In my prior musings, I’ve alluded to the cliché of “__ is dead.” I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the notion that the sport of boxing is the undisputed pound-for-pound champion of this futile declaration. According to many, if not most, boxing has been dead for essentially my entire lifetime. If I’m being deadly honest, there’s a fair amount of truth to this assertion, certainly when compared to the glory days of the 1940s to the 1960s when boxing was one of, if not the most popular sports in the USA—my aunt (whose contempt for violence makes her a reasonably unbiased source) often mentions how in the 1950s Bronx of her childhood, everyone would watch the fights come Saturdays. We’re certainly a long way from the times when boxers like Muhammad Ali, and even the Mike Tyson of my early childhood were arguably the most famous athletes on the planet. However, for fans of the sweet science, there’s a certain whiff of excitement in the air at the host of marquee matchups that 2017 has had/continues to have, garnering near-feverish excitement at the possibility of the ultimate comeback story for this historic sport.
Through my many failed attempts to get friends and family interested in the sport, I’ve come to accept that most see it as one of the two B’s—barbaric or boring. I can certainly understand both of these positions. I actually classify myself as a seemingly paradoxical anti-violence boxing fan. I’m the furthest thing from the stereotypical “casual” that tunes in to see an all-out hands-at-the-waist slugfest, complete with gushing blood and mangled faces. I’m more of a highly skilled, ultra-slick, defensive tactician kind of guy—simply out to appreciate the mastery of a boxer like Floyd Mayweather Jr. taking the “hit and don’t get hit” ethos to matrix-like levels. I definitely feel a sense of guilt when fighters suffer serious injuries; and seeing an ageing Roy Jones Jr.—one of the greatest boxers of all time—getting knocked out by guys that couldn’t tie his shoes twenty years ago—makes me well up every time I think about it. But perhaps that capacity for tragedy is one of the many facets that makes boxing so captivating.
As for boredom, I’d say as with all sports, but actually boxing in particular, it becomes far more interesting once you know a little about the boxers and understand their styles, personalities, rivalries, and legacies. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing more tedious than watching out-of-shape heavyweights bumble through a 12 round clinch-fest, and bouts frequently fail to live up to expectation. However, it’s no accident that so many films have been made about boxing (eclipsing any other sport by this metric) from historic classics like Rocky to modern-day masterpieces like The Fighter, both of which won multiple Oscars. It’s also no accident that legendary writers like Ernest Hemingway waxed lyrical about the sheer exhilaration of boxing, while artists like George Bellows chose the sport as their subject matter. It’s undeniable that there’s a certain poetry and beauty to the sweet science—that gladiatorial aspect of two pugilists stepping into the squared-circle, after potentially years of rivalry, and expectations concerning the matchup of contrasting styles—and the fact that it all goes out the window once that bell rings. There’s also an element of the complete unknown that is fairly unique to boxing, in that no matter what happens during the course of the bout, it can all end with one punch—one of the main aspects that keeps fans on the edges of their seats. Lastly of course, it’s an underdog’s sport. As legendary Middleweight champion “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler put it, “…it’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 a.m. when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas.” Boxing is unquestionably the sport of the poor; the list of boxers that have risen from the depths of poverty, crime, and deprivation to become world champions is too long to count. As the saying goes “You don’t choose boxing, boxing chooses you,” and for many boxing still offers the potential for fame, glory, and riches for those otherwise short of hope.
OK, so I can tell at this point that I’ve probably hooked you in as a bona fide boxing fan, so the next obvious progression is to list a whole host of complaints about the current state of boxing, because as boxing fans that’s mostly what we do. I can give a pretty good rundown, but if you prefer to hear the struggles of the industry by having them yelled at you by an angry Brooklyn native, I’d suggest you checkout promoter Lou DiBella voicing his many complaints on sports writer Chris Mannix’s excellent podcast.
First of all, the obvious elephant in the room, the landscape of the boxing viewer seems at times as if it’s almost designed to be impossible to navigate. The majority of fights are either on HBO or Showtime, both premium cable channels that represent a significant cost to the average viewer. Then, to add insult to injury, all of the top fights (and these days plenty of the lower caliber fights), are on pay-per-view (PPV), which in the U.S. at least carries the frankly astounding price tag of $75-100 per fight. As Lou says, “The entire business model is irrational. You don’t have the World Cup on PPV!” It’s pretty tough to see a path to entry for new fans with the current premium channel/PPV-heavy format, and until boxing is taken into the twenty-first century, it may remain as a niche sport propped up by its most loyal and devoted fan base. Even if you’re OK with ponying up that kind of money to watch a fight, the undercards of PPV fights (i.e. the bouts preceding the main event) are often woefully poor matchups, with the main event not coming on until midnight or so. I’ve heard plenty of tales of fans throwing boxing parties to get their friends on board, only to have people fall asleep by the time the main event comes on. It’s a dire state of affairs in many ways.