I came home the evening of February 15, 1978 to find my stepfather in front of the TV, cackling like a keeper of crypts. He was a Vietnam vet, and the thing that was bringing him joy was there on national television. Leon Spinks was beating Muhammad Ali. Just walking in on the event, I asked him what was happening.
“Spinks is about to beat that draft dodging son of a bitch!” he squealed.
“Oh no!” I replied.
I suppose I can point out now I never did like my stepfather very much, but that’s a story for another time.
As fight fans already know, Spinks did take the bout in a split decision in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport. I went to bed brokenhearted that night—Ali has always been a hero of mine. Little did I know, that the saddest thing that happened that evening wasn’t Ali’s loss (he would avenge the defeat just seven months later). No, the thing that hurts the most now is knowing that will never happen again. I now know I will never walk through the door of my home and again find a boxing match of any significance on regular television. As unfortunate as that truth may be for me, it has been much worse for the sport I grew up on and still love to this day.
I may have just recently entered my middle ages, but when it comes to loving the art of fisticuffs, I already feel like a dinosaur. I have literally one friend in my life whom I can talk to about boxing and know he is up on current events. To all my other sports loving friends, I am a fringe dweller. Hell, I know more people who follow the Tour de France than boxing nowadays. Think about that, Americans getting excited about a bunch of guys riding a bike through the mountains, en francais no less, instead of one of the most compelling and immediate sports ever invented. Don’t Americans hate the French anyway?
There is a reason boxing has been relegated to a lower tier sport. It’s not because of the corruption, the bad judging, the porous state of the heavyweight division (I know, I know, it’s not the Klitschko’s fault), or even fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao never happening. Sure, all those issues are of genuine concern, but it pales in comparison to one simple fact. The casual fan has no access to the premier fights in the sport without coming out of pocket in a way no other major sport asks you to do.
The first boxing match to broadcast through PPV was Ali-Frazier 3, the “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that PPV really started to take over the most significant matches in the fight game. Duran/Leonard and Leonard/Hearns were so successful that the practice became the norm throughout the decade and the use of PPV is now the accepted standard.
The reason for this is clear.
A lot of it. Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis brought in nearly $107 million in 2002 and Mayweather/de la Hoya topped $120 million. That’s like, real money. Not only for the fighters, but for the various promoters too. It is not however, good for the sport.
It’s hard to create new fans when the best fighters in the game are seldom accessible unless their tune-up fight is against a lower level opponent. In the case of someone like Mayweather or Pac, that doesn’t even happen. People become fans of a sport through regular access to the best the game has to offer. That simply doesn’t happen with boxing. Not only has the sport lost an entire generation to the short term PPV benefit of fast money, but over the last decade, MMA has become a legitimate competitor in the field of combat sports. Of course, the UFC is now entering the PPV arena with regularity as well, chasing boxing down the same rabbit hole.
Obviously, those cleaning up on PPV (the promoters, the various alphabet orgs, and a select few fighters) have the control over the pervasiveness of its use, and anyone who knows anything about boxing knows we are stuck with this system. It is a painfully shortsighted business plan though. Much like the United States economy, too great a percentage of the income and power is held by too few and those happy few have no interest in the long term health of the venture. It’s all “I got mine, screw you.” In case you’re wondering, that “you” is probably the you reading this right now.
As it stands now, there are essentially three tiers levels of boxing on television. PPV for the marquee fights. Showtime/HBO for the tier level just below that, and finally ESPN and the fledgling Fox, CBS, and NBC cable sports networks for the lower rung fights. The days of the major networks showing any fights at all are long gone. So, the only way to see a boxing match on television is to have at least basic cable. And even then you’ll be stuck with journeymen and—if you’re lucky—up and comers on Friday Night Fights, while Teddy Atlas waxes less than poetically, using analogies that both puzzle and amuse. Otherwise, you need an upgraded package to include HBO or Showtime for the better fights and then come off even more money to see the best contests. Much like trickle-down economics, this makes it hard on the middle class and blue collar types to take an interest in an endeavor they just might enjoy, should they ever be able to view it.
This all but ensures that the sport will continue to decline in popularity and be left with nothing but aging die-hards—like, gulp, me—as fans. To be honest, I’m not so sure we aren’t already there. Oh sure, there will be some exceptions—there always are—and there will be a bottom to the decline. But as long as people will have to pay $75 to watch Floyd Mayweather fight an all too carefully matched opponent with a lousy undercard preceding his bout, boxing will remain on the outer limits, and even those die-hards like me will start wondering what else could have been done with that money. 75 bucks is three oil changes, 5 six packs of my favorite craft beer, a couple of nice dinners, et cetera, et cetera. If those thoughts already cross my mind, what do you think is going through the minds of those who are not already initiated into our extraordinary sport? I can answer that for you. Anything but boxing.