William Dettloff

The Empty Seat Dilemma: Why So Many Top Fighters Can’t Sell Tickets

THE RING rates Paul Williams as the No. 2 middleweight in its 160-pound rankings and the No. 7 fighter, pound for pound, but the entertaining three-division threat, who has become an HBO fighter, has a hard time attracting fans to his fights. Photo / Craig Bennett-Fightwireimages.com

It’s hard to imagine that there’s an elephant in the room in the boxing business, where everything is either shoved down your throat or kept hidden like a secret of national importance, but there is one, and it’s this: Some of the best fighters in the world couldn’t draw flies to a garbage dump, to use the phrase, more or less, that Don King in better days once employed to describe the appeal of Evander Holyfield.

Many fight fans satisfy their fix watching fights on HBO or Showtime or ESPN, and as a result frequently don’t notice that the fighters they see time after time after time are playing to largely empty rooms in near-abandoned casinos. And it’s not just the journeymen or the neophytes or the guys on their way down — it’s guys you know and have seen a bunch of times.

It’s Paul Williams, who could sell out entire stadiums if you could charge his fans extra seats for their dedication to him, but as it is now couldn’t fill a phone booth if you spotted him John Goodman. According to THE RING, Williams is the seventh best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound.

The undefeated Chad Dawson, THE RING’S No. 1-rated light heavyweight who fights Jean Pascal for the magazine’s vacant 175-pound title on Saturday, isn’t much better than Williams when it comes to putting butts in seats. Dawson is No. 6 in THE RING’S pound-for-ound ratings.

There are others in similar boats: the excellent, undefeated Tim Bradley, fast becoming a star in the sport but who sells tickets like Wladimir Klitschko takes chances; Nonito Donaire, one of the best little men on the planet but one who would draw more live spectators as a horse jockey than a fighter; Andre Berto, maybe the best young 147-pounder in the game who couldn’t wrangle even the Haitian disaster into a higher profile, though not for lack of trying; and top-ranked cruiserweight Steve Cunningham, who said to hell with it and took his business to Europe, thank you very much.

Some of this has to do with fighting style. Most of these guys are boxers or boxer-punchers. And we all know who the sport’s biggest ticket sellers always have been. Think Dempsey. Think Louis and Marciano. Think Tyson. Scientists are anathema to the masses. Veterans recall that legendary matchmaker Teddy Brenner once was asked why he wouldn’t put the highly cerebral light heavyweight champion Harold Johnson on television.

Brenner is purported to have responded, “Harold Johnson represents perfection in the art of boxing, and there is no room in this world for perfection.”

Few would call any of today’s fighters perfect, but certainly they don’t have the style most fans find most appealing.

“People want to see knockouts, beat’em-down boxers, like my guy Alfredo Angulo,” Mike Criscio, who manages Dawson and Angulo, told THE RING. “Alfredo can sell 10 times as many tickets as Chad can because he goes out there and tries to take somebody’s head off, whereas Chad is more of a boxer than a big puncher.”

Fair enough. But Floyd Mayweather, whose style is so measured he makes most other fighters look like Luis Firpo in comparison, is, along with Manny Pacquiao, the biggest pay-per-view star in the business. Criscio said it’s because of how hard Mayweather has worked to make himself a star.

“Floyd Mayweather has a name. He built his name. He goes everywhere, where Chad, for instance, is more humble and he doesn’t like to show up at a lot of things. He’s more laid back where Floyd is more in your face,” Criscio said. “And I think Floyd’s doing it right. I think the more people that know you, the more tickets you’re going to sell. The more people know who you are, the better it is. It’s like pulling teeth sometimes with Chad to get him to go places.”

Criscio said all these guys who are good fighters have one thing in common: relatively passive personalities. And that hurts them.

“It’s a lot to do with being in your face. Berto is not in your face. Paul Williams is not in your face. Cunningham is definitely not in your face,” Criscio said. “They’re all laid back and have passive attitudes, where again, Mayweather is in your face.”

It’s no secret that Mayweather likes the camera more than all the Kardashian sisters combined, and his willingness to be in front of them, even when he’s playing the villain, takes him a long way. But there was a time when he sold tickets no better than does Williams or Berto. What changed?

