OK, hate is a strong word – but it’s clear that boxing is currently is currently low on people’s list of favorite sports. Some people will tell you that boxing is too violent, has too much corruption, and is too primitive to survive. I say that none of these explain boxing’s current state. Don’t let the recent Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather, Jr. super fight fool you, the health of boxing still requires dire attention.
How did boxing get in this “sick” state? The reasons may surprise you.
Any institution must be built on solid ground – boxing is no different. In any professional sport, the talent base is sourced from a large pool of willing, young athletes who are then trained at a semi-professional level. Boxing’s talent base is urban and rural as well as national and global. However, the talent base is not the primary issue, it’s where the talent comes from and where it has gone.
“Where the talent comes from” Because of its historical roots as a socio-political platform, unlike any other sport in American history, boxing moves people like no other. Whether it was African-American hero Joe Louis fighting German Max Schmelling for the world heavyweight championship at the height of World War II, the politically-radical Muhammad Ali fighting the politically-neutral Joe Frazier during the later stages of the Civil Rights era, or the 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team running away with gold medals during the Cold War, boxing has long been a vessel for Americans to show their might literally and figuratively, through a single man or group of men.
As the sports world has become more and more global, many non-Americans (i.e. Mexicans in the lower weight classes, and Eastern Europeans in the higher ones) have started to make their fistic presence felt over the past several years. Outside of die-hard fans, interest in weight classes largely populated by international fighters has confounded the major networks and sponsors who historically tried to cultivate Madison Avenue-friendly, cross-over American fighters to carry the sport (see Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya) and capture the general sports fan. The major networks and casual boxing fans often wanted their fighters to look, sound, and represent them in some way. As many now do not, people gradually have lost that zeal for the sport. And as zeal is lost, the all-important TV ratings dip, causing sponsors to drop out and networks to drop boxing programming.
“Where it has gone” Speaking of programs, whatever happened to the U.S. National Boxing Team? Affiliation with this team was often a pipeline to success in the ring at the amateur level, and ultimately, as a professional. Historically, the “minor league of American boxing,” membership on the national boxing team was seen as a a privilege. Young fighters not only participated in the world championships and global tournaments across the globe, but were on the short-list of fighters with the opportunity to collect the sport’s holy grail – an Olympic gold medal. This long-cherished booty was like obtaining one’s degree from Harvard, in terms of the doors that it opened. Boxing’s greatest modern stars, including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya, were all gold-medal winning athletes who used the trinket as the springboard to lucrative contracts, advertising deals, and television exposure.
Where did this pipeline go and why did it vanish? Simple: over the years, the Olympics lost its luster as must-see TV. When Olympic sports coverage in general declined, amateur boxing suffered as well. With this decline, membership on the U.S. National Boxing Team and the value of the boxing gold lost their luster. As a result, television coverage declined, and fighters lost this “free” promotional vehicle. With the weakening of this amateur pipeline, professional boxing was often left to cultivate fighters from scratch. The results have been mixed, at best.
The biggest benefactors have been professional basketball and football. Since the early 1900s, boxing has often been a “gateway (to socio-econmic inclusion)” sport for the disadvantaged, especially ethnic and racial minorities. Dominated early on by the disenfranchised descendants of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants and later by African-Americans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, professional boxing in the U.S. has historically been a platform for members of isolated ethnic groups to garner world fame and riches. However, as the prominence of the sport gradually declined over the years (i.e. after the ’80s “golden age”), it was no longer seen as the ideal avenue to athletic renown or wealth. With their guaranteed contracts and endorsement opportunities, professional basketball and football began to trump boxing in the ’80s, as a safer and more profitable alternative to greener pastures outside of the ghetto for many ethnic and racial minorities, who have historically dominated the sport.
These same groups, socio-economically, have continued to dominate the sport, but the major difference is that they have increasingly come from overseas. Much to the chagrin of the major television and cable networks, and some jingoistic fans, the sport has been siphoned into ethnic, global enclaves – with many American fighters toiling in relative obscurity. The heavyweight division is the greatest example of this, with many Eastern European fighters now dominating the rankings. Muhammad Ali and his “world-touring” tendencies – fighting in places like Kinshasa, Zaire against George Foreman to Manila, Philippines against Smokin’ Joe Frazier, truly globalized the sport for the better. Although Americans are very inclusive in many ways, we have come to learn that when it comes to boxing in general, and heavyweights in particular, they often want their boxers as American as apple pie.
The Networks The effect that the media and Hollywood has had on the sport’s sagging popularity can not be overlooked. Rarely is a balanced view of the sweet science given. At best, boxing has often been depicted on screen as the epitome of the gladiator spirit, a caricature even – with two fighters punching each other at will until one falls. At worst, it’s depicted as the armpit of sports, filled with exploitative promoters, fixed fights, bad decisions, criminal athletes, and ring fatalities. Boxing is often cast as the usual suspect when any politician (genuine or not) wants to point out corruption in sports. These factors have not helped reduce the “black eye” that has blurred people’s view over the past decade.
I have already chronicled the decline of amateur boxing on network television. However, this decline wasn’t limited to the amateurs. As a teenager, I remember watching boxing shows nearly every Saturday or Sunday afternoon on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, CBS or NBC. Those days are distant memories. The only network boxing that you will find are a handful of cards on FOX TV – usually mere showcase bouts for former star boxers (like Mike Tyson or James Toney most recently) looking to resuscitate their careers. The explanation that the networks give is that everything comes down to Nielsen ratings – that people don’t watch boxing like they use to. The question that really needs to be asked is: why don’t they? The reasons are many, but greed and impatience are two of the the biggest culprits.
The greed of promoters looking to cash out by signing the most lucrative deal for their fighter(s) has created a situation in which everyone is looking for that big, premium cable deal. Rather than take the long, hard road of fighting for shorter money on network television to build a following as many fighters had done pre-1990, the cable and PPV boon of the late 80s-early 90s created a new arena for fighters to fight less often and make more money. You can’t blame the fighters, who are plying the most brutal trade in sports, with limited benefits and long-term security. However, this shortsighted business model being driven by the promoters and the cable network chieftains has adversely affected the long-term health of the sport. As the quantity of “pay” boxing has increased, the quality of fights has gone down. Due to infrequent fighting schedules, leading to rusty boxers and carefully selected matches for overly-protected “cash-cow” fighters, boxing fans are being victimized – paying to watch over-priced and over-hyped fights that don’t live up to their billing. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t believe that I shelled out $44.95 for this crap?”
I have chronicled the reasons why the broader sports world hates the sport, and it’s going to take more than Senator John McCain’s proposal for federal oversight or “few-and-far-between” mega-fights like Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather to stem this tide.
How to stop hate To regain the “love” of boxing, the Olympics need to be promoted more heavily by the networks carrying them, in order to cultivate American boxing stars. At the professional level, the networks need to carry more boxing cards in order to compete with the cable networks, including PPV. For one, we know that HBO and Showtime can’t beat the pricing of ABC, CBS or NBC – hence the networks competitive advantage. If “free” television were to hire programmers who know boxing, slowly boost ratings among the die-hard fan niche, which will then lead to larger shows – cable television networks would be forced to re-think their model which often showcases single fighters at the expense of many fighters and exploits die-hard fans with a glut of pay-per-view cards to line their coffers.
If we start here, maybe we can get somewhere. If we don’t, my beloved sport will go the way of the dinosaur, and there will be no Steven Spielberg to re-create it.