Back in 1985, country music legend George Jones had a hit single with a song called, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," singing of the industry's seeming inability to replace such greats as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and others.
Maybe country music isn't for you, but the song has a cross-platform message: It's not easy to manufacture a replacement for something that was genuine, for a true blue star attraction. "This old world is full of singers," the song starts, "but just a few were chosen to tear your heart out when they sing."
This old world is full of boxers. Some are journeyman pugs, many have day jobs, some are "stars" propped up by TV networks. A few, however, in today's modern era have been able to connect to an audience closer to the mainstream, and their standing has not been attached directly to a network executive's pocketbook, and they haven't been virtually unknown beyond the often-hilarious and self-absorbed little community that call themselves "boxingheads."
And on consecutive Saturdays, we've seen two of these men fall. First was the era's most popular fighter, period, Ricky Hatton going down on a body shot against Vyacheslav Senchenko in a comeback effort, where the fight was essentially sold out at Manchester Arena before Hatton even named an opponent. And yesterday, the last remaining Madison Square Garden boxing draw, Miguel Cotto, came up well short against Austin Trout, ending his unbeaten streak at the building.
Cotto, 32, says he'll fight on, and he could have a good while left in him. But the loss to Trout, while not devastating boxing-wise because Trout is a good, young fighter on the rise, and a bigger man to boot, could put a serious dent in Miguel Cotto's overall appeal. Cotto could have a resurgence and fly back to the top of the sport -- it has happened before -- but right now, it's not hard to think that Miguel Cotto's name on the marquee at MSG will never have the same weight that it has in the past.
As for Ricky Hatton, he says he's done. After a three-and-a-half year layoff, Hatton, 34, gave it one more go, and his fans were there. They were passionate. As always, they sang. But as the fight wore on, they grew quieter, as Hatton struggled to keep up with his own bigger foe, who just had more left in the tank. When Senchenko floored Hatton on a ninth round body shot, the sold-out crowd fell silent. They roared trying to urge Ricky back to his feet, but to no avail.
They sang for him again. And then they went home. Gutting as it was for Hatton, it was also heartbreak for his fervent supporters. Cotto's fans cheered as always last night, but were left empty in the end.
Whenever Cotto does decide to hang them up, Madison Square Garden will be all but dead as a boxing venue, unless someone steps up to become the building's new star, and right now, that doesn't seem likely. There are no Puerto Rican fighters ready to fill the role, and no New Yorkers, either. Combined with Golden Boy's deal with the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Cotto's loss may not spell doom for boxing at the Garden, but things aren't looking good.
When Hatton retired last weekend, he said, "I am proud to say -- and you may think this is arrogant but I don't really care to be honest at the minute -- but it'll be a long time before anyone brings crowds like I brought. And I'm very proud to take that title into retirement with me."
Hatton should be proud to take that title into retirement, but he's also right: It'll be a long time before crowds like that are back in UK boxing. Not that the Froch Army, Kell Brook's building base in Sheffield, or the great fans who keep turning out for fights in Liverpool especially should consider themselves chopped liver, but the Hatton audience was always something very, very special, and nobody else has that type of support.
We wonder all the time who will replace the stars we lose to retirement, or to decline -- usually, boxing's names fade away instead of burning out. But cases like Cotto and Hatton are particularly troubling in this sense. They aren't irreplaceable fighters, necessarily, though both were certainly at the top of the sport for a good while, but they may be irreplaceable stars. As boxing continues on as a fringe or cult sport, there seems to be less and less concern all the time with whether or not a fighter can put an ass every 18 inches. For better or worse (probably worse), it's all about TV.
TV "stars" come and go. They're manufactured, and then it's up to them to sink or swim when they're finally and inevitably thrown into the deep end of the pool against real threats. For every Miguel Cotto, who was hyped as the next Trinidad before we really knew for sure, there is an Andre Berto, who has never sold a house, and though he has turned into a reliably entertaining TV fighter, will also never reach the heights that we were promised when we watched him tear through the likes of Michel Trabant, Miki Rodriguez, and Steve Forbes on HBO.
Miguel Cotto and Ricky Hatton were genuine stars. People who didn't tune in for mid-level boxing TV broadcasts paid to see these two guys fight. These weren't just boxing "events"; these were actual sporting events that had relevance beyond forum arguments and recaps on web sites like this one.
Mayweather and Pacquiao are heading down the home stretch, we've now lost Ricky Hatton for good, and Miguel Cotto is clearly on his way out the door sooner than later. I'm confident boxing will find one or two reliable PPV draws in the States, and a handful of guys in the UK who will draw good crowds. But I'm not at all confident that there's any real push to create true stars, particularly in the States, where premium cable hasn't necessarily ruined boxing (especially now that there is so little interest in it beyond these networks), but has definitely changed the game in likely irreversible ways.
What worries me most is, I'm not sure anyone in power is even concerned with the notion that this is a big deal. The system of promotion that puts major value on having paying customers in the audience has been in a phase-out process for a long time, and may now be seen as passé. If HBO or Showtime or Sky Sports or whomever will buy it and put it on TV, there's a lot less of a need for that live gate.
This won't kill boxing, but it will change it yet again, and not for the better. A more sterile sport, with largely indifferent, freebie-filled audiences, or just plain tiny crowds, doesn't make for a better product, either in the arena or on TV. Losing the real stars without capable replacements -- or even the attempt to replace them -- makes for an even more disconnected viewership than we already see too many Saturday nights, for too many allegedly "big" fights.
They never did find a new Marty Robbins. They may not find a new Miguel Cotto.