The U.S. Constitution requires the President to periodically go before Congress and address “The State of the Union.” The oration, customarily delivered in January, always touches upon the state of the economy.
What follows are the results of a study that yield something akin to a “State of the Union” address for professional boxing in the United States. I think we can all agree that 2017 was a strong year for the sport. After a weak 2016, the pendulum swung back. But was the increase in quality accompanied by an increase in quantity? Did the up-tick encourage more activity at the grass roots level?
In the U.S., there was actually a slight decline in the total number of shows from 2016 to 2017, from 621 in 2016 to 595 last year. During this two-year period, boxing shows at the professional level were staged in 46 states plus the District of Columbia. But this is misleading as eight states accounted for slightly more than half (613) of the 1216 nationwide boxing events. California topped the list by a wide margin.
TOP 8 STATES IN
New York 53
West Virginia 50
No. Carolina 41
The states with the most boxing activity – those in the top five — are also the states with the largest populations. It’s an almost perfect correlation. California and Texas are America’s most populous states, followed by Florida and New York. Pennsylvania checks in at number six, having been recently overtaken by Illinois.
The correlation was equally strong at the bottom end. Only four states had zero boxing shows in 2015 and 2016: Alaska, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. These four states rank inside the bottom five in population with Wyoming ranking last.
Of course, there are other factors involved. California and Texas rank 1-2 in the number of their citizens that identify as Hispanic or Latino. It figures that boxing would proliferate in places where there are large swaths of people in this demographic tier. Surveys have shown that boxing is the second-most popular sport in Mexico, trailing only soccer. In places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, only baseball out-ranks boxing in popularity.
West Virginia is an anomaly. The Mountaineer State isn’t very large (#38 in population) and the population is overwhelmingly native-born and white. But boxing activity at the grass roots level has tended to flourish where oversight is lax and this has always been true of West Virginia.
Historically, West Virginia has been a place where promoters go to fatten the records of fighters they control so they will command a higher price when they are sent off — perhaps to Europe — to serve as prey for a hot prospect. How many good boxers can you name from West Virginia? In 1999 when Sports Illustrated named the top 50 sports figures in each state, either living or dead, there was only one boxer on West Virginia’s list, Christy Martin, and her selection was also influenced by her prowess in basketball.
North Carolina, even more than West Virginia, has been a “feeder lot” for fighters being groomed as an opponent. The Tar Heel State produced one world heavyweight titlist (one-hit wonder James “Bonecrusher” Smith), but when I think of boxing in North Carolina the name that jumps to mind is Don Steele. Fighting almost exclusively in North Carolina and South Carolina, he was 41-0 with 41 KOs when he was packed off to Copenhagen to serve as fodder for Brian Nielsen. The Dane, who was no great shakes himself despite his impressive record, exposed the self-styled “Man of Steel,” blowing him away in the second round.
The amount of activity is hardly a good barometer for gauging the health of any sport, especially boxing. If it were, then boxing would contribute more to the economy of West Virginia than it does to the economy of Nevada. But activity is a good measure of the extent to which boxing is embedded in our culture.
Based on this little study, the gains made by boxing in 2017 did not filter down to the grass roots level in the United States. But I think we can all agree that it was still a very good year.
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