If you stop 2009 on the afternoon of Dec. 22, the year boxing had ends up an unqualified success. Unprecedented pay-per-view sales and improved television ratings in the United States. Historic crowds and record television ratings abroad. Mainstream media recognition of the sport’s revitalization, a far cry from the “mixed martial arts is killing boxing” foolishness that has reigned for years in the newspapers. Whereas 2007 and 2008 — years when the revitalization began — were in the “B” range, 2009 was more like an “A-.”
The afternoon of Dec. 22 is when all of that success got tossed up into the air like the tray of a waitress who got tripped, and we don’t know how it’s going to land. It’s when Golden Boy Promotions announced that, rather than us all thinking Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao was going to happen, in fact the fight was in jeopardy because of a dispute over drug testing. And suddenly the major driving force for boxing’s revival — fans getting the fights they wanted — was about to come to a screeching halt at the moment where it mattered most, i.e., when even non-fans were on the verge of getting the fight they wanted.
I know I was just saying the other week how you have to judge the elapsing decade’s best fighter by what he did in the decade, rather than wait for Pacquiao and Mayweather to fight to prove it. I stand by that. Any fight that transpires outside the decade shouldn’t determine which fighter ruled the decade. But this state of suspension for the standpoint of the health of the sport — it makes it hard to judge. 2009 could be the year boxing returned to the ghetto, because it could go down as the year when the fight that mattered more than any in 20 years or so collapsed. The year could end up being an “F.”
So let’s review the year as it stands now, then circle back at the end to that driving force.
Statistically, things add up well. 2009 was the first year since 1999 where two fights — Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather-Juan Manuel Marquez — did 1 million pay-per-view buys in America. One fight, Shane Mosley-Antonio Margarito, sold more tickets for the Staples Center than any event ever had before. There were sell-outs or near sell-outs across the nation. Poland had a fight so big it was called “The Fight of the Century” there, and so did New Zealand, while Australia, Japan, Denmark and Germany all had ridiculously popular bouts. Poland’s fight, Tomasz Adamek-Andrew Golota, did all-time high television ratings, while Germany’s fight, Wladimir Klitschko-Ruslan Chagaev, saw a live gate that drew more people in that country than any since around World War II. It was so good a year for the sport that an MMA writer said, “Boxing had a better year than MMA in 2009.” I agree, but I also second the notion in the article that boxing and MMA can co-exist and don’t necessarily compete with one another; the main thing is, it shows how far boxing came this year, when MMA writers acknowledge how well boxing’s doing and the New York Times and other mainstream outlets speak of boxing’s comeback.
But let’s break it down a little bit more.
Boxing in 2009 needed to expand its audience, and for the most part, it did that very well. It killed the excessive number of pay-per-views that nobody wanted to pay for and that limited the audience needlessly. There were a grand total of three PPV events via HBO. All the other PPV events were small shows that individual promoters put on, rather than the biggest player in the industry. Television ratings were up at HBO — we’ll get to why in a minute — and while Versus got out of the boxing business, effectively, Fox Sports moved in to replace it. I’d also say the best boxers still don’t fight often enough; I’d like to see them go four times a year or so, rather than the once or twice we saw from most elite fighters. People need to see these guys in action more.
Marketing-wise, boxing has subsisted on a model that feels like it dated to the Cold War, but the promoters finally wised up to this thing called the Internet. That’s where the young audience comes from, and you can actually see Golden Boy and Top Rank on Twitter if you want to, gasp. There were innovative advertiser tie-ins, like the ones that offered rebates on PPV costs, and those advertisers in turn offered greater exposure to the fights themselves. All of boxing’s success began to attract yet more advertisers, and finally — with some berating from Top Rank’s Bob Arum, HBO’s Larry Merchant and SecondsOut’s Thomas Hauser — the New York Times was forced to recognize that boxing was back in business. Other mainstream outlets, be they The Wall Street Journal, Sportscenter or Sports Illustrated, also recognized at various points what was happening.
If there’s one knock I have in this category, it’s that boxing still wasn’t back on network television. Now, it’s not the case that boxing can’t thrive without network television. In MMA, just look at industry giant, UFC, which isn’t on CBS, compared to distant rival Strikeforce, which is. But MMA overall got a huge boost of attention by being on network television at all. Boxing still should strive to get back on the major networks. To its credit, this is the first year I’ve heard somebody offer a coherent plan for doing so, with Golden Boy Promotions’ Richard Schaefer seeing advertiser interest as the key to attracting network interest and proselytizing that message at every step.
Integrity And Clarity
To the vast majority of humanity, boxing is that “corrupt” sport. There hasn’t been a major corruption scandal that I know of since the days of Butterbean or George Foreman, where people were paid to take dives or that kind of thing, but the sport does still look fishy sometimes, what with the proliferation of quizzical decisions and sanctioning bodies offering belts left and right. To attract an audience outside those hardcore fans who know weird decisions are a part of the sport and sanctioning bodies can serve the occasional purpose, boxing needs clarity.
It wasn’t a good year on this front. I’ve seen worse decisions rendered on the scorecard in any given fight in any given year since I’ve been a big boxing fan, but I’m not sure I’ve seen so many bad ones as I did in 2009. It was a huge turnoff. Paulie Malignaggi, after a questionable decision in his first fight with Juan Diaz in Diaz’ hometown of Houston, famously said “boxing is bullshit,” and more boxing fans than not agreed with him. Diaz and HBO, to their mutual credit, signed on for a rematch in a neutral location. I’d like to see more of that happen, because all the other fishy decisions haven’t been addressed. And it’s clear boxing needs more judges who are trained better and selected in a way that doesn’t lead them into conscious or subconscious decisions to favor one fighter over the other.
