If you pity the poor NFL (that's American football for those living beyond the shining seas) because their two most marketable teams and stars, New England with Tom Brady and Indianapolis with Peyton Manning, both went down to defeat in this past weekend's playoffs, consider this: They still have their flagship event, Super Bowl XL coming up on Feb. 5 at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., which is expected, according to the event's host committee, to bring $300 million into the economy of the Detroit area, attract over 100,000 visitors, and be covered by 3,000 credentialed media members. Regardless of who is playing in it, this game will be broadcast live on ABC, and will no doubt once again draw over a 40 rating and a 60 share as it has in recent years.
Boxing once commanded similar attention in the sports world. Its flagship event used to be a world heavyweight championship fight. In the past these used to fill up Yankee Stadium, the scene of Rocky Marciano defending his title against Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles; Joe Louis fighting Charles, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Billy Conn and Max Schmeling; Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton 3; and, going back to 1928 during the heyday of Babe Ruth, the final fight of Gene Tunney's career.
Now, improbably, promoter Bob Arum believes that he can restore some of the lost glory and luster to what was once the most prestigious title in all of sports, the heavyweight championship of the world. His vehicle: The March 18 fight between WBC heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman and challenger James Toney, to be held at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall and shown live in the U.S. on HBO.
“These are the two best heavyweights in the world,” argued Arum at last Tuesday's press conference at New York's Tavern on the Green restaurant. While such a contention may be debated, few would place either fighter outside the top five in this often-ridiculed division. And since the other fighters regularly mentioned as being at the top of this weight class, such as Chris Byrd and Lamon Brewster, are neither fighting each other nor, at this time, signed to face anyone else, Rahman-Toney has the potential to become regarded by the general public as being the closest thing there is in boxing to a fight for “the” heavyweight championship of the world.
After acknowledging that, of course, he believes that the fighter he promotes, Hasim Rahman, will win on March 18, Arum further elaborated on how he sees this fight.
“Then you're going to see how a heavyweight champion should be promoted,” he said. “A heavyweight champion accepted by all as a heavyweight champion. I remember, dammit, when I first came into this business in 1966, the heavyweight champion was considered the greatest athlete in the world. And it wasn't only because he was Muhammad Ali. Rocky Marciano, and Joe Louis before him, and Floyd Patterson, were considered in their time the greatest athlete in the world. That's going to come back.”
This may be a farfetched fantasy, but step number one was making sure that the lead-up to this fight did not include any of the pre-fight press conference melees which have made boxing events more resemble the phony pro “wrestling” than the Super Bowl. Thus both of these volatile fighters, who had already scuffled in December in a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, while there for a WBC awards event, were kept separated at this press conference by a small battalion of grim-faced, jacket-and-tie-wearing security men, each with a lapel pin with an “S” on it.
Such were the necessary steps taken by Arum in his quest to restore some dignity to the heavyweight title.
“I believe that if the athletes conduct themselves properly,” said Arum after the formal press conference, “and they leave their fight for the ring, the public appreciates it more. And I learned that – not that I'm a great genius – I learned that really from the Mexican kids. Because that's how the Mexican kids by and large conduct themselves. You never see a confrontation with Mexican kids at a press conference. But when they get in the ring and a bell rings, man, they're terrors. And that's something all promoters, I think, should try to inculcate in fighters.” Presumably this advice was aimed in large part at another promoter of heavyweights whose hair happens to stand straight up.
Yet putting top fighters in the ring against each other and having them at least feign a degree of sportsmanship is not enough for boxing to begin to reestablish a heavyweight championship fight as being, at least in theory if not in the public's eye, on the same level as the Super Bowl. Regardless of which teams win in the playoffs, the Super Bowl always pits the champions of the AFC against the champions of the NFC. In boxing, if the promoters, networks, and fighters don't want to make a deal, the champions of the major sanctioning bodies may never fight one another. And if Bob Arum has his way, there will be no heavyweight boxing equivalent of a Super Bowl after March 18, either.
Asked if he plans to seek a heavyweight title unification tournament, Arum replied, “No.” He explained, “Each of these organizations takes a big sanction fee from the fighter. Fighters end up paying 12 percent. Well, that's not right.” He added, “Three percent is too much.” And then he stated what is likely more important to him: “I am not so much concerned about the belts and the organizations as I am about the perception that one guy is clearly without an argument the best heavyweight in the world.”
Arum is not worried that the existence of multiple champions and title fights for belts from the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO will either confuse the fans or dilute whatever prestige these titles may bring.
“The fans are really sophisticated,” said Arum. But he didn't rule out ever pitting champion against champion. “If one guy who wins is worthy, so you have him fight your champion and you settle it in the ring for some money.”
Arum noted that IBF champion Chris Byrd is supposed to be fighting Wladimir Klitschko, although no date or location for such a fight has been finalized. Arum also seemed to include WBO champion Lamon Brewster as one who might be “worthy” enough for such a partial unification bout.
But he did not have as high an opinion of new WBA heavyweight champion NikolaY Valuev, who won his belt in a controversial majority decision in December in Germany over John Ruiz.
“The fact that there's a big seven-foot Russian out there, nobody cares,” Arum said. “I mean, he can't fight.”
While Don King, who promotes both Byrd and Brewster and co-promotes both Toney and Valuev, has been vocal about the need for a heavyweight unification tournament, Arum would prefer that his charge, Rahman, should he retain his belt March 18, be recognized as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
“A heavyweight will emerge who clearly is considered to be undisputed,” continued Arum. No doubt a key factor in Arum’s opposition to such a unification tournament is that it would inevitably have to involve so many of King's heavyweights.
While such a unification tournament would indeed bolster the standing of the heavyweight title, the politics of boxing, its promoters, and the rival networks make it unlikely in the near future.
Thus, what happens in the ring March 18, including both how the fighters perform and conduct themselves, will go a long way in determining whether the sporting public buys that this fight will indeed crown an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, or maintains the perception that it is merely for one piece of an increasingly meaningless title.