Remembering how boxing used to be

By Paul McCreath: My memories of boxing go back a long ways for I am not that young any more.My first recollection is of listening to the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight title fight on the radio with my dad. That would have been in December of 1947.Dad was never a sports fan but even he wanted to hear that fight. In those days everybody knew who the world champion was. I guess that was the beginning of my deep interest in boxing.

It wasn't long before television came along and with it those great Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Friday Night Fights nearly every week all year long. On Wednesdays we got the Pabst Blue Ribbon Wednesday Night Fights. In those days these bouts were all available free on one of the American networks. In Canada we could get them on American stations near the border as long as we had an aerial or sometimes even with rabbit ears for our TV. Thousands of new fans were created every year because everybody got exposed to the fights. At that time you were lucky if you could get more than 2 or 3 channels so boxing got plenty of exposure. Now you don't see boxing unless you pay for cable or pay per view. Who is going to do that if you are not already really interested? As a result few new fans are created and the main body of fans is getting older every year because the younger folks are following other sports that they can watch for free.

Back in the 50s and 60s there were only 8 weight divisions with one champion in each division. The top 5 divisions were mostly dominated by Americans and it was the top ten guys at each weight that you saw most often on TV. It was not unusual to see the same fighter 6 or more times in one year. You really got to know the top fighters because they appeared so often. Who could forget the likes of Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Kid Gavilan, Gene Fullmer, Carlos Ortiz,Orlando Zulueta, Tiger Jones, Spider Webb or Gil Turner. They were always on TV and fighting other good fighters too. That was the only way to get a title fight in those days.You had to build a following by beating other good men and creating a demand for the fight.Back then there were no mandatories because there were no alphabet groups, at least none that mattered. Ring magazine was considered the Bible of Boxing and only they and the popular demand of the fans could force a champion to defend his title against a deserving challenger. Most of the time it worked.

The fighters back in those days did not earn the huge paydays that some of the elite get today. For instance Louis got less than $76,000 for the Walcott fight that got me interested. Rocky Marciano never got more than the $340,997 he got for the Archie Moore bout. Floyd Patterson earned only $80,214.50 the night he won the heavyweight title against Moore. The difference between now and then was that most of the top ten fighters were able to get on national TV several times a year and they usually got about $5,000 for each fight. That purse amount seems very little now but back then $5,000 a year was a good living. I taught school for 5 years and never made that much. Today very few boxers can live off what they earn unless they are one of the superstars and they make ridiculously high amounts. If we could spread that money around more it would encourage more young men to get involved.

By the 1960s we began to see more and more closed circuit TV broadcasts of boxing. This created larger purses for the fighters and more profits for the promoters and for awhile it worked well. Often the closed circuit show would be at an arena like Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto or the Olympia in Detroit. First came a number of live bouts featuring local fighters then this was followed by the main event on a big screen. The actual main event fight might be hundreds of miles away but everybody got to see it for usually around $15 and at the same time interest was built up in the local fighters. Eventually the greed of the promoters took over and they gradually eliminated the live fights to save money. This is where promoters stopped being real promoters of the sport and started being cash collectors only. The game began a downward spiral that continues to this day. Once the masses stopped getting the opportunity to see the big fights on free TV or as part of a local boxing card interest fell off. With declining interest the newspapers stopped reporting the sport. Remember when your local paper printed a new boxing schedule every week? Remember when all the fights were reported with photos and comments in the paper and on TV?. When was the last time you saw that?

I can remember too when a heavyweight fighter would usually have a waist measurement 8 or 10 inches smaller than his chest. In those days boxers stayed in training year round and fought several times a year not the once or twice we see today. How can you create interest in yourself or the sport if you are in hiding 11 months of the year? Today when you see a heavyweight fight you are just as likely to see at least one of the contestants with his fat belly hanging over his trunks as he waddles around the ring. I once did a survey on the weights of heavyweights and found that if you compare fighters of today with those the same height 40 years ago the modern guy weighs an average of 28 pounds more. How can this lack of professionalism inspire the youth of today? The heavyweights used to be the division everyone wanted to see, not the object of jokes that it is now.

The last nail in the coffin of boxing popularity came with the introduction of pay per view. This has created monstrous paydays for a few superstars and big promoters but has left the average good fighter with little chance to work. Young stars are not being developed and new fans don't get introduced to the sport because they get no chance to see top quality boxing free on TV like all other sports. The day of the boxer with a big local following is gone. Today the local fight club is almost extinct.

No mention of the troubles of boxing today would be complete without a word about the sanctioning bodies. They have created so many weight classes and different world champions that even a rabid fan can't keep track anymore. Does anybody know who the real world champs are today?The truth is there aren't any.Every weight class has several so- called champions thanks to the alphabet boys.It is all to create more income for these bodies.

In closing I feel it is the greed of the big promoters and the superstar boxers themselves that has hurt boxing the most. They have taken a short term approach to make a lot of money now rather than an approach that would grow the sport and in the long term benefit everybody. I don't know what the answer is to correct the mess we are in today but something needs to change soon or things are only going to get worse.

Article posted on 20.10.2010

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