Boxing’s 2010, Reviewed And Graded

If you only judge boxing’s 2010 by what happened in its last two months, you probably came away with a warm feeling in your belly. It was terrific stuff almost every weekend: action fights, dramatic fights, interesting fights, controversial fights, important fights, big crowds, big ratings. But really, it was as if the sport was trying to steal rounds a la Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler: work really hard in the final 30 seconds to convince the judge that everything happening in the first two minutes and 30 seconds was an illusion.

This is the part of the year where everyone looks back at what happened over the past year and gives out awards and talks about all the big news and sizes it all up. We’ve given out our awards; Ring magazine (in print and in a free for one time only digital edition) has reviewed the good and bad of 2010 and passed verdicts; Yahoo’s Kevin Iole has reviewed the top headlines. It is hard to tell how healthy the sport is in any objective, measurable way. Things I thought would break bad for boxing didn’t; things I thought would break well didn’t. This estimation of boxing’s 2010 is mine, based on what I observe, and very well could be off the mark.

I think most of us can agree 2010 was a terrible year for boxing on the whole, though, especially in the United States. There were some successes, sure. But things took a step backward in many important regards. The mainstream media, so quick to condemn boxing to its grave in past years, didn’t seem to notice, and the mainstream media shapes the image of boxing for the general public — that is, the non-hardcore fans. In 2007, 2008 and most of 2009, the media had labeled boxing diseased, even though it had begun a nice antiobiotics treatment years before and was recovering nicely. In 2010, however, the mainstream media more often than not saw boxing’s newly gleaming white smile, and didn’t notice the decay setting in beneath the gumline.

The original source of that decay was the failed negotiations for Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. But it was only the beginning, literally and figuratively.

Best Fighting The Best

When the biggest story in a sport’s year is, “thing that didn’t happen,” it’s hard to consider that year a success. And everyone agrees that the biggest story of the year was the Mayweather-Pacquiao non-fight. We could revisit the hows and whys at length, but there’s really no need. No one could force Mayweather to fight Pacquiao, no matter how many tens of millions of dollars would have been in it for him, so it didn’t happen. For those who believe in a free market’s ability to produce results, the last few years have boxing were evidence in favor; 2010 for boxing was not.

Here we had the potential for a once-in-a-generation fight that would be both financially huge and of great historical import. There is little doubt that it would have been the richest fight in boxing history. And you have to go back to 1993 to find a fight where the two clear best men in the sport were close enough to each other in weight to rumble; but even then, Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. were not the #1 and #2 men of their whole previous decade, the way Pacquiao and Mayweather were. And twice, negotiations for Mayweather-Pacquiao went nowhere.

The needle on my particular record is stuck, but I’ll say it again: What good is a sport where the best don’t fight the best? Every year, the two best teams in the NBA, in both the regular season and post-season, will play each other as many as 11 times. In the NFL, MLB, tennis, etc., the best teams or players will face each other at least once but often multiple times. It’s what professional sports are for: To see what happens when the best athletes match their talents against the other best athletes.

And don’t assume that Mayweather-Pacquiao was just “one fight.” No no no. Mayweather-Pacquiao was anything but just “one fight.” It was the kind of fight that would have brought more eyes to the sport than any other fight in decades. You think that kind of thing doesn’t have the potential to lift the rest of the sport? And just look at what the fallout from those failed negotiations wrought: The resumption of the Golden Boy-Top Rank promotional feud that almost single-handedly was depressing boxing for several years. And it can’t be a coincidence that after Mayweather-Pacquiao negotiations ceased the first time around, the sport as a whole went through an almost year-long spell of the best not fighting the best. Suddenly, everyone saw what was happening at the top of the sport, and perhaps subconsciously slipped back into their old habits. This condition spread, like a contagion.

Earlier this year, I identified the five biggest fights in the sport and noted that none of them were happening. One of them, Sergio Martinez-Paul Williams II, finally did. Some said I should have included Nonito Donaire-Vic Darchinyan II, and obviously that one didn’t happen either. So, on the year, delivering best-vs.-best and desirable fights, boxing went one for six. Granted, some big and/or important fights did happen. The Super Six soldiered on, although it must be said that was a 2009 innovation; however, a new tournament also started at bantamweight, even though it left out arguably the two best men, talent-wise, in the division, because Top Rank wouldn’t put them in it. Before the bantamweight tournament, Golden Boy’s refusal to put its fighters in a junior welterweight tournament undid that event, although Golden Boy did reverse itself by putting its bantams in that tourney.

