An Opportunity For Boxing Amid NFL And NBA Labor Woes

“Through fortuitous coincidence, [Ray] Leonard, [Marvin] Hagler, [Thomas] Hearns, and [Roberto] Duran matured into greatness in an era in which other sports seemingly conspired to back away and allow boxing to approach the prominence it had enjoyed in the days before baseball and football overtook it in the public consciousness: Major League Baseball experienced debilitating strikes in 1980, 1981, and 1985; the NFL underwent a 57-day strike in 1982 that wiped out much of the regular season, and a lock out in 1987 that led to many games being played with scab, or ‘replacement’ players; and both the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games were marred by significant boycotts.”

–George Kimball, “Four Kings” 

On Sunday I sat through what was about as enjoyable a Super Bowl as I could hope for, so I didn’t have my usual complaints about the average NFL game containing a mere 11 minutes of action. Most of the rest of America certainly feels stronger about the sport than I do, though. As a result, I honestly wonder what would happen to the American sports fan if the next NFL season was abbreviated or outright canceled because owners and players couldn’t arrive at a new deal out of their labor negotiations, as many fear is possible.

The average American sports fan might not have a chance to turn to the NBA. It’s what I did when the MLB turned me off so much as a result of the 1994 strike that I went elsewhere — and once I got to the NBA, I fell in love with it and its unrelenting action. Only the next NBA season might not be around either, due to some of its own disputes between players and owners.

The situation got me to thinking of the prelude to Kimball’s book about what he calls the “last great era of boxing,” even if it’s a designation I find inaccurate. It’s the passage I quoted above that seems especially pertinent to this moment. Boxing doesn’t have four stars like Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran right now; mainly, it has Manny Pacquiao — the kind of boxer who might actually get a meeting with President Obama — although if Floyd Mayweather could stay out of court and in the boxing ring, maybe we’d be halfway to something comparable on a smaller scale. But if you look at the deal Top Rank Promotions did with Showtime and CBS that will expose a new audience to boxing — a documentary show in prime time on CBS for the Pacquiao-Shane Mosley pay-per-view distributed by Showtime, and the potential that it will later air actual boxing matches on CBS —  it does have the air of a combination of events that could “allow boxing to approach the prominence it has enjoyed in the days before baseball and football overtook it in the public consciousness.”

The size of the opening is different, to be sure. Baseball is currently unmarred by labor difficulties, and the Olympics are on stable ground. But then, football has taken over the American sporting landscape in a way that it hadn’t yet in the 1980s. It will leave a big hole, and with the NBA maybe departing, too, maybe the time will be ripe for boxing to break free of its niche sport label. If what one is looking for is combat — and football, in many regards, is like combat — then one could do worse to scratch that itch than to resort to watching the actual combat that is boxing. Maybe NFL fans would see it as an upgrade, even. 

Or maybe it won’t happen that way. Maybe another sport will fill the void. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about boxing’s chances in this hypothetical — and have no real sense of whether the NFL and NBA will resolve their difficulties. I also think that even if boxing gets a boost, it might not be a massive one; more like a very nice bump. I do believe this: The arrow on boxing is pointed distinctly upward, and it’s pointed upward at a time when it could — could — capitalize in a major way.

P.S. Congratulations, Green Bay Packers!

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.