Boxing's dilemma: Skills and brawls

Harry How - Getty Images

Boxing faces a constant debate of what to display to fans. Should it focus more on the skilled, elite boxers? Or move ahead with creating slugfests, regardless of ranking?

What do you expect from boxing? Are you here to watch the best boxers in or around the same weight class do battle in order to determine with extreme precision just who is the top fighter in the world? Or, rather, are you here to watch men come at each other with abandon, swinging heavy and often, top-shelf talent and skill be damned at the risk that sound technique and defense could turn away a few viewers at home?

It is hard to please everybody, isn't it? In fact, unless maybe you're somebody like Rachael Cordingley, it's impossible.

The term "purist" is something often mocked on Twitter and such, and has essentially come to mean someone that enjoys nothing but the most boring of fights. This definition is untrue. Simply, I believe purists want to see the best squaring off with the best to determine supremacy and greatness. Does this sometimes result in a dreadful affair? Yes, unfortunately it does.

However, a boring fight is not *required* to please the fans that want to see the most skilled boxers ply their craft. I always thought the unbelievable Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez battles were highly skilled. No, they weren't exactly Willie Pep on defense, but they were extremely skilled offensively with wonderful technique. In addition, they were likely the two best boxers at 122 pounds at the time.

I would assume the Juan Manuel Marquez - Manny Pacquiao showdown this December figures to be exciting, no? I guarantee a lot of skill will be on display in what will likely be a fun fight. Next month Adrien Broner and Antonio Demarco will face off to determine the top fighter at lightweight. Both guys are highly skilled boxers, and I can't imagine it being a boring fight unless one totally dominates the other.

If we went through history, we would find an inordinant amount of examples of skilled men dueling in exciting bouts. Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns were skilled. So was Marvin Hagler. How about Joe Louis? Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes?

As you can probably determine, my point here is that enjoying skill does not mean that one is in love with boring bouts that could cure insomnia. Rather, one simply wants to see the best against the best. No, it doesn't always end pretty. But, if the best want to fight the best, who are we to not allow them the pleasure of finding out if they deserve to be called the top fighter around?

Hey, don't get me wrong. I love an old-fashioned, bar-brawl slugfest as much as the next guy. Seeing a pair of men swinging for the fences, trying in vain to take their opponent out with nearly every punch is something that's more thrilling than what any other sport can offer.

And there is our dilemma. The overwehlming majority of people (not just boxing fans but the general public) love brawls. They will stop flipping through the channels if they see an amazing fight on TV that grabs their attention. But they don't get overly excited watching a man slip a jab and land a jab of their own. They want blood and knockdowns.

This situation is not unlike the sport of baseball. Ahhhhh remember the good 'ol steroid era when men had forearms bigger than their thighs and the record books had to written in chalk so that they may be erased easily? Yeah, living in Missouri a day couldn't go by without hearing about the Greek god Mark McGwire and his ability to launch lightning bolts from the heavens. When he and Slammin' Sammy Sosa were chasing (and then broke) Roger Maris' home run record, baseball was drawing huge crowds and bigger ratings. With balls being hit hard and deep every game, fans were busting down the doors to get a glimpse of these men and their incredible sudden surge of power. The old days of bunting people over and playing "small-ball" were dead.

Then, of course, we found out the players were more loaded than your drunk uncle at Christmas and all of the fun came crashing back down. Batting numbers dropped, Sosa's skin transformed into an unhuman color, McGwire can't get into the Hall-of-Fame, and pitching came back to dominate.

And, unfortunately for the people that run baseball and those who broadcast it on radio and television, the public's interest in the sport has greatly waned. The slugfests are, in large part, gone (probably forever). Now, we get a few no-hitters every year, something that used to happen as often as a comet sighting, it seemed. Fans have responded by just changing the channel to something else, something more exciting.

The issue for people that run Major League Baseball is very similar to that of the people that run HBO and Showtime when it comes to boxing. How do we make the sport more exciting and draw viewers back in? A problem with baseball that can make it boring is that the pitching is simply too good, but how could they fix that problem? They can't just go up to Justin Verlander and say, "I'm sorry, Justin, but you're just too good. We're going to have to bench you because people can't get hits, and if guys aren't getting hits then people won't watch us on TV. No, it doesn't matter that you've worked your whole life for this and you're the best in the world and all. Sorry, bud."

HBO and Showtime face a similar issue with someone like Andre Ward. Ward is possbily the best boxer in the game today, but he is not one of the most exciting. Therefore, he may never draw huge rating on TV and enamor the general public due to his style. But, like Verlander, they couldn't just tell the best in the world to stop doing what he's doing because he's just too damn good.

Premium networks certainly cannot please everybody on this topic. Some people want to see the best fight the best while others simply want excitement, regardless of world ranking. It's an interesting debate. So, boxing fans (or boxing heads or boxing freaks, whichever you prefer) which group do you tend to lean toward?

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