Lost Youth: Why Boxing is Dying in America - Part III

03.01.04 - By Phillip Przybylo: In the first two installments of this series, fading stars and blank shooting stars of the future were looked over from the world of boxing. But what of the most blinding light of them all that of the spotlight of scrutiny illuminated by the media?

No, this is not self-important and self-indulgent dribble detailing the power wielded by the very press I am a part of. This is a sad story about a once great sport now relegated to two sentence blurbs and thirty-second soundbites (if we're lucky) by the media and the sport's willingness to let it happen.

Put your feet up and read the news.

Far be it for me to deem one periodical to have its fingers on the pulse of a nation, but the fact remains that Sports Illustrated has the largest circulation in the US of any sports-related publication by a winning margin of millions. Vitali Klitchsko's recent victory over Danny Williams received a paltry paragraph's worth of ink in the subsequent edition of the magazine. However, I needed a few days to finish reading the astounding one-third of a page dedicated to Glen Johnson's controversial victory over Antonio Tarver for the undisputed light heavyweight championship.

At least they only report on Mike Tyson when there is something worth reporting, which is more than I can say for many of the monthly boxing magazines out there who will put his mug on the covers just to sell a few extra copies. Boxing magazines!The people behind them who have the same amount of enthusiasm for and knowledge of the sport as we do. No wonder why the mainstream press is clueless.

Or maybe they're not clueless. It is certainly easier and more cost effective to report something off the AP wire about Tyson's Traveling Circus and taking a few potshots rather than taking initiative and searching for a truly poignant story. And the people eat it up. And the news sources deliver that. And so on.

The fixation with a fringe contender at this point like Tyson brings me back to Sports Illustrated. In a recent poll conducted by the magazine, athletes picked certain boxers as the sportsmen they would pay to see. As high as 17-percent of pro basketball players said they would pony up the cash to watch boxers, a high percentage considering the number of sports out there. Why not? It is a sport both beautifully and brutally inundated with its share of drama. Unfortunately, the number one boxer they want to see is Tyson. Boxing continues to stay on life support as long as the public at large perceives a faded fighter who can't deliver the goods as the sport's largest attraction.

The public will not have the opportunity to see anyone else. The NBC network has been the only free station to air boxing bouts in the last few years. The result was lackluster ratings due to scarce television promos and Main Events Promotions (who had cut an exclusive deal with the network) fighters being largely protected. The media and matchmakers team up to put on a show destined for disaster. First, barely anyone will know the fights are taking place. Then, the ones who do happen to catch the show are sorely disappointed.

Imagine for a moment a competitive bout that turns out to be the fight of the year taking place on network television for the whole nation to watch. Would that get people talking about boxing again? I do not know. But wouldn't it be fun to find out?

Chances are we will never find out, though.

Ironically, Main Events has been the lone bright spot on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fight's" series, a show that has plenty of style but does not wish to pay for substance. Their recent cards for the series have been respectable, better than ones they put out for NBC. Of course, when the results for the fights are not shown on ESPN's hour-long flagship news show, Sportscenter, any prospective fans will get the idea that the fights do not matter.

The only other avenue for English-speaking Americans (the high quality of fights on Spanish language channels is not lost on me) is Fox Sports Network's "Sunday Night Fights." Recent fights on Fox Sports have been promoted heavily and have seen its audience increase for those particular fights. However, the fights are few and far between, and having any audience is normally an increase for a station that draws less than half of what ESPN does.

Fox Sports did sign boxing analyst and ESPN personality Max Kellerman, which is good for Fox but bad for boxing. Until Fox Sports gets its hands on one "must see" television show, it will always be seen as amateurish to ESPN's professional perception. So, the man who was quickly becoming the voice for young sports fans and gave an infinite number of plugs and props to boxing during his own ESPN studio shows is now buried somewhere in the Fox lineup.

The depressing news continues with Fox as they unveiled their reality show, "The Next Great Champ." Like with Kellerman, one way to gain new young fans would be through the reality genre. Unfortunately (and this may be the third or fourth time I've said unfortunately, do we sense a pattern?), the first boxing show to air in this genre happen to be a rushed carbon copy of a show being developed by NBC, Sylvester Stallone, and Mark Burnett called "The Contender."

Now, television almost dictates that every idea be copied and exhausted until the audience gags. Still, did it not make you shake your head knowing the same sport with a dozen sanction bodies and TWO WORLD/INTERNATIONAL HALLS OF FAME now had two reality shows? The confusion never fails to cease.

After "The Next Great Champ" aired its first episode, the people behind it boasted their audience of 5 million plus. They also proclaimed that because of it, boxing was not dead and was, indeed, alive and well. What they failed to mention is that an audience of that size barely makes the show enter the Top 80 among television shows. After its debut, it predictably fell farther down the rankings. It was moved from Fox to its cable outlet Fox Sports and then on to oblivion as the series finale event was cancelled.

Is television the only outlet to blame? No. It's just as much as to blame as any of my other fellow boxing writers, who are just as guilty as television most of the time. The same websites you read are the same websites (but not all websites) who shake their head at injustices but:

-Do very little to promote F.I.S.T. or the RBF, the two boxer assistance programs for former boxers who have sweat and bled for our entertainment.

-Do very little to cover anything that is not on television. Moreover, they don't even recognize the interesting stories behind so-called "club fights" and "club fighters." Without grassroot campaigns of sorts that are club fights, the sport will suffer.

-Offer little in the form of solutions for boxing reform.


The only sure good thing about boxing is its fans. The worst thing about boxing is its good fans who remain quiet.

I doubt we are witnessing a golden age of boxing, but the fans have been treated to Trinidad, De la Hoya, and Hopkins battling and surviving opponents (including each other) at the top for a decade. They've been treated to Hopkins and Hasim Rahman battling it out to see who can top Muhammad Ali in terms of quotes over the years. They've seen warriors like Gatti and Barrera rise, fall, rise, fall, and rise again. They've even gotten their first glimpses at a new torchbearer for the sport in Vitali Klitchsko, an impressive powerhouse with an Andre the Giant-esque charm.

Unfortunately, not many people other than loyal, hardcore boxing fans are getting to see any of this.

What can we do? We can stop being quiet. In doing so, we can donate to FIST and RBF, voice displeasure to television outlets if they are causing us displeasure (the right words and images to the right people go a long way), write to writers about interesting stories that need to be looked into, invite over an extra friend for a big pay-per-view fight, and start demanding that boxing starts to reform itself.

NFL fans do not get treated poorly. Steroid friendly baseball is trying to clean up its act. Why should we put up with less than fair treatment from television networks, sanctioning bodies, state commissions, and promoters' poor efforts?

I cannot, for the life of me, think of one reason to put up with it. So, be respectful and be heard. There is a sport that has been gasping for air for the last 15 years that needs any help it can get.

Here's a headstart...

Comments or questions can be e-mailed to the author at:

Part I: Lost Youth: Why Boxing is Dying in America
Part II: Lost Youth: Why Boxing is Dying in America

Article posted on 03.01.2005

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