Usually if someone becomes a real star in the boxing game, particularly in the modern age, they’re also a pretty great fighter, at least for a time.
But boxing has plenty of greats who never become the big-time stars, those fighters with mainstream appeal who become genuine pay-per-view headliners and can entice the general public to actually pay to see them fight, even if that same general public normally forgets that boxing exists week-to-week.
In the decade of the 2000s, there were exactly six boxing pay-per-views that reached 1 million buys in the United States:
- Lennox Lewis vs Mike Tyson, 2002 (1.97 million)
- Bernard Hopkins vs Oscar De La Hoya, 2004 (1 million)
- Oscar De La Hoya vs Floyd Mayweather, 2007 (2.4 million)
- Oscar De La Hoya vs Manny Pacquiao, 2008 (1.25 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Juan Manuel Marquez, 2009 (1.06 million)
- Manny Pacquiao vs Miguel Cotto, 2009 (1.25 million)
As Oscar De La Hoya faded out, he passed the pay-per-view torch to Mayweather and Pacquiao, who would go on a monster tear for the sport in the early 2010s, greatly surpassing even De La Hoya’s terrific run as a pay-per-view draw:
- Floyd Mayweather vs Shane Mosley, 2010 (1.4 million)
- Manny Pacquiao vs Antonio Margarito, 2010 (1.15 million)
- Manny Pacquiao vs Shane Mosley, 2011 (1.34 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Victor Ortiz, 2011 (1.25 million)
- Manny Pacquiao vs Juan Manuel Marquez III, 2011 (1.4 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Miguel Cotto, 2012 (1.5 million)
- Manny Pacquiao vs Juan Manuel Marquez IV, 2012 (1.15 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Robert Guerrero, 2013 (1 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Canelo Alvarez, 2013 (2.2 million)
As time wore on, though, an actual fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao didn’t materialize, and those fans who wanted to see that began to creep more toward only wanting to see that.
For the 2010s, Pacquiao had first been under 1 million buys for his first fight of the decade, his March 2010 fight with Joshua Clottey, a guy with no star power; Manny alone carried that to 700K buys. He was under again for a fight in 2012 with Tim Bradley, which did 890K, a fight where Pacquiao was, in the eyes of most of the public, robbed on the scorecards.
Pacquiao did 475K buys for his Nov. 2013 fight with Brandon Rios from Macau, his worst pay-per-view number since a 2008 fight with David Diaz. Pacquiao had by then been knocked smooth out by Marquez in their fourth fight a year prior, and the demand to see him was lower at the minute.
But the rematch with Bradley in 2014 was back up to 800K. Pacquiao getting knocked out by Marquez didn’t just impact Pacquiao, either, as Mayweather’s numbers also took a small hit. He reportedly scraped past 1 million buys for the fight with Robert Guerrero in 2013, and everyone could see the writing on the wall, and there began a bit of a panic to bump the numbers back up, to deliver a genuine pay-per-view smash.
They found that with Canelo Alvarez, a rising Mexican star who brought with him the diehard Mexican-American audience. Mayweather-Canelo delivered big-time, doing a monster 2.2 million buys.
It didn’t reverse trends, though; Floyd was down to 900K for a fight in May 2014 with Marcos Maidana, his first time under a reported million since he fought Ricky Hatton in Dec. 2007. The Mayweather-Maidana rematch later in 2014 did 925K. These are good numbers, mind you, but the standard had been a million, and now they weren’t reaching it anymore.
Finally, for whatever reason you want to believe the most, Mayweather and Pacquiao got together in May 2015. It was years overdue, the heat for it wasn’t what it once had been, and yet the event still almost doubled the previous U.S. pay-per-view buys record, doing 4.6 million at $100 a pop for HD.
Mayweather won, and won pretty handily. The fight was seen as incredibly dull by the vast majority of those who watched. And four months later, when Mayweather put on his “farewell” pay-per-view with Andre Berto, they did 400K. When Pacquiao returned for a third fight with Tim Bradley in April 2016, that did 400K, too.
Mayweather-Pacquiao was four years ago. The only genuine U.S. pay-per-view star who has emerged since than has been Canelo Alvarez. Here are the boxing pay-per-views that have sold over 1 million in the States in this post Mayweather-Pacquiao world:
- Canelo Alvarez vs Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, 2017 (1 million)
- Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor, 2017 (4.3 million)
- Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin, 2017 (1.3 million)
- Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin II, 2018 (1.1 million)
Golovkin was involved in two of those fights, but the sales there are down to Alvarez and the matchup being the one people wanted. When put on pay-per-view two other times, Golovkin sold just 150K for a 2015 fight with David Lemieux, and 170K for a 2017 fight with Daniel Jacobs. That’s why I’m saying only Alvarez has emerged as a true pay-per-view standout over the last four years.
