taylor fan, was determined to find someone in Des Moines who had subscribed to the pay-per-view telecast of the fight. Finally, a policeman assigned to our hotel told her: “The boys down at the fire station always buy the fights.”

So it was that I ended up watching the fight with the first lady of Arkansas and a bunch of firemen at the central fire station in downtown Des Moines. To make things even more interesting, it was Janet’s birthday, and Jermain called her from his dressing room before the fight to wish her a happy birthday.

Back home in Little Rock, my wife and two sons had subscribed to the pay-per-view telecast. They called me within seconds of Buffer announcing the split decision.

My wife and I then took both of our boys on that hot Friday afternoon to the parade honoring Taylor in downtown Little Rock.

For the rematch against Hopkins in December 2005, we were at a friend’s home to watch. When Taylor fought “Winky” Wright on June 17, 2006, Austin was playing in an AAU basketball tournament in northwest Arkansas. A father of one of the other players on the team had a satellite dish on his souped-up rig for football tailgating. So it was that we sat in the parking lot of the La Quinta in Springdale that evening to watch the fight.

From a fire station in Des Moines to a parking lot in Springdale to seats at the Arkansas matches, I had watched the Taylor fights. And, along the way, my boys had become hooked on boxing.

That kind, dedicated soul who is at the heart of Arkansas boxing — Ray Rodgers — is guiding the oldest of the two boys toward his goal of becoming a judge. I think of the hundreds of boys Rodgers has helped through the years. He’s a great asset to our state.

Now, he’s even helping one boy who has no desire to actually step into the ring.

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