Still, boxing did its best to address the safety issues that precipitated this seismic shift in media attitudes. The sanctioning bodies eventually reduced their championship limit from 15 rounds to 12. Thumbless gloves, then thumb-attached gloves, were made mandatory in light of Leonard’s eye issues. Commissions worldwide adopted stricter safety standards such as pre-fight medical screenings, on-site ambulances at all fight cards, multiple physicians at ringside and seminars that emphasize preventative measures to minimize injury. Fights were stopped far more quickly by referees and ringside physicians and many thought a few of those decisions – such as the first Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight in 1991 – were premature.
Numerous pro-boxing people, starting with then-RING editor and publisher Bert Randolph Sugar in the January 1983 issue, urged the formation of a national boxing commission, an ironclad passport system and a pension plan to protect the fighters.
Despite boxing’s efforts to improve the working environment – efforts that have been successful given the decline in ring deaths today compared to past decades – it did nothing to change the mainstream media’s pervasive indifference, if not hostility, toward the Sweet Science. Nowadays, the only time boxing receives prominent play on the largest platforms is either when Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Manny Pacquiao fight, or when boxers embarrass themselves outside the ropes, such as the post-fight dust-up between David Haye and Dereck Chisora.
For all the snubs boxing has received over the past generation, those who run the sport are hardly blameless. With no middle-ground TV platform available boxing’s power brokers were forced to adjust to their new environment and much of their decision-making left much to be desired.
For years grass-roots promoting was neglected, especially in America, and whatever efforts were made to break through the noise were largely dismissed by a stonewalling press. In recent years boxing was out-hustled and out-smarted by UFC’s Dana White, who masterfully marketed his product to the upcoming generation through a multi-media strategy while boxing’s power brokers relied on methods that emphasized “make as much money as you can now” without any regard to building a future fan base. It was as if boxing was trying to compete with one glove tied behind its back and its chin sticking out.
When once there were two sanctioning bodies in the 1980s – the WBA and WBC – there are now four with the rise of the IBF and WBO. Even worse are the proliferation of “championship” belts whose designations include “interim,” “regular,” “super,” “diamond,” “youth” and so on. In many divisions, the WBA has three “champions” reigning simultaneously, all in the name of collecting more sanctioning fees. Even preliminary fighters with so-so records have walked down the aisle with some sort of belt slung over their shoulders.
If everyone’s a champion, no one’s a champion – and the sport has suffered for it. Even fans who have devoted their lives to “The Sweet Science” can’t name all of the titleholders and they don’t have a desire to learn them. If those who love boxing feel this way, just imagine the confusion and contempt boxing must inspire among casual fans.
Even more loathsome are the expenses boxing lovers must absorb just to get their fix. In the beginning high-end pay-per-view broadcasts cost $19.95 but have inched upward ever since. Most mega-cards these days cost between $49.95 and $59.95 for standard definition broadcasts and $69.95 for the HD version. In the May 14, 2012 issue of ESPN the Magazine, a breakdown of the likely take for a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight estimated the pay-per-view price at $75 a pop – which to some may be a modest figure. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for the HD version to go for $99.99, which would exceed today’s ceiling by a full $30.
Moreover, fights that would have landed on broadcast TV in the 1980s – such as last weekend’s third fight between Brian Viloria and Omar Nino Romero – are being peddled for $29.95. Add to that the monthly subscription fees for HBO and Showtime as well as paying for access to basic channels either on cable or small-dish and one can see why many borderline enthusiasts might choose to turn away from boxing – especially in this economic climate.
The reason for the high pay-per-view costs is because that is the only way for promoters to generate enough money to pay the eight-figure guarantees the top attractions demand. Another byproduct is that the top fighters showcase their wares only twice a year – if that. If one can make $40 million for an hour’s work inside the ropes, it makes no sense to fight more often. Plus, the escalating salaries at the top raises the bar for those in the middle and they, in turn, fight less often.
Boxing’s appeal is based on attractions and a healthy sport needs to have its best practitioners on display as often as possible. That’s not happening anymore, and the sport is struggling for relevancy because of it. Even though boxing is shown on more cable channels than ever, few casual sports fan can name more than two or three active fighters. That is proof positive that something is very wrong with boxing’s ability to market itself.
Conversely, the NFL is playing its cards intelligently. Sure, the NFL offers the Sunday Ticket package on DirecTV, but even if viewers choose to opt out they still have access to their local team’s games over terrestrial television. They might not always get the marquee game each week but at least they get something for almost nothing.
Is it conceivable that the all-powerful NFL could fall victim to what boxing has suffered over the past 30 years? Some are saying a qualified “yes.”
On May 10, ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” co-star Tony Kornheiser made a rare appearance in Bristol and declared that the NFL is at the same “cultural crossroads” that boxing found itself in during the 1980s. He said that the persistent reports about permanent brain injury could persuade parents to start questioning whether they should allow their kids to take up the sport. If enough of them say “no,” then the slippery slope toward eventual oblivion might begin.
But will football’s journey end up in the same black hole boxing occupies today? As of now, probably not. First, football is still a powerful television force, both on subscription and free TV. Numerous networks depend on the NFL to draw enough advertising revenue to not only make up – but greatly exceed – the enormous initial outlay to secure the broadcast rights. Even before the games start again in September the focus will shift back toward the upcoming season instead of ancillary issues like permanent brain injuries and lawsuits by ex-players. In today’s culture the country’s affinity for all things football is simply too strong. Thus, the anxieties of this off-season likely will fade into the background.
Second, the NFL is under a single umbrella and is run by a omnipotent commissioner. If one wants to play professional football and make the highest possible salary, the NFL is the one and only option. Boxing, on the other hand, is a Wild West web of promotional and jurisdictional fiefdoms, all of which have conflicting interests. There is no single route a fighter can take in order to gain riches, though there are about a dozen promoters who can claim they have the inside line.
The fact that two of the largest and most influential fiefdoms are at war with one another is the biggest obstacle to making most of the matches that could awaken boxing from its doldrums. Stubbornness and pride are assets inside the ring but when it comes to deal-making and fostering a positive environment for the sport – and for the fans who ultimately foot the bill – they are fatal flaws.
Finally, it is highly unlikely that the NFL will ever fall victim to the self-destructive decisions boxing has made. There is still one Super Bowl game and one NFL champion crowned every year. There’s no additional charge affixed to watching playoff games or the season’s final contest. The Super Bowl continues to generate record ratings and sky-high advertising rates. The scoring system in football is obvious for everyone to see, but in boxing the sheer subjectivity leaves it vulnerable to asinine decisions like those rendered in the Brandon Rios-Richard Abril and Tavoris Cloud-Gabriel Campillo fights. Every team adheres to the schedule set before them; no team can say “we don’t want to risk our perfect record by playing the Giants, Patriots or Steelers. Can’t we just play the Rams, Bucs and Browns again?” Not only is this never said in the NFL, no one would dare try.
For all the assets football enjoys as far as money and popularity, that all can change if enough opinion-makers decide to make it so. If they choose to continue emphasizing the underlying dangers of football long enough, loud enough and often enough – even after the season starts, or perhaps for several seasons beyond that – then one has to wonder whether an enormously popular sport will lose its prominence in mainstream society.
After all, it’s happened before.
Photos / iStockphotos.com, Ed Mulholland-Fightwireimages.com
Lee Groves can be emailed at email@example.com. Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won five writing awards, and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. and the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.