“Mayweather is a good ticket seller but look at the opponents: Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez,” said legendary West coast promoter Don Chargin. “A real drawing card is one that can fight anyone and do it. That’s why when I look at the figures on Oscar, my God. But Mayweather needs the right opponent.”

Chargin said that, generally, trying to pin down what makes one fighter a big box office attraction and another a box office dud is one of the more perplexing things about this business. And it rarely has much to do with the quality of the fighter.

“This is something that’s an amazing thing in boxing,” he said. “Sometimes you go to a fight and there will be some preliminary kid who looks fairly good, but all of the sudden you see people getting excited. (Berto, Williams, and Bradley) are all good fighters, but don’t have that charisma.

“Years ago we had this kid in my hometown, Santa Fe (California), named Eddie Chavez. He turned into a tremendous drawing card for the times, and from the day he had his first fight, I used to look around and people would be standing and cheering and it carried through his whole career,” Chargin said.

“Why? That’s the thing that nobody could answer. Why do certain people have that? Look at De La Hoya when he started. From an amateur he got people excited. And look at Bernard Hopkins. Good fighter. But he doesn’t sell.”

Longtime manager Bob Spagnola moved Orlando Canizales in the 1980s and ’90s and was Joe Mesi’s agent and adviser. Today he handles Chris Henry and prospect Austin Trout. He told THE RING that it’s about more than random luck and charisma. Whether or not a fighter can sell tickets depends largely on how he’s handled by his management team.

“When I found out Joe Mesi was half Polish and half Sicilian, I knew that he was related to about 40 percent of the people in the greater metropolitan Buffalo area,” Spagnola said. “And they had great history up there. Obviously you have to work it, but look at Dawson. Jimmy Burchfield had him. Jimmy Burchfield has had guys like Pazienza, who drew big crowds up there in New England, but Dawson flew the coop and got with another promoter who has had him all over the place.

“You have to develop a market, you have to work a market. You can’t just show up,” said Spagnola. “I have my own little axiom: If you don’t mean anything in your own hometown, you don’t mean anything anywhere. Some of these guys don’t mean anything in their hometowns. Just because you can jump to the front of the line and be on HBO — listen, this is really an indictment on them. Because they’ve got all these stars that no one wants to see.”

This is an important point. HBO has gotten heat over the last several years for its reliance on Al Haymon, who guides the fortunes of Williams, Berto, and others. Critics say Haymon’s relationship with HBO creates favoritism and impedes the progress of other fighters who might be more deserving of HBO’s air.

“This is who we are being told (by HBO) is the future of boxing,” Spagnola said. “That’s who we pay our subscription premiums to, right? If that’s it, we’re kind of not interested. Listen, they’re making money on the bigger fights, but it’s killing us, and it’s going to kill us. It’s always been about building heroes.

“Some of this, I don’t know who’s making these decisions, but you look at guys with no history in boxing at all and all of the sudden they’re running s___,” Spagnola said. “And I know they went to Harvard and to Dartmouth, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare you for this job.”

Something else Berto, Williams, Bradley, and Dawson have in common: They’re all African-American. There is a sentiment in boxing that blacks in America have left the sport in droves and that Latin Americans are the dominant ethnic group watching the sport. Don Elbaum, the veteran matchmaker and promoter, told THE RING that when he does shows at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, there are more white fans in the crowd than black. And that was never the case in the past.

Promoter Mike Acri, who shrewdly guided the last useful years of Roberto Duran and Hector Camacho and promotes shows throughout the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area, said it’s simple economics: that because African-Americans generally are lower on the socio-economic scale, they have less money to spend on going to the fights. But that’s no reason these guys can’t sell tickets.

“Williams and Berto are good but they haven’t put on really exciting fights yet, except for Williams and (Sergio) Martinez,” Acri said. “Bradley might be the best guy in the division, but you need a big fight to make you. You have to have someone to dance with. For Bradley, there’s no one to dance with on a major level. He needs a defining fight and a dance partner.”

And Cunningham?

“He’s in a division where no one gives a damn,“ Acri said. “He had a great fight with (Tomasz) Adamek but who saw it? He could be in 10 fights with Adamek and no one would know him. And that’s the promoter’s fault. But even if he did get exposure, it doesn’t mean he can draw. Mayweather couldn’t draw s___ until he got into big fights. Cunningham and Bradley need defining fights.”