Even Alvarez has needed the right opponents. He did 900K with Miguel Cotto in 2015 and the three million-plus listed above, two of those actual great matchups with Golovkin and the other a combination with another Mexican fighter, one with as famous a name as there is. When Canelo was paired with Amir Khan and Liam Smith in 2016, the fights did 600K and 300K. These weren’t bad numbers, but they proved that Canelo still needs the right dance partners to cross that big, golden line.
(Side note: We’re talking about the United States here, but I don’t want to leave out that in the United Kingdom, Anthony Joshua has topped 1 million buys for three fights since Mayweather-Pacquiao, which is incredibly impressive. Canelo may have become the only true pay-per-view draw in the States in the last few years, but pay-per-view is actually quite healthy in the United Kingdom, with Joshua leading the way. Of course they also don’t charge $75-100 for a pay-per-view over there, but that’s another story.)
Over the years, there have been many fighters who were great and just never became pay-per-view superstars, a lot of them never even getting the opportunity. Two modern greats leap out immediately as guys who did repeatedly get the chances, and usually did OK but not amazing numbers.
Bernard Hopkins was one of the best fighters of his generation, a true living legend, an icon in the fight game. He did a million once, with Oscar De La Hoya. He was decent otherwise, but never went over 500K.
Roy Jones Jr, arguably the greatest fighter of the 1990s, peaked at 525K for his ambitious 2003 fight at heavyweight against John Ruiz. He never got close to a million when on pay-per-view. Like Hopkins, he generally did OK, certainly made his money, but never became that guy on pay-per-view.
And then there’s Andre Ward, who went undefeated in his pro career, was an Olympic gold medalist, won world titles at two weight classes as a pro, and was pound-for-pound top dog for a bit. Terrific fighter. He fought twice on pay-per-view, a pair of really good matchups with top light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev.
They didn’t even sniff the average Hopkins/Jones level from years past; the fights did 165K and 130K in 2016 and 2017.
This Saturday from Madison Square Garden in New York, we have another pay-per-view card. The boxing TV game in the United States has changed drastically. HBO is out of the sport. Showtime is still in, but the sport seems to be clearly shifting away from premium cable.
Showtime works for most of their bigger Saturday night cards with Premier Boxing Champions, who also have a separate deal that sees fights carried on both FOX and FS1.
Top Rank is exclusively with ESPN now, both through the traditional cable channel and the ESPN+ streaming service, where their arm extends to include international fight cards promoted by Frank Warren and MTK Global.
And Canelo Alvarez and the rest of Golden Boy, along with Gennady Golovkin and Matchroom Boxing, are now with the streaming service DAZN, which launched in the U.S. last September.
Pay-per-view’s continued existence in the sport would seem threatened these days, except that there have been three pay-per-view shows under the new layout, two from Showtime and one from FOX, and they’ve done pretty standard numbers; nothing eye-popping, but solid enough in each case. Wilder-Fury (SHO) did 325K in December, Pacquiao-Broner (SHO) did 400K in January, and Spence-Garcia (FOX) did 360K in March.
Two of those fights — Wilder-Fury and Spence-Garcia — featured totally unproven pay-per-view draws, and the other a 40-year-old Pacquiao against a guy who was once upon a time supposed o be a pay-per-view fighter, but never became one. So while pay-per-view may in time be on its way out, right now, it’s still hanging in there.
ESPN jumps into the pay-per-view game this weekend, with WBO welterweight titleholder Terence Crawford facing Amir Khan in the main event.
It is, quite frankly, not a fight anyone was asking to see. Most fans would like to see three-division titleholder Crawford (34-0, 25 KO) face one of the other titleholders in the division. Unfortunately, all those guys — Errol Spence Jr, Keith Thurman, and Shawn Porter (and secondary titleholder Pacquiao, for what it’s worth) — are with the PBC brand, aligned with Showtime and FOX.
Crawford, then, has a limited scope of easily available quality opponents. That led Top Rank to Khan (33-4, 20 KO), a Matchroom fighter. They offered Khan big money, and Matchroom signed off on letting Khan take this fight instead of the one they wanted, a long-awaited bout with Kell Brook in the United Kingdom.
Khan’s flaws have long since been exposed, and they’re probably the biggest reason this fight has failed to achieve any real buzz. The 32-year-old British fighter is talented, skilled; he has tremendously fast hands, respectable power at worst. But his defense and chin have gotten him knocked out hard by Breidis Prescott, Danny Garcia, and Canelo Alvarez over the years. Boxing fans can be harsh sometimes, but in this case they’re probably just being realistic. Khan has been pretty much written off at this level.
