Boxing fans who tuned in Thursday afternoon to ESPN’s debate show Pardon the Interruption collectively shuddered when hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon declared the sport one fight away from being dead.
It should come as no surprise, though. Whenever a big fight looms the way next Saturday’s bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez does, casual followers of the sport kick in their two cents on the state of the game.
“He’s the last headliner out there in professional boxing,” stated Wilbon about Mayweather.
“What other names do you know? You know the Klitschko name, that’s it. Who else do you know,” said Kornheiser.
“He’s the last guy out there for a sport that’s all but dead,” said Wilbon. “This is it. It’s over for boxing after this.”
Both guys proclaimed to love boxing throughout their two-minute trashing of it. It’s pretty obvious that they catch two or three fights a year at most, based on their limited knowledge.
Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza shared his thoughts with RingTV Thursday evening via phone on the far-too-common battle cry from mainstream media that the sport is on the outs.
“I think it shows two things,” said Espinoza, who admittedly didn’t catch the segment. “One, it shows ignorance: a small-minded view that if I as an individual am not aware of something, it must not be important.
“Secondly, just the way media has developed, especially certain networks. A premium is being put on being the first to say something is the best or the worst. A lack of thoughtful consideration is given, and something is either the best thing or it is dead.”
This isn’t a new stance on the sport for the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader.” Nine months ago, ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson declared boxing dead after Juan Manuel Marquez put Manny Pacquiao to sleep.
“What Marquez landed was much more than a right hand,” wrote Jackson. “He landed a punch that forced an entire sport to ask: ‘Now what?’”
“It’s over. Done. Fin. The future of boxing was already on suicide watch because of a common belief in fixed outcomes, and on proverbial life-support because of the continued growing in MMA and UFC fighting – even before Manny-Juan Manuel IV.”
Espinoza took over to begin 2012 and has guided Showtime into being the network that televises more hours of boxing than any other. Thus, it is pretty obvious he feels the sport is headed in a different direction than that of Kornheiser and company.
“We as a network have devoted more hours of boxing than anyone,” said Espinoza. “We’ve seen a huge increase in ratings over the past year. You have Canelo selling nearly 40,000 tickets in San Antonio. You have two guys who aren’t huge names in Marcos Maidana and Josesito Lopez setting the record attendance for any event at the StubHub Center.”
Espinoza continued to make his point.
“You have two events taking place simultaneously in Las Vegas with nearly 35,000 tickets being sold last September. It’s hard to say the sport is dead when you see those results.”
Ironically, ESPN the Magazine’s September issue is “the fight issue,” dedicating about half the magazine to content related to next week’s big fight.
“It is ironic these people aren’t aware of their company’s priorities,” said Espinoza. “What I’ve heard and seen regarding ESPN suggests they’re devoting more coverage than they ever have before to next week’s fight.”
In Jackson’s article that ran last December, Jackson asked what fight on the horizon was there that non-diehard fans would care about.
Just nine months later, next week’s fight is already setting records for things like the all-time record for a live gate at a fight. ESPN’s resident boxing scribe, Dan Rafael, defended the sport in response to PTI, mentioning how the fight is in a higher volume of movie theaters, as well as Mayweather earning a record $42 million purse for this fight.
Espinoza laughed especially at Kornheiser mentioning the Klitschko name as the only other relevant one.
“To say Klitschko is the only other name is ignorant,” said Espinoza. “Their fights have been barely covered in the U.S.”
Showtime inked a lucrative six-fight deal with Mayweather, which leaves four fights on the contract after next Saturday’s bout with Alvarez. Some are worried there aren’t big enough names remaining to fill those slots. Espinoza is not one of those people.
“There are a number of guys,” said Espinoza. “Look at guys who have risen in prominence in the last year to eighteen months. Lucas Matthysse, even Canelo weren’t considered guys you could list as realistic opponents for Floyd. Amir Khan and Keith Thurman are two guys with big personalities and that are very articulate. Then of course there is Broner.”
Though Mayweather and Broner have both stated previously their lack of desire to face one another, Espinoza isn’t concerned about the fight not happening if it becomes one of the bigger matchups that can be made.
“I know there are always friendships,” said Espinoza. “One thing I have no doubt about is Floyd wants to make the biggest fights possible. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should look at Sept. 14. If the Broner fight is the one to do, I don’t see it being impossible to make.”
People that follow boxing understand it is more of a niche sport than a mainstream one these days. But signs of late point to it slowly climbing out of that categorization.
“No one is saying boxing is the NFL,” said Espinoza. “No one else is the NFL, not the NBA, not Major League Baseball. But boxing can elevate itself to be part of the mainstream conversation.”
“It’s one of the few truly global and international sports,” continued Espinoza. “Football certainly has grown internationally but it isn’t a global sport. Baseball has pockets where it is popular. Soccer certainly is, and so is boxing, without question.”
Espinoza also pointed out how boxing carries a much more affordable license fee than other sports leagues do.
“If you have a conversation with a network and the matter of a license fee comes up, they’ve been skyrocketing well beyond the reach of most networks in recent years. Also, an organizational body or league does not control boxing. Clearly, that can be a disadvantage, but not from the perspective of a network. The perspective entry price is very low.”
There’s no doubt that as long as boxing keeps making major fights, talking heads from major outlets will be calling for the sport’s headstone.
As Espinoza pointed out, rumors of boxing’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
Photo by Naoki Fukuda