Over the last several years the boxing community has seen television ratings drop on its main outlet, HBO. The cause of this effect can be debated in great depth over many reasons for this lack of interest in HBO's product when it comes to televised boxing. Possible reasons as to why ratings have fallen include (though are not limited to) the fact that other sports are more accepted by the mainstream, lack of real advertising for HBO fights, boxing's confusing anarchy causing viewers to just change the channel in disgust, the best fights not being made, Cinemax late night programming, and boring fights. Not just boring fights, but boring fights that are advertised to be very relevant to the boxing landscape.
Lately boxing seems to have a problem with stage fright. When it dances in front of the mirror with nobody watching it can be breathtaking. Put it in front of several thousand people, and it chokes like a dog trying to swallow a bone. Big-time boxing has become so derided, in fact, that when a merely decent fight comes along some hail it as a near-classic. The Floyd Mayweather vs Miguel Cotto fight was good, but some went a little overboard in their praise. However, after one has eaten leftover hot dogs from the trash bag, it's understandable to think a cheeseburger is a porterhouse steak. Remember when Brian Kenny claimed rounds two through four of Cotto's fight with Manny Pacquiao were as good as the Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns epic?
This is not a sudden phenomenon. The public's expectations of pay-per-view boxing and HBO Championship Boxing have been on the downswing for a good period now. One timeframe sticks out in my mind: late ‘90's to early 2000's. When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear on live pay-per-view in June of '97 it sent many people scrambling to their telephones in an attempt to get their money back for such as bomb of a show. Naturally, cable companies cannot guarantee what will happen at a live event. Thus, people took their anger out on the sport of boxing, a sport that was quickly becoming more confusing by the day as more and more "champions" sprung up from seeds planted by the WBC, WBA, IBF, and WBO.
In March of 1999 boxing had a new heavyweight slugfest to sell. Holyfield held the WBA and IBF versions of the title, and was set to square off with British WBC champion Lennox Lewis. The key selling point was that boxing would finally have an undisputed heavyweight champion after years of the belts being splintered (Lewis actually held the lineal crown). Needless to say, the fight itself stunk. Lewis was content to use his height and reach to outbox Holyfield from the outside while "Commander Vander" was barely able to land a clean shot on his opponent, save for a rally in the third round.
Finally, to top it all off, the judges called it a draw and we were left with no undisputed champion. Over one million homes ordered another heavyweight disappointment.
In September of the same year Oscar de la Hoya and Felix Trinidad finally met in what was billed as the "Fight of the Millennium". Each was a top fighter in the sport, and had the fanbase to match their talent (some might say surpass). The fight actually drew a slightly better buyrate than Lewis-Holyfield, but it was every bit the same disappointment. De la Hoya thoroughly outboxed Trinidad from the outset with a fast jab and lateral movement. However, in a strategic move that would haunt the "Golden Boy" for the rest of his career, he literally ran the last few rounds, causing him to lose a close majority decision.
Nevertheless, while boxing's stars were engaged in glorified sparring sessions, the sport's working class kept the machine churning. Arturo Gatti had more wars than Napoleon. Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera served up a brilliant trilogy. Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez had quite possibly the greatest series of fights ever. Sadly, this is not what mainstream sports fans saw.
What did they see? They saw the fights that were advertised as being very important to our sport. Basically, they saw a lot of bombs. Who can forget the Wladimir Klitschko vs Sultan Ibragimov jab-athon? Klitschko literally did not throw a right hand in the first round of a fight that was billed as a heavyweight unification bout that immediately aired following a well-publicized Joe Louis documentary.
The Timothy Bradley vs Devon Alexander showdown was another example of this. Built up as a matchup between two of the sports best boxers in their physical primes, it has become the punch line for fights that don't live up to expectations, in the ring or the gate.
Now, we have a new main event on the horizon. One boxer is the world's top super middleweight; the other, the top light heavyweight. Match made in heaven, right? Well, we hope so. The upcoming Andre Ward vs Chad Dawson fight is an odd bout to get a handle on. Its hype is heavily predicated on whom one asks.
