A Myth and A Plea: The State of Boxing in 2011

A MYTH:

For years I have heard that Boxing is a sport in dire peril.  The argument usually follows that Boxing is no longer economically viable; Boxing cannot compete with Mixed Martial Arts; and after so and so retires, Boxing will die.  While the sport of Boxing has undergone an observable paradigm shift over the past twenty years, it is difficult for these soothsayers to substantiate their tired reiterations.  This is not to say Boxing looks and feels like the boxing of Sugar Ray or Ali or even Tyson.  A preliminary concession can be made that Boxing has become “thin” at the heavyweight position (post-Tyson/Lewis), and that the modern heavyweight boxers fails to attract the same level of recognition as their prior contemporaries.  However, notions of Boxing’s economic impediment, inability to compete, or doomed future, are simply myths that need to be put to rest. 

A myth, by definition, is an invented story or concept.  What makes some myths more effective or plausible than others, are the facts they are constructed upon.  When it comes to the boxing, these facts are usually predicated upon the lack of notable heavyweight fighters in boxing post-Tyson/Lewis.  Rightfully so, the Klitschko Brothers and Chris Arreol, as boxers and entertainers, are hardly what Ali, Frasier, Foreman, Holyfield, Tyson, and Lewis were.  This reasonable point is than stretched to its logical extreme: charismatic (lightweights included) and heavyweight fighters have historically carried the mainstream banner for boxing; there are no viable heavyweight boxers left; therefore, boxing is no longer viable.  This line of logic fails to appreciate that Boxing is still an effective and viable sport/product.  To that point, there is a difference between a “golden era” and a “still prosperous era.”  For example, based on relative economic growth –ignoring the quality of the product-, 1987 to 1998 represents the golden era of the National Basketball Association. 

The sport was at its popularity zenith during this time. NBA Finals ratings out matched MLB’s World Series, sponsorships and endorsements were flooding the Association, and the NBA was rapidly expanding to global markets.  From 2000 to 2008, the sport saw a tangible drop in domestic and international popularity, yet no one was arguing the sport was dying.  Similarly, Boxing may not enjoy the same level of mainstream credibility it did in the early 1900s (baseball was its only formidable competitor), but ESPN, FOX, HBO, Showtime, and Versus still find it profitable enough to promote, sponsor, and broadcast.  Moreover, Boxing events still wear the crown and sit atop the pay-per-view thrown for their record-breaking buy rates (a measurement to quantify the number of purchases of a pay-per-view event).

The next line of reasoning tapped by proponents of this myth is grounded on the “existential threat” Mixed Martial Arts necessarily imposes upon Boxing.  This argument rests upon a faulty assumption that Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts are some how mutually exclusive.  It is just silly and disingenuous to think a fan of Boxing will not find MMA entertaining or visa-versa.  If anything, a strong MMA will only help sustain boxing as a product, and ensure, through its dedicated base, success for Boxing.  To the prior point, even if the two were in some “winner-takes-all” war, Boxing would be winning the fight.  Boxing events, per pay-per-view buy or gate share, still out preform past boxing events and the best MMA events.  To state a few examples, UFC 100, headlined by two of the company’s biggest cash cows – Brock Lesnar and George St. Pierre – earned the highest buy rate in company history at 1.6 million.  The next highest event the UFC has organized occurred at UFC 116, with a buy rate of 1.1 million (headlined by Brock Lesnar).  Those are the best numbers the UFC has ever done.  In light of that, there is not much comparison when we look at Boxing since the mid-1990s.  Beginning in 1996, a period when many were predicting the demise of boxing, Tyson v. Holyfield II earned a 2 million buy rate.  Nearly six years later, in 2002, Lewis v. Tyson scored a 1.97 million buy rate.  Following this, prognosticators assumed Boxing could no longer match such figures due to Mike Tyson’s fall from dominance.  They were resoundingly rebutted in 2007, when Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather clocked a PPV Record: 2.4 million buy rate.

Despite predictions of the “last great fight in Boxing,” De La Hoya v. Pacquiao brought in a 1.25 mill buy rate only a year later.  In 2010, Pacquiao v. Cotto totaled a 1.25 million buy rate, and earlier this year, Mayweather v. Mosley, earned a 1.4 million buy rate. (For those wondering, World Wrestling Entertainment’s biggest PPV draw came at WrestleMania 23 with a 1.2 million buy rate).

