Jimmy Binns knows boxing.
As a well-off kid from the Philly suburbs, he used to get the starch knocked out of him at a gym on Passyunk Avenue until his worried dad convinced the Pennsylvania boxing commissioner to write him a letter asking him to quit. So Binns grew up, got a law degree, and became the Pennsylvania boxing commissioner. Then he became the lawyer for the World Boxing Association. He’s represented promoters and fighters across the world, taking on big-name cases involving Muhammad Ali and Don King. He’s quick to remind people that he “portrayed himself” as Rocky Balboa’s lawyer in Rocky V. He dedicated the world-famous Rocky statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
So it may come as a surprise when Jimmy Binns declares that boxing is dead.
“It’s moribund,” says Binns. The tall 73-year-old with slicked-back white hair and piercing eyes is sitting in his South Philly rowhouse with a miniature Rocky statuette in the window, his voice accented with the ohs and ows of this punching-bag city. “I cannot tell you who the heavyweight champion in the world is right now. That’s how bad boxing is.”
In the early 2000s, Binns starting noticing boxing’s decline. There were fewer gyms where kids like him could take out their aggression. There were fewer fights and fewer managers. Some people blamed HBO’s title fights for wiping out the farm system that kept small-time boxing alive. In turn, boxing lost the last few writers and romantics that had elevated it above blood sport in the public eye. “The great boxing writers all died off,” says Binns. “Now there’s nobody.”
But as long as there’s an America, frustrated kids are going to need some way to beat the shit out of one another. And as long as Jimmy Binns lives in Philadelphia, he’s going to be involved in the local fight scene. So, in 2008, he entered the booming business of mixed martial arts.
It happened like this: Binns’ son Jimmy Jr. grew up with Ricardo and Phil Migliarese, family friends who trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under eighth degree black/red belt Relson Gracie. One day Jimmy Jr. started studying with them. “He was overweight and knew nothing about it but he liked them, and they kind of lured him into it," Binns says.
Soon the boys were coming to their fathers with a proposition: Philly needed a local MMA promotion, and they wanted to run it. Jimmy Jr. would handle management, the Migliarese brothers had fighting expertise, and Binns Sr. would be the éminence grise, providing counsel behind the scenes. Binns had some friends at the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Hall in a warehouse district by the Delaware River, and that became the promotion’s venue: “It’s been very good for them, and very good for us,” Binns says. “You could eat off the floors; it’s beautiful. Lot of women, children, and no assholes.” Matrix Fights debuted in February 2010 with a welterweight fight between Philly local Matt Makowski and Virginian LeVon Maynard.
Though big-name promotions like the UFC and Bellator make a business of buying local outfits like Matrix, swallowing up their fighters and fans, Binns believes the real glory is in the simple stuff, same as it was in boxing.
“In the old days when I was a kid,” says Binns, “you could walk into a gym in the afternoon at 4:30, and you could see the best fight that you’ll ever see. And it’d be two kids who just got home from school, took their beanies off and put their books down and put the boxing gloves on. ... A lot of guys never had a boxing career because they left it in the gym.”
When Binns stops by the Migliarese's Balance Studios MMA gym near the Schuylkill River, he sees the same kind of scrappy potential. “You can go there any Saturday or Sunday, the fucking place is mobbed. I mean, mobbed,” he says. “Girls! Little kids! Careful who you fuck with when you walk down the street.”
Still, Binns remains part of the boxing generation. The home page on the computer in his home office is set to boxing site FightNews.com. But even here, Binns sees signs of a slow death. He notes that the big banner ad at the top of the page is for an upcoming UFC pay-per-view event. He scrolls down, looking for big names and bodies. But he only comes up with stories about 130 pounders, 115ers, even 108s. “As the heavyweight championship goes, so goes boxing,” Binns sighs as he closes the Web site.
Many of the biggest names are retired, possibly handicapped from too many blows to the head. Many others are dead, relegated to history. "Boxing," Binns says, "is done." Meanwhile the next generation of fighters is rolling around on mats, playing the same game with different rules.
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