There have been two instances during the past 18 years wherein the sport of boxing has found itself at a tipping point. In June of 1997 Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson met for the second time in a fight that captured the attention of the world. The two men, along with promoter Don King, were featured on the front page of USA Today and the bout was one that was going to save boxing from itself. Unfortunately, Tyson “snapped” and bit a chunk of flesh from Holyfield’s ear. Boxing was seen as an instant laughingstock, a sideshow – and it gave itself another in a long line of proverbial black eyes.
It took a decade, or until May 2007 to be exact, for the sport to recover. Boxing eventually found its way back into the mainstream for one day with the fight between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya. It was proclaimed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the the fight that was going to “save boxing” and everyone was sure there would be better days ahead for the sport before what was then the richest prizefight in boxing history. The fight itself was a tepid and cautious affair devoid of any real drama and in the end it was Mayweather who walked away from the ring that night with a split-decision victory. The fight surely did not save boxing, but it didn’t necessarily kill it either.
So here we are, nearly eight years later and the posturing for a bout pitting the two best fighters on the planet in Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao has still not been finalized. While there have been weeks of back and forth saber rattling among the television networks, promoters and even the fighters themselves it seems some days the fight is close whereas there are others when it seems the two sides have never been further apart.
And here in 2015, boxing again finds itself teetering on the precipice of relevance.
“Make no mistake” as the esteemed Al Bernstein might say, this is one of the biggest fights in all of boxing history. It’s been five years since this fight was first proposed and for all that time the two protagonists have danced around the fire of negotiations with neither committing to holding their feet to it. The thinking is that this fight would be bigger than “The Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971 that featured two colossal undefeated gladiators in Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
The problem is that if the fight falls apart at the negotiating table then the sport of boxing will lose untold thousands of followers. Customer service has never been the sport’s strong point as a myriad of promoters, television networks, alphabet sanctioning cartels and even the fighters do only what is best for themselves and not for the fans they purport to serve. For years now, the sport has been the king of bait and switch, larcenous pay-per-views, overpriced fighters that underperform and parades of mindless mismatches.
The public’s appetite for this fight has been froth-like. There is nobody that follows the sport, whether it be casual fan or not who is not talking about this fight and discussing the possibilities of who will win and why. So to make a long story short: If this fight doesn’t happen the sport is unlikely to claw its way back from the dark abyss.
Boxing has always been long on finger pointing and short on accountability. If the fight doesn’t happen, HBO will claim it was Showtime’s fault and vice versa. Bob Arum will lash out with words like only he can. Mayweather will say…well, whatever his adviser Al Haymon tells him to. Pacquiao will preach it wasn’t God’s will and then he’ll fight a parade of Brandon Rios and Chris Algieri types in Macau to close out his hall of fame career. Mayweather will fight a couple more times against the limited and the non-threatening, retire undefeated and proclaim himself the best there ever was – until his money runs out and he’s forced to come back and lose.
But the butt of the joke here is the boxing consumer. They ponied up a Grant to watch Tyson bite Holyfield’s ear. They ponied up another fifty to see De La Hoya stop jabbing after six rounds and lose to Mayweather in a glorified sparring session. On both of those occasions the boxing fan has marched to the altar like a lovesick groom and was stood up by a runaway bride. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
In the past, the inmates that run this asylum were able to get away with this sort of behavior. Don King and Arum ran this table they call boxing like Tom Cruise in The Color of Money. But that was when it was easy to make fights by paying off the two-bit dictators of the alphabet soup cartels and when King was able to get his fighters to sign blank contracts that he would later fill in with the details. The suits at HBO and Showtime are far more vicious and ruthless than King and Arum ever were, but they stomp their foes to death in the boardroom instead of the Cleveland streets. Their payouts come in the form of future dates instead of a bag full of money delivered on the New Jersey Turnpike in the dark of night. Most would suppose it was simpler back then. Strong-arm the defenseless. Intimidate the weak. Demote the fringe contenders in the ratings. Look the other way and smile when your palms were being greased.
However, that was then and this is now. The networks and those that control the sport have supposedly washed away the grime.
But you must understand that the cost of the Mayweather – Pacquiao fight, which very well may gross in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars and cost one-hundred dollars on pay-per-view, will be much greater if the fight doesn’t happen at all.