Many people love to say that boxing in Italy is in crisis. Some guys in the boxing business talk the same way. Their opinions are based on the quality of the fighters, the number of promoters, the lack of attention by the media, the not-so-big crowds at boxing shows, and the relatively small amount of money available. If we analyze those factors, however, we discover that boxing is not in crisis. If many people keep saying the opposite it is because they manage take advantage of the situation.
The journalists in Italy, for example, take it as an excuse to write as little as possible about boxing; they are too busy writing about soccer, cycling, basketball, volleyball, car and motorcycle racing (Formula 1 and MotoGP world championships). Those are the major sports here, with soccer being number one; there’s no comparison between soccer and every other sport in terms of popularity. Newspapers write about soccer 365 days a year. When there aren’t any major competitions, they invent ways to keep the interest alive, like a game called Fantasy Soccer. The readers play it, send the results to the newspaper, which gives an award to the winner. The major Italian sports newspaper (we have three of them), dedicates as much as three pages to this idiocy. Then, they complain: We have no space for boxing. They do have space for something which isn’t even a sporting event, only because it is useful to bring attention to soccer.
When there is not a major event, boxing gets space in the newspapers only if there is a boxing fan in the staff. I proposed an interview with Antonio Tarver to one of the major general newspapers and the chief of the sports pages asked me who Tarver was! Some boxing guys like to talk about a crisis in order to pay less to their workers (or to not paying them at all) and to ask for more money to their possible sponsors. What happens to these guys is that everybody stops working for them and nobody sponsors their events. After all, who would want to work for a small amount or money (or for free) and what company would sponsor a minor sport?
In Italy, there is an old saying: In this country, the situation is always bad, but never serious. Which means that Italians (especially the millionaires) love to say that their business is bad, they have no money, the prices are too high and the country is going to hell. Then, you see them driving expensive cars, wearing expensive clothes, drinking expensive wine and buying plane tickets for exotic places (some people know the Caribbean islands better than the Italian islands). And despite what Italians say, Italy is always one of the seven richest countries in the world. Going back to the point, the state of boxing in Italy can best be understood by analyzing all the factors of the business.
The Fighters – The number of fighters may be small, but we have good fighters. If you look at the European Boxing Union rankings, you can see that Italians are champions, official challengers or members of the top 10. In Italy, the EBU is considered much more prestigious than most alphabet organizations because it is the only sanctioning body active in this continent. Therefore, there is only a single European champion for every weight division. There are only 14 divisions because the EBU doesn’t rate super-flyweights, mini-flyweights and strawweights. Recently, the EBU invented the European Union title. It means that a boxer becomes champion of the 25 countries which are part of the European Union. It sounds like something prestigious, but everybody knows that it is just a minor belt. It was created for the same reasons the WBC invented the international championship. We all know the reasons. Anyway, the people in the Italian boxing business consider only the four major sanctioning bodies (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO) more important than the EBU.
The TV networks – They broadcast boxing quite often. The state-owned RAI does it after midnight on the major channels (RAI 1, RAI 2 and RAI 3) and prime time on the minor one (RAI Sat, you must buy a decoder to see it). The newly created SportItalia puts boxing on primetime. The company owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mediaset, had big ratings when it broadcasted boxing at 10.30 on Saturday night two years ago. Since then, they ceased giving space to the sweet science. Others however did. The channels that you can see only after buying the decoder consider boxing important: La 7 regularly broadcasts the major Italian events, the Italian branch of Sky TV broadcasted live the third fight between Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones. Some of these networks even sponsor boxing events.
The newspapers – General newspapers cover boxing only when an Italian fighter has the opportunity to fight for a major title (WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO and EBU) or when they can get an interview with a legendary person. My interviews with Angelo Dundee, for example, got three quarters of a page and half a page on two of the most important national newspapers. Sports newspapers write a big article on boxing each week, sometimes every two weeks. Local newspapers give boxing a lot of space when a local fighter has a big opportunity. Last July 16, super middleweight Cristian Sanavia fought in Germany. The following day, the newspaper based in his hometown of Padova put his photo on the front page even though he lost (he was robbed).
The promoters – In the United States, most boxing people think that there is only one promoter in Italy: Salvatore Cherchi. That’s because Cherchi always worked a lot to build major connections in America. In 2002 and 2003, he promoted the Cory Spinks vs. Michele Piccirillo battles in Campione d’Italia. In 2003, Don King was there. The Casino of Campione d’Italia was the major sponsor. I was there last July, and they still remember Don King as a great professional and a great guy who loves to tell funny stories and invite everybody to dinner with him. Cherchi is the only Italian promoter to have big sponsors like the Casino of Campione d’Italia and the national TV networks. The February 2003 issue of the Boxing Digest rated Salvatore Cherchi as one of the 50 most influential people in boxing. In Italy, there are also other promoters: Mario Loreni, Rosanna Conti Cavini, Davide Buccioni, Elio Cotena (whose partner is former WBA light welterweight champion Patrizio Oliva), and Tonino Puddu. Cruiserweight contender Vincenzo Cantatore just started his own promotional company. Those promoters are active mostly in one area of the country. Cotena & Oliva work in Southern Italy, Tonino Puddu on the island of Sardinia.
The paying attendance – Here, the ones who say that boxing is in crisis have a point. The biggest crowds of the last five years were made with open shows, where there was no entrance fee. Then, who pays the expenses? The city itself and the sponsors (found by the city council). When a small town has a famous fighter, the ruling administration takes advantage of it by organizing a boxing show in the main square. Since they don’t know how to do it, they hire a promoter. It happens the same with music stars: when Elton John played in front of 500,000 people at the Fori Imperiali square (close to the Coliseum) in Rome, last September 3, who do you think that paid all the expenses? That’s because an administration which provides free high-level entertainment, will be more popular among voters. Most traditional shows, where you have to pay, attract less than 2,000 fans. In fact, promoters don’t count on sells anymore: their profit comes from the sponsors (TV networks, casinos and big companies). They still pay a lot of attention to the media, because nobody wants to sponsor an event ignored by newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV networks. Another reason is that the fighters like to be interviewed. Some of them also sign with a promoter because he has connections with the media. But even big media coverage won’t bring more than 2000 to 3000 paying customers to a boxing show. This is true particularly in Milan. Only former WBO lightweight and light welterweight champion Giovanni Parisi packed the Palalido (4000 seats) and drew more than 5000 spectators to the Forum. That was in 1996 and 1997.
The money: That’s another problem. Most boxers have a job because the purses aren’t good enough. The same can be said for boxing officials, referees, ring announcers and the other people who make their contribution to the business. Boxing is a part-time job which gives an extra-income.
So, what do you think? Is boxing in crisis in Italy? My opinion is that boxing could improve his position, but it is alive and well and still punching.