“As the heavyweights go, so goes boxing.” It would be convenient to look at the state of today’s heavyweight division and allow the whole sloppy lot of those fighters to shoulder the blame for boxing’s inability to compete for television time with more mainstream, or more marketable sports in the U.S. Whether or not it would be accurate is another issue entirely.
The adage holds at least partially true, as some of the most successful and booming eras for boxing were when the sport lived and breathed at the whim of popular heavyweight champions. Jack Dempsey was among the first ever global sports celebrities and superstars; Joe Louis punched with the force of an entire nation; Muhammad Ali forced nations to reassess institutions; there are still visible scars from Mike Tyson’s tear through the division, though his saga is somewhat ongoing.
Television’s role in the ebb and flow of boxing’s popularity is impossible to cast aside, however. While the heavyweight division is an easily identifiable factor in boxing’s popularity, television’s way of distributing boxing opium to the masses was an accelerant in what has long been an incendiary relationship.
Pugilism was a serious draw long before film or television became available, but with fight films came a way to relive bouts visually, rather than via print or retelling. And with film rights came bigger purses, bigger heroes, and bigger egos.
Boxing was benefiting from film and television technology, and at the same time at the forefront of its technological advancement. From film, to radio broadcasting, to television, boxing has been there.
The downside to visually experiencing a sport often brutal and unforgiving is the permanence of its most extreme negativity. Fans were rightly shaken by the 1962 memory of Benny “Kid” Paret being crushed, nearly lifeless, into the ropes live, in their living room; and by the 1982 memory of Deuk-Koo Kim approaching his demise, one punch at a time — this time in color. The eventual trimming down of media that covered boxing exclusively or prominently, partially as a result of such tragedies, led to less interest, fewer sponsors and eventually networks quit boxing altogether.
It had been simmering for years, and speculated for longer. In 1963, about 18 months after Paret’s passing, an AP report read, “A long count which started in March 1962 when Benny (Kid) Paret died after his televised welterweight championship bout with Emile Griffith reached ten Monday with confirmation that the American Broadcast Company plans to drop boxing from its network schedules. It could be a kayo punch for the sport, troubled recently by attacks from all sides and sustained, many believed, only by the lavish income television rights provided.”
In 1992, NBC’s “Sportsworld” saw a serious decline in its ratings after the Summer Olympics in Barcelona won the network several Emmy Awards for its coverage. Shortly thereafter, “Sportsworld” was no more. CBS continued to have semi-regular fight cards on their air well into the 90s, and ABC also stuck it out longer, but boxing was essentially dropped by NBC, one of the largest and most powerful television networks, in 1992.
When HBO Pay-Per-View was released in 1991 as TVKO, the financial dynamic in boxing changed. The rise of the pay-per-view model may or may not have been a contributing factor to the decline of boxing on network television, but one thrived as the other shriveled.
NBC dipped its toe into the boxing cesspool in 2003 for a few shows, and again briefly the following year, and CBS tried it out in 2012, with nothing sticking. It’s fair to note, though, that CBS owns Showtime, which has gone to great lengths to expand its presence in the sport in the last three years.
There seems a general tendency to wax nostalgic about previous eras of anything, but especially boxing. And a popular complaint about boxing not being like it used to be, is its lack of presence among contemporary pop culture. It’s not that “there aren’t any good fights anymore,” it’s that cheap, accessible mainstream media outlets don’t show them or cover them like they used to.
When a press conference was held in January to announce boxing’s return to NBC with the series “Premier Boxing Champions” — via anti-social and polarizing promotional figure Al Haymon — that included 11 shows on NBC proper and not its smaller channel NBC Sports, it meant the sport had effectively returned to network television.
The return of boxing to network television is tentative, and a sustained run likely depends on its success. Additionally, NBC is one of but a handful of major television networks. But it’s a start.
This weekend, PBC makes its most significant push yet, as it stages Danny Garcia vs. Lamont Peterson on NBC. So far, Spike TV and CBS have gotten in on the PBC action, and Garcia-Peterson marks the second attempt at a mainstream sports coup via NBC. In the co-feature is another appealing bout in Andy Lee vs. Peter Quillin, which on paper increases the likelihood of worthwhile action on the card.
But the product still has to deliver.
In 2012 — when Premier Boxing Champions was either a mere sparkle in Haymon’s eye, or a spark hungry for fuel — Lee Groves wrote for RingTV that in the years prior to NBC dropping its series “SportsWorld” in 1992, that, “the public at large was, in effect, being weaned off boxing.” When Haymon unveiled his master plan, he gave the public a forceful shove off the wagon. Whether or not the public has permanently kicked the habit is what remains to be seen.
While the tally of 3.4 million viewers who watched PBC’s debut in March is a highly respectable one, once word of what the fighters were being paid hit news and social media, the discussion turned to whether or not the PBC model was sustainable. As of now, that remains unclear.
Through decades-worth of bells tolling the demise of boxing and countless eulogies delivered, the sport has not only survived, but revived itself, then moved forward to thrive again before repeating the cycle. The cycle is once again beginning, but now perhaps with a new set of technological tools, and more opportunities to embed boxing in the consciousness of the public once more.
Carlo Imelio, then writing for The Republican in 1979, said, “Television, boxing’s assassin in the days of three-night-a-week over saturation, is its benefactor today. The three major networks are battling each other for talent and boxing is enjoying remarkable ratings, particularly on weekends. It seems of late that a weekend doesn’t go by without a major fight, and unlike in the recent past, the little fellows are getting a piece of the pie. People who watch, and their numbers are legion, are beginning to recognize name and faces. … The more they see the more they want, these new followers of the game. And networks presidents, bug-eyed at the ratings, will continue to feed the hungry animal. Hopefully the networks will continue to be selective in their programming during this maturation period. There’s a whole new generation of boxing fans — just plain folk who are acquiring a taste for the sport I believed back [a few years ago] was destined to die in this decade.”