Besides the tournaments, then, we had Martinez-Williams II; we had Martinez-Paul Williams, a bout between top-20 pound-for-pound men; we had fights for three vacant Ring belts that by design pit the #1 fighter in a division against the #2 fighters — Jean Pascal-Chad Dawson (light heavyweight), Ivan Calderon-Giovani Segura (junior flyweight) and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam-Koki Kameda (flyweight); and we had a pound-for-pound #2 (Mayweather) vs. a pound-for-pound #3 (Shane Mosley). Those are all good fights, but compare it to last year or the year before, both in volume and whether other alternatives would have been better, and it comes up very short.

All the while, we kept being told that all those other fights needed to “marinate.” How did they marinate? Well, Timothy Bradley’s fight against Devon Alexander “marinated” by Bradley fighting just once in 2010, and not even in the junior welterweight division where that fight would happen. Donaire-Fernando Montiel “marinated” by them, with one exception, taking on modest-to-awful competition. Did any of this build demand for Donaire-Montiel, a fight we’ve already been waiting for for two years? And to what end? Is America suddenly going to clamor for Juan Manuel Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa in some vastly different way than it already does? Lopez can’t get more popular among Puerto Rican or hardcore fans; he can only get less, and the general public isn’t going to instantly become more interested in featherweights. In fact, the only way any of these men can interest anyone beyond who’s interested in them now is for them to do something sensational in a fight against the best opposition.

There is the old way of matchmaking in boxing — the way where you wait and wait and wait and wait for a fight to suddenly become “big.” This is usually a disguise for, “We’re going to try to milk as much money out of these guys as we can in easy fights in hopes of protecting their record, then, when it becomes clear that they’ll eventually lose to somebody, finally give the fans an overcooked fight they wanted years ago.” Then there’s the way every other sport builds fans and keeps them coming back — by the best facing the best regularly. And for a while, boxing’s powers-that-be seemed to get this, in part because another fight sport, mixed martial arts, was doing so well with that model. Boxing fans were more forgiving of fighters who suffered losses so long as they kept getting back in there with the best opponents, because boxers who face the best opponents sometimes win and sometimes lose; see, “Miguel Cotto.”

Boxing’s the kind of sport where even if the absolute best don’t fight the absolute best, there will be great highs, as in action fights like Humberto Soto-Urbano Antillon. There will be fights that, just by the virtue of two boxers’ particular styles, will be exciting. But the sport limits itself when the best fights aren’t happening between the best guys — those fights produce highs that are often higher and that are seen by more people, which in turn makes more people come around or come back next time. When it came to the best fighting the best in 2010, boxing needed more, and better.

That’s what the bulk of this post is about, but there are some other subjects to discuss.

Marketing

In some ways, boxing seemed to get a bit better at marketing itself in 2010, at coming up with innovative stuff. For some of its pay-per-views, Golden Boy put on shows in movie theaters. After, MMA did something similar. When’s the last time boxing came up with something that MMA mimicked? And Golden Boy continued to have success in bringing mainstream sponsors back to the sport.

Top Rank put on three stadium fights, a fun way of generating attention for bouts, but there were diminishing returns. Pacquiao-Josh Clottey did really well at Cowboys Stadium, Cotto-Yuri Foreman did really well at Yankee Stadium but not as well as expected and Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito did very well but far worse than expected in a return to Cowboys Stadium. On the whole, these fights were a success. Credit to Top Rank for experimenting with this — maybe boxing isn’t ready for it yet, but it was worth a try. It’s noteworthy that Pacquiao’s next fight will be in Vegas, rather than Dallas.

