Boxing In 2014, Reviewed (And A Glimpse At 2015)

On the surface, boxing in 2014 sucked. Everyone knows this, and most everyone knows why. Scratch a little deeper, and it still sucked — worse than any year since the mid/late-2000s — just maybe not as atrociously as commonly understood on the surface.

There’s little need to rehash, at length, the rather obvious diagnosis about what ailed the sport last year: the “Cold War” between promoters and networks froze boxing in its tracks for most of the year, and then when it thawed, it spun off into other battles that kept key players and boxers away from one another. As we said last week: “On a whole, boxing resembled a thin layer of ice over a lake in 2014 — every step forward brought a new crack splintering the ice in multiple directions, and it looked like it would fall apart at any minute, and all in all one would just be wise to stay away from it. That fracturing and fragmentation reached an absurd high in 2014.”

Rather than that rehash the cause of the suction, then, let’s look at some of the usual metrics about the health of the sport in 2014, which turns up some results that suggest things weren’t quite as bad as perceived (yet still, let’s be extremely clear, bad). And let’s look at how much things have a chance to improve in 2015.

From 2013 To 2014

In 2013, the Cold War was good for boxing, but deceptively so: It was only good in the short-term, and unsustainable. Most knew it then, and if it wasn’t obvious by the end of 2013, it became clear pretty early in ’14. We wrote in last year’s review: “This trend that we saw by the end of the year isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Certainly, we’ll keep getting good fights. A promoter’s pool of talent within a division will fade and replenish over time to create new appetizing fights. But the universe of options will be about half what it could be without the Cold War. And sooner or later, if it hasn’t happened already, matchmaking will begin to suffer. We’ll get good fights, but fewer great ones.”

That exactly what happened. And it only got more complicated by the break-up of Golden Boy, which led influential adviser Al Haymon to turn deeply protective of his fighters, even by his usual standards, making Showtime virtually useless.

The Good Fights Of 2014

When you look back through the roster of “best vs. best” fights, it’s longer than memory serves. Some of the best fighters in a division, and some of the best fighters in any division, did square off. That list reads, approximately:

Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley II; Wladimir Klitschko-Kubrat Pulev; Roman Gonzalez-Akira Yaegashi; Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins; Carl Froch-George Groves II; Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara; Terence Crawford-Raymundo Beltran; Nicholas Walters-Nonito Donaire.

Some of those are generously best vs. best, to be sure. Pacquiao-Bradley was two top 5 welters and two top 5 pound-for-pounders. Gonzalez was the eyeball-test consensus best 112-pounder to challenge Yaegashi for his crown, even if he hadn’t earned that status yet with victories over top flyweights. Froch-Groves II was the best fight to make at 168 not including its dormant champion Andre Ward. Even the best vs. best fight with the strongest stake to claim, Crawford-Beltran for the true lightweight championship, was the division’s #1 man vs. a somewhat weak #2. The point is, there were a lot of fights featuring some of the best vs. some of the other best.

That shouldn’t be confused as a sign of health. In every year, even the worst years of boxing, good fighters eventually fight other good fighters. While going through the list of best fights, knockouts and moments of 2014, it’s easy to see the good there, too. There were excellent moments sprinkled throughout the year, some of it a virtue of boxing being too dynamic to be completely awful even at its worst. We could count on the smaller weight classes in particular, with the likes of Gonzalez-Yagaeshi, Francisco Rodriguez, Jr.-Katsunari Takayama, Juan Francisco Estrada-Giovani Segura and others providing bouts both evenly matched and action-oriented. If it’s not a sign of health that boxing had some high points in a down year, and it’s not, then it’s at least a reminder that boxing in 2014 was not completely without its valors.

Boxing’s Exposure In 2014

To find those good moments, though, you certainly did have to work at it sometimes, didn’t you? It took having obscure networks like beIN Sports, cultivated knowledge of the smaller weight divisions (something even many of the sport’s diehards don’t have), and/or an illicit avenue for tracking down overseas bouts. It’s hard enough being a boxing fan, not to get all mopey and martyr-y about it; it’s only hard in comparison to most other sports. You have to pay for HBO and Showtime, you have to buy pay-per-views and you have to stay home on Friday and Saturday nights. And now you have to subscribe to more networks than HBO and Showtime, and you have to subject your computer to potential viruses from untrustworthy links to illegal streams.

