Heavyweight Boxing Is Dead In America, But Can Be Revived
*Originally appeared on OpeningRound.com*
By: Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire) Editor-In-Chief
Last night (April 25th), the indomitable force that is Wladimir Klitschko successfully defended his WBA, IBFM, WBO and Ring Magazine titles against formerly undefeated American pugilist Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden. If this was 1965, 1985 or even 1995, this would be on the front page of every paper, sports networks would have round-the-clock coverage and kids would be getting into fist fights to defend their pick to win. But, it’s 2015 and no one really cares for multiple reasons. One reason is that this will be the first time in eight years that the Ukranian-born Klitschko, the most dominant heavyweight boxer of the last 10 years, would be defending the heavyweight title in America. Another reason is the once mesmerizingly rambunctious and entertainingly arrogant heavyweight boxing has devolved into a sport where this is considered trash talking:
DEVELOP AMERICAN BOXERS THAT MATTER EARLY
For all intents and purposes, interest in the heavyweight division died when three boxers either retired or precipitously declined in skill: Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, Mike “Iron Mike” Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Of the 35 highest boxing gates ever, only eight involve heavyweight fights. Of the 10 most lucrative boxing bouts on Pay-Per-View, five were for heavyweights fights. All of those heavyweight fights involved either Holyfield, Tyson or Lewis and none occurred after the disappointing Lennox Lewis/Mike Tyson fight in 2002. There have been no marketable heavyweights consistently fighting in America to capture the U.S. imagination with a personality and story as entertaining as their boxing prowess. Lewis summed up the general thinking of casual boxing fans for the past 15 years in a 2012 interview with The Mirror:
"But where are all the big guys? There are none - we are waiting for the next volcano to erupt, and I'm bored of waiting.”
Where are the 6’6, 245+ lbs American boxers with a reach long enough to keep Klitschko at bay and a hunger ravenous enough to end the Ukranian occupation of the heavyweight division? “I've also heard tales about 14- and 15-year-olds leaving boxing programmes to play [American] football and basketball,” says Stan Hoffman, former trainer of the last man to knockout Lennox Lewis, in 2006. “We have to offer something in return to keep the fighters. They have to want to be boxers."
Muhammad Ali’s boisterous trash talking and transcendent boxing skills may have influenced thousands of boxers to enter the ring but the uncontrollable shaking of a Parkinson's disease-riddled Ali of the last 20+ years may be the biggest deterrent for young men’s desire to enter heavyweight boxing. You risk never being able to walk again in exchange of infrequent paydays and fleeting attention that is usually nonexistent when there is no fight to promote. So the answer to developing talent is simple:
Put your money where the future fists are.
HBO and Showtime have been two of the biggest supporters of boxing programming, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and views from the sport over just the last 15 years. Each offer college scholarships, but only in the creative field. Football and basketball are two of only six sports which offer full-ride scholarships; boxing is not one of the other four, but volleyball and tennis are. HBO and Showtime need to take some of their combined $2.7 billion in earnings from 2014 and establish over 80 full ride heavyweight boxing scholarships to any school in America.
The scholarships would be contingent on the student-athlete’s involvement in amateur boxing with a guaranteed contract and first fight promotion on HBO or Showtime. Helping kids go to college for free, make a bit of money in a stipend and guaranteed to be on cable television once he graduates and turns pro would even the playing field with football and basketball which offer insanely lucrative yet duplicitous guaranteed contracts. I mean, your chances of being seen on TV is exponentially greater in boxing whre there’s just you and your opponent than in any other team sport.
Make a Heavyweight Title Tournament
Klitschko is 39 -- older than Lenox Lewis, Muhammed Ali, Rocky Marciano and Joe Lewis when they retired-- and has not lost a boxing match in over a decade. He informed SI Now he doesn’t feel 39, but a bicep injury during sparring in August 2014 forced him to postpone his September 6, 2014 title defense against Kubrat Pulev until November 15. Klitschko eventually annihilated Pulev in five rounds, but the injury could be sign of his body wearing down as he is eight title defenses away from tying Joe Louis’ record of 25. His older brother, Vitali Klitschko retired for the first time a decade ago at 34 as the WBC Heavyweight Champion after he realized he was “spending more time with my injuries than with my opponents inside the ring” according to him in his retirement statement. Even though Vitali would return in 2008, regain his WBC title against Klitscho family foe Samuel Peter in an October 2008 bout and kept it for the next five years, he retired in December 2013 to pursue political ambitions in the Ukraine.
If and when Vitali’s younger brother Wladimir retires, a tournament of the best heavyweight boxers would:
- Show there’s parity and actual competition in the division
- Increase the suspense because a loss in a tournament precludes a rematch and thus is truly sudden death.
Klitschko may not even need to retire for this to come to fruition. The World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation have been discussing a champions of champions tournament to unify the titles in multiple divisions.
DIVERSIFY TV COVERAGE AND MAKE BOXERS HUMAN
ESPN’s Jemelle Hill appeared on Best of Mike and Mike in the Morning on April 24th and explained how boxing’s decline can be attributed to its exodus from broadcast television on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports to pay-per-view and cable. ABC’s Wide World of Sports showed amateur boxing bouts infrequently between 1964 and 1997 with the final boxing match aired being the first women’s professional boxing match between Former kickboxer Yvonne Trevino and Brenda Rouse. While professional heavyweight bouts were not aired, Hill did address the second biggest problem facing boxing: you HAVE to pay to watch the fights.
When HBO temporarily stopped airing heavyweight boxing fights in 2010 because America stopped caring, it lost one of the largest platforms that helped propel the sport in the 1990s. Showtime still shows heavyweight bouts on its channel with Showtime Championship Boxing, even recently airing Deontay Wilder becoming the first American WBC heavyweight world champion in eight years this past January after defeating Canadian-born Bermane Stiverne in a unanimous decision. A month later, its parent company CBS announced CBS Sports will return to airing boxing matches after 18 years. So far the fights have been entertaining, but have mostly featured light heavyweights and lightweight boxers. Klitschko fights are routinely picked up by HBO but similar to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight being co-sponsored by HBO and Showtime, I’m sure Time Warner (HBO’s parent company) and CBS Sports could have arranged for the Klitschko vs Jennings bout to be a prime time main event on CBS as a perfect build up for their crown jewel of Mayweather vs Pacquiao the week after.
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao’s tickets did not sell out in 60 seconds because these are two of the best fighters of the last 20 years, but because the public has been inundated with behind-the-scenes/days-in-the-life/retrospective mini-documentaries and TV specials for every one of their respective fights for the past eight years. Watch just the first five minutes of HBO’s Full Face Off With Max Kellerman in 2011 where Klitschko verbally destroys his opponent David Haye. You don’t think the American public would have loved to see Klitschko detail how he’s going to “mop up” former maintenance man Bryant Jennings? You don’t think a 24/7 in-depth look at the rags to riches story of Bryant Jennings’ rise would not develop a everyman vs international dictator narrative would not have captured the nation’s attention given the fact another powerful Black man and international dictator have been in the news beefing?
If professional heavyweight boxing wants to return to the glory days of 91 second knockouts and boxing in Yankee Stadium it needs to destroy old customs, rebuild the sport under a concerted effort to develop talent and make boxers more than just fighters but humans on TV.
Basically let Floyd Mayweather Jr fix it.
*Article originally featured on OpeningRound.com*