Almost all of the promoters got more Internet-friendly in 2010, realizing the potential of the outlet and its ability to reach younger viewers. There were some related misfires, such as the embarrassing “Who R U Picking” tagline for Mayweather-Mosley, but hey, at least they were trying. Golden Boy aired “Fight Night Club” on the web, Top Rank aired undercard fights on its website (and even aired stuff like weigh-ins and the Margarito licensing hearing), and other promoters took to the web. HBO got less web-happy for some reason, though, such as with the disappearance of “Ring Life.” Not sure why.

None of this is enough. Some promoters, such as Main Events and Top Rank, recognized that grassroots efforts are needed, too; Dan Goossen of Goosen-Tutor recently acknowledged same. And I’m no marketing genius — I don’t have a lot of big ideas here. I just know that more people who could be enticed to like boxing aren’t being enticed, and more work is needed.

I’d still like to do some extensive reporting about why some of the conditions I’ve described/am describing here don’t exist in countries where boxing is more popular, particularly Germany and Canada. They’re doing something there that we aren’t here in America, or else they have some conditions unique to their countries, or both. Maybe the U.S.-based promoters can beat me to it and study what’s going on over there on their own.

Glowing Rectangles

The role of HBO in boxing is always heavily scrutinized. It’s the most powerful single force in the sport, so that’s wise. In 2010, HBO ran into some misfortune, did some things right, but also made some of its old mistakes. The cancellation of Mosley-Andre Berto, along with the failed Mayweather-Pacquiao negotiations, put the sport on the wrong foot. Its checkbook and stubborn stance single-handedly made Martinez-Williams II happen; without it, those two men don’t fight. It helped force some good fights late in 2010, too. Its checkbook couldn’t make Mayweather-Pacquiao happen, though. 

What power HBO has, it often applies haphazardly. The case of Berto being paid heavily to fight lesser opponents is the predominant example. Apparently the network has been all over the place about what kind of opponent it would accept for Martinez’ next fight, at least according to various reports out there. I’m all in favor of HBO applying a consistently high standard, and won’t hammer them now for insisting on a tough opponent for Martinez. (And, it’s not as if it can’t allow for the occasional spotlight fight; I’d be fine with Martinez facing a slightly lesser foe this time out, given his murderer’s row for the past two years. I want to see him again soon, so I can live with a lesser Martinez opponent.) But, again, it needs to have a set of principles and stick to them. And it needs to use its money wisely to make sure fans get the best possible product.

Showtime, I think, everyone is pretty happy with right now. There have been some people out there just dying to piss all over the Super Six for reasons I’ve struggled to understand. There was a moment, when Andre Dirrell pulled out, where I, too, became worried. But Showtime has made some deft moves to hold that event together, such as substituting in Glen Johnson, and we’re all better off for it. And now, next year, we should get at least two more quality fights out of the tourney. Everyone’s thrilled with the bantamweight tournament. Both networks could afford to take fewer months off, though, and spread out its good material over the course of the year.

There was more boxing on television in 2010 than 2009, which I wrote about for Ring magazine already, so i won’t revisit it here, but this is a good trend. Combine it with how much more boxing there was on the Internet, with ESPN3 and others stepping up, and the trend gets better. Again, some of the programming wasn’t great. But if you want to see some talented young prospect fight a tomato can in Mississippi or Los Angeles or Newark, or if you want to watch a Felix Sturm or Wladimir Klitschko fight in Germany that HBO or Showtime turned down, you increasingly have that option.

A concerning trend is that the ratings apparently continue to plummet. Some of the Super Six fights did poor numbers. Even the biggest HBO shows did bad numbers compared to previous years. Some of that can not doubt be explained by the new way people consume television, with DVR and such. I don’t know if it can explain it all, and that’s worrisome. But some of the new networks that began airing boxing this year, like Fox Sports Net/Fox Deportes, were apparently happy with the ratings they were getting.

On pay-per-view, Mayweather-Mosley did the best numbers. Pacquiao continued to be a juggernaut. When a boxing PPV breaks a million buys, as happened a couple times in 2010, it’s a sign that boxing can still put on big events. There were some HBO-backed pay-per-views that shouldn’t have been backed by HBO; if Golden Boy wants to put on a turd sandwich like Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones II, HBO should let them. In the short-term, I doubt HBO would do it unless they were able to make money off it, but in the long-term, it dilutes the HBO brand. The network generated good will with its subscribers in the last couple years by putting fewer fights on pay-per-view and more on regular HBO.

