By Courtney Riley
According to the opinions of many sports writers and observers… ‘Boxing is either dead or dying’. I for one am tired of hearing those morbid old hymnals that are constantly being sung by the would-be pallbearers who are yearning for the death of the sport. Too often, we see sports writers penning eulogies for the ‘sweet science’ – but shovel as they might; boxing is not destined for an early grave. Since the apocalyptic writings of John the Revelator in A.D. 96, men have been forever living in the Last Days. We have a tendency to recall the past alongside descriptions such as ‘great’ and ‘glorious’, while we tend to view the time of the present as a mere highway to a future doom. This parallels how many of us view boxing today. There seems to be a consensus among [both casual and hard-core] fight fans that the fighters of the old school would hand out a boxing lesson to the pugilists of today. Yes… there might be a point, but that is an argument for another day. There is no denying that the sport of boxing has changed… but everything does. Even the sport’s most famous son , Muhammad Ali, has echoed the sentiment of the inevitability of change when he stated that ‘a man who views the world the same at [age] fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life’. So, why should boxing remain the same?
Boxing, like any other sport, has gone through a number of different stages on its route to where it has arrived today. Boxing writer James Lafond has handily mapped out the different stages of the sport in an article titled ‘The Seven Eras of Boxing‘. Skipping over Lafond’s first two eras of boxing which spanned a millennium from 1700 BC to 1700 AD, here are the last five stages as is identified in his article: Stage 3 – The Bare-knuckle Era (1700 to 1892); Stage 4 – Old Time Boxing (1892 to 1919); Stage 5 – The Golden Age of Boxing (1920 to 1946); Stage 6 – The Television Era (1946 to 1987); and Stage 7 – The Pay-per-view Era aka The Death of Boxing (1988-present). Did you notice the titles of eras in stages 5 and 7? If not, read it again. Lafond identified a ‘Golden Age’ and an era which is also known as ‘The Death of Boxing’.
It is interesting to note that the 1920s is not only noted as being the Golden Age of boxing, but also the golden of sporting competition in general. This is an indication that sports in general meant a great deal more to the people of that time than it does today. In the United States, the three most popular sports in the 1920s were [American] football, baseball, and boxing. Boxers of that era were recognised among the most celebrated people from around the world. This was the decade of Jack Dempsey, the blue collar boxing legend who reigned as the heavyweight king for seven years. Influential boxing writer and historian, Bert Sugar, listed Dempsey at number 9 in his all-time list of ‘100 Greatest Fighters’ – 91 places above modern heavyweight great, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. Dempsey drew a crowd of over 120,000 spectators in his first clash against Gene Tunney in 1926, before drawing another record crowd of 145,000 people a year later to witness their rematch. The fight broke the record for boxing’s first $1 million and $2million live gate by generating $2.6 million – a whopping $36.3 million in today’s currency. The figures do indicate that boxing in the golden age was truly alive and… well, punching.
Let’s fast forward to 2015 AD where the boxing landscape is pretty much unrecognisable when compared to the gladiator sport of almost a century prior. Boxing has suffered a major dip in popularity in the United States. According to a 2014 poll conducted by the statistics database Statista, boxing is not even ranked in the top 10 of the most popular sports in America. It is lumped somewhere in the ‘other’ category which undoubtedly includes other combat sports and the ever growing sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) – more on that later. The top three sports today were revealed to be Professional [American] Football, Baseball, and College [American] Football. This is a major change compared to the 1920s when boxing was among the top three most popular sports in the country. This must mean that observers like Lafond must be correct in their analysis that this era must truly be the death of boxing. WRONG. Boxing’s stars are still recognisable alongside the most famous celebrities of today. The sport’s top two athletes, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, are very influential people outside of the sport of boxing. Away from the scales, they hold a lot of weight in the spheres of both politics and entertainment – Pacquiao being a congressman in his native Philippines and Mayweather brimming with more than enough lustre to be ‘Dancing with the Stars’ on prime time television. They would not complain about the number of zeros in their bank accounts either. In the last few years, Mayweather has been a staple atop of the Forbes list of ‘The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes’. The fight between the pair is the richest fight boxing’s history. The live gate alone, generated revenues of $72million – calculating inflation, the revenue generated would have doubled the money generated by the Dempsey-Tunney fight in 1927, though the people in attendance only accounted for less than 10% of those both of the Dempsey-Tunney fights.
