2008 Boxing Year In Review: When Good Isn’t Good Enough

If boxing’s powers-that-be wanted to tread water in 2008 after a comeback year in 2007, well then, mission accomplished.

At the conclusion of 2007, I wrote: “Let’s face it, this resurgence is at a delicate point.” I said the sport needed to keep up what it did well over the course of the year and expand on it, or else 2007 would be merely a good year for the sport and nothing more. What’s that coveted something more? Making the best fights annually, not just in one year, and making in-roads toward leaving the ghetto of “niche sport.”

In 2008, boxing kept up much of what it did right in 2007, but not all of it, and hardly expanded anything. Graded on a curve, if 2007 was boxing’s two steps forward, 2008 was its one step back.

Oh, there were good things that happened. There really were. Let’s start there.

The year closed on something of a high note, when Manny Pacquiao defeated Oscar De La Hoya to become the face of the sport. And, mad props to what De La Hoya has done as the face of the sport, but Pacquiao, I think, is an upgrade in most regards. He’s a better fighter — the very best, in fact. He’s a more exciting fighter — one of the most exciting, in fact. I know for sure that he’s made boxing fans out of non-boxing fans, because they’ve entered my apartment one way and left another. Furthermore, he had an historic year, one that compares to the very best in boxing history: Hank Armstrong’s three-division reign over the span of 10 months.

For the second consecutive year, boxers other than heavyweights showed they could do big business, a promising development given that there’s a strong chance the heavyweight division is permanently beset by a kind of sclerotic doom. That Pacquiao-De La Hoya fight, at welterweight (147 lbs.), was the third biggest-selling pay-per-view ever for boxers who weren’t heavyweights, at 1.25 million buys. For boxers below welterweight, Pacquiao — against his least favorite dance partner, Juan Manuel Marquez — also broke pay-per-view records, when the two junior lightweights (130 lbs.) combined to bring in about 400,000 buys.

Smaller still in physical stature, junior featherweights (122 lbs.) Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez completed what may very well be the best trilogy in the history of the sport in 2008. At the very least, it deserves mention alongside Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier and a couple others that would be part of the argument. That third fight was just the epitome of boxing at its best; my headline afterward was “What Boxing Is For.” I try not to come across as too much of a boxing partisan by saying things like this, but even as someone whose favorite sport has changed over the years from baseball to basketball to boxing, I have never once felt this way about my previous favorite sports: Fights like Vazquez-Marquez III just blow away any other athletic competition for their intensity and excitement.

Pacquiao-Marquez II and Vazquez-Marquez III were both part of a stretch during March that brought weekly Fight of the Year candidates and upsets, and at least one veteran scribe said that the month of March was the best in boxing in a decade.

A 43-year-old, 170-pound Bernard Hopkins made some history himself, so artfully and thoroughly defeating rising young superstar Kelly Pavlik that some rightfully said he warranted consideration as the best over-40 athlete — not just boxer, but athlete — of all time.

Almost completely on the strength of the match-up and the resulting word of mouth, welterweights Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto did excellent pay-per-view numbers, reaping in the vicinity of 450,000 buys.

That’s all just in the United States. Boxing continues to thrive overseas in ways it does not here: Light heavyweight (175 lbs.) champion Joe Calzaghe was honored by the queen of England; in the same country, a fight featuring the junior welterweight (140 lbs.) champion, Ricky Hatton, brought an estimated live audience of 55,000; in the Philippines, rebel and government forces temporarily ceased hostilities to watch Pacquiao-Marquez II; the Klitschko brothers and others packed the house in Germany; and so on.

Hell, even the sclerotic heavyweight division showed signs of life when two heavyweights that people might be able to get behind — Vitali Klitschko and, especially, David Haye — re-debuted in 2008 among the big boys. (Which is a good thing, because the most promising bout to start 2008 that had a chance of restoring some former heavyweight clarity, Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov, was a terrible effort by both men. Not that Haye or Klitschko are certain to deliver on their promise.)

That’s the best of things inside the ring. Outside the ring, the results were more mixed. And that means I have far more to say about what boxing didn’t accomplish in 2008 than I do about the things it did right. Some of these issues, I let slide in 2007 out of goodwill and the spirit of positive reinforcement. Besides, the stronger news angle last year was that 2007 was a better year than in the past. Now, I believe, the correct angle is that boxing shouldn’t just rest on its laurels.

