What’s Gone Wrong With Big-Time Boxing In 2011 And Ways To Fix It, Part II

Too often, segments of boxing fandom and boxing journalism force things into binary categories: “HBO needs to feature exciting fights, not important ones.” “HBO needs to focus on fights, not fighters.”

The results of a Twitter poll and part I of this two-part series, where I asked people about what fights they wanted that they’re not getting, suggest that — in actuality — there’s little interest in a monoculture. We’ll review the results in a moment, but the conclusion I draw is this: Fans want to see exciting fights AND important ones. They want to see certain fights AND certain fighters. It’s HOW they get those things that matter.

The survey was admittedly a smaller sample than polling scientists would consider reliable. And there could be some selection bias, but I don’t think so. Yes, the people who responded might be a specific kind of boxing fan or writer, namely the ones who know me or visit this blog.

But let’s take the whole important vs. exciting debate for starters: Last year, my rough estimate was that the five fights everyone wanted most in boxing were Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao, Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye, Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander, Sergio Martinez-Paul Williams II and Yuriorkis Gamboa-Juan Manuel Lopez. Of those, I doubt many expect Mayweather-Pacquiao would be a Fight of the Year candidate. I think people were well aware Klitschko-Haye and Bradley-Alexander had at least a strong chance to suck. Martinez-Williams II and Gamboa-Lopez were/are the only two sure-fire brawls. We got Klitschko-Haye, Bradley-Alexander and Martinez-Williams II, and all three of those fights did tip-top ratings for HBO, with “importance” one of the reasons for the first two and important/exciting both present for Martinez-Williams II. Gamboa-Lopez might have been diminished by Lopez losing before the fight could be made (more on that later), but Mayweather-Pacquiao would break pay-per-view records despite a potential chess match between the pair.

On the “fights, not fighters” debate, it struck me how many people responded with specific fighters they wanted to see, more than a set list of specific fights. On a certain level, this also makes intuitive sense: No matter how poorly matched they have been at times, no matter how dissatisfying their fights have been at times, Mayweather and Pacquiao continue to be the biggest PPV attractions in the sport by a very wide margin.

But it’s also true that fans have been deeply dissatisfied with much of what they’ve gotten in 2011 at the top levels of the sport, as we already discussed. At other levels, there have been fan delights aplenty. Some of that is bad luck. Some of it is the result of bad officiating, a hard problem to fix, and some of it is a result of reluctant performances where cash incentives can perhaps make a difference. But some of it is bad matchmaking, and that’s what we’ll concern ourselves with for the time being.

If you look at the kinds of fights people want that aren’t happening, you learn a lot. One solution, I think, is to continue to feature exciting FIGHTS, even if they involve lesser fighters. There were fans who complained about HBO airing Andy Lee-Craig McEwan, but there were also fans who are happy about it, too. Some of the exciting fights won’t be too important, in other words, but sometimes that’s OK with a segment of fans. Some of them want exciting fights first, important fights second. But it’s telling that sometimes, exciting fights with lesser fighters do poor ratings or don’t sell many tickets.

That’s because sometimes, it’s about the who, not the what. Boxing authorities should still emphasize specific FIGHTERS sometimes — but in better match-ups than we’ve been getting from them. Certain names came up over and over again in my poll, and respondents had ideas about the kind of names against who they must be matched. (Maybe some of those fights are difficult to make happen for political or other reasons, but boxing won’t solve any of its problems if it uses that as an excuse not to try anyway; it dug its way out of a years-long hole by correcting this affliction. Matching Martinez and Nonito Donaire with “close to best available” opponents but “not best, period” opponents contributed to some of the gripes about their recent bouts.) Even so-called “boring” fighters or fighters who are rarely in give-and-take brawls came up repeatedly on this list. They are there because they are important fighters with whom important fights can be made. But people want to see them in the right kind of fights. Many fans can put up with some boredom if they get something else out of the fight like finding out who’s the best in a division, and sometimes a “boring” but excellent fighter needs an exciting dance partner to become watchable.

Here are the fights and fighters, then, that people from my survey are clamoring for — a mix of pound-for-pound fighters and lesser ones; of exciting fights and fights that are important but unlikely to have much back-and-forth action; and of ultra-specific match-ups and less-specific match-ups driven by a desire to see a particular fighter in several possible bouts:

First, Mayweather-Pacquiao remains foremost among fan interest. I’ve noticed some slippage in interest in that fight of late, but it’s still the one everyone says they “obviously” want before talking about the other things they want. Outside of that, Mayweather and Pacquiao-oriented fights other than Mayweather-Pacquiao came up very little in this poll. I keep wondering when or if the shoe will drop on both man’s PPV numbers for not fighting each other. Perhaps the lower-than-expected PPV buys for Mayweather-Victor Ortiz are a sign of that. (There is one exception to this Mayweather-Pacquiao-only orientation which we’ll touch on a bit later.)

