May 8, 2009 – By Scott Kraus: Manny Pacquiao is the number-one boxer in the world under any criteria. He tops every prominent pound-for-pound list. His domination of Oscar de la Hoya and annihilation of Ricky Hatton made him the most popular fighter in the world and the biggest box-office draw in boxing. Those performances, and the dozen or more that preceded them, have long made him the most exciting fighter in the sport.
Article posted on 09.05.2009
Manny Pacquiao is Filipino, an idol in his country and now a global icon. TIME magazine recently named him one of 100 most influential people in the world. On Monday, following his knockout of Hatton, Pacquiao was the second story featured on Pardon the Interruption, the popular (and not particularly boxing-friendly) ESPN sports talk show, behind only the announcement that LeBron James was named NBA MVP. Hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser raved about Pacquiao’s performance, with Kornheiser comparig it to Hagler-Hearns, “except for the fact that Ricky Hatton wasn’t Hearns..”
Pacquiao and LeBron. King James and the man who may someday become President Pacquiao. They may not have gotten there the same way, but they now share the same elite stratosphere.
For a Filipino boxer to achieve this level of mainstream fame in the United States and around the world in 2009, with boxing fighting on old, weary legs like a stereotypical pug according to most media and public opinion of recent years, speaks volumes about the state of the sport and its future.
Boxing is now a truly global sport. American domination of the elite ranks is over and may never return to the level of the last century. On May 2, 2009, a Filipino and a Briton met at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, in front of a worldwide audience, and showed in a second shy of six minutes of ring action that boxing is alive, exhilarating, and a popular force around the world.
Pacquiao’s masterpiece at the MGM Grand merely announced to the mass public a reality of boxing over the last decade. While American interest in boxing lulled, the sport exploded in popularity throughout the rest of the world.
American interest in boxing waned as the great American heavyweights of the 1990s, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Mike Tyson, grew old and stubbornly refused to retire, faded into obscurity, and struggled with a lifetime of demons, respectively. Oscar de la Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jr., “Sugar” Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather Jr. maintained the tradition of American pugilistic greatness in the late-1990s and early-200s, but other than the Golden Boy and perhaps Mayweather, none of these fighters managed to enthrall the public or elevate a fight to a mainstream event.
Boxing in other countries, however, experienced an almost unprecedented boom in support as fighters captivated the imagination of their compatriots and inspired rabid followings. Hatton, the fun-loving, beer-swilling Manchester everyman whose vociferous, harmonious crowds electrified the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester and, more recently, the casinos in Las Vegas, and Pacquiao, a legend among his people to the point that his trainer, Freddie Roach, may be the third-most famous man in the Philippines behind only Filipino President Gloria Arroyo and Manny, are only the two most famous examples of this phenomenon.
Over 50,000 fans packed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales in November of 2007, the largest crowd ever for a European indoor boxing event, to watch Joe Calzaghe defeat Mikkel Kessler to further unify the super middleweight world championship. Though Calzaghe, a huge draw in his native Wales, recently retired after coming to the United States to beat Hopkins and Jones, Jr., Kessler continues to draw more than 20,000 fans per fight in Denmark.
Canadian fans routinely pack 20,000 deep in the Bell Centre in Montreal to cheer local hero Lucian Bute. Bute is so popular that when Librado Andrade pushed him to the brink in October of last year and nearly knocked him out in the twelfth round, the Canadian crowd embraced the rugged Mexican as a fan favorite for his spirited showing. When Andrade returned to the Bell Centre to fight Vitali Tsypko in April, a capacity crowd (with Bute in attendance) cheered him as the house fighter.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., a fighter with a famous name and a limited skill set, recently drew over 22,000 to the Plaza de Toros bull ring in Tijuana, Mexico for his victory over anonymous Luciano Cuello. Chavez, Jr., may not share his father’s ferocious fighting ability, but he does share the old lion’s knack for attracting the adoration and loyalty of his Mexican fans, and his exciting style keeps them coming back for more.
Meanwhile, in Pacquiao’s homeland last month, Filipino flyweight sensation Nonito Donaire continued his eye-opening streak of impressive knockout wins with a fourth-round destruction of Raul Martinez in front of a packed house (including the country’s vice president, Noli de Castro) at the Araneta Coliseum, the same arena where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought their epic third fight.
Finally, when Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye square off in Schalke, Germany, on June 20 for Klitschko’s heavyweight title belts, 60,000 fight fans are expected to pack the Veltins-Arena Stadium. On the first day tickets went on sale, 30,000 tickets were sold for the meeting between the great Ukrainian and boisterous Briton.
From Wales to Denmark, Canada to Mexico, the Philippines to Germany, the popularity of boxing on the international scene continues to grow. And, slowly but surely, that growth has contributed to a resurgence of boxing in the United States.
Executives of traditional American sports work tirelessly to increase the international presence of their brands. Some have been successful – Major League Baseball in Japan, South America, and Central America; the National Basketball Association in Europe and China – but the most popular sport of all with Americans, football, still struggles to resonate with an international audience.
Meanwhile, boxing has floundered for the past decade to maintain American interest without a network television presence, only to see its international profile skyrocket.
This trend in popularity is likely to continue and further infiltrate the United States, as it did with Pacquiao’s monumental victory in Las Vegas. Network television is less important now than ever before, thanks to the proliferation of niche cable networks tailored more specifically to their audiences’ tastes. And with the explosion of the Internet in recent years, fighters who once would have been mythological names from other countries seen only in occasional newspaper columns can now be seen on YouTube or Web sites that stream live fights, increasing demand to see them on American television or in the Las Vegas casinos.
Now, with boxers from all countries among the elite in the sport (the Ring Magazine Pound for Pound ratings feature fighters from six different countries with only two Americans), boxing fans in the United States can get caught up in the nationalistic fervor along with the rest of the world. With American dominance no longer a given, fight fans in the United States can root for their fighters to truly achieve world championship status instead of assuming it – to beat not only the great American fighters, but the great Britons and Germans and Filipinos who present the most difficult challenges.
Should he beat Juan Manuel Marquez in his comeback fight in July, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. will likely have the first opportunity to re-establish an American fighter on top of the sport.
To do so, he will have to overcome the frightening Filipino who changed the landscape of the sport. To stay there, he will have to overcome the challenge of the world.
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