January 3rd, 2013 By Frances MartelNew York, NY– 2013 is finally here, a year that sounds like fiction to the ears of those of us born in the 20th century. Boxing fans have spent the past decade Chicken Little-ing about the “death of boxing,” how thanks to MMA and money-grubbing promoters (as if that were a new development) the sport wouldn’t even make past 2010. And yet here we are, in a year that sounds like fiction, with tiny glimmers of hope: the rise of Austin Trout (26-0, 14 KOs), the fall of Manny Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs), the realization that Jim Lampley— like so many cockroaches and Cher— will be at ringside long after the rest of us have died in a nuclear blast (I think it’s the hair). Yes, boxing is still here.
But it’s a tattered sport, one that has contributed so much to the cultural makeup of this country that we insist on caring for its health, possibly nursing it back to prior greatness. But what can those who love boxing—those who buy fight tickets as much as those who sell them— do to make 2013 less like 2013 and more like 1997? With the Australian Open on the horizon for tennis fans and absolutely nothing interesting for us boxing fans in the coming months– unless Zab Judah (42-7, 29 KOs) is a name that means something to you in the year 2013— maybe its time to look at our racquet-equipped competitive cousins for some tips on how to make one-on-one sport exciting again.
MMA: BOXING AND TENNIS’S DISTANT YOUNGER COUSIN
Many will disagree that tennis is even remotely related to boxing, much less its kindred spirit. Aesthetically, it is hard to deny that MMA is the sport that looks most like boxing: two men or women, one enclosed space, plenty of physical contact. For disillusioned boxing fans longing for the days when putting on a good show was more important that preserving a golden goose’s undefeated record, MMA has become a second home. In fact, the rise of MMA is inextricably linked to boxing’s decline, which is precisely why the two sports are so culturally distinct. MMA developed out of populism, almost exclusive to this century, by word of mouth and forming its own rules democratically (remember when MMA had no weight classes?). For many, the fact that it is new adds to its allure: the sport is a clean slate. Boxing in its current form, on the other hand, is centuries old, with a lush history of political milestones and the sort of larger than life heroes only time can create. MMA doesn’t have a Joe Louis—it can’t; it’s too young.
THE 21ST CENTURY: TENNIS’S PEAK MOMENT
But tennis has Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson; Evonne Goolagong and Fred Perry. It has precisely the sort of sense of self that comes from decades of tradition—from meaning something more than the numbers on its scoreboard. But unlike boxing, few argue that we are not living the greatest era of tennis history. In any other period in time, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick or Andy Murray could have feasibly been the uncontested #1s of their era. Unfortunately for them, they share an era with Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time. For fans of the sport, few thrills can parallel the recognition of this level of talent blossoming all around the world simultaneously—and, thanks to the mechanics of the sport, facing each other at least four times a year on TV. Meanwhile, we get to twiddle our thumbs while every three months some glass-chin with a $20 name loses the fight meant to set him up with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez (41-0-1, 30 KOs). Where did we go wrong?DITCH THE NATIONALISM
Perhaps because so much of the early history of a prize fighter begins at the Summer Olympics, a boxer never quite sheds the weight of their nation. Boxers are judged to have a style based on where they’re from and accumulate fans based on their hometowns far more than their personalities. A boxer’s nationality becomes a commodity that a promoter can sell, which affects venue decisions and purse sizes. It also affects who promoters decide to sign up when the visit gyms, and which gyms they visit at all. If Roger Federer were a boxer, no one would have signed him up. The man is Swiss. Could you imagine a boxing trainer trying to convince a promoter that their man can turn out the Swiss fans? Instead, tennis players generate popularity through their image, and tennis fans are accustomed to being fans of a player, not of a country. Even the most nationalistic fans—the Serbians who follow Novak Djokovic— follow the player for the player (a player, it should be noted, who goes out of his way to discourage nationalism in his fans, given the history of his war-torn region). In short, if boxing fans were to hang their country’s flags at the door before coming into the arena, we wouldn’t have to deal with the prospect of a Manny Pacquiao- Juan Manuel Marquez 5 (five. Five!).
GET BOXING BACK ON NETWORK TV
The Pay-Per-View phenomenon is largely buoyed by boxing’s exploitation of nationalism—for love of country, some boxing fans will pay any exorbitant amount of money to watch their compatriots slow-dance in the ring. Eliminate nationalism and charging $60 for a post-prime Miguel Cotto (37-4, 30 KOs) snoozefest becomes virtually impossible—driving boxing back to its natural home: network television. On network TV, a casual viewer channel surfing on a Saturday night could land on a brilliant fight without trying, generating interest and making it lower-risk for someone with an interest to invest in following the sport. And for those promoters who claim it may be impossible to generate revenue on network television: how do you explain the financial success of the NFL?
TREAT FIGHTERS BETTER
Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time, has a record of 247 wins and 37 losses in Grand Slam tournaments. 37 losses. Not to mention that one loss to Andy Murray in the Olympic Games and innumerable small tournaments he lost on the way to his #1 ranking. What would the boxing world today make of a champion with 37 losses? Given what it makes of champions with even one loss, “mince meat” appears to be the only answer. As a community, boxing treats its fighters like the Irish treat their poets—especially in America, where the number of champions has notably decline in part because athletes who would otherwise make good fighters have wisely opted for other sports where they get their due respect without risking brain damage every time they perform. Boxers risk their life to entertain you, the fan—it’s about time we start treating them with the dignity that sort of sacrifice deserves, and that requires understanding that everyone loses sometime. An undefeated record means little more than risk aversion, and in 2013, we should start looking at it as a liability, not an asset.