Boxing Today and Why Nobody Is Watching

Chris LenzCorrespondent IJuly 7, 2008

The Ring Magazine top rated pound-for-pound fighter in the world today just stepped up in weight and completely dominated.   Manny Pacquiao not only beat David Diaz—he made him look bad.

The HBO replay, which in past years would have been a full rebroadcast of the fight with analysis and the like, was simply an hour show to blow through the fight and move on.

Boxing just doesn't have the draw it used to.

Look at the history of boxing.  The first ever nationally broadcast sporting event was on July 2, 1921, and it was a boxing match.

The so-called "Battle of the Century" between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier didn't live up to its name inside the ring (a lopsided fourth round knockout for Dempsey). But then the 80,000 plus on hand and the $1.7 million draw (both astonishing numbers for sports of the day) certainly made the fight one to remember. 

To this day we are familiar with the phrase "The Great White Hope," which is in reference to any white fighter who would be able to beat Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. We have the "Rumble in the Jungle," the "Phantom Punch," the "Thrilla in Manilla," Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Muhammed Ali, Rocky Marciano, etc. 

Boxing has been a mainstay of American sports.  Its professional ranks are older than football, than basketball, than hockey, and yes, even older than baseball. Its rules are simple enough for all to understand. It's accessible, exciting, and intriguing.

Why, then, is its popularity diminishing like never before?

There are several reasons for this.  Each on its own could damage a sport, but in adding them all together one can see a promoter's worst nightmare. 

The first is simply accessibility.  It's not that boxing is less accessible today—it's in fact more so.  Throughout most of the year there's boxing on ESPN twice a week and Versus often once a week, not to mention Showtime and HBO fights which often air a few times per month.

There is, however, more competition.  When Howard Cosell was ringside during the careers of Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, and others, he was in the sporting world's spotlight.  Cosell was single-handedly the ESPN of his day, and he covered it all.  When he was reporting on a fight, the world was tuning in.  We have not had another Cosell, and perhaps never will.

Related to broadcasting, each of those channels mentioned are different, and not in a good way.

Versus' coverage is just flat out awful.  I remember watching Kelly Pavlik when he was maybe 15-0 on Versus (OLN at the time, I believe), and they made him hard to watch.

HBO is a mixed bag.  There are guys like Jim Lampley and Emmanuel Steward who are great at their craft and excellent in communicating the sport.  Harold Lederman is also very good, if not a bit overzealous.  However, it seems that more and more the ringside commentary is being done by Max Kellerman and Lennox Lewis, who are both terrible.

Kellerman has his upside in that he's more interesting than Larry Merchant (not unlike how a train wreck is more interesting than a toadstool) during interviews.  But it seems that whenever Kellerman and Lewis are together, the conversation always just ends up focusing on Lennox Lewis (a very unexciting fighter during a very unexciting decade for his weight class).

This leaves the viewer outside the conversation at hand, which could be a huge turnoff to the pedestrian fan.

Larry Merchant needs to retire.  Whatever the accolades of his career, today they are irrelevant.  He simply cannot keep up with the show or hold anybody's attention, including that of the fighters he happens to be interviewing. 

ESPN has Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore.  Tessitore is clearly passionate about the sport and broadcasts well.  Atlas knows his craft and knows the fighters.

The downside here is that it seems ESPN's boxing only draws the die-hard fight fans.  The casual fan who would tune into a Tyson fight, or a Foreman fight, won't bother with people they've never heard of on ESPN (or, likewise, Versus).

Meanwhile HBO, even when they're on their game, carries an extra cost which fewer and fewer people are willing to pay, let alone Pay Per View fights (which, luckily, are still going strong).

It's not all the broadcasters' faults, however.  I have been reminded by many about how we need someone as exciting as Mike Tyson to rekindle the public's interest in boxing.

People are saying that Pavlik, or maybe Berto, is the new spark.  They aren't, sorry to say.  If they were, the average Joe on the street would know who Pavlik is.  After all, they all knew who Tyson was.   But was that all Mike Tyson?

Tyson won his heavyweight crown in 1988.  He was an animal in the ring, and even less cordial outside the ring.  He was a fireplug that hurt everyone he faced.  He got people to tune in.  But they may have already been tuning in. 

First off, Tyson's first championship win was only a mere five years after Muhammed Ali's final bout.  A half decade separated arguably the most popular fighter in history and the last fighter to be immensely popular.  I see a connection there, especially with the uneventful (as least, on the surface) reign of Larry Holmes.

The 1960s and the 1970s saw a vast amount of excitement and controversy.  Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Archie Moore, Don King, and others all kept the sport on the front page and in the front of our minds.  Mike Tyson could be said to be the last pugilist to benefit from the heyday of the sport (the 1930s through 1981).

Mike Tyson has done more in his life than electrify crowds and help the sport.  After all, he only held the heavyweight belt for a little over two years.  Ever since his embarrassing loss to Buster Douglas in 1990 he has contributed nothing but a circus of negative press.

His behavior inside the ring, from attempted arm-breaking to ear-biting, as well as his behavior outside the ring, which really doesn't require examples, have not been good for the sport.  Tyson didn't just retire in disgrace, but brought disgrace into the ring and to the sport.

There's another aspect to the fading interest in the sweet science.  The last exciting fighter was Tyson.  He was the last heavyweight (the most popular weight class) who garnered global recognition from the man on the street.  What else accompanied his ascension (and the sport's popularity) until the 1980s?  The answer is Hollywood.

The Rocky franchise, every bit as popular as Star Wars for much of the 1980s, was born in 1976, only 10 years before Tyson, and ended in 1990, the same year as Tyson's demise.  Raging Bull was released in 1980.  These are iconic films that are still seen today.

From Raging Bull it would take almost two decades to get another critically acclaimed boxing film (Hurricane, 1999).

In short, 1990 saw the beginning of the end of boxing's reign among the top American sports.  It's going to take more than a Kelly Pavlik to rekindle our interest.

There is so much history that simply cannot be repeated.  The roadwork has already been laid, and today the game's only action is to fix the potholes forming in that road.

As Mr. Cosell would say, "I'm just telling it like it is."