However, the healthy figures from the 2014/15 period have done precious little to silence the prophets of doom. They have been transcribing their prophetic visions into the false doctrines that are being used to mislead the masses. In the wake of Floyd Mayweather’s lopsided defeat of Manny Pacquiao, USA Today published an article by Chris Korman titled ‘Boxing and horse racing aren’t coming back (but they won’t go away)’; the Guardian newspaper ran a gloomy yet slightly optimistic article by Patrick Connor titled ‘Mayweather-Pacquiao is over and boxing is dead, again’. The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight sold around 4.4 million pay-per-view buys which generated well over $400 million. Even with those astronomical figures, the heretics are still out in their droves to spread the ‘bad news’ – a common tagline being that Floyd Mayweather is our very last PPV star. Being that his September contest against the unheralded Andre Berto is reported to have been his final match, it seems as if boxing’s impending doom, as it has been foretold, is about to come to fruition.
In accordance with the doomsday prophets, outspoken UFC president Dana White, has detailed his diagnosis on some of the chronic ills that are within the sport of boxing. He is quoted by Steve Cofield of Yahoo Sports to have said that ‘that boxing will go away… It’s not because the sport isn’t good or anything like that, it’s just that it’s so fragmented… Nobody is going to stick their hand in their own pocket and spend their own money to save the sport of boxing; nobody is going to do it.’ The ‘fragmentation’, as pointed out by White, is a reference to the differing sanctioning bodies who govern the sport – namely the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organisation (WBO). Each of those four major organisations boast their own champion and have their own version of rules to adhere to, and/or overlook. On its own, this subject has more than enough points of argument and information to warrant its own article. White continued by echoing the same damning verdict that Lafond highlighted in the seventh (and final) epoch of his boxing timeline – The Pay-per-view Era aka The Death of Boxing (1988-present). White stated that ‘Once everything went to [the] a pay[-per-view] model, boxing stopped giving you good fights for free. As soon as that model ended your market starts to shrink when you’re only on pay-per-view.’
Imagine!… The head of one of our sports’ most recent rivals has issued a diagnosis of the sweet science, and I agree. The sport is in need of a cure; a knight in shining armour; a brave new hero to battle against the tide of certain doom… Well actually, the sport just needs a body with enough vision that is led by one with the brass neck to scoop out enough cash from his pocket and re-invest in the sport. Enters Al Haymon and his Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) organisation. The Harvard Business School graduate and boxing manager/advisor (whose roster includes the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Amir Khan, Adrien Broner, Keith Thurman, Deontay Wilder, and Carl Frampton to name just a few) seems to be answering the call to pick up the mantle of becoming boxing’s messiah. His PBC series has brought boxing back into the domain of free terrestrial TV – away from the exclusivity of the sport’s broadcast via subscription-based cable and satellite channels. Haymon has the vision of growing boxing into the mainstream sport it once was. He has secured exclusive contracts with an array of television networks (including NBC, CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, and Spike). It is reported that he bought the airtime from many of the channels which break away from the current norm, which is for the networks to buy the rights from the boxing promotion companies to air their fight card. In short, Haymon has the brass neck to dip his hands in his own pockets, or that of his partners’, for our sport.
If all goes to plan, boxing will return to the pinnacle of sports like the days of old when fighters like Muhammad Ali were kings and the likes of ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard were household names. The unforgettable eras of the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing (led by Mudammad Ali, ‘Smoking’ Joe Frazer, and George Foreman) and the Four Kings (‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler, Thomas ‘the Hitman’ Hearns, and Roberto Duran) were spawned during The Television Era (1946 to 1987), identified as Stage 6 in Lafond’s timeline. Haymon, this seemingly selfless saint does have his detractors. Some of the sports’ stalwart powerhouse promotional companies such as Bob Arum’s Top Rank and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions believe that they have spotted specks of dirt on the knight’s shining armour. They have filed a lawsuit for $300 million in damages for violations of competitive practices. This further highlights the fragmentation in a sport where there is no single governing body to police or enforce a universal set of rules. Boxing though, has survived the stifling grip of the criminal underworld and it will undoubtedly survive this quibble.
Looking back and ahead at 2015, boxing fans have been to feasting off a platter of big and superfights. The Mayweather-Pacquiao superfight will certainly not be the Last Supper with a forecast of a lot more big time boxing appearing on the horizon for 2016 and thereafter. The post-Floyd Mayweather era looks as if it will rather healthy indeed. Boxing’s boogieman, Gennady Golovkin (or Triple-G) has captured the attention of the casual fans. He is scheduled to have a middleweight unification bout against the hard-hitting Canadian, David Lemieux, in his PPV debut. The other two big-name middleweights who are also in a superfight are Miguel Cotto and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez who will face each other for the WBC’s portion of the title. It would also be another real treat for fight fans if both the winners (and the losers) of their respective bouts would square off against each other. Also, a portion of the heavyweight title rests with an American heavyweight and there are a number of talented prospects in the division; the welterweight division is swirling with talent. The list could go on and on. So instead of looking for a shovel for which to bury boxing 6ft under, we should be looking for a hammer to build a larger platform from where to appreciate the sport from.