The Mainstream Media Is Beginning To Abandon Its False, Insidious “Boxing Is Dead” Mantra

Overlooked, I think, in our collective amazement at what Manny Pacquiao accomplished Saturday night in knocking out Miguel Cotto was a subtle shift at the macro level that portends well for the perception of the sport of boxing as a whole. Two of the biggest newspapers in America — The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — to varying degrees, seriously entertained the notion in recent days that boxing, far from dead, may actually be in the midst of a revival.

For anyone who’s paid close attention to the mainstream media’s coverage of the sport in recent years, it was a fairly stunning turnaround from the usual dismissive, caveat-laden approach of major news outlets to covering boxing, where every lede begins with “Boxing is a dying sport; it sucks this way, that way and another way, and nobody cares about it anymore,” after which point the author goes on to write the article about whatever boxing development they’ve deigned to write about that day in that context.

This shift — it’s very important. Boxing has been, since 2007, in the midst of a revival. It really has, from the pay-per-view record set in America by Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya two years ago to the biggest live attendance in Germany this summer for a boxing event (Wladimir Klitschko-Ruslan Chagaev) since World War II to points in between. It is not the sport it once was; I’m not blind fanatic. Yet by any measure, boxing is on an uptick, not a slide. But if there’s this conventional wisdom that boxing is dying, it limits boxing’s growth. If the mainstream media covers boxing this way rather than that way, the momentum builds — and there are slight signs, already, that other outlets are taking the cue of the leading papers who are now willing to indulge the idea that boxing is alive and its heart is beating stronger than it once was.

There are certain major outlets that have long taken boxing seriously, and I’d be remiss not to note that right up front. USA Today and The L.A. Times stand out. USA Today has always had the most comprehensive sports section, so that makes sense. In L.A., boxing never really seemed to fade, so it makes sense for the local paper to have covered it. In the leanest of years for boxing this decade, Hispanic fans were a huge market, and Southern California remained a hotbed for the sport. At the L.A. paper, Lance Pugmire is one of the best boxing journalists out there.

Sportscenter had also long neglected boxing, but around last summer, I began to notice an uptick in the flagship ESPN show’s coverage of boxing. Fights like Antonio Margarito-Cotto, a bout that excited hardcore boxing fan base but featured two boxers who were not nationally known, surprisingly got a mention or two by Sportscenter. The program also began to have on boxing promoters and boxing figures before major fights, even meaningful fights like Juan Manuel Marquez-Joel Casamayor that hardcore fans weren’t particularly excited about. It’s continued at about that level of coverage since.

At The Wall Street Journal, I seem to remember the boxing coverage beginning to pick up last year, but perhaps it was happening sooner. Either way, Gordon Marino writes something about every major fight, always quite well, and at the WSJ’s sports blog The Daily Fix, David Roth always gives good attention to big boxing developments and strikes me as having an excellent feel for the sport despite being a generalist. Some other major papers, like Newsday and The New York Daily News, have also remained devoted to covering boxing.

So back to the premise here: The WSJ, in a recent summary of one of its articles, wrote, “Saturday’s bout between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas should dispel the notion that boxing’s great days are over.” The article itself, by Marino on Nov. 11, was a touch more reserved than that, but not by a lot. “The public perception is that the sport that gave us such icons as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali is now passé. Perceptions can be wrong.”

On Nov. 14, the morning of the fight, The New York Times — which had notoriously defended its refusal to pay attention to boxing — ran an article headlined: “With Pacquiao-Cotto Boxing Is Ready For A Rebirth, Again.” The actual article, as with the Journal’s piece, isn’t as blunt as that intro might promise. It’s a touch snotty in places, and I’d like to debate it a little in a bit. But first, what has to be acknowledged is that the Times is at least taking seriously the POSSIBILITY that boxing might be en route to a revival. Given editor Tom Jolly’s remarks about the sport, this is a shift for the better. Jolly had seemed to get only more entrenched under the criticism of the paper’s coverage of boxing, but allowing an article like this to run in his section shows he’s more open-minded than he had demonstrated to me.

