Finding the Balance Between Integrity and Popularity in the Sport of Boxing

21.01.06 - By Brian "Mick" McDonald: Following the announcement of the April 8th fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr vs. Zab Judah, I began to contemplate, once again, the status of the sport of boxing and whether or not it is collectively headed in a direction that will help elevate it to the level of popularity it once had. Coincidentally, the announcement of the aforementioned fight happened on the day of the second Morales vs. Pacquio fight, which is another fight that falls into the same category: a Pay-Per-View non-title bout amongst two "big name" fighters. Granted, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is generally considered to be the pound for pound best fighter in the world the same cannot be said about Zab Judah. With a suspect chin, questionable training habits, and general disrespectful in-ring behavior, it's clear that Judah is getting the fight because along the way he has managed to make a name for himself by showing signs of stunning technical brilliance. The Cory Spinks fight was a great example of what Judah is capable of. But, after his lackluster performance against Carlos Baldomir, getting a chance to fight Mayweather is an honor that he hasn't necessarily earned. It is the NFL equivalent to inviting the Patriots to the 2006 Super Bowl based on their past accomplishments and their status as fan favorites. Unlike the NFL, and setting all logic aside, I believe that is the type of fight that is exactly what the sport needs..

The boxing purists, of which I consider myself, will have a tendency to argue that Judah doesn't deserve this fight. But looking at the bigger picture, what's at stake here is the popularity of boxing, more so than belts or division ranking. Do the alphabet belts have any relevance to the casual fan? With the seemingly endless number of belts available at any given weight division, can the casual fan really be expected to believe that virtually every fight is a "championship match?" I rather doubt it. What does a fight like Mayweather vs. Judah say about boxing? I think it's very telling in two areas: 1) fight fans, particularly the casual fans, are not concerned with who is the champion or holds a belt; rather, they would prefer to see a bout with two fighters whom they are familiar with. 2) The need for a National Boxing Commission is mandatory if we can expect boxing to regain it's elite status as a professional sport.

Are boxing fans looking for good fights or familiar faces? Most of the people I talk boxing with, whom are primarily casual fans, often argue that Mike Tyson is the greatest fighter that ever lived. As absurd, so should I say ludicrous, as it may seem, they have continued to order his PPV's despite his downward spiral in and out of the ring. Can these same casual fans appreciate a Mayweather vs. Baldomir fight? Not only would they not pay to see it, they probably wouldn't even watch it. Of course, people like me will often ineffectively promote these fights at the office water cooler and are baffled at the inability of sports fans to appreciate the phenomenal skills of the elite pound for pound fighters like Winky Wright, Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. When Monday comes around and we're looking to strike up a conversation about some of the particulars from the fights that took place Saturday night it's often that we, the purists, are the only ones that tuned in to watch it unfold round by round. As a professional sport, boxing obviously relies on generating excitement and the subsequent income and as a result these casual fans are a very important part of the future of boxing. The issue often becomes finding the balance between integrity and the money associated with popularity.

As fight fans, many of us acknowledge the Ring Magazine ratings as the standard. Their rating system is intelligent and mostly free of the financially persuading factors that permeate the divisions. However, when the promoters or divisions prevent the best from fighting the best, there's often times an element of speculation involved. Their system is much like the BCS rating used in NCAA Football. Although, those that follow NCAA Football will also note that many take exception to that system and it is not without it's own flaws. USC not playing Texas in 2005 for example. With boxing, the ranking should be much easier. It's simply a matter of fighters getting in the ring and either knocking out their opponent or relying on their pugilistic abilities to persuade the ring side judges to give them rounds, presumably in a fair and unbiased way.

At this time, I believe it is more important that we see fighters make more money by taking the popular matches than it is to maintain integrity within their division. In the case of the Mayweather vs. Judah fight were are not seeing the best two fighters, but that's not really important. We're seeing two exciting fighters with established reputations. A short time ago we were fortunate enough that two fighters chose to forfeit their belts so that we could see the best two fighters clash. I am referring to Antonio Tarver & Glencoffe Johnson's first fight. In that bout we were able to see the two best fighters disregard mandatory bouts for the sake of proving who was the best in the division regardless of rank. While Tarver may have lost his belts as a result of taking the fight, he did get paid and he pleased the boxing public in the process. By breaking the rules of the boxing establishment Tarver was able to strike the balance between integrity and popularity. He did more for boxing by taking that fight than he would have done by keeping his belts and fighting the mandatory contenders. Therein lies another glaring example of the point I'm trying to make. Many of the problems with the public perception of boxing can be attributed to the numerous divisions and self-serving promoters. One of the other negative results of this is that the kids are disinterested in boxing because they can make more money in other professional sports.

Do you think Tiger Woods' notoriously obsessive father would have encouraged his son to play golf if it was a sport that had a reputation of corruption and mistreating the players? Me either. It's no secret that athletic kids and their parents are more inspired by pursuing a sport that will bring them the greatest financial rewards. I'd argue that most kids will be interested in participating in a high dollar sport as opposed to something that offers status as a reward. With younger kids, soccer could be an exception. The though of drawing motivation and parental support while working towards the goal of being able to earn one of the countless belts in a given weight division just doesn't seem to ring with the same resonance as the goals with the dollar signs do. The quitter mentality that seemed to overwhelm the 2004 United States Olympics boxing team is a perfect example of the effects of a misguided perception of the reward system. More than once I recall announcer Teddy Atlas saying that some of the poor performing fighters were looking forward to turning pro and getting paid to box. Fortunately for us, Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell had integrity and honor and fought accordingly. As a result, both fighters have established more interest in the first year of their respective careers than their fellow teammates. In the long term, they will undoubtedly be rewarded for their Olympic efforts. Given the lack of talent in the Heavy Weight division, the undisputed cash-cow division in boxing, I would say that encouraging kids to pursue boxing is a very important issue for the future social status of the sport.

I guess the question ask is whether or not it is always possible to simultaneously gain both popularity and integrity in the sport. Without a National Boxing Commission, I don't believe we can effectively manage both issues simultaneously. Senator John McCain's United States Boxing Commission Act should help us restore faith in the sport, but there still has to be fights that draw interest from the casual fans of the sweet science. I believe the short term effects of having the most exciting fights, despite lack of entitlement, will reap the biggest benefit for the sport both in terms of popularity and finances. If the sport can begin to rebuild a stronger fan base, one can only hope that more public interest will result in more fans calling for the elimination of the elements that can be linked to either real or perceived corruption.

With regards to the very fight that was the elixir for this train of thought, we'll have to wait and see whether or not the fans will pay to see it. I have a feeling they will. As such, I believe this fight and fights of this nature, in the long term, are not only good for the sport of boxing they are also necessary. The simple fact that the fight announcement was on the ESPN ticker today shows early signs of above average general sports media interest.

Article posted on 22.01.2006

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