From there, there were extreme amounts of interest in approximately four boxers around featherweight and in the lightweight/junior welterweight zone.

Tons of people brought up Nonito Donaire. Tons of people brought up YURIORKIS GAMBOA! A number of peole want to see Donaire take on the winner of Abner Mares-Joseph Agbeko II before departing bantamweight, even though almost everyone thinks it would be a mismatch, because it would be the most important fight that could be made in that division. But a great many also want Donaire to get to featherweight in a hurry. There, people want a combination of fights involving Donaire and Gamboa, among them, well, Donaire Gamboa at #1. Other potential opponents for those men who got people worked up include Lopez — yes, there is still a lot of interest in Gamboa-Lopez, despite his loss to Orlando Salido — and to a lesser degree, Salido and Mikey Garcia.

There’s nobody who doesn’t want to see more of Brandon Rios, a lightweight scheduled to move up to junior welterweight, and more of Maidana, a junior welterweight. More than anyone, Rios’ name came up with a long list of potential opponents: Maidana appeared most often, but Juan Manuel Marquez, Lucas Matthysse, Robert Guerrero and Michael Katsidis appeared more than once. Stray Rios opponent names included Humberto Soto, Donaire, Gamboa, Ortiz and Antonio DeMarco. Maidana matches up with a similar list: Rios is the first choice, followed closely by Matthysse, but there’s also Guerrero and a rematch with Erik Morales or Ortiz that people are interested in. (Jorge Linares came up as a good opponent for some of these men, but didn’t muster more than one vote with anyone.)

For all the gripes about Martinez of late, he, too, came up plenty. There isn’t as clear a consensus about who he ought to fight, however. He’s the exception to the rule about people not clamoring for any particular fight for Mayweather or Pacquiao outside of the other: Several said they wanted Mayweather-Martinez, presumably because he poses the biggest challenge to Martinez outside of Pacquiao, and all other Mayweather fights are foregone conclusions. Other mentioned opponents for Martinez included Felix Sturm and Dmitry Pirog, as well as Lucian Bute and Alfredo Angulo, in that order. (A variety of fights in the middleweight division that Martinez rules came up periodically, including Pirog-Lee, Pirog-Daniel Geale and Lee-Matthew Macklin. This confused me: I like all those fights myself, but I can’t figure out why so many stray fights involving a division perceived as a bad one got as much love as they did.)

A pause here, because the fights and fighters I just discussed were by far the ones that appeared most often in my survey: With the excption of Rios and Maidana, everyone I’ve listed so far is rarely featured in FIGHTS that are exciting. Rather, they do exciting THINGS or put on exciting PERFORMANCES that only they can put on because only they’re good enough to do it. In other words, that they are the best fighters in the world is inherent to their appeal, and people want to see them challenged by the best available opponents because we want to see how they’ll handle it (and/or placed in bouts likely to lead to exciting fights because they just like exciting fights). It is this condition that motivates them appearing so frequently in the survey. Now, back to said survey.

There is no one I know who thinks Amir Khan-Timothy Bradley would be an exciting fight; it would be technical, and, perhaps, awkward between the two junior welterweights. Yet it came up several times.

People want to see the winner of the Super Six finale between Andre Ward and Carl Froch take on Bute. Several fans preferred Froch-Bute, though, and at least one said he’d be interested in it even if Froch didn’t beat Ward.

This one was perhaps the most surprising: light heavyweight Chad Dawson came up numerous times, despite previously having inspired little to no passion. I wonder if he has made himself more appealing somehow with how the Bernard Hopkins fight went down. Some sadists said they wanted Dawson-Hopkins II, which makes me wonder if somehow that fight is more marketable now than it was before it happened, but on a roughly even number of occasions Tavoris Cloud and a rematch with Jean Pascal were requested, if not for Cloud and Pascal to just go ahead and fight each other instead.

There are two Giovani Segura fights that drew multiple votes: against Roman Gonzalez and a move up from junior flyweight to flyweight in a champ-vs.-champ match-up against Pongsaklek Wonjongkam.

Very few heavyweight bouts involving active fighters came up, but at least a couple volunteered a Klitschko brothers showdown.

That is about the end of the bouts with anything approaching consensus, where any trends could be identified: there were votes for a couple names that came up more than once, but very few bouts on this list getting more than one: Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.-Alvarez; Alvarez-Miguel Cotto; Angulo-Cotto; Kell Brook against Khan, Mike Jones or Ortiz; assorted rematches like DeMarco-Linares II and Ortiz-Andre Berto II; a lot of sympathy for Erislandy Lara because he got robbed against Williams and wanting to see him get his due against someone, anyone; etc.

My own most five most desired fights, for what it’s worth, in approximate order: 1. Mayweather-Pacquiao; 2. Super Six winner vs. Bute; 3. Rios-Maidana; 4. Gamboa-Donaire (after Donaire vs. Mares-Agbeko II, preferably); and 5. Segura-Wonjongkam.

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. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.