Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My thoughts on Boxing

Last Saturday, HBO showed the Vitali Klitschko - Chris Arreloa heavyweight championship fight. To my surprise, it was not on PPV so I bunkered down to watch it. Fortunately, they replayed the Mayweather-Marquez bout from the week before as well. That would've cost me somewhere around $60 bucks so I'm glad they replayed it for free. Interestingly, both fights were very similar - the favored, more technically skilled fighter (Mayweather and Klitschko) employing a defensive strategy while the overmatched Mexican fighters kept coming forward, in vain. Mayweather and Klitschko both won easily, both having connected with 3 to 4 times more punches than their opponent while also maintaining a hugely disproportionate margin in punch percentages.

One of the best sports events I've ever been to was the Klitscko - Corrie Sanders fight in 2004 at the Staples Center. I was still working for Foxsports at the time and I was gifted a media pass to go inside. The atmosphere was enthralling - there is really nothing quite like a boxing match. The energy inside the arena, even pre-fight, was contagious and there were famous celebrities everywhere. It was the place to be. But what was more interesting to me was that so many other fighters were also in attendance. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield among others walked right past where I was loitering. It remains the only sporting event where people dress up in suits and even tuxes. That fight was much like Sat's fight - Klitschko let Sanders come forward but made him pay the price. To commemorate that night, I bought a $5 fight shirt outside Staples showing both pugilist's menacing faces set to a black background. I still wear it to this day, though it probably scares my son.

Mixed Martial Arts has recently found a greater mainstream following that has coincided with the decline of boxing in the national sports consciousness. UFC in particular has done a great job of marketing its sport to young men and it has made boxing seem outdated. The reasons for this are many. There is a higher chance and a seemingly higher rate overall of actual knockouts since they wear thinner gloves. The fact that kicking and wrestling (submission) are also permitted allows for the clash of so many difference fighting styles and makes it an interesting watch. I also think the fact that fighters can finish off a dazed fighter by continuing to strike him on the ground is satisfying to fans, as gruesome as it is. On the other hand, the pinnacle of boxing fervor was when Mike Tyson was at his best. After his unjust jail sentence and unsuccessful return to the ring in the infamous bout #2 vs Holyfield, boxing began its precipitous decline. Today, there are no real American heavyweight contenders to speak of and most of the hype lies in the welterweight to middleweight classes.

In 2007, boxing wrested the national spotlight away from MMA temporarily when Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya faced off in the ring. I was actually able to drum up enough interest among friends to pool together the funds to buy the fight. (Actually, now that I think about it, a few people flaked so I had to come up with the difference.) While the fight itself wasn't that great, it did set the record for PPV buys at 2.4 million (trumping Tyson-Holyfield II's 1.99 million buys). It generated $120 million and Oscar pocketed an astounding $52 million dollars (while Mayweather took a paltry $25 million). The previous high was $35 million for Tyson-Holyfield.

As a result of that fight, a series of subsequent fights also captured some public interest: Mayweather-Hatton, Pacquiao-De La Hoya, Pacquiao-Hatton. With the golden boy's skills clearly diminished, Oscar finally retired (as did Hatton, fresh off 2 defeats). This sets up the match we all really want to see. The battle of the pound for pound #1 and #2 in the world (as determined by Ring Magazine): Mayweather-Pacquiao. Mayweather just beat Marquez while Pacquiao is set to fight Miguel Cotto in November. If Pacquiao gets through that one, we might get to see the match of the decade.

Ironically, neither Mayweather or Pacquiao actually hold any of the current championship belts. How can a fight of these 2 champions possibly not be for any championship titles? How can the pound for pound best fighters in the sport not hold belts? If the sport of Boxing ever wants to be respected and truly relevant like the NFL or NBA again, the process of crowning champions needs to be free from corruption and transparent. If it were up to me, these are the changes that I would make.

1) No more PPV. Championship boxing needs to be on the major networks or on cable tv. Not pay per view. I understand that with boxers like De La Hoya capable of making $52 million per fight, this may never change. But the fact is, mainstream sports should be on mainstream networks. You can't truly sell your sport if you make it difficult to reach the casual fan. You can't even see highlights on ESPN afterward. As much as I want to see Pacquiao-Cotto, I'd rather keep my $60 bucks in my wallet and watch UCLA-Wash St.

2) Too many belts. Why the heck are there 4 different belts? It makes the word "championship" irrelevant. All we want to know is who is the best fighter in the weight class. So there's the WBC (World Boxing Council 1963), the WBA (World Boxing Association 1962), the IBF (International Boxing Federation 1983), and WBO (World Boxing Organization 1989). Ridiculous. There can't be 4 heavyweight champions of the world. There can only be 1. Ring magazine has done an admirable job in trying to crown true weight class champions by putting forth rigid prerequisites to become the Ring champion. However, until a sanctioning body can enforce it, Ring magazine's proclamations remain "punchless". I say we call the real championship title the WBF - World Boxing Federation champion. Hah.

3) Championship structure. By structure, I mean a clear system on how contenders earn their way to the championship fights. Promoters can seemingly pit any 2 fighters they want at any time. While this can make for entertaining match-ups, it isn't a fair way of determining champions. I think there should be a set list of 16 contenders in each class determined every 2 years. During these 2 years, there should be a 4 group round-robin, then playoff type of structure so that championship fights will occur at the same time at the conclusion of the 2 year cycle. The championship fighter will have fought 3 group fights and 3 playoff fights. 6 fights in 2 years is not too much if the group fights are limited to 7 rounds. This way, championship belts are earned transparently.

4) A more accountable scoring system. The 3 judges must be able to explain their decisions round by round. Just like figure skating or any other sport whose winner is determined by judges, there is a subjective aspect of boxing that must be scrutinized closely and defended openly.

5) End the corruption. This is the product of the astronomical amounts of money that can be made. But there needs to be a honest governing body (WBF) that protects the integrity of the sport, if that even exists. A strong commissioner with a healthy amount of power (like NFL Commissioner Goodell or NBA Commissioner Stern, not that pathetic MLB commissioner) can accomplish much. Boxing should not rely on promoters anymore. Most care only about making money, not about the sport.

Ultimately, I know these changes will not happen because of the money. So all I'm hoping for is an American heavyweight contender to emerge. The Klitschko brothers won't fight each other so the only hope for boxing's heavyweight relevance in the US is if we come up with our own contender. There's something about the heavyweight fights that is so much more special than the lighter weight classes. Nobody would've cared about David without a Goliath. (For further proof, did you see Shaq get into the ring with the retired De La Hoya in his primetime show? Shaq had a puncher's chance simply because he was huge). You just can't argue with the fact that the best boxer in the world is always the heavyweight. Always.

But for now, I'm really hoping for a Pacquiao victory vs Cotto and an eventual matchup vs Mayweather. At least we can all crown our own mythical universal "WBF" boxing champion after that.

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