Everyone gets the basic idea of a tournament, right? So this is a tournament with six super middleweights in it, with the winner to be crowned over a series of fights between Saturday and early 2011. (It’s a little long, admittedly, but I think it’ll be worth it.)
- Best fighting the best. You may hear it said from time to time that one of the reasons boxing has slumped is because the best aren’t fighting the best. That’s more the exception than the rule since 2007, but the six in this super middleweight tournament certainly are among the six best in their division. Two of them, Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham, are on my list of the 20 finest fighters in the world, regardless of weight. Maybe the tournament left out some people it shouldn’t have — I’d pick Lucian Bute, no worse than the second or third best fighter in the division — but the guy who’s most criticized for being in the tourney, Jermain Taylor, is the most experienced and accomplished fighter in the whole spiel. And they’re all going to have to fight each other, maybe more than once. It’s a strength of schedule so fearsome that some of the critics of the tournament, like middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, have suggested Showtime got carried away with this whole “best fighting the best” thing.
- American Olympians. Remember when the Olympics were a factor of boxing’s next American superstars, be it Sugar Ray Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya? They haven’t turned out a true U.S. superstar since the 1996 team, from whence Floyd Mayweather Jr. emerged. The 2004 Olympic class has moved particularly slowly into American stardom, but this tournament has two of the class’ best: Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell. And Taylor is a 2000 Olympian. So if you’re a patriot, give ‘er a watch.
- Worldwide appeal. While boxing declined in the United States, it actually got stronger elsewhere, particularly Europe. Think of it like the NBA — once ruled by Americans, boxing has gone global. Kessler is from Denmark, where even his routine fights are the highest-rated shows on television the day of his bout. Abraham and Carl Froch are popular in Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively. Once upon a time, being a foreign fighter meant you’d have a tough time getting on television in the states, no matter how good you were. Showtime is part of the reversal of that trend, which ultimately will be good for boxing in America as our country’s sorry amateur system turns out fewer high-quality fighters; boxing fans here will see the best fighters no matter where they come from.
- Event vs. fight. A common complaint about boxing is that it produces one fight at a time, while the UFC produces fight cards stacked from top to bottom — events. Well, it’s spread out over time, but this tournament definitely is an event. Each individual fight is excellent, but as a whole, we’re talking a big, big deal in boxing. There hasn’t been a tournament like this in boxing maybe ever, although there was a notable tournament at the start of the 2000s and another in the 1980s. This tournament is more competitive than them both, and its round-robin format is unique.
- Different mentality toward losses. Boxing fans are to blame for some of the woes of their sport. One of the ways in which they’ve contributed toward the best not fighting the best is that they are so harsh toward someone for losing one fight. The round-robin nature of this tournament means that losing one fight won’t result in a boxer not getting another shot at a big fight — he’s guaranteed another shot. Perhaps boxing fans will see one loss as not being so bad should the winner of the tournament suffer a loss at some point on the way. At least five boxers in the tournament, and maybe all six, are going to come out of this with a loss, and they could be bigger stars coming out than going in, losses or no.
- Storylines. A fighter’s story or personality are a big part of what makes a boxer go from someone hardcore fans have heard of to someone that everyone’s head of. The nature of this tournament is such that those stories get a chance to play out for a while, and Showtime is airing a regular documentary feature on each of the fighters. The first episode is replaying all this week, and it comes highly recommended — I’d be surprised if it wasn’t at least nominated for an Emmy. The storylines coming in are endless, both inside the ring and outside it — can Taylor rebound from losses that sent him from the top of American boxing to a much-criticized figure in the sport? What happens when Ward and Dirrell, who are friends from the Olympics, square off? Is Abraham, who’s moving up from middleweight and has only fought once in a super middleweight fight, prepared to deal with bigger opponents? And so on.
- Excellent division featured. There aren’t too many famous super middleweights, historically — Leonard spent some time there, as did Roy Jones, Jr. — and there aren’t any famous super middleweights in America right now. But it is arguably the deepest division in the sport, loaded up with so much talent that just about any combination of fighters would have made a compelling tournament. Think basketball’s ACC.
- Knockouts encouraged. The scoring system of the tournament awards extra points to knockouts. That means a fighter wanting to ensure he gets a spot in the semi-finals is probably going to be gunning harder for the KO then he might otherwise, when he’d be content to score a decision win. Maybe this is a good thing, and maybe it isn’t — lighter-hitting fighters come in at an unfair disadvantage, for instance — but it probably means more exciting fights, with fighters taking greater risks. And who doesn’t like knockouts?
- Imitators await? There’s a chance that if the tournament is successful, others in other divisions will follow. Already, the attention the tournament has gotten has prompted boxers on the outside wishing they were in it. And Pavlik, who once criticized the tournament, has talked about wanting to fight the winner. And even if there aren’t other tournaments, lessons that might be learned from this tourney — like the idea that losing one fight isn’t the end of the world for a fighter, which would encourage them taking more chances in opponent selection — could reverberate nonetheless.