What television ratings we have from all of that suggest a mixed picture. HBO outdid Showtime, as usual, based on its larger subscriber base, and while hard figures aren’t immediately available, one guesses that the catch-up Showtime was doing has ended; one also guesses that numbers weren’t better in 2014 than in 2013 overall, although ESPN claimed a boxing ratings increase. NBC Sports, a promising outlet at one time, was on the decline, with Main Events’ Kathy Duva admitting flatly that she lost interest in putting on good bouts once it appeared Haymon would be taking over. At least two figures could’ve improved U.S. numbers, but ratings superstar Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. chose to sit out most of the year, big-name U.S. fighter Ande Ward sat out all of it and Mikey Garcia — nurtured by HBO as a burgeoning star — sat out most of of it, too. Manny Pacquiao, one of boxing’s big PPV kings with Floyd Mayweather, suffered some of his worst numbers again, and Mayweather didn’t exactly kick ass by his own high standard, either. In terms of U.S. audiences, there wasn’t much of anything revolutionary on ticket sales, just some spots of good news around the margins — gains for the likes of Gennady Golovkin, the establishment of Terence Crawford as an unexpected regional draw. There were also relapses. In 2013, many of boxing’s biggest crowds and television audiences flocked to stacked cards with evenly-matched bouts or appealing style clashes or both, more so than they flocked to one particular star name or another. You’d be hard-pressed to point to very many such cards in 2014.

Overseas, the development of China as a market is hard to assess, because anyone proclaiming big numbers has been shown to be lying by massive margins, although exact figures are hard to get. The only definitive “better than before” we got was the crowd for Carl Froch-George Groves II, which set the all-time British record with 80,000 fans in attendance. That was special.

Boxing’s Integrity In 2014

Here’s another odd area where things weren’t quite as bad this past year as they are sometimes. That’s — again — not to say they were great. HBO’s broadcast on one night of horrendous decisions in Timothy Bradley-Diego Chaves and Jose Benavidez-Mauricio Herrera was a lowlight. (If you’re Herrera, in particular, you probably aren’t convinced that boxing’s integrity in 2014 was any better than any previous year, having arguably been robbed against Danny Garcia, too.) There just seemed to be fewer reprehensible boxing judging and officiating scandals than in past years, overall.

And fighter safety wasn’t the big to-do in 2014 that it was in 2013, when there were some pretty high-profile mishandled cases with the likes of Magomed Abdusalamov. On the same fighter safety tip, advanced drug testing still seems to be treading water, although if the WBC is to be believed we’ll get more expanded testing for its sanctioned bouts from the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. As before, this is all still sort of ad hoc. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (of which I am a member), meanwhile, continued to make gains as a rankings organization and championship-anointing body to be trusted — if slowly, with steadily increased recognition publicly on, for instance, social media, and one more champion created at lightweight. That said, as mentioned before, even that championship bout (Crawford-Beltran) was on the lower end of a convincingly #1 vs. #2 bout — yet more evidence that whatever good was happening in boxing in 2014 was still modest.

Coming In 2015, On The Books And Not

As if there’s a deliberate attempt to start the year off right by boxing’s powers that be, there are some pretty nice bouts on the schedule already. Golovkin-Martin Murray, Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder, Sergey Kovalev-Jean Pascal and Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado III are all booked. That’s a decent start. All of those are appealing bouts in one way or another.

What’s noteworthy, still, is that the bouts that would be most sought by fans are still not signed. If you surveyed 100 people who follow boxing religiously or casually, you’d have to guess that the list of specific desirable bouts would include Mayweather-Pacquiao, Kovalev-Adonis Stevenson, Gonzalez-Estrada II, Ward-Golovkin, and Miguel Cotto-Canelo Alvarez. Of those, only Cotto-Alvarez should be viewed as a realistic possibility. And here’s the problem: Every single one of those bouts could’ve happened in 2014, timing-wise, except they didn’t for a host of reasons that remain present in 2015.

We keep hearing about how negotiations are going for Mayweather-Pacquiao, as if this time it’s really promising. It’s been promising before, too, and nothing has come of it. Until we hear otherwise, we should all assume that it isn’t going to happen. It hasn’t happened for the last six years or so and that’s plenty track record. You can point to reasons about how it’s different this time all you want; all of that is overridden by history.

