The Post-Tyson State of Boxing

02.08.04 – by Mike Dunn: Now that Mike Tyson has lost convincingly to Danny Williams, a heretofore little-known British heavyweight who would have been mere cannon fodder for Tyson in his heyday, what happens next? I don’t mean for Tyson, who should permanently retire, but for the sport of boxing itself?

Boxing will always have a core of loyal supporters and fans who remain faithful through the glory years and the dark seasons, but the response of the general public to boxing these days is a big yawn. The average person in Middle America has little interest in fistic happenings, with the exception of personalities who transcend the sport, such as Tyson.

There are two primary reasons for this malaise. First, the heavyweight division is not producing fighters who capture the imagination of the general public. Second, the alphabet organizations have created chaos.

You can talk all you want about the caliber of fighters in the lower divisions like Arturo Gatti and Erik Morales and the excitement they generate, but interest in boxing (at least in the U.S.) is affected more by the state of the heavyweights than any other single factor. As a general
rule, when the heavyweight division is in turmoil, interest in the sport wanes. When the heavyweight division produces fights and fighters worth watching, viewership and interest increases in every weight class.

Now that Tyson is fading beyond any hope of a return to the limelight, the colorful George Foreman is retired for good, and the courageous Evander Holyfield is just a hollow caricacture of his former self, a vacuum has been created. And fighters like Chris Byrd and Vitali Klitschko and John Ruiz aren`t going to fill the void. Lennox Lewis is retired but isn¹t missed because he never connected with the public at large. James Toney is a crowd pleaser but he only recently moved up to heavyweight and he is also nearing the end of his career. Roy Jones Jr. always had the talent, but never bothered to make himself attractive to the general sports fan. And now
Tyson, the one prizefighter who does draw the big crowds and the big money, is showing his age. The loss to Williams marks an end to Tyson as a serious contender. There¹s still some money to be made off his name, but Tyson would be a fool to pursue it. If Tyson doesn¹t retire, he will risk serious harm.

The problem facing boxing today is that no one ‹ with the exception of Tyson ‹ grabs the attention of the average sports fan. The same fan who knows the names of the starting running backs on every NFL football team is not likely to know who Arturo Gatti is. Or Antonio Tarver. Or Erik Morales. He remembers Oscar De La Hoya, but De La Hoya is another fighter who is past his prime now. This sports fan has probably heard of Byrd and Klitschko, but that¹s a far cry from having a desire to watch them face each other in the prize ring.

The second major factor in public apathy toward boxing is the influence of the alphabet organizations. Put yourself in the shoes of those who are on the outside looking in. What they see is a confusing hodge podge of champions and challengers being promoted by different organizations, which seem to grow like barnacles on a rotting dock post. Each organization endorses different champions fighting for titles that hold little glamor and less general appeal. Why should the people tune in? Why should they care?

Title fights have lost all sense of significance. It’s not like the days before the 1970s, when there was one champion in each weight division (for the most part) and title fights actually meant that the one and only title was on the line. The fight you were going to witness had meaning! Today
everything is so diluted that the lustre and honor of being a champion is greatly diminished.

Boxing can only blame itself for its woes. Influential people have seen fit to ruin the integrity of the sport for personal gain. Promoters and alphabet organizations are in the boxing business to cater to themselves, but without any sense of obligation at all to the sport. That’s why there are so many different organizations and a multiple number of champions in each weight class. And that’s the primary reason, in my opinion, why the general public is apathetic about boxing in 2004. There are enough pure boxing fans to warrant coverage on Friday nights on ESPN2 or Sunday nights on Fox Sports Net, but that¹s about. There is virtually no other TV coverage of boxing except for the occasional pay-per-view card. The sport that ruled the airways at one time, the one sport that is perfect for the medium of TV, is now an also-ran competing with reruns of the Brady Bunch and infomercials about getting rich by selling real estate.

The sad thing is that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Gaylord, Michigan.