Tracking the decline of boxing: today vs. yesteryears

I think the decline of boxing is quite complicated. Some of it surely has to do with a decline in racism or at least racial and ethnic identity (but there is still plenty of that as we've seen in the past few years), some of it has to do with a society that isn't as comfortable with violence (but we have the flourishing of MMA and pro wrestling as counterexamples).

But the promotion companies is certainly a huge part of it. In 1960, boxing was together with baseball the premier spectator sport in the US. In the 1960s and 1970s, everything that Clay/Ali did was must see TV, there was a ton of inertial interest, and moving things to PPV didn't change that. The Olympics were huge because of the Cold War and they introduced new up-and-comers like Frazier, Foreman, and Leonard. By connection to Ali, guys like Norton, Spinks (who also had the Olympics going for him), and Holmes became household names. Even if Ali's fights were PPV, guys like Duran, Arguello, and Monzon were on broadcast TV or PPV undercards enough that you knew them.

Let's look at the 1980s. Entering 1980, Ali, Holmes, Leonard, Duran, and perhaps Benitez are household names, and Hearns is getting there. Every single year, you have something that was must see even for casuals:

  • 1980 – Leonard vs. Duran 1 & 2, Holmes vs. Ali
  • 1981 – Leonard vs. Hearns
  • 1982 – Holmes vs. Cooney
  • 1983 – Hagler vs. Duran
  • 1984 – LA Olympics, Hearns vs. Duran
  • 1985 – Hagler vs. Hearns, Spinks vs. Holmes
  • 1986 – Spinks vs. Holmes 2, Tyson vs. Berbick
  • 1987 – Leonard vs. Hagler, 4 Tyson victories
  • 1988 – Tyson vs. Holmes, Tyson vs. Spinks
  • 1989 – Hearns vs. Leonard 2, Duran vs. Leonard 3, 2 Tyson fights
  • 1990 – Holyfield vs. Douglas
So if you look at those fights, you can come up with a story for each one. Cooney is built up because of race (although it was an entertaining fight). Duran vs. Leonard and perhaps all of the Duran fights have an element of race in them too. Spinks vs. Holmes is must-see for a couple reasons: Michael Spinks has name recognition from his success, the Olympics, and his brother. That first fight is big because Holmes is going for Marciano's record. If conservative white people didn't want Cooney to lose, they definitely didn't want Holmes taking Marciano's record. Liberals didn't want Holmes to seemingly surpass Ali. The second one is big because of the shot at redemption. Like Ali, everything Tyson did was must see TV because he was so young, destructive, and had a shot at GOAT. Holyfield has some Olympics to him, but he built himself into a star as a pro by dominating, much like Hagler and Hearns.

But all that stuff aside, every era has a collection of guys who are likable, guys who dominate, guys who are menacing, and guys that represent different demographics. The main thing is that these guys became stars by fighting each other. That's 23 fights in 11 years even without the Olympics, and boxing had its "Super Bowl" every single year which built fans. Many of those are very memorable fights. In the early 80s, you still had high profile fights on network TV like Leonard vs. Benitez or Prior vs. Arguello too, which helped.

Fast forward to ten years ago. Everything has been on PPV for forty years now. You have only three household names in boxing, Floyd, Manny, and perhaps Wlad (but he is no Ali or Tyson, nor even Holmes on that front). What do we get:

  • 2013, Floyd vs. Canelo... this fight makes Canelo a household name even though he loses
  • 2015, Floyd vs. Manny is number one, and that fight sucked and was years too late. Fury vs. Wlad, another crap fight, but introduces a guy with a super marketable name to the mainstream.
  • 2017, Floyd vs. McGregor, which isn't even a real boxing match, Canelo vs. GGG, which is a rip off.
  • 2018, Canelo vs. GGG 2, another rip off.
Okay, what do we get in the past five years? Basically, we get Fury vs. Wilder I-III, which are great fights, but that's really it. Nothing else approaches the fights with Floyd, even though Canelo has his following. I think the fighters today are excellent, but the bullshit of trying to get Beterbiev vs. Bivol, Crawford vs. Spence, or whatever is the main problem, and we've dug such a big hole we may never get out of it.

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