Then there’s all the proliferating boxing-related film out there, be it on television or at the movies. It’s a good sign that boxing, as a concept we all can relate to on a fundamental level, has a vigorous, beating heart. It’s the rest of it that is weaker or stronger at any given moment.

The idea that boxing needs to be on NBC, ABC, CBS or Fox isn’t as big a preoccupation as it once was, given how diffuse television viewership has become, but it still would be nice. There’s a certain segment of the population that is only going to expose itself to the sport if it sees boxing on network television. Thomas Hauser had some speculative stuff in his latest HBO stories about the possibility of boxing getting on the likes of major basic cable networks like TBS and TNT, which could be a good thing, assuming it wouldn’t be a salvage job after an apocalyptic collapse of boxing at Showtime and HBO and the resulting budgets wouldn’t be slender; look, for example, at what Spike has done for MMA.

Support System

This is something of a catch-all category.

Because so many of my friends know I like boxing, I spend a lot of time talking to non-boxing fans about their perception of the sport. For a long time, the general consensus was that it was corrupt and nobody could tell who the champions were and that the best guys were avoiding challenges (the last of which we’ve covered). More knowledgeable fans, such as those who had shifted from boxing to MMA, complain as well about how they can’t bring themselves to buy for a boxing pay-per-view for $55 when they know the only good fight would be the main event. So let’s consider how boxing did on those things in 2010.

The general public is usually exposed to boxing only insofar as the big mainstream media outlets are covering it. That coverage has gone up, up and more up over the past couple years, and the tone of the coverage has become more positive. All the big newspapers cover the biggest fights, SportsCenter regularly features updates in its ticker on even lesser fights like Klitschko-Derek Chisora, and there’s less of the “boxing is a dying sport” rhetoric than there used to be. Because of that, I hear a lot less about corruption and so forth lately. And really, there isn’t much corruption lately of which we’re aware. People aren’t throwing fights that we know of; most bad decisions are annoying, but there’s no evidence any judges got paid off. There is still a kind of subtle seediness, but even some of that got papered over. I thought the mainstream media would play up the whole venue-shopping/Antonio Margarito hand-wrap thing, but that scandal (again, no real evidence of corruption) was out-shined by Pacquiao being such a great freaking story. If anything, the mainstream media is a bit behind the curve by covering boxing as positively as it did in 2010, but without anyone paying serious, constant attention to the sport at any big paper, it’s almost like they weren’t aware of the bad stuff that was occurring. I guess that when it comes to boxing, the mainstream media is always going to be a year or more behind.

Every sport right now is struggling with public perceptions about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Boxing got on the map there big-time in 2010 due to Mayweather pressing for Olympic-style drug-testing as a condition of fighting Pacquiao. The whole thing was a non-scandal in that there is not a hint of evidence that Pacquiao is using PEDs, or even a reasonable suspicion. But some jurisdictions and promoters flirted with expanded drug testing, and generally speaking, more drug testing is a good thing. Mayweather’s drug-testing demands were, in retrospect, almost surely an excuse to avoid fighting Pacquiao, but sometimes good things happen for bad reasons.

I do still hear from casual/non-fans about not knowing who the champions are. I know some people see value in the sanctioning organizations, but their value is only ever short-term if at all; they do so many awful things that their belts are virtually meaningless, like offering Mosley a chance to keep his belt even though he lost to Mayweather, SO LONG AS HE PAID A BIGGER FEE; and in the long run, they confuse everyone. The sanctioning organizations might not be the biggest problem in the sport, but they are indisputably a turn-off for many existing boxing fans and many would-be boxing fans. There’s no sign of their power ebbing, alas, but Mayweather’s refusal to pay their sanctioning fee was a positive development. It’s about the only other lead of Mayweather’s I hope other boxers follow.

