James Foley returns to Bad Left Hook tonight with a look at where the sweet science stands in the American sports culture.
Boxing entered 2012 somewhere behind golf, auto racing and poker (gasp!) on the American sports hierarchy. Okay, poker's not really a sport (neither are the other two), but the point is, the sweet science has seen better days. Once upon a time, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most famous athlete on the planet. Now it's "some dude from somewhere who I think was dating that chick from Heroes."
Anyone go into work on December 12th and catch the buzz from that fabulous Amir Khan-Lamont Peterson fight? Me neither. If you asked the crowd whether they'd seen it, you'd likely have been greeted with uncomfortable silence and a few awkward stares. "What is that, some UFC thing...? Nah, I don't watch that crap." "No, it's boxing." "Oh....well, I don't watch that either."
(Note-the dated reference to the Khan fight belies the fact that I started working on this two months ago. Relax.)
More people in the U.S. have heard of the 200th best guy in the National Football League than the 3rd best fighter in the world. Kris Humphries is a better known athlete than Andre Ward. And by the way, that was true before Mr. Humphries had anything to do with the lovely Ms. Kardashian and her sumptuous rump. Boxing is a niche sport, followed avidly by just a tiny fraction of the population. So-called major fights are being watched by well under 1% of the country. As boxing fans, we're all 1%ers baby! Unfortunately, we're not powerful enough to warrant protests...well, until the day society decides to outlaw this brutal pastime.
Obviously we would all like to see the sport grow and gain back even a fraction of the viewership it once had. In many ways, I'm not sure it's possible. There are so many other sports-entertainment options these days and there are a good number of our fellow human beings who simply find combat sports rather distasteful and always will. Some people find boxing boring. And millions of people tune in to watch cars drive around in a circle for four hours every whatever-day-that-shit-happens-‘cause-I-don't-really-know. There's no accounting for taste. But I still believe there's a massive market out there that would follow boxing, if it weren't so difficult to follow. Here's a few of the roadblocks facing the potential boxing fan:
Major fights are typically on Saturday nights, with a rare Friday night offering. Either way, those are the two prime weekend nights. What is the main demographic for sports? Young men. What do young men tend to do on weekend nights? Go out drinking with their boys and chase after young women. Why the hell would you showcase your product on the two nights of the week least likely to have your target audience sitting in front of a television set?
Now some might be saying, that's not true, what about guys with girlfriends or wives, or non-drinkers? Even worse! Try selling that explanation to your girlfriend. "Uh...I'm gonna be indisposed this weekend because I've got to watch a fight." See how far that flies. You might get a couple get-out-of-jail-free cards and probably end up using them on the big pay-per-view events, often major letdowns that make you wonder why you even bother. And of course when epic bloodbaths like Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto or James Kirkland-Alfredo Angulo are going down on regular HBO, you'll be completely oblivious since you're at "couple's night", playing Trivial Pursuit sipping Malbec wondering why no one's gotten a new Trivial Pursuit set since 1989. Then you'll reflect at the end of the year and say "I used to like boxing, but it kinda sucks nowadays" based on the sample size of Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather-Ortiz.
Massive gaps between fights
Promoters and networks are always looking for boxing's next star. A talented prospect may fight five or six times a year, sometimes more often. Then he becomes a contender, right on the cusp of that big "championship" opportunity, the breakthrough everyone was hoping for. Then he falls off the face of the planet.
Because you certainly can't risk a young, talented fighter actually losing a fight until there's a massive payday involved. Not with so much riding on the prospect of that undefeated record and flawless pedigree. So until there's a good deal worth the risk, the fighter is inactive. A Chad Dawson fight is not a season of The Sopranos. I'm not gonna wait a year to find out what happens next. Well sure, I will, because I'm a fanatic. But it's ridiculous to expect the general public will develop any kind of a relationship with a fighter if they do happen to be home on a Saturday night and catch one of those infrequent appearances.
Does it really take ten weeks to train for a fight? Do fights require multi-month promotional tours? Do they really? Because that's what promoters tell us? The television networks have created a monster by grossly overpaying guys to be on their airwaves and creating an inflated market value for fighters that couldn't draw ten of their cousins to watch them fight Kimbo Slice in their backyard. HBO only has so much money and so many time slots in a year.
A fighter who makes six or seven figures to fight on the network often finds himself in this predicament: wait six to nine months to get another similar payday or take an interim fight for far less money where a loss would cost you that next big coup. Some fighters, like Andy Lee, take the risk and fight hapless opponents in small venues for a fraction of what they make on HBO. These are stay-busy fights. But most fighters who have been on the big networks, who are winning, won't fight without them. This system is at least partly responsible for the long layoffs that I think make it hard for new fighters to connect with audiences. A fighter looking spectacular goes a long way. Frequency might be even more important.
Not knowing who's the best
For a long time, I argued that it didn't matter to casual fans that there were four sanctioning bodies awarding so-called "championships". I thought people would mostly just want to see good fights and not really care about the fact that something like twelve out of the seventeen weight classes have vacancies when it comes to legitimate champions. But after a certain number of times finding myself saying stuff like "well, he's the #1 fighter but not the champion" and "he's a champion, but not the champion" and "er...well, boxing doesn't really work like that", it became obvious to me that in fact, this is a point that turns off a lot of potential fans.
I could go on and on but I don't want to completely slaughter everyone's buzz by running through the laundry list of things that have tarnished our fair sport. The truth is, I dug up this half-written skeleton of an article and basically said "F*** it....let's gitter done!" and at some point realized why I never finished it in the first place.
Because where do you even start? How do you tell a guy "you should fight every three months, and if the network won't televise it, screw ‘em, put it on yourself. Forget the fact you'll be taking a 98% pay-cut and risking a ton of money if you lose." How do you reconcile guys like Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez fighting for ten grand each on ESPN while Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander make seven figures fighting on HBO? I understand Bradley-Alexander was a bigger fight (in theory)...but 100 times bigger? How can you dare suggest that maybe only big-time events should be on Saturday night and smaller fights (including about 75% of what passed on HBO last year) would be better served on a Tuesday or Thursday? And certainly it's unfair for me to decree that the lone mandate of the powers that be (promoters, networks, alphabets etc.) should be making the best fights with the goal of one champion in each weight class, when that would run counter to the very purpose of some of those institutions existence.
Alphabets obviously don't want a unified champion. Promoters exist to make themselves and their fighters the most money possible. Networks are the only group with any real motive to want the best fights and they rarely put their foot down to make it happen. The relationships are so entrenched, the system so embedded, things aren't likely to change anytime soon.
All that said, I still do everything I can to encourage people to follow boxing, spreading the word on good fights and preaching the high quality of the product at its very best. Boxing is not dead or dying. But as long as more people are watching the World Series of Poker than would have watched the Ortiz-Berto rematch, something's not right with this picture.