What Happened to Boxing?

15 Jun

(The following piece was written more than a week ago, prior to last Saturday night’s controversial decision in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight. If anything, the result of that fight serves to underscore some of the points made below.)

      Thirty years back, when I was just a kid, my favorite sport to watch was professional boxing. As a youth, no one was a bigger fan than I was. I’d watch every fight that came on TV, read boxing magazines like The Ring voraciously and generally study up on everything there was to know about the sweet science. It was a great era for the sport – Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns, Alexis Arguello and Larry Holmes. These were the sporting idols of my youth.
      So when I tell you I’ve lost much of my interest in boxing, you know the sport is in trouble.
      Once upon a time, the two major professional sports in the United States were baseball and boxing. But while the national pastime continues to sell out stadiums every day of the summer, boxing has fallen into that nether realm of second tier athletic events somewhere between tennis and the lingerie football league. How did this happen to a sport that once gripped the national consciousness to such a degree that it’s major champions, men like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, became not just significant figures in sporting history but significant figures in American history as a whole? To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel “Where have you gone Joe Louis?”
      While it’s tempting for some to blame the rise of mixed martial arts and the UFC as causing the downfall of boxing, the reality is that MMA has probably had little to do with the decline of interest in pugilism. The truth of the situation is that boxing simply shot itself in the foot. And if MMA has succeeded where boxing has failed, its largely because they have avoided these sort of self-inflicted wounds.
      Probably the three major factors in the slow death-by-foot-infection that is boxing are television, titles and integrity… and how boxing screwed up all three.
      The first, and arguably biggest, of these factors is lack of quality boxing on free TV. All those great fighters I mentioned earlier? The Leonards and Haglers and Durans? They all fought title fights on network TV at some point in their careers. Sure, some of their biggest bouts were on pay-per-view broadcasts (Or, back then, closed circuit broadcasts where you had to go to an arena to watch it on a big screen). But at least some of their fights were offered for free on CBS or ABC.
      What a novel idea. If you’re going to charge me $49.99 to watch a boxer fight, at least let me see him for free once or twice so I know if he’s any good. But in recent years, every top flight young boxer goes directly to premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime. Then, as soon as they get to a championship level, they go right to PPV where their fights cost anywhere from twenty to sixty dollars to watch. So, if you’re like me and don’t have HBO, you’re being asked to shell out money to watch on television a couple of fighters you may have never actually seen before. Um… No thanks? Contrast that to the UFC who offered a heavyweight championship bout between the champion and the number one contender for free on the Fox channel last year.
      The second factor causing an ever diminishing interest in boxing is the preponderance of weight divisions and champions. When boxing first became an organized and significant sport more than a hundred years ago, there were only eight weight divisions – heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight and flyweight – and, for the most part, one recognized champion per division. Then someone came up with the bright idea to add a few extra divisions: junior middleweight, junior welterweight, junior lightweight. Okay, still not too terrible, only eleven weight divisions. Then there came the dueling sanctioning bodies, each with their own champions. Then additional weight divisions… And more sanctioning bodies…
      The last time I checked, there were 17 weight divisions and 4 major sanctioning bodies, each with their own set of “world champions.” That’s a total of 68 world championship titles in professional boxing. Compare that to MMA, which currently has 8 recognized weight divisions and where the UFC champion is pretty much regarded as the true world champion by almost everyone who follows the sport. Sixty-eight “world champions” versus eight champions. Where does a title hold more prestige?
      It’s not just a matter of prestige but all those weight divisions and champions have an even greater negative impact on the sport of boxing through the fact that now, good fighters no longer have to ever fight each other.
