Will Boxing Ever Again See a “Golden Age”?

04.10.05 - By Aaron King: From the turn of the 20th century and for many years later, boxing was a staple of American entertainment. It was second only to baseball in the sporting world, and its champions were heroes of the highest order. Jack Dempsey was the biggest star of an era that housed names such as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Charles Lindbergh. In fact, he made more money than any of his contemporaries.

A championship fight was the most anticipated sporting event, outside of the World Series, and even that at times was no match for a good title bout between two great champions of the day. The 1938 rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling is still considered by many to be the most important sporting affair ever.

Boxing had a way to transcend the boundaries of sport in a way that no other could. Social and racial lines have been drawn and crossed throughout its history. Perhaps no other man has been hated more than Jack Johnson, the black champion in a white man’s game, who, just because he could, caroused with white women. Muhammad Ali, besides being arguably the greatest boxer of all time, was a prominent figure in the civil rights’ movement. His defiant stand on the Vietnam War spoke for a nation of people of all creeds and backgrounds. In many ways, he was their voice; the voice of a nation crying out against the social injustices and political wrongs of the day.

Names like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, George Foreman and Jake LaMotta are common outside boxing circles. Even more, such as Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fulmer, Sandy Saddler, Gene Tunney, Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, just to name a few, have a lofty place in boxing lore. Champions had followings that rock stars could only wish to have. Fighters were upper-tier athletes, as well as upper-tier men.

Boxing had a steady place in the American psyche. Its champions were celebrities and heroes. So how is it that boxing finds itself where it is today, without any sign of life on news broadcasts, barely a speck in newspapers, and even scant mention in sports television?

Interest in boxing is obviously not what it once was. The last true superstar was Mike Tyson, and for the most part, his stardom was an infamous contention. Even now, the most recognizable name is Tyson’s. That doesn’t say much of the sport. What initiated this collapse from grace, this precipitous freefall from its darling status of yesteryear? Has boxing reached the point of no return?

Ask different fans what the golden years of boxing were, and you’re bound to get different answers. Some will tell you it coincided with the Roaring Twenties, the days of Dempsey, Tunney and Benny Leonard. Every town and ethnic group had their own clubs. It was a way out for the sons of the poor immigrants who flooded the cities. Still others will tell you that boxing saw its best days in the ‘70s, when the heavyweight division experienced its peak with men like Ali, Joe Frazier, Foreman, Ken Norton and many others. Other future legends like Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Salvador Sanchez, Carlos Monzon, Wilfredo Gomez, Bobby Chacon and Alexis Arguello crowded the lower divisions.

As the golden era of the ‘70s progressed, a man named Don King had begun to emerge as boxing’s premier promoter. Since that time, he has promoted hundreds of fighters including Ali, Duran, Larry Holmes, Julio Cesar Chavez and Tyson. As he and rival promoter Bob Arum began to obtain more and more of the best fighters, they began to obtain more and more of the power. It is King’s rise to prominence that many blame for boxing’s recent tribulations.

It is true that King, as well as Arum, have assumed a lot of power in boxing, especially with the major sanctioning bodies (all three have named King the greatest promoter in history). Boxing has a much more business-driven appearance to it. But, all things considered, the shrinking interest in boxing far exceeds those created by King or Arum.

Boxing is far less accessible than it was years ago. It is impossible to see a fight on the traditional stations (NBC, ABC, and CBS), and the best fights almost always have a price tag of about $50 with them. This is hardly a product of King’s tenure. Sports’ business as a whole has evolved to this point. There are more sporting options, all competing for the consumer buck, for people to watch, so young fans will tend to gravitate to the more accessible ones.

Because of this, that most marquee fights are on HBO, Showtime or Pay-Pay-View, incoming sports fans will probably watch what they can for free. Another deterrent for young fans is that they are coming up in the “highlight age”. Baseball teams each play 162 games a year. It is easy for a young fan to sit down and watch a game on almost any given day, and if they miss it, they can turn on ESPN or Fox Sports to catch the highlights of the game. The same applies to basketball, football and hockey. They each have set seasons and each team play during this season. It’s a pretty basic formula, but its reliability creates new fans easily. Your favorite team will always be playing, and you can bet that your favorite player will be their too. This reliability doesn’t exist in boxing. Fights can be scheduled at any point during the year, and the best fighters aren’t ever fighting very often. Many of the best champions fight once or, if they’re busy, two times a year. This doesn’t give the incoming fan much to observe.

A few weeks back, when the idea to write this piece first came up, I was speaking with a friend of mine. He, like me, is a sports fan, but doesn’t refine himself to just one. To be sure, he loves all sports, including boxing, although he doesn’t follow it nearly as closely as I do. I asked him why he didn’t enjoy the sport as much as he did others, and he gave me a short response. “I don’t see the fighters on SportsCenter.” It was strikingly true. As I let the comment settle in me for a second, I asked him why that mattered. Once again, there was little hesitation. “If they only fight once a year, then they aren’t on ESPN. If I don’t see them there, I have to watch the broadcast. If I have to pay $50 for something I’ve never watched before, then I’m not going to order it,” he said, later confessing that he first saw his favorite baseball player, Ken Griffey Jr., on SportsCenter highlights.

With that, he summed up much of the problem in boxing viewership - the younger people aren’t watching it as much because they don’t see the best fighters enough. And it’s perfectly logical that they wouldn’t want to buy a Pay-Per-View bout if they hadn’t seen the fighters before. If they only fight once a year, then young sports fans don’t have the opportunity to see their highlights often, as they do with their favorite teams and players in other sports. As a result, there is less demand for these highlights, so when there is a big fight, SportsCenter has less an obligation to show these highlights.

It seems like quite a cycle. So, does it mean that boxing as a popular sport is doomed?

Not quite. Most sports writers will admit that few things in sport are as electrifying as a major championship fight. That has been the case since the late 1800s. It is as addicting an atmosphere as one can find in sports, and if a hearty, young fan stumbles upon such an event, chances are good that he or she will come back for more.

There are still fights and fighters that generate enough buzz to convince people to watch. A perfect case is the trilogy between Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward. The first bout was arguably one of the greatest in the history of boxing. For those who didn’t watch it, the word spread quickly of how the two men fought like there was a championship on the line; of how it was a throwback to the earlier times; of how the excitement was unmatchable. I have personally met people whose love for boxing was fashioned by these fights. A few of them had actually never watched a match before. Gatti and Ward, respectively, had been very popular in their careers before their epic battles.

Ultimately, the heavyweight division will likely always dictate the popularity of the sport. As of late, there has been little reason to feel wound up about the “glamour division”, but there are now some men on the way in that could change that. Despite his loss to Wladimir Klitschko, Samuel Peter has the sort of power that can bring fans back to boxing. Big power leads to big knockouts, and that has always been one of boxing’s strongest selling points. Peter has the ability to charge the division.

Boxing is in a very critical time in its development. It’s competing with more sports than ever for viewers. Whether or not it gets some of this viewership is going to depend on how well it appeals to young fans. The programs on the ESPN networks and others such as MSG and Fox Sports will help perpetuate the fight game to new fans, who will then go to HBO, Showtime and Pay-Per-View, so long as the quality is good. In other words, as long as there are good boxers that fight often enough to be seen, boxing will always have a home. How big that home is, is continually changing, but we can be assured of this: There are few feelings that match the adrenaline rush of the opening bell.

Article posted on 04.10.2005

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