Now that Oscar de la Hoya has officially put his gloves in the trophy room for good -- and this is one retirement I do not see being interrupted -- there's a gaping void in boxing that will damn hard to fill.
Simply put: Who's the draw now? Who's the big star?
For the moment, it's nobody. There are big stars, but they are big stars mostly within boxing. They are the cream of the crop for attracting boxing fans, but for the most part their crossover appeal has been limited thus far. There also aren't a lot of immediate candidates. But for fun, let's look at the applicants. One thing's for sure: It will not be a heavyweight.
One more note before we begin: I do not mean to discount the houses that guys like the Klitschkos, Arthur Abraham, etc., draw in Germany or anywhere else, and I don't want to slight anyone. Boxing is very much an international sport. Most of the world's best fighters are not Americans, and a healthy portion don't live in America or even fight here all that regularly. But to be THE star, you still have to draw in the States. For the most part the very biggest fights take place in America. Ricky Hatton could fight schlubs in front of sellout crowds in massive stadiums in England, but he doesn't.
Hatton, 30, was thought by many to be clearly on the downside after his May 2008 win over Juan Lazcano, which was clear but lackluster and just didn't excite anyone. His November dominance of Paulie Malignaggi (a more dynamic fighter than Lazcano, who had skills that could have given the "Hitman" greater trouble in theory) was something of a minor rebirth of Hatton. He's not washed up.
In His Favor: He's still young enough to be The Guy for a while if he wants to stick around that long. He is one of the very biggest sporting stars in the UK, a beloved fighter whose fans travel exceptionally well when he fights in the States. The Brits invaded Vegas for Ricky's TKO loss to Mayweather, and they'll do so again in May for Pacquiao. That upcoming fight also gives him to make a huge statement: Beating the guy who resoundingly put Oscar de la Hoya out to pasture would make a lot of people who are only sort of aware of Ricky Hatton sit up and take notice.
He's also one of the most genuinely likable guys in all of boxing. His image is that of a regular Joe, a fun guy that lives his life to the fullest and enjoys a good drink, a good meal, and a good game of darts. That's not just image, either. It's who Hatton really is.
Against Him: Should Pacquiao beat him in a fashion similar to Mayweather -- by which I mean definitively -- it really cracks Ricky's reputation somewhat. So far his biggest win by far came years against Kostya Tszyu. Hatton is a determined, hungry fighter that hasn't let fame go to his head, so he won't go down without giving everything he's got. But Pacquiao's natural skills are hard to combat. Oscar lost most of his biggest fights, too, but Oscar was also a teen idol and genuine phenom. We're looking for the boxer that's going to take over, not the media darling, because there just isn't one of those.
30-year old Pacquiao is the most dynamic, exciting fighter in the sport, and he also happens to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. He's outgoing, every fight he's in is good, he promotes well, and he's almost never seen without a grin on his face.
In His Favor: The fact that he's just plain awesome to watch operate. I think we'll see just how big of a star Manny has become when the numbers come in for his fight with Hatton. Oscar-Manny did 1.25 million on PPV; let's see if that crosses over, if Manny made enough new fans that frankly probably had never seen him fight before. After Oscar did 2.4 million with Mayweather, Floyd came back seven months later to fight Ricky Hatton. That was a huge fight (950K on PPV) but wasn't close to what came before, about a 60% drop between the sizes of the viewing audience. If Manny "lost" 60% of "his audience" for Hatton, they would do 500,000, which is a big PPV, but would no doubt be a disappointment.
On the plus side, Manny and Juan Manuel Marquez set an all-time PPV record for a show main evented by fighters of their size last March, at over 400K. Hatton's a bigger star than Marquez by most ways of measuring it, but Marquez also brought in the great Mexican audience, maybe the most loyal PPV-buying demographic there is. We'll see.
Against Him: Honestly, one big thing is his English isn't so hot and his interviews don't exactly sparkle. He's also about the least combative guy ever. Even Oscar would put on his fake grimace and pretend that every time out, it was personal (this time). Manny has had heated rivalries with Marquez, Barrera and Morales, but just doesn't say a bad word about anyone. Even though it's usually faker-looking than Chris Jericho feuding with John Cena, bad blood can sell fights. Manny's never really shown any of that.
Candidate #3: Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Yeah, I'm going there. Floyd turned 32 in February and hasn't fought since beating Hatton in December '07, and right before a rematch with Oscar was about to hit the press tour in 2008, he "retired." Really, no one's ever bought it and he's expected to be back later this year by most accounts.
But while gone from active boxing and doing stuff like WrestleMania XXIV and laptop connect card commercials with Bill Curtis, Mayweather has remained one of the most talked-about guys in boxing. Why? Because for once ever, the following statement is 100% true: Love him or hate him, you pay attention to him. And a lotta people love him. And a lotta people hate him.
In His Favor: He has a natural charisma that most guys just don't have. Floyd is a big talker and one of those dudes that turns it on for the cameras, but he's a better actor than Bernard Hopkins or Winky Wright. This still makes him a bad actor (even in pro wrestling, he looked lost on the mic compared to the guys who are always there) but we're not putting him against Tom Hanks here. Mayweather emerged as a promotional force of nature with the first-ever "24/7" series, and he was even better the second time around for the Hatton "24/7." The Mayweathers as a family are entertaining. Floyd, Floyd Sr., Roger -- all of 'em can talk and talk and talk for days. Mayweather knows how to sell a fight, and I really mean sell it.