As they did over the last half of 2007, the major promoters managed to keep their feuds to a minimum, which enabled many of those quality bouts. More routinely than not, fighters in the top-10 pound-for-pound squared off, and the top men within divisions met up. But too many of the most important fights that could be made weren’t. There was no Floyd Mayweather-Miguel Cotto. There was no Pacquiao-Marquez III. There was no Calzaghe-Pavlik. There was no Paul Williams-Antonio Margarito II. There was no Cristian Mijares-Fernando Montiel. And so on and so on. Don’t get me wrong: Some of the bouts that were made instead were pretty good. It would be hard to top Magarito-Cotto, for instance. And bouts like Hopkins-Pavlik, which looked bad on paper, turned out to be surprisingly interesting. But as Thomas Hauser told me in this week’s interview, and I’m paraphrasing here, you’re better off if you make the 10 fights that look good on paper than not. Those important and/or exciting fights weren’t made for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll touch on momentarily, but feuds between promoters was one of them.

One of the reasons appropriate fights didn’t get made was because several fighters got greedy. Winky Wright took the whole year off, spending most of it holding out for a mega-millions fight. Pavlik definitely shouldn’t have taken the Hopkins fight, because one way or the other, it was going to make him look bad in the short-run, even if he won, given Hopkins’ difficult style; it may work out that he learns from that fight and taking it was a good move, but in the short-run he didn’t take it for that reason. He took it because he insisted on a mega-millions fight himself rather than a smaller, more developmental fight or a fight in which the match-up was more favorable to fans’ eyes. And late in 2008, Margarito walked away from a fight with Shane Mosley scheduled for early 2009 over cash, before HBO sweetened the pot enough to get him to come to his senses. I’m not of the mind that fighters in general are overpaid, but when they take or refuse fights for money alone, they hurt themselves, fans and the sport as a whole in the long-run.

While 2008 birthed the mega-stardom of Pacquiao, it was also marked by losses elsewhere in the boxing stardom constellation. Most notably, De La Hoya’s days as a mega-star are almost certainly over after the beating he took from Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather retired (however briefly it may turn out to last) just as he had broken through. Those two men were, at the beginning of 2008, easily the two biggest American superstars, and while I have my beef with Mayweather, there’s no denying that a Mayweather who mixes his forays into the mainstream a la “Dancing
With the Stars” with quality, attention-getting match-ups in the ring a la his entire 2007 brings eyes to the sport. As great as Pacquiao and his story are, he’s not an American superstar or even someone who’s an easy foreigner to sell here; likewise with Hatton, who is as likable as they come but whose biggest U.S. fan I know personally is something of an anglophile.

De La Hoya and Mayweather inhabited polar extremes of the kind of stardom we seem to like in the United States, with De La Hoya holding down the polished politician archetype (think Tom Brady, Michael Jordan) and Mayweather holding down the villainous bad boy archetype (think Terrell Owens, Allen Iverson). [There’s a third archetype I can think of — “the character” (think Muhammad Ali after he escabed the “villainous bad boy” framework, or Dennis Rodman) — but no one in the U.S. in boxing has held this one down on the level Mayweather and De La Hoya held down theirs in a while.] Mayweather’s retirement, obviously, prevented a Cotto fight from happening in 2008. A pair of potential American superstar heirs apparent — Kelly Pavlik and Juan Diaz — suffered setbacks in 2008 just as they were generating real heat, another topic I’ll get to in just a moment. There are youngsters like Chad Dawson and Paul Williams who might be able to generate that kind of heat some day, but right now, their talents exceed their personal appeals. And whether boxing purists like it or not, it takes a mixture of talent in the ring and charisma outside it to make a crossover superstar. De La Hoya and Mayweather will inevitably be replaced, but there are no obvious, surefire substitutes in the near future. With the help of their promoters, boxers who want superstardom need to find the parts of their personalities that sell and emphasize them, so people can relate to them, like them, or love to hate them.

Last year, I wrote that boxing needed to make an effort to attract more mainstream attention, and one of the recommendations was doing everything it could to get on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “Check” on that recommendation. Highlights of boxing matches, interviews with fighters before them and even smaller developments in the sport began to more routinely make SportsCenter, translating into major mainstream exposure. God knows why. No one’s ever explained the change of heart about boxing at SportsCenter, and I’d like to see even more intelligent coverage of boxing on the program, but the trend is real and has been fairly prolonged. On the other hand, that’s about the best I can think of that the sport as a whole did in 2008 that was different from what it did in 2007 to lift boxing’s profile. There were major press tours for Pacquiao-De La Hoya, and those should be a regular part of the sport, but they happened for Mayweather-De La Hoya in 2007. The major promoters only recently have begun to figure out the Internet can be a tool for promoting fights, and then only in small ways, like the way Pacquiao-De La Hoya had some Facebook tie-ins. I like what Lou DiBella did over Christmas, putting boxers in New York City storefront windows, but that’s a baby step that you’d need a lot more of to add up to anything. And boxing’s flirtation with Internet broadcasts, while a good trend, hasn’t taken off the way it could or should.