If we take this comparison one step further, discussing gate buys (actual attendance at these events), Boxing doubles the best UFC Events.  Out of the over one hundred events the UFC has put together, none have sold more than 22 thousand seats.  Compared to the last two Manny Pacquiao fights in Cowboy’s Stadium where each seated well over 45 thousand.   As Jay-Z once said, “Men lie, Women lie, Numbers don’t.”  Doesn’t it seem a bit unfair to make an argument that a sport is dying, when it consistently out matches a sport that many agree is succeeding?  While the UFC’s product has an ability to continue this success, given the numbers, it would be really hard to make the argument that MMA will destroy Boxing in the future.

The final argument embedded in this myth goes something like this:  After (insert big star’s name) retires, the sport will not be able to sustain itself.  This myth has recently resurfaced as Pacman and Pretty Boy come to the end of their careers.  Allow me to offer a few examples of athletes retiring, and new stars carrying the day. After Muhammad Ali retired, Larry Holmes, Thomas Herns, Gorge Foreman, Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, and Julio Ceaser Chavez helped carry the sport from early 1970 to 1989 (in some cases even further.)  Once these legendary boxers moved on, many speculated over who could carry boxing into the twenty first century and beyond.  Beginning in late 1980, a star was rising that would elevate the sport, Mike Tyson.  After his rape conviction, the sport was in search of another group of stars to carry it, they found those stars in Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Eric Morales, Pernell Whitaker, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Marco Barrera, Lennox Lewis, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao.  Together, these incredible fighters took boxing past the 90’s and into the 21st century where Mayweather and De La Hoya shattered records.  While these progressions might not tell the complete story, it is evident that the sport and its sponsors have faired well after some of its biggest draws retired.  Given these facts and the rise of future stars (Amir Khan) it is reasonable to say, Boxing is not “dying,” and if it is, its one of the slowest death’s we have ever seen.

A PLEA:

As boxing fans, we are lucky to be watching two of the sport’s titans preforming at such an exceptional level.  Since both Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are nearing the end of their careers, it is incumbent upon those around them to make this fight happen as soon as possible.  As it stands today, both of these megastars have either reached or are past their physical primes.  Moreover, they both have progressed through multiple weight classes, proving all they can prove in Boxing.  Mayweather, by virtue of his dominance, has no more quality opponents worth fighting beyond Manny Pacquiao.  For Mayweather, there are two clear choices: retire and stay undefeated, OR fight Pacquiao in pursuit of boxing immortality.  Pacquiao, by way of his destruction in eight weight divisions, has similar choices ahead of him.  Talks of a Mosley v. Pacquiao fight have surfaced.  That fight is a waste of time and effort for Pacquiao.  If he beats Mosley, it will do nothing to his standing as the best pound-for-pound fighter, nor will it help fortify his legacy.  He will earn a nice payday, but at this point, Manny has more money than he needs, and a viable career after boxing to keep the cash flow coming.  Like Mayweather, Pacquiao needs to either take the fight with Mayweather OR sail off into the sunset.  In the same way Boxing doesn’t “need” this fight for its survival, neither of these fighters “need” this fight to validate their greatness.  Boxing is bigger than both of them and will survive without this fight, and both Mayweather and Pacquiao are already great.  But that just doesn’t work; something doesn’t feel right to look at this rationally.  As fans of both fighters, we want to see this fight.  So let us employ some coercive love, if these two decide, for whatever reason, not to make this fight happen, neither should ever be considered among the all-time top 15 greats.  They both should be punished. Neither should have a claim to supremacy over the other nor singularity over this generation.  They have to share it.

Over the past year and half, many fans have gone from thinking it is only a matter of time before this fight happens, to seriously doubting if it will happen.  If thirty million dollars couldn’t get a man to dispense some of his blood prior to a fight, if thirty million couldn’t get a man to swallow his bigotry, then what will? Let’s hope a 45/55 split in prize money, Olympic style testing, and an inflated prize at forty million apiece will do the trick.  Lets hope, as selfish sports fans, Mayweather gets over his legal troubles.  The window is closing.  Mayweather, I believe has slightly moved past his prime, while Pacquiao is a fight or two away from the same spot.  A year ago we would have had these two at the pinnacle of their powers.  While we may have lost that, we can still salvage a clash of these two giants at a skill level that would rival most greats of any era.  As Mayweather so eloquently put it, “Shane Mosley says Floyd Mayweather fights for money. YA FUKN DUMMY! Imma prize fighter, thats what I supposed to fight for… A prize…duh!”  Time to fight for that prize AND for history AND for the fans.  Lets get it on.

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