Disheartening Heavyweight Unification Coverage

So here is boxing, finally setting about the business of fixing something that all of its critics have always said is one of the major reasons the sport has faded — its muddled heavyweight division — and the stories in major newspapers this morning say, in effect:
Boxing Dead Because Of Muddled Heavyweight Division
That’s a simplification of the coverage, of course, but I’d hoped for better. When I saw that The New York Times had given Saturday’s heavyweight unification fight between Vladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov some play this morning, I verged on excitement. Here, at last, was a sports page in no less than the preeminent American newspaper actually covering boxing!
I should have known it wouldn’t turn out that way.

Look, I’m not some mindless basher of the media. By God, I am the media, if not because I’m covering Klitschko-Ibragimov live from Madison Square Garden, then because it’s how I make a living in my “day job” as a professional journalist.
And, to be fair, the articles — in not only the Times, but The International Herald Tribune and The Washington Post — make a great many negative points about boxing that are indisputably true. Boxing is not what it once was in the United States. There are no great American heavyweights. Et cetera. Newspapers traditionally have, for better or worse (I argue better) focused on the negative, because that’s where there’s the most value in shining the watchdog spotlight, so that, too, is fairly defensible.
But my opinion of this is, they’ve missed the story. They’ve taken the wrong angle. They’re focusing on the old news. The New York Times wrote an appropriately befuddled article last April about all the heavyweight title belts that belonged to Russians. It was a great article. It was the right story at the right time.
There is no “new” in the news that boxing is not what it once was. There is no “new” in the news that, as one headline had it, “Today’s Great Heavyweights Come From Abroad.” And there’s not much watchdog value in pointing it out.
The news, in my judgment, is that for the first time since 1999, the heavyweights are unifying their titles. Klitschko and Ibragimov are, anyway. A complete unification will be difficult; alphabet soup sanctioning organizations like the WBO and IBF are political, money-making bodies, less concerned about the sanctity of the sport and whether there is one consensus champion than they are cold hard cash. But this is the start. Want to “get ahead of the story,” as we sometimes say in journalism, to spotlight the negative in this? Focus on the difficult unification road ahead, and thereby put pressure on the remaining various alphabet organizations to stand aside and let more heavyweight belts be unified.
Maybe I’m missing the point. I am something of a partisan for boxing’s success, I confess. I try to be an honest observer, though. And my data says boxing is far from dead, even in America. I’ve written about what a breakthrough year 2007 was. I’ve written about how accounts of boxing’s death in the U.S. are, aside from the heavyweight division that I’ve never much been attracted to, just flat false. It’s a matter of degrees; boxing is, definitely, not held in the same esteem by the American public as it was in the 1950s or even in the 1980s, and if you say that, I can’t argue with you. But it’s on an upswing. And Saturday night’s heavyweight unification fight should be one reason for that upswing, judging by the popular criticism about public sentiment turning against boxing because of the lack of clarity in the heavyweight division. There will be more clarity after Saturday night, unless there’s a draw. Please by all that is holy, don’t… be… a draw.
Now, on to some nitpicking. If nitpicking’s not your bag, you don’t need this. But if you’re into blogs, chances are you relish the picking of such fights, as friend-of-the-site The Debate Link pointed out here:
The New York Times/International Herald-Tribune (the IHT being something of a sister paper to the NYT) nexus irked me something awful.
The IHT piece asserts that “boxing, once an international sports staple, is now a niche diversion.” I take issue with that. It’s still an international sports staple — check out the article’s listed rise in Britain and elsewhere. It’s just not a national sports staple in America. It’s a niche sport here, one that occasionally crosses over into mainstream attention.
The IHT piece is operating in a pre-2007 mindset about where boxing is vis-a-vis top fighters facing each other when it makes this comparison: “Think how frustrated tennis fans would feel if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had avoided playing in the same tournaments for years. But boxing is a more contentious and even litigious matter, one where protecting one’s turf seems nearly as important as protecting one’s chin.” Klitschko-Ibragimov is one example of that trend being bucked in the heavyweight division. Count the number of pound-for-pound top fighters who have faced off against each other since 2007 and who are expected to this year, and you’ll see that more often than not, the best are indeed these days facing the best. Often, as the article itself points out, by making small sacrifices (for Klitschko, cash) for the greater good.
