The sweet science is out of flavor
Published 2:10 pm Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Boxing has been called the “sweet science” by the media and its most ardent fans for most of our lives.
Its precipitous decline in the consciousness of the American sports fan in the past decade or so was measured in TV ratings from HBO and Showtime. There, you can still find the big title bouts — featuring the sport’s aging, some would say mediocre, stars going through one tomato can after another like a bad pasta chef.
This was evident when, to my surprise, a heavyweight title fight came on basic cable last Saturday afternoon. Current heavyweight champ Vladimir Klitschko defeated someone named Alex Leapai to defend the five different brands under which the title exists. I thought I’d never see the day when title bouts wouldn’t be on pay-per-view or premium cable. This one was, but for reasons that have nothing to do with popularity.
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Weekend before last, Bernard Hopkins, who is still fighting at the ripe age of 49, became the oldest fighter ever to unify title belts in a weight class by doing so in the light-heavyweight category. He bested Beibut Shumenov that averaged only 760,000 viewers over the course of the fight, according to Neilsen Media Research. That figure allows for a lot of tuning in and tuning out, not that all 760,000 stayed tuned in.
Compare this with the 600,000 people in 1988 who told their cable TV providers many months in advance that they wanted to watch Mike Tyson defend the undisputed heavyweight title against Michael Spinks. Look inside those numbers and it’s easy to extrapolate how many more folks would have watched Tyson’s 91-second annihilation of Spinks on basic cable than sat through an aging champ’s walkover versus the no-names that litter the sport nowadays.
Beyond statistics, there is no buzz about boxing, except when it involves some sort of controversy outside the action in the ring. Sometimes, the controversy is as close as the judging. In 2013, fights that were blowouts to anyone with a pair of eyes were marred by judges decisions — Floyd Mayweather’s welterweight title defense against Canelo Alvarez went from an obvious unanimous decision to a puzzling majority decision, while Bryan Vera’s middleweight about Juilo Cesar Chavez Jr. went to the son of the legendary champion went unofficial observers thought Vera was the better fighter that night.
Despite the element of shade and that the Don Kings and Bob Arums of the sport tend to carry with them, they still found a way to pair the best fighters against one another. The list should roll off your mind like the alphabet — Ali-Frazier, Ali-Foreman, Clay-Liston, Leonard-Hagler, Leonard-Duran, Holmes-Spinks, Tyson-Holyfield (we were all ears for that one, weren’t we?), Bowe-Holyfield, Lewis-Tyson and so, so many other great fights.
In previous decades, people flocked around any radio they could find to listen to Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson, and others because the sport was still all about the fights, not the glitz and bling. And it looks obvious that Mayweather won’t ever fight Manny Pacquiao. A litany of excuses has been given, and none of them make me want to stomach the state of boxing any longer.
Are the smelly urban gyms of yesteryear simply bereft of talent nowadays? I don’t know the answer to that. Gone are the days of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and NBC’s “Sportsworld” would bring boxing’s “bench players” waiting for a title shot into your living room. Into a void left by promoters and their petty politics, legal actions and other excuses has stepped UFC and MMA.
Neither can compete with the formal discipline of the Queensberry Rules that govern boxing, but perhaps both have tapped into the public’s current confusion over what constitutes action. In November 2011, two people named Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez fought for the UFC’s heavyweight crown. I might have heard their names while flipping channels, but my research tells me their bout attracted 8.8 million viewers — the most for a combat sports event since the controversial Lennox Lewis-Vitali Klitschko fight in 2003. These two multifaceted “fight sports” have quite a following, but, oddly, their champions don’t appear to have any more sticking power in the public consciousness than some of boxing’s contenders these days. I just don’t get it.
Also, the weakness of the sport is shown in the ages of its most visible titleholders. Hopkins is 49, Mayweather is 37, Pacquiao is 35, and Vladimir Klitschko is 38. Those numbers used to get guys flattened in the ring because they were too old. Now, they’ve turned into the aforementioned pasta chefs, turning that some macaroni over and over again. Is there no one of any talent to vanquish these seemingly ageless warriors? Evidently not.
It doesn’t figure to get any better for purists like me who enjoy the pure, structured form of one man challenging another man’s skill in a ring of about 18 square feet. If I wanted to watch street fighting, I’d rent “Fight Club” or something. I guess it’s back to the vault for me. I wonder which legendary fight I’ll pop into my wayback machine tonight.
Danny Barrett Jr. is a reporter and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 601-636-4545.