Boxing: Not Dead Yet

By James Creed: Pundits and long-time fans of the sport have a tendency to look back on the past with determined reverence. They were the good times. Boxing had superstars that were household names amongst even non-fight fans.

Championship fights were highly anticipated and reported globally. We experienced so-called ‘Golden Eras’ of boxing, considered to be so laden with talent and personality that debates regarding mythical matches with Past vs. Present boxers invariably end with today’s fighters being pummelled to a bloody pulp.

Boxing fans are drunk on nostalgia, and that’s hardly surprising - who wouldn’t look to the past for comfort when we’re being bombarded by pessimistic coverage of the sport from every angle?

These reports make for grim reading. According to many observers the sport is either in decline, in its death throes, or already dead. Statements such as “boxing will continue to die a slow death” and “boxing is a dying sport” are rarely accompanied with an explanation of what is meant by ‘death’ and ‘dying’, but as these statements are often framed with reference to the success of the UFC, or to boxing’s floundering heavyweight division, I take it to mean the death of interest in the sport as a whole.

The reasons that are cited for this are well documented. Some blame the rapidly increasing popularity of mixed martial arts, capturing the attention of the young male demographic which boxing has struggled to attract for many years. Some point to boxing’s flagship heavyweight division as being depressingly stagnant and largely devoid of talent, the fighters’ lack of dedication evidenced by out-of-shape bodies and slow, ungainly skills. The plethora of weight classes is often criticised, with entire weight divisions housing contenders who nobody - besides the most ardent of boxing fans - has heard of. Greedy alphabet organisations like the WBC are also a target, with their focus on creating new belts (most recently the ‘Diamond’ Belt) with such alarming regularity one wonders if WBC President José Sulaimán spends his days gleefully pointing at a periodic table, determining the names of the next championship belts to bleed yet more sanctioning fees out of fighters.
All of this is enough to make even the most passionate boxing fan lose hope. Surely a fragmented, corrupt and expensive-to-watch sport is destined for failure?

Not so. Looking back on 2011, the reported numbers of people watching the sport offer a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom. Four out of the top ten best-selling pay-per-views were boxing events. Manny Pacquiao led the way with two fights last year exceeding well over 2 million buys, followed by Floyd Mayweather Jr against Victor Ortiz and the grudge match between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito. These four fights alone netted a cool 4.36 million buys. To put this in context, the UFC put on sixteen pay-per-view events in 2011 and managed 6.79 million buys. Clearly then, boxing still sells, with millions willing to shell out as much as $65 for the privilege of seeing their favourite fighters compete, even in these lean economic times.
As reassuring as it is to see these figures, these numbers were largely reliant on the popularity of boxing’s few remaining ‘big names’. Right now, the only active fighters coming close to or breaking the 1 million buy mark are Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. With their unique combination of incredible achievements, magnetic personalities and interesting lives outside of the ring (for better or worse) they will be a hard act to follow. Contrast this to UFC which, while not breaking a million buys with any single event last year, was much more consistent in posting good numbers with a broader range of talent headlining its events. With not long left on the clock for boxing’s pay-per-view kings, there is a need for new talent to emerge capable of attracting these audiences.

Promoters and networks have been hit-and-miss in recent times with nurturing new talent, but the signs are mostly encouraging. HBO have done well in showcasing the talents of the gifted Gary Russell Jr., who even at this early stage is generating a lot of excitement with his speed and aptitude for combination punching. Saul Alvarez also stands out, with a loyal and vocal Mexican fanbase, humble beginnings and good looks he seems a shoe-in for boxing fame. While today’s current crop of popular fighters are mostly on the wrong side of thirty, their eventual retirements will force promoters to invest more time and money into nurturing the next generation of top tier fighters.

Beyond pay-per-view, boxing continued to demonstrate it had a pulse by achieving consistently decent ratings for staples such as HBO’s Boxing After Dark, World Championship Boxing and ESPN Friday Fight Nights. While these numbers pale in comparison to sports beyond the fringes, the consistency in the numbers and quality of the fights has been encouraging. Viewing figures outside of North America are also strong, which is a testament to the globalisation of the sport. Viewing figures in Europe are positive, a good example being the Klitschko vs. Haye bout reaching a reported audience of 16 million people in Germany alone. Mainstays like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia, Cuba and the Philippines continue to maintain large fan bases, some treating their boxing stars as national heroes. It’s very easy to forget the sheer popularity of some ‘foreign’ fighters when there is such a narrow focus on what is happening inside US borders.

There are more positive signs with the number of outlets to watch boxing increasing, with new shows such as NBC sports Fight Night Series and - for UK fans - the introduction of dedicated boxing channel BoxNation. The internet is also being increasingly used as a medium to broadcast boxing, giving fans and new audiences alike more opportunities than ever to watch the sport.

Frustratingly, however, boxing still doesn’t have a home on network television while the forward thinking Dana White has struck a deal with Fox, allowing the UFC to bring fights into the living rooms of mainstream audiences. But instead of this being a reason for pessimism, I think it’s a positive sign that combat sport is popular enough to warrant that level of exposure, hopefully paving the way for boxing getting back on network TV in the future.

I would argue that there are countless observers who have a loose definition of what is considered to be a ‘dying’ sport. I see an Olympic-worthy sport that still generates hundreds of millions of dollars, watched by millions globally, being practiced by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. It’s a no-brainer to say the sport isn’t as popular as it used to be, and that the depth of top-tier talent is not what it once it was, but to say its dying is sensationalist at best. For all the problems endemic in the sport, it still sells. Floyd Mayweather is going to prison for beating a woman, Manny Pacquiao has refused random drug testing with little to no reasoning and Antonio Margarito attempted to walk to the ring with plaster in his wraps. All three men were involved in the highest selling fights of 2011. I suspect this would be unheard of in most other sports, where any of these issues would be enough to have a seriously negative impact on a career.

However, boxing seems to occupy a unique space in the sporting world where controversy, corruption and lack of any unified structure have become so endemic that the public’s expectations have changed to accommodate it. We are outraged when judges clearly declare the loser of a bout the winner, we complain when promoters like Bob Arum keep all their fights in-house - stopping some of the best matches being made - and we despair at the lacklustre heavyweight division. However, judges continue to be bought, Bob Arum makes more money than ever as we resign ourselves to our most desired matchups not being made, and we respond to the heavyweight slump by shifting our attention to the lower weight classes.

In spite of this, we continue to shell out extortionate sums of money so we can continue to watch the sport. This suits those at the top, and feeds into a top-heavy structure in which vast amounts of money are carved up between the networks, large promotional outfits, and the most popular fighters, while everyone else just gets by. Bob Arum offering Floyd Mayweather a flat fee of $45 million for a fight with Pacquiao as, believe it or not, an ‘insulting’ gesture whilst the vast majority of professional boxers are carving up purses of a few thousand dollars is a testament to this. I personally don’t believe that this over-reliance on a few individuals generating a vast portion of money in boxing is a sustainable model in the long term whilst the problems I’ve listed persist to this degree. But as long as apathy over these issues continues, and there are a few fighters with significant earning power, the sport will continue on this uneasy plateau while the media prattles on about the death of boxing.

“boxing is a dying sport”
“boxing will continue to die a slow death.”

Article posted on 02.02.2012

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