Undercards… Both Top Rank and Golden Boy put on shows later in the year that featured quality or meaningful undercard bouts on paper. Maybe they were trying to prop up a main event that wouldn’t do well without a supporting undercard, but, as I just said two paragraphs ago, sometimes good things happen for bad reasons. It showed that promoters could recognize the short-term value of a good undercard. That’s positive. If they did it consistently, maybe we’d know they see long-term value in it. But they don’t do it consistently. I said some of this stuff last year, too, since there were at least two attempts to put on “stacked undercards” that were more than empty rhetoric. There were two such attempts this year as well. So, we’re stuck in the mud here.

There is another method, besides mainstream media exposure, where casual fans can be brought into boxing. That involves the building up of regional hotbeds. Main Events and Kathy Duva have indisputably done that in Newark, although I don’t know how permanent it is; it might be tied to the prospects of one fighter, that one being Tomasz Adamek. There are similar phenomena around the country, where those hotbeds, too, seem to be tied to specific hot fighters. And some of them took a downward turn in 2010 compared to 2009. Andre Ward, for example, was facing shrinking audiences in Oakland. It looks like, outside of Adamek, the only fighter who’s a consistent regional draw is Devon Alexander in St. Louis, which is actually been a pretty good fight town for years. It would be tremendous if someone could find a way to tap a major market like Chicago, the biggest city where high-level boxing doesn’t regularly happen, especially with Las Vegas being such a suck on boxing’s center of gravity, even suffering like it is. John Chavez’ explanation of the value of this is instructive.

Final Grade

The year gets off to a good start with two fights, in January and February, pitting the best against the best: Bradley-Alexander and Montiel-Donaire. Beyond that, who knows. Some are optimistic about Mayweather-Pacquiao happening. I myself have been called an optimist about boxing before, but I consider myself a realist. If Mayweather-Pacquiao happens before one or both men exit their prime, it would be a near miracle. There’s no reason for them to fight in 2011 that didn’t already exist in 2010, especially with Pacquiao’s team giving in to Mayweather’s demands almost in their entirety during the second round of negotiations. Instead, there are many MORE reasons Mayweather-Pacquiao is wildly improbable in 2011, especially Mayweather’s legal problems and the deepening of the Golden Boy-Top Rank feud that set in after the second round of failed negotiations.
 
In the course of writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the year wasn’t as bad as I remember it being, but it still was awful to a significant degree. If I were to give boxing a grade, I’d give it a D+. Maybe I’m grading on the curve, since several previous years were better. 

The quote of the year, for me, was what Top Rank’s Bob Arum said when asked about when Lopez and Gamboa would fight, since that’s a fight the fans want so badly. Arum retorted that he knows what the fans want, and they can “go fuck themselves.”

Arum, for as good a promoter as he is in some regards, is very experienced at fucking the fans; they don’t need to do it to themselves. The only top fighter of his he tried to put in with the best possible opponent in 2010 was Pacquiao, when he tried to make the Mayweather fight, and Calderon, when he put him in against fellow Top Rank fighter Segura. Lopez, Donaire, Cotto, Montiel, Pavlik, Gamboa, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. — some of them fought good opponents, but none of them fought the best available opponent. Sure, some of their fights did well, but only because Arum’s a savvy enough promoter that he can CREATE demand; he doesn’t respond to it, because he doesn’t care to give the fans what they want — he wants to give them what HE wants, then convince them they want it. And he doesn’t even care about making the most money possible. He would rather make a little money and simultaneously prosecute personal grudges and indulge his tics. You could level charges of deficiencies at all of the other promoters, too. They all do some things well, some not, same as Arum.

But it was Arum’s quote that was most instructive of the spirit of 2010. As long as there are people that run boxing who don’t care at all about or understand the overall health of the sport, or what its paying customers want most, boxing will be capable of producing years like this.

There are limits to the power of anyone in this unruly sport. There is no one who serves as the dictatorial figure some sports have, or even the federal government/state government-like structure of some. For as much hell as Oscar De La Hoya caught for talking this year about wanting to be that controlling force, he’s right that the sport probably needs one; too bad there’s nobody who can be trusted for the job, even if the job could somehow be created.

2010 was the year I realized that boxing’s three-year run wasn’t a rocket ship. It was always just the slow, fitful upward climb of one leg of a roller coaster.

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., where he is a staff writer for CQ Roll Call.

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