American Heavyweights: An Endangered Species, but why?

26.06.07 - By Paul McCreath: I remember well when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I used to look at and study The Ring boxing ratings every month when that magazine arrived, and I was hooked on heavyweights, even back then. Inevitably, the top-10 would include around eight Americans and usually towards the bottom the European champion and maybe a British fighter. You could count on seeing at least seven or eight Americans plus, of course, the champion of the world.

From the time that Primo Carnera lost his title to Max Baer, in 1934, until Ingemar Johansson stopped Floyd Patterson in 1959, the champs were all American. It would be about another 24-years before Gerrie Coetzee from South Africa would take a piece of the title elsewhere for a short period of time. It was just an accepted fact that the best heavyweights in the world were from USA.

The latest ratings put out by Ring Magazine list only two from America - Lamon Brewster at #8 and Chris Byrd at #9. Brewster hasn't fought for over a year and is thought by some to be past his peak now, while Byrd appears to be in the sunset of his fine boxing career as well. Unfortunately, there are very few good prospects on the way up. What on earth has happened? Why does America no longer turn out most of the worlds top heavyweights? There is no simple answer, but I have a few theories I will share with you.

First of all, I believe that there is no one reason that has contributed to the current situation. However, the one, I think, is the main one is the popularity of team sports in North America, namely football, basketball, and baseball. Now I know they have been around for years, but let us look at the facts: Until 1961, Major League baseball had only 16 teams. At about the same time, the NBA had eight. The NFL had 13 until 1961, when it merged with the AFL and went to 22 teams. All three leagues now have around 30 members. That is twice as many jobs now available to big athletic types that were not available back in the 60s.

Consider, also, what those leagues paid back then. In MLB, the average salary in 1964 was under $15,000 a year, wheres today it is nearly $3 million. In 1954, the NBA average was $8,000. However, by 1976 it had risen to $200,000 and today sits at close to $5 million a year. The NFL back in the 50s was paying around $15,000 per year, while today the average is about $1.25 million. Back in the 50's and 60s most top 10 fighters made well above the numbers I quoted. Most TV fights were worth at least $5,000 and boxers often appeared six or more times a year. You can see the difference between then and now and how the team sports have far more appeal today. Don't forget that basketball and football players get a free college education before they turn pro and start off making in the hundreds of thousands their first year. Baseball players get big signing bonuses to tide them over the three or four years they spend in the minors playing for small change. What does boxing offer to a young fighter who will wait just as long before he can make big money?

A second reason for the decline is the fact that boxing in general is no longer a mainstream sport in America. It is not on TV much but you can see the major league team sports, maybe 15 contests a week for free during their seasons. Top notch boxing costs $40 or $50 on PPV. How can we attract new fans or fighters that way?

Another reason is the average lifestyle and level of fitness in the country. Look around you the next time you are in a crowd. Doctors say that as much as 40 percent of the population is obese or overweight and many are the kids growing up. Those from lower economic classes are more likely to be unfit and this is where boxers are traditionally found. Are they likely to turn to boxing or any other sport for that matter?

There is also a lot more competition from other countries, particularly the old Soviet Union countries who used to ban pro boxing. Some of the best in the world now come from over there, just look at the ratings.

The administrators of amateur boxing have to take their share of the blame too. Besides, not recruiting as effectively as they might, we have all heard the stories of how the big shots get put up in fancy hotels at the major boxing meets, while the boxers are treated in a shabby manner. At least some of those tales are true. Funding from the government is also a large problem. Other countries put a lot more into the amateur game. Without a good amateur system, we will not get good pros, either. A recent list in a well respected publication showed no American fighters rated in the world's top 15 amateurs in any of the top four divisions and only five were rated in any division. That is a sad state of affairs.

The big promoters are a big part of the picture, too. They are in my opinion only interested in pushing their stars and don't bother developing new talent. In Europe, many big promoters work with other small ones to bring along the young guys and they also load their own cards with many young house fighters in order to build up their followings. There is too much short range thinking in America, and we need a feeder system for new prospects. Today, we only sell the big events like Mayweather vs. De La Hoya, which, of course, will still sell well but we are not promoting the sport itself to the general public.

Finally, we have the problem that when we do get some young prospects they are over protected. They don't fight each other very often and they don't fight those talented but slipping old vets that could teach them something. In earlier days, when a fighter like Hasim Rahman, John Ruiz, James Toney, or Evander Holyfield got a bit past his peak, he would serve as a gatekeeper for a couple of years, meeting those young guns on the way up. It doesn't happen much anymore.

Well those are some of the things that I think are wrong with our setup today. There are probably more that you readers can add, and I would like very much to hear them. As to the solutions, I really don't have the answers to that, although I have some ideas that I may share with you in a later article.

Article posted on 27.06.2007

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