Crawford is listed anywhere between a 10-to-1 and 20-to-1 favorite. As skilled as Khan may be, basically no one expects him to be able to beat “Bud” Crawford, who has emerged as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
So for the moment, let’s take Crawford-Khan as a foregone conclusion, and say that Terence Crawford will be 35-0 come Sunday morning. Not to disrespect Khan, but to ask another question.
Does Terence Crawford have the ingredients to be a pay-per-view star?
You can never really say for sure unless it’s truly proven either way — after all, it was once believed by some that Floyd Mayweather didn’t have the style or personality to sell — but Crawford is facing an uphill battle here.
Think back to that slew of numbers thrown at you earlier on. The 4 million, 2 million, 1 million. The disappointing 900K or 475K. The truly discouraging 165K or 170K that proved that Ward and Golovkin just weren’t pay-per-view draws themselves.
Terence Crawford had an HBO pay-per-view fight back in 2016 against Viktor Postol. Postol was unbeaten, as Crawford was, and they were both 140-pound titleholders. It was for the moment the best fight to be made in that division, a legitimately good matchup on paper.
It sold 55,000.
Listen, that fight was forced onto pay-per-view because HBO didn’t have the budget to buy it and put it on their channel. Top Rank’s Bob Arum made the fight knowing he would lose money on it. It was just one of those things.
The situation is not the same on Saturday. Khan, for all his flaws, does have significantly more name value than Postol did, and Crawford has become a bigger name since then, too, as he’s since fully unified the division at 140 and now moved up to 147, winning yet another world title.
It will sell over 55,000, there’s no doubt about that. The question is, how much more?
Can it stay on par with the other recent pay-per-view outings and do at least 300K or so? Or will a lack of interest in the fight itself, combined with yet another ask of boxing fans to dip into their pockets for the fourth time in five months, lead to a number well below that?
Crawford is a fantastic fighter, but he’s also pretty drab on interviews, and frankly doesn’t seem particularly interested in going overboard trying to convince people to buy a fight.
This isn’t a criticism, really, just facts. Some fighters embrace that sort of thing, some don’t. Crawford appears to not. His trainer, Brian McIntyre, is a much louder and more sensational trash talker, but as much as some trainers love to talk, and as fun as they can be to talk to and read quotes from, they don’t sell pay-per-views.
I wouldn’t expect a Pretty Boy Floyd-to-Money Mayweather style transformation out of Bud any time soon. Mayweather developed the incredibly controversial, pay-to-hate-me persona that did very well, obviously. Then you had Pacquiao, who came off as the hero to Mayweather’s villain for many, and at his best was also truly exciting to watch. The media rivalry between those two also elevated both for a period of time, even as they didn’t actually fight each other. De La Hoya was marketed extremely well from the get-go after winning gold at the 1992 Olympics, and had an unusually strong appeal to demographics that boxing just doesn’t regularly capture; women, in particular.
Terence Crawford isn’t uninteresting, mind you, and he’s not a boring fighter. But he’s not Mayweather, Pacquiao, or De La Hoya. At this point, the more realistic hope is probably for him to be a Hopkins or Jones type, someone who can sell a decent amount if not do gargantuan numbers.
Crawford just might be more in the Andre Ward mold: a tremendous fighter who can do well otherwise, including at the live gate, but just isn’t a pay-per-view guy. Like Ward, he’s not a particularly compelling personality, doesn’t have a “character.” Even though they weren’t mega-sellers, Hopkins and Jones had the big personalities that put them on a level Ward couldn’t reach.
None of this says anything about Terence Crawford as a fighter. On Saturday, he looks to bolster his own claim to the current pound-for-pound throne, which is up in the air among several fighters at the moment — Crawford, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, Errol Spence Jr, Canelo, etc.
But it is a pay-per-view. And the numbers, whatever they are, are going to be judged come next week; not just by us as fans, but by others in the industry.
If Crawford-Khan sells well and Crawford wins as expected, then those PBC fighters like Spence or Thurman might be more inclined to demand a money fight with him, TV contracts and promoter issues be damned.
More money equals more interest, and less money equals less interest. If Crawford-Khan bombs, Al Haymon and Co. over at PBC might not see any good reason to deal with Terence Crawford and Top Rank. The dollars may not make sense.
Then again, that same scenario could make Top Rank and Crawford’s team more desperate to cross the street themselves and cut a deal. If Crawford can’t sell without those fights, and Top Rank just doesn’t have an opponent for him better than the likes of Luis Collazo and Chris van Heerden and Egidijus Kavaliauskas, then maybe their hands get forced.
It’s a lot to figure out, but either way, the numbers for Crawford-Khan are going to play a major role in if and when we see the fights we really want at 147, depending on if they make someone, anyone, more desperate to make a fight.
Perhaps the worst outcome is something dead average for recent months, in the neighborhood of 300-400K, where nobody comes out of it with the monetary upper hand, and we find ourselves simply waiting once more.