      Take the case of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Generally regarded as the two best boxers in the world, Mayweather and Pacquiao happen to be about the same weight so you’d think they’d be fighting each other to decide just who is the world’s greatest boxer. Unh-unh, not in boxing. With the plethora of championships to choose from, Mayweather and Pacquiao have been able to pluck titles out of thin air for years, all the while referring to themselves as the world champ and not having to prove it against the other man in the ring. Now if there were a sane number of weight divisions and only one champion per division, there would be much more pressure on these two men to meet as viewers tend to have more interest in, and pay more money to see, fights that have a “championship” on the line. So if you’re a boxer and there can only be one champion out there, you’re probably going to want to fight the guy who has it. But with 68 titles available, it’s almost to the point where a good boxer can pick up a championship anywhere. And when everyone is a champion, really, it’s like no one is a champion, which is not something that creates fan interest.
      The third factor I mentioned is integrity, meaning a lack of integrity that pervades the game. This is more a personal factor that contributed to my own loss of interest in the sport as boxing, despite its endemic corruption, seemed to go on fine for decades before I came along. But if this eventually killed my interest in the sport, I can only assume it did the same to others.
      For me, the turning point in my love affair with boxing came 13 years ago watching the first fight between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. I was with a couple of friends watching Lewis completely dominate the PPV match. When it was over, one of my friends started to leave and I said, “Hey, aren’t you going to stay for the decision?”
      He replied there was no need, it was a clear cut win for Lewis (punch stats showed Lewis landed nearly three times as many punches over the course of the fight). I told him not to be so sure. This was, after all, boxing.
      After he had gone, the second friend asked me if I really believed they could somehow give the decision to Holyfield. I thought about it a moment, then replied, “No, but they might call it a draw.”
      He looked at me as if I were crazy and, indeed, there was no logical way any impartial observer could not have picked Lewis as the winner. But then the ring announcer started to read the judges’ scorecards.
      If you’ve watched enough boxing and listened to enough ring announcers over the years, you get familiar with the verbal tells they have when they start to announce a decision. You will usually know, as soon as he starts speaking into the microphone, if the announcer is going to say they have a unanimous decision or a split decision. In the case of Lewis and Holyfield, as soon as the ring announcer opened his mouth, I could tell he was going to say they had a split decision.
      Instantly, I turned to my remaining friend and said, “It’s a draw.”
      And I was right, the fight ended up being called a draw. My friend stared at me and asked how I could have known that with so much certainty, like I was a psychic. But it was no precognitive powers, rather an unfortunate acquaintance with the shady side of boxing. Because as soon as the announcer started to say it was a split decision, I flashed back to another fight several years earlier between Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez, probably the two premier boxers of the early 1990s. Unlike nowadays, these two men at least met each other in the ring, where Whitaker dominated the entire fight. But Whitaker was promoted by the Duva family while Chavez was promoted by Don King. Besides having a reputation as the most scurrilous promoter in the game, King was also the most influential promoter of that time. Thus, it was no surprise that “somehow” the judges called the fight a draw and preserved Chavez’s unbeaten record and his title.
      Flash forward five-and-a-half years to Lewis-Holyfield. Both men had a piece of the heavyweight title and the winner would be recognized as clearly the best heavyweight on the planet. Lewis was promoted by the Duva family while Holyfield, once a Duva fighter, was now promoted by Don King. The parallel jumped out at me when it came time to read the judges’ scores and I knew they would do the exact same thing they did in the Whitaker-Chavez fight – call it a draw and allow Don King’s champion to keep his title a little longer.
      I never payed for another PPV boxing match again. When you know the outcome ahead of time, it becomes silly to pay money to see the fight. Now say what you want about the poor quality of judging in mixed martial arts but one thing you rarely hear, at least in UFC bouts, is that it is corrupt. Unfortunately, that is something you regularly hear about boxing judges.
      So that is why I have given up hope for boxing. Sure, I’ll still take a look if they show a replay of a Pacquiao or Mayweather fight on free TV (months, or even years, after the fight originally aired on PPV). I continue to workout in boxing gyms and even write about boxing. But I don’t pay to watch it anymore. The powers that be have simply killed much of my enthusiasm for the sport. And while MMA has not yet fallen into the trap boxing set for itself, I can, sadly, see a day, years down the road, when they will start making the same mistakes as well. Greed eventually ruins everything.
      At that point, I’ll have to drop down the sporting ladder and start watching that lingerie football league. At least that’s a sport which will still have its integrity.

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