Nor did boxing really come much closer to eliminating the influence of the sanctioning organizations. We did crown a legitimate heavyweight champion, Klitschko, when he beat Chagaev to claim the lineal, true Ring championship of the division. Key to these lineal Ring magazine belts getting recognition over the alphabet belt gang is fighters disrespecting the sanctioning organizations and caring about other things more. Chad Dawson dropped his light heavyweight belt in order to fight a better opponent than the one the sanctioning organization wanted him to fight, while Tomasz Adamek felt comfortable dropping his cruiserweight alphabet belts because he had the Ring cruiserweight championship in his hands. As an institutional authority, HBO did a better job of recognizing Ring champions over sanctioning organization champions, which could have a long-term influence. That said, we have fewer true champions this year than last, seven to end 2009 to six for 2008. And there are more sanctioning organization belts than ever, it seems, with “super” and “regular” and “interim” and “in recess” and even a “WBC Peace and Concord Ambassador,” with all of the alphabet organizations moving to add more belts, not fewer, in the future. Only when we, the boxing fans — in conjunction with the fighters, promoters and networks — start ignoring the sanctioning organizations, will they lose their horrible sway.
These are subtle things. In order to build brand loyalty comparable to that of MMA, boxing needs strong undercards. In order to build fighters into attractions and regions into boxing hotbeds, boxing events need to be held in more than just Las Vegas. In order for boxing to build future talent, there needs to be a strong amateur system. The amateur system is about where it was last year, but there were signs of promise. There were reports that boxing gyms were finding themselves in a bit of a growth spurt, while Oscar De La Hoya was promising to invest more heavily in amateur boxing.
There were signs that boxing was clued into the undercard thing in 2009. The undercard for Mayweather-Marquez was fantastic on paper, which is all we as boxing fans can ask for, since you can never guarantee great fights — and the fights ended up being pretty good, for the most part. The small Lightweight Lightning PPV was just a series of good fights more than a main event with a few undercard fights. Alas, Arum promised a wonderful undercard for Pacquiao-Cotto and didn’t deliver at all, although the lip service suggests he realizes it’s something worth working on. And it doesn’t matter, by the way, whether any of this led directly to greater ticket or PPV sales; what matters is that boxing fans feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, because there are a lot of boxing fans with the integrity to recognize their dollars go into boxers’ purses and are less likely to seek illegal streams if they’re not cynical that their $50 equals one good fight and a bunch of useless fights.
Boxing did good business in locales as far flung as Oakland and Salisbury, Md., selling tons of tickets in those locations and others. Andre Ward wasn’t on much of anyone’s map until he started drawing crowds in Oakland, while Fernando Guerrero got more television attention than he might have gotten otherwise as a young prospect by virtue of the big numbers he was doing in tiny Salisbury. There’s a downside to this otherwise encouraging trend: Hometown fights sometimes lead to hometown decisions, as we saw with Diaz-Malignaggi I. There’s no reason boxing can’t have good judging and regional boxing hotbeds, but bad judging really undercuts regional boxing hotbeds. Malignaggi-Diaz II wasn’t in Texas, where boxing was hot in 2009, because of a hometown deicsion, and Diaz says he doesn’t intend to fight in Texas much anymore because he’s sick of all the doubts.
Best Fighting The Best
As I said, this is the root of it all. Boxing had numerous fights this year — Marquez-Diaz, Mosley-Margarito, Pacquiao-Cotto, etc. — where the #1 man fought the #2 or #3 man in his division. The Super Six tournament on Showtime took a deep super middleweight division with few recognizable names and ginned up tons of excitement with a format that means six of the best 168-pounders in the world will end up fighting each other in a round-robin tournament. All in all, everyone seemed to realize that if you took a risk and fought a top opponent, you’d make a good amount of money in the process. And boxing fans were more forgiving of boxers who took those risks and fell short, which reinforced boxers’ commitment to take risks — if they can still make money even if they lose, why not go for the big challenge?
There were a number of fights that I wish would have happened but did not. Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik never fought #1 contender Arthur Abraham, for instance. If more #1-ranked fighters had fought more #2-ranked fighters, more divisions would have filled Ring championship vacancies, per the rules of that organization. Some of that had to do with some of the best fighters doing a ton of division-hopping, though. Pacquiao fought two pound-for-pound top-10 opponents this year, for example. The results were largely good. There were a whole lot of very, very good fights in 2009, even if there were no clear historically amazing fights in 2009 like with 2008’s conclusion of the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez trilogy. And we weren’t subjected to as many mismatches this year, since HBO got smarter about its money, even if there was the stray head-scratching multi-million dollar expenditure on the likes of Chad Dawson-Antonio Tarver II.
Which brings us to Mayweather-Pacquiao. I can shrug off a lot of boxing’s sins, and while I may shout about a lot of the others, I ultimatley can live with them. The one thing I can’t countenance is boxers not fighting the best opposition. Here’s what I love about sports: Watching the best athletes in the world compete against the best athletes in the world. When boxing doesn’t give us that, it’s virtually useless. More often than not over the last two years, it’s done that. Now it may be the verge of unravelling all that it has created, at the most crucial juncture it’s been at for a decade or more.
Behind one door for 2009 is an “A.” In the other is an “F.”