Cotta-Alvarez should’ve been easy — it’s how Cotto and Alvarez get their biggest paychecks, it gives Cotto a defensible reason for the middleweight champ to avoid Golovkin for a longer and it’s a winnable fight for both men. For some reason, it’s stalled (Oscar De La Hoya is blaming Cotto, but who knows; Cotto-Mayweather II has been floated out there, but that feels more like a negotiating tactic than a reasonable option at this point). Kovalev-Stevenson is nowhere near being made, given the bad blood over the fallout last year and the two men fighting on different networks. Ward-Golovkin has gotten slightly more realistic now that Ward’s promotional feud is over, but Golovkin appears determined to stay at 160 and Ward appears determined to stay at 168, and both men have stubbornly dismissed the other. You would’ve thought with the rise of the little men that Gonzalez-Estrada II was doable, except Gonzalez is ridiculously insisting on $1 million, which suggests he A. doesn’t want the fight or B. is playing hardball in negotiations. If he gets more reasonable on this point, maybe we get this fight. [UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: As a commenter pointed out, and as discussed in these BoxingScene forums, it appears as if Gonzalez might have meant a $1 million purse for both men, total. If so, that’s a more reasonable ask.]

There are some less specific bouts that would be good in 2015, based on the quality of a weight class. (Mayweather-Pacquiao, Kovalev-Stevenson, et al can all reasonably be described as best-vs.-best bouts, each of varying entertainment value outside that metric.) For instance, junior welterweight has a whole host of names who would make good fights with each other — Garcia, Lamont Peterson, Adrien Broner, Lucas Matthysse, Crawford, even Pacquiao. Junior bantamweight has a similar dynamic — Guillermo Rigondeaux, Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, maybe Shinsuke Yamaska moving up from 118. And best-vs.-best or no, Nicolas Walters-Vasyl Lomachenko just has a super-sexy air of up-and-comers about it, although at 126 there are some other good names that could be mixed and matched, for example, Jhonny Gonzalez.

The problem, again, is that every single one of those fights could’ve happened in 2014, too. They didn’t.

Fracturing In 2015

And that goes back to what’s underneath. Boxing is still too fragmented a place in 2015. Where it has gotten more cohesive than last year, it has fractured in other ways. That shouldn’t give anyone any hope for things getting better.

So Golden Boy and Top Rank are playing nice now, with HBO ending its ban on doing business with Golden Boy. Except Golden Boy is about half the company last year it was last year. In settling with former executive Richard Schaefer, Golden Boy lost many of its children in the divorce. It still has Alvarez, say. It is still signing new fighters. But it gave up the likes of the Haymon-advised Broner and Garcia. And while it keeps the likes of Santa Cruz and Matthysse, those men are still with Haymon, which means that Haymon could, if he so chose, disturb Golden Boy’s plans for those fighters.

And if we know anything about Haymon, it’s that he’s not shy about burning down a village just to make sure nobody else gets to live there. Especially when he’s got his own village to build. His deal with NBC remains nebulous, but it’s getting advertised during the NFL playoffs, is NBC boxing, so it’s becoming more concrete. If he does business with Showtime and HBO in 2015, one suspects it’ll be token business aimed toward building up his own thing on NBC. And while Mayweather Promotions (likely with Schaefer at the helm) is the ostensible promotional vehicle, expect Haymon to be running the show. Can it be good for boxing? Maybe, but more unlikely than anything. Haymon has shown that when he has to put on good fights — see the year 2013 — he can. But when he doesn’t have to, he won’t. Bet on that transition from good to bad (if it even starts off good) happening at NBC in 2015.

And who’s he going to do business with, other than himself? He’s already done everything he can to nullify Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, which is making some splashy signings, i.e. Ward. Perhaps De La Hoya’s Golden Boy can be charmed into playing ball for a while. Top Rank won’t. And Haymon isn’t interested in working with any promoter he can’t control, so forget the next tier.

So we start 2015 like this: Top Rank, the remainders of Golden Boy and some other promoters (Main Events, K2) at HBO. Golden Boy doing some business at Showtime. Roc Nation Sports developing on Fox Sports 1, and, presumably after a while with Ward (plus any other possible signings) at HBO. The Haymon outfit doing business mainly at NBC, with a dip into Showtime, perhaps. Various promoters working with ESPN, beIN Sports, CBS and assorted other smaller outfits.

That suggests a win in the short-term for HBO, Showtime withering further, NBC offering who-knows-what, and FS1, ESPN, beIN, CBS et al filling some gaps. But it also leaves out an awful lot of the sport’s best fighters unavailable to HBO, probably, so, short-term win.

The forecast for 2015 calls for more frozen, fractured ice in boxing. We’ll still get some good product this year, because as 2014 showed, even when things are at their worst, boxing can still deliver some highs. We just might want to settle in for boxing going backwards again for a second consecutive year rather than going forward, if we can stand it at all.

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.