One thing that could expand boxing’s profile in the United States is more shows outside of Las Vegas. Shows in Tennessee and Newark, N.J., proved at least modest successes in 2008, which demonstrated that there’s a thirst out there for boxing that’s untapped in locations besides the casinos. But why in the world wasn’t Hatton-Paulie Malignaggi in New York City, where Malignaggi has a fan base? There are signs that promoters are catching on here about the need to develop regional attractions and make boxing a sport that thrives everywhere; Pavlik’s next fight will be in his native Ohio, for instance, and young prospects Luis Yanez and Fernando Guerrero have promoters who recognize their appeal in Texas and Maryland, respectively.

Pay-per-view boxing should be the exception, not the rule, but in 2008, it was again the rule. At one point, Shane Mosley-Zab Judah was going to be a ppv, before Judah got injured. Can you imagine? And as much as I like Juan Manuel Marquez, everyone should have seen it coming that a match-up with fellow counter-puncher Joel Casamayor would do abysmal business. There were nine major ppvs in 2008 that I can count — far too many. So far in 2009, there is only one major prospective ppv event in the first half of the year, a good trend if it didn’t look like HBO et al are dialing back because of the economy, not because they recognize that ppv events mean fewer people see boxing and are therefore unable to become boxing fans. HBO still thinks far too much in the short-term for my liking, among its many other problems.

And then when we buy the pay-per-views, they’re often loaded with just flat shitty undercards. HBO says that its research indicates people buy shows no matter what kind of undercard they put on, but I’ll say it again: I personally know a great many people who said they would have bought Pacquiao-De La Hoya if it had a better undercard. I understand it was a success, but it would have been much more of a success with a quality undercard. It really would have. And yes, that would require a little cash investment — not as big a problem for the quality undercards of mixed martial arts events, since boxers are paid better — but I’d argue that creativity has a track record. Take this Dan Rafael report on the excellent Jermain Taylor-Jeff Lacy undercard and how it compared to the numbingly awful Calzaghe-Roy Jones undercard (which I might have bought, by the way, with a better undercard): “And get this — DiBella said it cost him only about $100,000. Jones’ company, which put the undercard together for its show, spent about $500,000…” Every undercard should have at least one great match-up between lesser fighters and bouts that feature up-and-comers matched extremely competitively. At least. And it should consider another MMA innovation here, giving out awards in each card for “knockout of the night” and the like, which would help ensure the fighters make exciting fights.

While fewer pay-per-views translates into more fights watched on television, things that happened in 2008 means we’ll almost certainly experience a net loss of boxing on television in 2009. This was the year we saw the demise of ESPN2’s “Wednesday Night Fights” and Telefutura’s “Solo Boxeo” because of budget cuts at both networks. Versus appears poised to step into the breach and televise more fights, but my understanding is that it’s in fewer homes than ESPN2, and even though it arrived as a big player by airing the cruiserweight (200 lbs.) championship fight between Steve Cunningham and Tomasz Adamek, its plans for 2009 are a mystery to even some of the people who work there.

The Holy Grail, as always, is getting boxing back on network television, but despite some rumbles in 2008 from Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions about making that happen, it didn’t happen.

There are a couple problems for which I confess to having no solution. The United States farm system for producing excellent fighters is in bad disrepair. Fixing the current Olympic scoring system so that it more closely resembles professional boxing judging would help, but that’s a fairly intractable travesty, and would only go part of the way. Although boxing judging didn’t have as many ugly mishaps in 2008 as it did in 2007, it ended with what was widely seen as a robbery of Evander Holyfield in his bid for another heavyweight title strap against Nicolay Valuev. Something still needs to be done to improve boxing judging, but honestly, I don’t know what; the scoring system is, for better or worse, about as good as anyone’s come up with.

Of all the problems, if the
re’s one that everyone thinks should be fixed, it is the lack of one clear champion per division.
On the list of things people who don’t follow boxing say about pugilism to me, it’s the whole “I don’t know who the champion is” line that I hear the most. And yet, the promoters and networks all spend more time hyping the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF belts than they do the best available title strap, the lineal Ring magazine championship belt. I know the gripes about a magazine handing out a championship belt, but my answer to that is, a committee of journalists, not all affiliated with the magazine, hand out the rankings, and we don’t seem to have much of a problem with that in other sports, like, say, college basketball. Any championship policy is going to have its flaws, and every sport struggles with playoff formats and computer systems and the like. But the Ring policy is the best out there. And a couple fighters in 2008 seemed to recognize it. Hatton fought Malignaggi with no belt on the line other than the Ring belt, which doesn’t charge sanctioning fees, and rather than put up with a mandatory defense, Malignaggi gave up his own alphabet title strap to fight Hatton. Calzaghe, long a bit of a whore to the alphabet titles he’d won, gave up an alphabet title strap to fight Hopkins for his Ring belt instead.