Some view this as a must-see in the sport due to the fact that it pits two of the world's best boxers in the ring together. Regardless of the excitement factor, if two studs are in the ring we should just be thankful and appreciate the "sweet science". It's a valid point, I suppose. We should appreciate the boxers that ply at the highest level of the sport, whether they are thrilling or not.
In fact, a frequently boring style can often be the product of excellent talent. Less incentive to take risks when one can easily speed around his opponent. Many recent fighters have been accused of being boring at some point in their career. These include greats like Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Juan Manuel Marquez, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. In a sport as brutal as boxing why risk it? This isn't golf, where analysts will call Tiger Woods "courageous" for playing with pain in his knee. So, indeed, why risk it?
Because people love it. They love seeing a man take the risk. If Arturo Gatti, the B-level talent that he was, had attempted to be a standard boxer-puncher his entire career then we would hardly remember him right now. He would have had an alphabet title reign or two then gradually faded until he retired. He wouldn't even be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame. We could say the same for Diego Corrales. If the near six-foot "Chico" had used his height then we would not recall him as fondly as we do today. He may have been more dominant, a lanky boxer married to the jab and long right hand, but we wouldn't be nearly as passionate about him.
There's a reason why they were consistently brought back on premium cable, even after they were well past their best. It's the same reason why Brandon Rios will be welcomed back in October after looking dreadful and missing weight in April. The fans are passionate about them, and, therefore, will spend money to see them fight because fans rarely, if ever, feel cheated when they watch them go to battle. In addition, on the flipside, it's the same reason why fans are generally not eager to see men like Sergio Mora. Similar to viewing a film in a cinema, we watch boxing to be inspired and entertained, not be put to sleep.
However, Ward and Dawson are different than Mora. We know going in that this fight won't be truly great. We know this. But, the potential is perhaps there for something special. That may sound funny, but we don't need to see a great fight to recognize that something great is happening. One of these two men is going to pull out a victory against one of the best fighters in the world.
Depending on how it happens, it may result in greatness. If one of these two men proves to have an extra gear greater than his opponent on that night, we could be witnessing true boxing brilliance. If one is a full level better than a fellow pound-for-pound entrant he is something special. Think of Roy Jones dominating James Toney or Bernard Hopkins outclassing Felix Trinidad. It's very possible a similar scenario could happen on September 8.
Sadly, I must admit, none of what I have just told you will draw in casual viewers. We know what they want to see: blood, guts, slugfests, beer, and round-card girls. So uncivilized. When we invite a friend to see a boxing match we try to make sure it's a good one, right? Does this fight pass the bill?
Here's something that Dan Rafael said about the matchup in one of his boxing chats: "You have two top guys who are champions and have considerable accomplishment. There is room for that kind of fight in boxing. As long as you have the proper expectations for the fight it will be fine."
Hearing the words "proper expectations" scares me a little. Imagine, if you will, that you are at a restaurant. You ask the waiter for an entrée suggestion. He gives you one, and calls it one of the best that they have to offer. But, however, you should probably temper your expectations a little. That doesn't sound too enticing, does it? Now apply that to a boxing match, and I think we can see how it might be tough for a casual fan to get excited about Ward and Dawson. Lest we forget, boxing is competing with all other activities for our Saturday night attention.
This fight is being given the royal treatment from HBO. Almost annually there is a bout or two that pits top guys against one another, but pay-per-view is wisely avoided due to a lack of consumer demand. However, it is being given a mini 24/7, and is clearly being positioned as a significant fight. Ward appears to be a guy that HBO is trying to hand the ball off to; it will be interesting to see if he can run with it.
Does Chad Dawson inspire you? Frankly, sometimes he has appeared bored in his own fights. That's not a good sign. What about Andre Ward? Unquestionably, Ward has consistently shown more passion in the ring than Dawson. Some of his bouts may feel a bit tedious due to the clinching and head-butting that takes place in many of them, but one cannot accuse Ward of being soft and mailing it in.
Therefore, the real question becomes what can we expect when these two share a boxing ring together? How will their styles gel, if at all? Will they produce something combustible like fire and gasoline? Or will the final result be something more similar to water and oil, each extremely useful in their own right yet unable to mix together.