At any rate, that’s two major papers that have done something quite different than the usual “boxing is dead” lede. That it’s now entered the phase of public discourse where it isn’t a foregone conclusion that boxing is dead is an improvement, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more publications begin to discuss the sport that way. The Huffington Post, in writing an interesting item about how the Pacquiao-Cotto fight had generated massive Web buzz, took note of the Times story. “With the 5-foot-6-inch, best ‘pound-for-pound’ professional fighter at its helm, is boxing, as the New York Times suggested, ready for a rebirth? The Web has spoken.”

Now, the Times piece does sound some notes of skepticism. That’s fine, really. I understand it. Boxing dug itself a deep hole with all of the things it was doing wrong. It makes sense, on a certain level, for the Times to be skeptical of the sport as a whole. But it’s been on a two-year run that features the best fights being made more often than not, among other improvements to how the sport conducts itself. It was overdue for them to notice this trend. What bothers me about the Times piece, if anything, is its passive-voice, nonspecific generalities about who has been skeptical of boxing. While discussing promoter Bob Arum’s declarations of boxing’s revival, the Times’ Greg Bishop writes, “Of course, Arum and his counterparts have issued similar statements several times before, comments that have been viewed with skepticism, or worse.” I’m not saying who does or doesn’t view those statements with skepticism, but the way that’s written makes it seem like it isn’t the Times itself that has been so skeptical of them. Likewise, Bishop writes of HBO getting 1 million pay-per-view buys for Mayweather-Juan Manuel Marquez, “It expects Pacquiao-Cotto to draw a similar number – which is viewed with skepticism…” Again, maybe Bishop reported out who views that number with skepticism and just didn’t tell us. But the boxing press and people in the know think that number is quite credible, which makes me wonder if Bishop isn’t talking about the Times’ view.

I don’t want to nitpick excessively, though. The piece makes fair points about the barren nature of the heavyweight division. It points out many of the measures about how boxing is thriving — like the fact that if Pacquiao-Cotto hits 1 million buys, it’ll be the first time since 1999 that two fights in one year hit that figure. It observes that boxing experts say one fight does not by itself save the sport. It’s a mostly fine piece, and it’s been a pleasure to read the Times’ coverage of Pacquiao-Cotto this week, especially its features on the Pacquiao team. I have my own problems with the Times, but when it’s clicking on all gears, it’s a fantastic newspaper. It should come as no surprise that some of the best Pacquiao-Cotto pieces were in the pages of the Gray Lady.

There’s a danger to this potential paradigm shift, which, it must be noted, not everyone has bought into (Time mag’s take on Pacquiao-Cotto was annoyingly ill-informed, and The Washington Post hasn’t written an article about a major fight that I can remember in forever). That danger is that if skeptical major media outlets are teased out of their shells into writing the accurate story that boxing is the rising force it is, and there’s an immediate disappointment, they won’t be teased out again for a long, long time.

Since the fight everyone thinks ought to be made, Pacquiao-Mayweather, is going to be a difficult fight to negotiate, boxing is going to have a huge problem on its hands if it doesn’t happen. The papers will write that greed and politics, which are a persistent presence in the sport even amid its recent improvements, once again have undone boxing. And to a certain degree, they’d be right. I personally can only defend boxing insofar as it makes the best fights happen most of the time. It’s not the only thing boxing needs to do to improve, but it’s the bare minimum it has to do. If the fight that would be one of the biggest ever doesn’t transpire, if the fight that the public wants more than any other doesn’t occur because somebody won’t accept a certain purse split or because Arum and Mayweather don’t get along, then the sport would go right back into the niche ghetto it inhabited for so long. And it would only have itself to blame.

About Ben Koo

Owner and editor of @AwfulAnnouncing. Recovering Silicon Valley startup guy. Fan of Buckeyes, A's, dogs, naps, tacos. and the old AOL dialup sounds