This is where we, as fans come in. There are a few things we need to be doing more or less of ourselves.

For one, we need to stop caring about the alphabet title belts so that the promoters, networks and fighters themselves do, too. They only have status with those organizations insofar as we give it to them. And while a lot of fans recognize the alphabet title belts are a corrosive force in the sport, too many give them credence they don’t deserve. Stop saying in the chat rooms, “He’s the IBF champ so that should count for something!” Screw that. It should count for nothing. This is the way the marketplace works, friends. There’s nobody who looks like they can make the IBF et al go away by force. It’s going to have to come from the grassroots and echo up so far that HBO and Showtime stop peddling people as “champions” who aren’t. Only when everyone understands that the IBF champion is NOT the champion will they stop being portrayed as such. I tell everyone who asks me who the REAL champion is, not who the alphabet titlist is. It takes a little explaining, sure, but it’s worth it. We all should be doing some evangelism for the Ring belt, and I’m planning to do more on that front in 2009. Once we, as boxing fans, make all the non-boxing fans understand who the real champ in each division is, it’ll make it that much easier for others to do so as well.

For another thing, we boxing fans need to be more understanding of the risks of boxing. I don’t mean we need to be more understanding of fighters taking easy fights rather than hard ones. We should shout for boxers to fight difficult competition until they do. No, I mean, two specific risks: 1. The danger to boxers’ lives and 2. The fact that losses happen when boxers fight difficult competition.

Too often, I see people griping about fights being stopped earlier rather than later.
You want to see boxing confined to an even deeper ghetto than it’s in now? Here’s the recipe: A dehydrated Oscar De La Hoya, taking a fearsome beating, keeps fighting against Manny Pacquiao out of fear about how fans will perceive him if he quits, and because of the combination of those conditions, ends up dead or with brain damage. Don’t forget, a ring death (Duk Koo Kim’s) helped shuffle boxing off network television. Some ring deaths are unavoidable; most aren’t. Here’s another area where MMA has the right idea: They err on the side of stopping fights early rather than later. I’m not saying fighters shouldn’t be criticized for poor efforts, but when a ref, doctor or trainer won’t pull the plug, then the fighter has little choice. (Incidentally, refs and trainers ought to get more proactive about pulling the plug even when a fighter protests.)

And too often, boxing fans write off a fighter after one loss. Last year, it seemed, there was something of a grace period, where fans still wanted to see the likes of Mikkel Kessler after he suffered his first loss in the toughest fight of his career against Calzaghe. This year, we as fans appear to have backtracked. Suddenly, after a master boxer named Hopkins defeated Pavlik, he was “exposed.” That is to say, all of his wins before where we celebrated him are somehow worthless now. Certainly, Hopkins exposed some flaws in his game, so maybe if you said “Hopkins exposed Pavlik’s weaknesses,” that’d be accurate, but the idea that he, as a fighter in the whole, was “exposed?” If you’re Pavlik now, and you hear fans saying you got exposed, what’s the incentive for you to again seek out top competition when you could make the same amount in four fights against lackluster competition that you can against one good fighter? Again, I have a problem with Pavlik taking the Hopkins fight for altogether different reasons, but Pavlik shouldn’t shy away from fighting tough opponents because of that loss. In MMA, a loss isn’t a death sentence. And, I’ve read this in enough places that it doesn’t just sound like reminiscing about the good old days: Long ago, a fighter with losses on his record just meant he’d been in against top competition, and fans understood that. It’s time for us to understand it again.

There’s an alternative, of course: None of this changes, and boxing can be happy with itself as a niche sport, one that makes enough money to keep everyone pleased with themselves. There is, after all, something to be said — and I don’t know where I read this phrase recently — for boxing as the sporting world’s “Red Light District.” We can keep having multiple title belts so that nobody understands who’s the champion, but at least everyone’s got a belt to make them feel better about themselves; we can root for conditions where ring deaths are more likely than not, because some boxing fans do have a bloodlust that exceeds mine; we can tolerate bad match-ups if one promoter doesn’t like another, because hey, promoter fights are sometimes as fun as the fights themselves. Presumably, even in this dystopian vision, an occasional good fight will sneak out, making it worthwhile to put up with all the b.s.

But from where I’m sitting, that’s not good enough.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.