Chargin believes the right African-American fighter will draw everybody, not just blacks.

“That’s the thing. Latinos are going to draw the Mexicans and that’s it. Same with Puerto Ricans. But a good black fighter, if he does that crossover thing, everyone will want to see him. Tyson had a black following, a white following. Everybody wanted to see him fight. (Muhammad) Ali was the last guy who really drew black fans. When he fought it was an event.”

Spagnola sees the problem as the larger issue of the American boxing bosses not doing enough to build young fighters into stars and building ethic rivalries. He’s appalled at the current state of the game.

“Our business has always been pitting groups on the lower socio-economic tiers against each other. At one time there were Jews and Irish, then Italians worked their way in, then African-Americans, and it was always pitting them against each other and the fans supporting their own,” he said.

“Listen, you’re watching American television, but what kids do you see that are American? If somebody had told me 30 years ago that there was going to be a brown-haired, blue-eyed heavyweight champion of the world who was 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and he was going to fight out in Vegas and no one was going to come and no one was going to care, I would have told them they were crazy. His name was (Oleg) Maskaev.”

Spagnola recalled watching the British recover from a similar state a couple decades ago.

“In England, about 25 years ago, they held the WBC convention in London. The British didn’t have a good enough guy to be champion of the world, so they were hurting. They really didn’t have anybody, their amateurs were a mess, kind of like ours are now, and they just had nothing,” Spagnola recalled.

“So listen to what they did: they stopped giving all their money to the WBC and they branched out to two fledgling organizations and they started building local kids. They didn’t go to Russia to get their fighters. They stayed at home. And they developed kids, because the British love boxing, they sponsor it and the TV pays for it. They developed these great kids and these great rivalries and these great fights and everybody made great amounts of money. That’s the way boxing has always been: build up the young on the past generations. But we’re not doing any of that.”

Still, some guys make it work. Miguel Cotto is as dependable a draw as you could want. Adamek too. And Mayweather and Pacquiao. And young Fernando Guerrero. Arturo Gatti filled the Atlantic City Convention Center for years. Kelly Pavlik does all right too.

In other countries heroes abound. Lucian Bute, not even a Canadian, sells out stadiums in Montreal. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. has been headlining his own pay-per-view cards for years now. The Klitschko brothers can do 60,000 in a stadium in Germany.

If it’s any consolation to today’s good American fighters that can’t put butts in seats, they’re not alone. Elbaum said a couple fighters from the past stand out in that regard.

“Some have it, some don’t. Jimmy Carter was a great lightweight. No one gave a s____ about Carter, but my God this guy could fight. Joe Brown, the same situation. Brown and Carter would easily go through 95 percent of the guys today in their weight class. And they were lousy draws. The only time they were draws was when they fought somebody who had appeal.”

Elbaum said Larry Holmes suffered the same malady, as did Joey Maxim. Holmes needed Gerry Cooney to sell a lot of tickets, and Maxim needed Archie Moore or Ray Robinson. But other guys were naturals.

“Then you take a guy like Art Aragon. He made it because of his mouth, his style, his cockiness,” Elbaum said. “He had a Hollywood-type personality and everyone loved him. He was good, but he wasn’t great. There’s something that catches on, a personality or a kid’s hometown.

“Dicky Ryan, a very ordinary heavyweight out of Omaha, used to draw 8, 9, 10,000 people, every show, every time he fought. It was his hometown and people knew him and it became like, hey, this is our guy, this is our heavyweight who may make it,” Elbaum said.

Williams, Berto, Bradley, Dawson, and others like them should take some comfort in the knowledge that their inability to put butts in seats isn’t an indictment on their talent or even necessarily on their ability to get rich. But it can’t feel good to look out over that top rope and see 11 guys in the crowd, four of whom are relatives. Fighters are performers more than anything, and if there’s no one watching, what’s the point?

Bill Dettloff, THE RING magazine’s Senior Writer, is the co-author, along with Joe Frazier, of “Box Like the Pros.” He is currently working on a biography of Ezzard Charles.

Bill can be contacted at dettloff@ptd.net

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