5 Reasons Boxing May Go Mainstream Again (and 5 Reasons It Won't)
In advance of this weekend's superfight between Manny Pacquiao and "Sugar" Shane Mosely, a look at whether the sport has a chance of regaining its place in American life
People have been predicting boxing's demise since Jack Johnson stopped Jim Jeffries in the "Fight of the Century" back on July 4, 1910. More than a century later the Sweet Science soldiers on, no longer a staple of shrinking newspaper sports sections or network television but increasingly relegated to the confines of premium cable, Pay Per View, and the Web. But the buzz surrounding Saturday's superfight between Filipino phenom Manny Pacquiao and the viable-if-slightly-shopworn "Sugar" Shane Mosely may position the sport for a return to mainstream relevance for the first time since Mike Tyson faded from contention at the end of the last century.
Here are five reasons why boxing may be ready to hit the mainstream once again:
5. Globalization American soccer fans are swearing allegiance to Barca and Man U while Chinese teens endlessly imitate Kobe and DWade on the basketball court. The increasingly cosmopolitan nature of sports is a perfect fit for boxing, which has historically marketed itself in ethnic and nationalistic terms. The notion of another "Great White Hope" like Jeffries seems hopelessly antiquated in an era where the nation's sports icons range from Ichiro Suzuki to Albert Pujols. Whereas once boxing writers and promoters bemoaned the lack of white American contenders, today the sport benefits from its global reach and the American public is more than willing to embrace foreigners like Pacquiao.
Outside the U.S. the sport's future has never been in doubt: Pacquiao is an icon in his home country while the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, who currently rule the heavyweight division, thrill audiences of more than 50,000 in German stadiums. As the amount of international attention and investment in boxing increases, it can only mean good things for the sport domestically. Already we're seeing U.S. fighters head abroad to search of big paydays; with the advent of Internet video, watching a fight in Tokyo is as easy as catching the latest episode of 30 Rock.
4. The Latino Fanbase While the absence of an American heavyweight contender to succeed Tyson has sapped much of the sport's mainstream appeal stateside, Mexico remains a hotbed of the sport and home to some of its most beloved champions. Ditto for Puerto Rico and Cuba, albeit on a smaller scale (of course the latter produces amateur champions who must defect to fight professionally similar to baseball). Fighters like Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Miguel Cotto, and Juan Manuel Marquez helped maintain the sport through one of its darker decades and remain viable as box office draws. A new generation featuring the likes of Brandon Rios, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Saul Alvarez, and Robert Guerrero, many of whom speak English and were raised in the U.S., appear poised to succeed them. With Latinos now making up more than 16 percent of the U.S. population it's getting harder to dismiss their twin passions, soccer and boxing, as merely niche sports.
3. The Internet At once a blessing and a curse for the traditional media, the Internet is a boon for the fighting world and those that follow it. While traditional U.S. boxing publications have been on the decline for decades (only The Ring remains standing in print, and even that is owned by promoter Oscar De La Hoya), the Web has spawned a variety of sites that cover the fight game from every angle. They range from hard-hitting investigative reporting to sites essentially devoted to airing the venom between supporters of Pacquiao and his rival for the sport's top honor, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
While the uneven quality of reporting on the fight game is a challenge that must be navigated, the Web has stepped admirably to fill the gap in coverage left by newspapers barely able to cover their local sports teams. It has also given fight fans access to a wealth of footage of untelevised undercards, obscure prospects from the far reaches of the globe, championship fights from yesteryear, and all of the other underground content necessary to drive any Internet subculture. It's never been easier for a casual fan to catch up on the career of a fighter that intrigues them or simply spend the day watching highlight reel knockouts.
2. Good Prospects, Great Fights The most basic element for any sport's revival is a compelling cast of characters and a high level of competition, both of which appear to be coming together in not one but several weight classes at the moment. Starting with welterweight, which boasts Pacquiao, Mosely, Mayweather, and Victor Ortiz, the sport's middle and lower weight classes offer an embarrassment of riches. A number of contenders have emerged one weight class below at 140 lbs. including the brash Brooklyn native Zab Judah, who recently returned to championship form, and charismatic Brit Amir Khan. Lightweight features Marquez, Rios, Guerrero, and Humberto Soto, while bantamweight includes a number of talents including Filipino American Nonito Donaire, who has shown flashes of the kind of thunderous power that propelled Pacquiao through the weight classes.
And it goes on: Showtime's Super Six tournament at super middleweight has produced a number of fan-friendly performances both here and in Europe and at least one new American star in Oakland's Andre Ward. Ortiz overcame crippling poverty as a child and a reputation as a quitter to dethrone welterweight belt-holder Andre Berto last month; Argentinian middleweight champion Sergio Martinez comes from a similarly harsh background and has risen to challenge Pacquiao as the sport's pound-for-pound king following a series of highlight-reel KOs. 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins has a chance to turn back the clock by overcoming light heavyweight champ Jean Pascal in an upcoming rematch of their disputed draw in December. This summer features the most meaningful heavyweight fight since 2003 when Lennox Lewis hung up his gloves between champ Wladimir Klitschko and British contender David Haye. If you're even slightly interested in the sport the lineup of fights for the next few months couldn't be more appetizing.
1. Manny Pacquiao Any talk of boxing's ascent must begin and end with the Pacman, who rose from the slums of General Santos City in the Phillipines to become his country's arguably greatest sporting icon and a political leader at just 32 years of age. Since teaming up with Freddie Roach at the start of the last decade, Pacquiao has gone on a tear through the lower weight divisions, winning a number of epic battles against Mexican legends and pound-for-pound contenders like Cotto to cement his place atop the sport. His courageous and fan-friendly style, attacking with barrages of punches thrown from every angle, has made him universally recognized along with Mayweather as the top fighter in the world.
Endearingly humble and childlike, aside from the Mayweather camp it's almost impossible to find anyone in boxing with something negative to say about the eight-division belt-holder. The Pacman's unprecedented rise through the weight classes after debuting as a 107-lb teenager in 1995 has captivated his countrymen and built a massive following that's grown beyond Asia into a global phenomenon. His influence in the Philippines cannot be overstated; beyond his recent election to Congress he also boasts hit songs, TV shows, and films there as well as a number of businesses and near-universal respect from his fellow lawmakers.
"Even the New York Times, which gave up covering boxing years ago, makes a special effort to cover a Pacquiao bout," noted biographer Gary Andrew Poole, author of the recent Pacman: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao. "Pacquiao—a Filipino who is also a Congressman and has dedicated himself outside of the ring to helping his impoverished people--has essentially been carrying the sport on his back."
Pacquiao's influence in the sport is great enough that it enabled his promoter and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum to spurn longtime market leader HBO to take the fight to Showtime, lured by the promise of cross-promotion on network parent CBS. As I'll discuss next, the prospect of exposure to the network audience is one of the key ingredients for any potential revival of the sport.
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.