In Boxing, Controversy Sells (But Who’s Buying?)

One of the refrains of those who back Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito is, paraphrased, that you moral types who don’t like Margarito because of the loaded-gloves incident can ban the fight if you want, but it’s still going to sell because people love the controversy. On a similar note, Yahoo’s Kevin Iole recently penned a piece about how even if Floyd Mayweather goes to jail over allegedly beating up his baby momma, he’ll sell more tickets than he did before once he gets out.

They’re right.


At what cost?

My own persistent gripe about boxing is that it so often trades the future for short-term gain. If it can make a fight easily, one that makes a particular promoter more money than a better fight that’s harder to make with another promoter that involves sharing revenues, it’s done that in 2010. Who cares if it’s cannibalizing its own fan base along the way? It makes money that particular day. Just because it’s got some kind of reasoning behind it doesn’t mean the reasoning is good. In the end, boxing shrinks its audience rather than growing it when it makes a fight that just enough people care about for all parties to make money. Far better that it makes the best possible fights as often as it can.

However, good fights are only part of the equation.

Controversy does sell. It does. I don’t know if all the people who walk away from boxing — or at least walk way from boxing for a night in November when Pacquiao vs. Margarito airs — will be eclipsed by the people who are drawn to the controversial aspects of Margarito and his loaded gloves. I wouldn’t be surprised.

What I suspect is that for every person who reads the mainstream media coverage of Pacquiao-Margarito and is intrigued enough to check it out, at least one other person and probably many more will be inclined to use it as a reason not to give boxing a chance. Short-term, boxing might do well that night. Long-term, boxing probably closes the door to potential fans who assume, with some degree of accuracy, that the sport is dirty.

It’s the same for Mayweather. It’s hard to predict what will happen to him in court. But if he only is incarcerated for a little while, he’ll do well in his return. The precedent is Mike Tyson, who, under similar circumstances, did very well for himself post-jail. It’s a compelling storyline: Will Mayweather still have it? What do we make of this fellow we’ve been reading about in the newspapers for going to jail?

We hardcore boxing fans are a cloistered lot. We talk mainly to each other. But if you talk to people who were once boxing fans and no longer are, or people who never have been, you’ll hear a lot of the same things.

Just this week, yet another person told me — he is one of dozens — that he doesn’t follow boxing these days because he was turned off by the barbary of Tyson.

I want you to think about that for a second, if you haven’t before. Tyson, who made more money after he got out of jail than before, is directly to blame for a sampling of people I know no longer following boxing — a sampling that surely projects out beyond just whoever I’ve been talking to lately.

Tyson was more popular than before. But because of him, boxing is less popular than before.

The reason is, most sports fans in America are more vanilla than most hardcore boxing fans. You needn’t look too far over the history of sports to find ample evidence of this. Sports fans — in America, I specify again — want to root for good guys, people they find likable, more than they are interested in controversy.

Take the NFL. Think of the most popular players. How many of them are squeaky-clean types, or at least people who present themselves as squeaky clean? You think the NFL was pleased when Terrell Owens was the most headline-generating football player, or would they rather everyone be talking about Peyton Manning?

It’s not even a race thing, although maybe that factors into it. Michael Jordan was popular not just because he was good, but because people perceived him to be a good guy (although, in my view, that was more about Jordan’s skill at managing his image than anything reflected in reality).

Look at the way most professional sports leagues go out of their way to minimize controversy. When Allen Iverson was the face of the NBA, the league enacted a dress code. When Ron Artest ran into the stands and fought with some fans, the NBA was higher profile than it had been in years — but the NBA began implementing draconian penalties for all sorts of misbehavior by its players. There’s a morals clause in the NFL. It’s not because the NFL is of some kind of higher moral standing than the other sports — it’s because players running amok limits the appeal of the league, and as the top sport in America, it can’t afford to risk that standing.

Even within boxing, sports’ outlaw fringe, this concept carries over. The most popular boxers in America have historically been the likable, good-guy (or perceived good-guy) ones. In recent decades, those people — the ones who stand out above all others — have been Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali.

Maybe you say in response, “But Ali became popular by being controversial and unlikable!” or maybe you can point to Mayweather’s popularity as an example of how being controversial and unlikable still can be a path to glory. You’re right on both counts. But Ali never was as popular in his early days as he was after he became beloved by the general public, when the times changed and therefore sentiment changed about him. And Ali’s increased popularity corresponded to a period of boxing becoming more popular, unlike Tyson’s post-jail surge in popularity, which corresponded with boxing declining in popularity. Mayweather, who made his name being a jackass, got this idea. When he returned from his long layoff last year, he suddenly was being polite and respectful to his opponent Juan Manuel Marquez, and there were all kinds of features mysteriously popping up about his charity work. He was trying to turn from heel to face, but it didn’t stick — either because it wasn’t believable, or because he couldn’t help himself, or because he decided he needed to dance with what brung him.

In boxing, you can make money being controversial. But there’s a segment of fandom that will never, ever want a part of you.

Perhaps you don’t welcome that segment of fandom. As in, “If they don’t like our sport, screw ’em. We’ll carry on just fine without them, thank you.” You’re entitled, if so. But consider whether the sport you love would be better off with a broader fan base. Think about how many more professional boxers have entered the ranks from the Philippines because of the popularity of Pacquiao, and think about how many more potential professional boxers you might someday would have become a fan of who never will enter the sport because they didn’t grow up watching and admiring big name boxers who crossed over to the broader fan base. Think about whether the smaller purses resulting from fewer fans watching will lead to fewer incentives for an athlete to enter boxing rather than another sport. Boxing, as always, will survive and sporadically thrive virtually no matter what happens. But the sport will always be better off when more people are watching.

This isn’t the kind of thing boxing can fix, as an institution. There’s no governing body that can institute morals clauses or suspend a boxer for weeks when he runs afoul of the law. I suppose the Texas authorities could have stopped Pacquiao-Margarito, but somebody somewhere would have licensed it because of the appeal of that short-term cash. I’m not proposing a fix, because I’m not aware of one.

What I am doing is reminding those who think controversy sells, and who are inclined to point to any high pay-per-view numbers for Pacquiao-Margarito as some kind of vindication of that bout, that controversy only goes so far.

While controversy generates heat, it also cauterizes.

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.