Also, he was on "Dancing with the Stars," which raised his profile among housewives, college age girls, and their boyfriends who pretend they hate the show.
Against Him: A lot of people find his style boring. I've said this before, but more "casual" fans who watch fights with me on occasion have actually loved watching Floyd because he does what he does better than anyone else in the game. But generally speaking, people love blood and guts wars, and Floyd doesn't engage in those. Even at his most thrilling, he's not a warrior, he's just been able to utterly destroy guys like Gatti, Corrales and Hatton, who weren't physically able to deal with Mayweather's bag of tricks. Unless a perfect opponent comes along, Floyd will never be in a Fight of the Year contender.
I put these guys together because they're all sort of in the same boat. They aren't the stars that the other three are, but they're all younger (Cotto is 28, Williams and Pavlik are 27, Dawson is 26) and they're all part of the immediate and long-term future of boxing. Also, all really seem to me to have that ability to become not just top fighters, but real stars.
They all have the same main problem: Not enough people know them and guys their age go south in their careers all the time, even if regarded as tops of the classes.
In Cotto's Favor: He's the new King of the Puerto Rican fighters, a beloved individual down there who I think will have no problem crossing any cultural borders, save perhaps for the Mexican fans, though the Mexican fans are also famous for their respect of good, hard-working fighters no matter where they're from (even Puerto Rico). Cotto also has an X factor, I think. He has a calculated cool about him that is usually reserved for movie characters. He's quiet, he's methodical, he's got a steely gaze, and he always looks like he's all business. Mayweather has a loud charisma. Cotto has a very quiet charisma. He also seems willing to fight anyone, any time, and he's proven that by taking fights with Mosley, Margarito, Judah, Quintana, Torres, and now Clottey. I don't think we'll soon be hearing about Miguel Cotto ducking anyone.
In Williams' Favor: He's a physical freak, a 6'1"-6'3" (depending on the source) welterweght with an 82" reach. We're talking about a guy who can make 147 pounds that has a bigger reach than either Klitschko brother, and just three inches short of 7-foot heavyweight Nikolai Valuev. That's insane. He also seems like he's not just rebounded from his loss to Carlos Quintana, but become a far better fighter because of it. No matter what your scorecard was, no one has ever flustered Winky Wright the way Williams did, as Tall Paul threw about 1100 punches over 12 rounds. He's constant action, he's got a laid back swagger about him, and he too seems willing to fight anyone. They're even talking about sending him up to 168 pounds if they have to. Sadly, Williams has built no notable fanbase, and doesn't even have a hometown drawing ability like Kelly Pavlik does. But if he keeps beating guys, he's going to get more popular. Talent has a way of making your fanbase grow.
In Pavlik's Favor: Let's get it out of the way: He's a white guy from midwest America. Acting like this doesn't matter is ignoring a basic truth. It does. But Pavlik, like many "great white hopes" before him, doesn't really seem to give a crap about this, and it's not like a middleweight with his power and ferocity isn't going to make fans out of everybody, no matter what color the dude's skin is. It shouldn't matter, but for business reasons, let's not lie and pretend it doesn't. He's got a tremendous following in Ohio and has also become a new breed of drawing card in Atlantic City, the former home of Arturo Gatti. Pavlik's loss to Hopkins still hasn't quite been assessed. In his one comeback fight, he routed Marco Antonio Rubio, but Rubio put up next to no resistance whatsoever. It's hard to get anything out of that. Past the obvious, Pavlik is in a money division that happens to be shallow right now, and when he starts putting on weight the right way, he should be good to go up to at least 175 pounds. I don't even discount the idea of Pavlik someday getting fat enough to be a heavyweight. Of these final four, I think Pavlik is the least likely to be That Guy.
In Dawson's Favor: He has a lot of skills, some of which still seem raw when he's in against an immovable force like Glen Johnson. But I think if they rematched, Dawson would win more clearly. He had to have learned from that fight. Dawson's biggest problems are like a combination of the last two guys: He draws in Connecticut, kinda, but nowhere else, and right now there's really just no one for him to fight. When he beats Tarver again, he beats an old man again. If he were to fight and beat Roy Jones, he beats an old man. Hopkins is the oldest of them all, but that would be Chad's best win, save for some unexpected fight with Joe Calzaghe. 175 is filled with oldsters and Europeans who have zero name in America.
I said this was just for fun, but it's also to illustrate how hard it's going to be to replace Oscar, and to maybe point out that this isn't even worth focusing on any time soon. If Manny Pacquiao becomes that guy, then awesome. It would be utterly unprecedented, but then a lot of things Manny's doing are unprecedented or damn close to it.
But none of these guys from a promotional standpoint have the total package that Oscar had, and I don't currently see any real young guns on the horizon that have that sort of selling power, either.
I don't think this means we're in for a "dark age"; not at all, in fact. I think we're in for some great fights as guys scrap and claw to be The Man in all of boxing. The upper tiers of the sport are currently filled with guys that want to fight: Pacquiao, Marquez, Mosley, Williams, Cotto, Dawson, etc. There's a lot of good fighting to go around.
We're just not going to be breaking any PPV records any time soon, or even coming within the same zip code of those numbers.