Despite the excitement over this weekend's upcoming fight, many in boxing are skeptical the sport will ever enjoy the attention it did during the 1980s when it was a staple of network television or the '90s when American heavyweights like Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Riddick Bowe ruled the roost. Here are five things that could prevent boxing from returning to the big time:
5. PPV and Premium Cable Many attribute boxing's decline in the mainstream consciousness to the decision of promoters to accept big payments from the premium networks HBO and Showtime and move the big fights off broadcast television. The average fan's inability to catch the biggest stars has left many out in the cold, particularly in inner cities where the sport has always thrived. Beyond the already significant costs of subscribing to HBO and Showtime, a PPV card featuring Pacquiao or Mayweather can easily cost upwards of $60, no small charge for a main event that could last an hour or just 30 seconds, depending on the date and matchup.
ESPN remains the main home of boxing on basic cable and has produced compelling fights in recent months. But no other cable channel outside the Spanish language broadcasters had shown a real interest in putting boxing back on the air until Arum struck his deal with CBS. The impact of that exposure, gained by televising the pre-fight hype show on CBS and running ads during March Madness, will be borne out by the number of people that opt to purchase this weekend's fight. Noted boxing author Thomas Hauser, when asked for his thoughts on whether boxing is ready to return to the mainstream, replied with the following:
"We'll know the answer to that question when we see the pay-per-view numbers for Pacquiao-Mosley." More than 1.5 million buys would be considered a coup.
4. Promoters Often lambasted by writers as greedy, short-sighted, and deceptive to the extreme, promoters play an enormous role in shaping the careers of fighters, particularly in determining who and when they fight. One of the sport's biggest problems in recent years has been the ongoing feud between Arum's Top Rank and De La Hoya's Golden Boy, the two largest stables in the sport. Their refusal to do business with each other except on rare occasions has resulted in many of the best fights not taking place. Likewise, many promoters can be faulted for refusing to put their fighters in with adequate competition to build them up or leaving them inactive for too long.
A boxing manager's job is to get their fighter the maximum payday for the minimum risk. The promoter's job is to put on the best possible show for the fans. Sadly, these days too often the lines are blurred to the point of being nonexistent. A notable exception is Lou DiBella of New York, who has steered Martinez through a gauntlet of world-class opposition on his way to becoming the true middleweight champion and a rival to Pacquiao as the best boxer alive.
3. The lack of American heavyweights The most frequently cited reason for the lack of mainstream interest in boxing is the paucity of American contenders at heavyweight, the sport's most visible weight class. These days the heavyweight division resides mostly in Europe where it is ruled by the Klitschkos, towering giants with solid technical skills and highly unwatchable fighting styles. The lack of real opposition to the brothers over the past seven years and their steadfast refusal to fight each other has left the division well outside the focus of even hardcore fight fans.
As for the deficit, it's often said the best American heavyweights are all playing in the NFL and it would certainly appear to be true. The most promising American heavyweight prospect in my view is a former college football player himself, Seth Mitchell, and he remains a good distance from world-class. The recent NFL lockout has resulted in at least two NFL players—Tom Zbikowski of the Ravens and Ray Edwards of the Vikings—trying their hand at professional boxing. Zbikowski has shown some promise and plenty of rust in recent contests after an extensive amateur career; Edwards is less experienced and more likely to fall into the sideshow category.
2. Corrupt Sanctioning Bodies Widely derided by fight fans and those who follow the sport closely, the alphabet bodies as they are known—the WBC, WBO, IBF, WBA, IBO, and their regional counterparts—are thought by many to be the primary roadblock between boxing and mainstream acceptance. These organizations, tasked with protecting fighters, designating champions, and preserving the rules of the sport, sadly are more frequently interested in issuing inexplicable decisions and lining their own pockets. Their rankings are generally considered meaningless and most promoters will pick and choose which sanctioning body to work with on a fight depending on what is most advantageous for their fighter.
Still, the belts they issue are prized by fighters and impressive to fans (which is why many have taken to calling more than one fighter in each division a champion, with silly designations such as "interim," "emeritus" or "silver"). The resulting dispute over which fighter is the true champion serves only to confuse fans and further the perception of the bodies as corrupt. Consider the example of Martinez, who was declared "emeritus champion" by the WBC last year and stripped of his middleweight title, ostensibly to give Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., son of the Mexican Hall of Famer, a shot at the belt. Chavez Jr. generates large purses from his huge fan following and therefore more sanctioning fees, making it obvious why the WBC wanted a piece of the action.
1. Floyd "Money" Mayweather The scion of one of boxing's premier dynasties, Mayweather is a paradox: a supremely talented and charismatic performer who claims to be interested only in money but instead seems desperate for the public's attention and approval. The son of a former welterweight contender and the nephew of another, Mayweather was raised in the gym and has perfected his technical, defensive style to the point it has been years since he appeared in serious danger of losing. His recent list of victims is arguably more impressive than Pacquiao's, notwithstanding his two-year retirement, and his good looks and larger than life persona have helped turn him into the biggest American draw on PPV, particulary among African-Americans, a core group of fight fans.
But Mayweather, who previously appeared to be playing the villain with his gaudy lifestyle and excessive spending in order to promote his fights, has become increasingly erratic in terms of his recent behavior. He is facing separate court dates for allegedly poking a security guard in the face and for creating an ugly scene involving the mother of his two children, the latter of which could result in jail time if he is convicted. His tendency to avoid opponents that could pose a risk to his undefeated record has earned him the scorn of the fighting world (even though he is no different in this respect than most other fighters, including Pacquiao), and there is a definite perception that he is ducking the Pacman at the moment despite being offered up to $50 million for the potential superfight.
Many believe that Pacquiao v. Mayweather is necessary for the sport to grow, and it would undoubtedly be the largest event since Tyson-Holyfield II almost 15 years ago. Debate over who would win and who is responsible for the fight not happening continues to dominate message boards and ringside chatter, making it all but impossible to avoid the topic of Floyd in any discussion of the sport's future. For the sport to flourish, the greatest American boxer must resolve his legal woes and find a way to get back in the ring with world-class competition. A failure for the superfight to materialize may not condemn boxing to the margins forever, but it would be further evidence that the sport is not yet ready to return to prime time.