The author takes Klitschko to task for having 3 losses, which is actually the kind of mindset that reinforces the notion that the best fighters shouldn’t take risks and fight other top boxers — a major problem with boxing for years. If you’re going to get blasted in the IHT for having three losses and 49 wins, why bother taking a chance?
Between them, the NYT and IHT mangle the facts about Ibragimov’s trainer: IHT says he’s Jeff Mayweather, brother of Floyd Mayweather Jr.; one NYT piece says he’s Jeff Meriweather. For the record, that’s Jeff Mayweather, uncle of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Perhaps the writer of one of the two NYT pieces was employing exaggeration, but when all but the $50 tickets to a heavyweight fight in Madison Square Garden are sold out, I sneer at the premise of this question: “When, exactly, did boxing’s glamour division turn into the American marketing equivalent of Olympic weightlifting, or women’s tennis with unshaved legs?” I suppose that means basketball and baseball stadiums with less sterling attendance at individual games has sunken to the level of “women’s tennis with unshaven legs.”
At least the papers give some credit to Klitschko for his brains and charitable impulses.
(The second NYT piece, aside from the Meriweather/Mayweather slip-up, is pretty OK.)
The Post piece is among the least objectionable. It leads with the most newsworthy angle on the non-news of foreign heavyweights — that Saturday night’s contest is the only Madison Square Garden heavyweight championship fight not involving an American dating back to 1882. The author says that string of fights was for “the world heavyweight boxing championship.” It’s not clear to me which “world heavyweight boxing championship” the author means, because to my knowledge, neither Klitschko or Ibragimov are the linear champs, and certainly neither are The Ring’s champs. Presumably the author means “a world heavyweight championship belt.” (That this needs to be clarified is in and of itself a notch against boxing, but, again, times are, so far, a’changin’.)
I disagree with Emmanuel Steward’s opinion expressed in the piece that older boxers like Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya are “hanging on” because there “aren’t any younger fighters coming up.” I think Mosley’s still around because he’s still good — Miguel Cotto is a “younger fighter” who’s quite excellent and well thought of by older, more grizzled scribes, and Mosley nearly beat him last year. De La Hoya’s still around because he’s good enough to be competitive with “younger fighters” like the sport’s very best, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and because he’s a money machine. Older fighters always hang around too long, and the good ones muster competitiveness. I could give you a laundry list of them who did it in the 50s.
It’s unclear why the author believes that “De La Hoya, in 1992, was the last bona fide star to emerge from the [U.S. Olympic] team.” De La Hoya is one of America’s all-time bona fide boxing stars. Against that standard, few can compare. Mayweather, the second biggest star in boxing today — you know, the one who appeared on “Dancing With The Stars” last year, who is a featured guest at the upcoming “Wrestlemania,” whose pay-per-view buys this year were the best ever single year total for a boxer ever — came out of the 1996 Olympic team. It levels off from there, but Fernando Vargas did OK for himself, as have the likes of Antonio Tarver, who starred as the villain in “Rocky Balboa.”
Trainer Lou Duva, quoted in the article, shouldn’t be “debating whether to plunk down $50 to watch the pay-per-view telecast with friends.” Klitschko-Ibragimov is on regular HBO, not pay-per-view. Which is better.
Credit due: The author does an excellent job, in my view, of breaking down the ailing U.S. amateur system and the various attempts to rescue it; the article told me things I’d never heard before. He correctly pinpoints the other reasons for the heavyweight stock being thin — less television exposure, big athletes fleeing for the NFL, and so forth. He also accurately identifies Tony Thompson as perhaps the best American heavyweight, a fact that bespeaks little promising about American heavyweights, not that Thompson is some tomato can. And overall, his central premise is most smartly focused on the narrow problem of American heavyweights.

About Tim Starks

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