(Tomasz Adamek celebrates his win over a dejected Steve Cunningham)
There was a moment toward the end of 2012, at the close of a boxing broadcast that aired on NBC — the first time that network had aired a live boxing event since 2005 — that almost perfectly encapsulated the year that the sport had.
The headline fight itself, a heavyweight rematch of a classic cruiserweight bout between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham, had started somewhat tactically but had become a tense back-and-forth drama by the end of the bout, one that underdog Cunningham surprisingly demonstrated that he deserved to win. A lot of people were watching, too, what turned into a good show: the audience peaked at 3.2 million viewers, and averaged 1.6 million, the latter figure roughly equivalent to a really highly watched HBO card.
So, naturally, all those people watching quality professional pugilism on honest-to-God network television also watched the judges stick it to Cunningham and give the decision instead to the "house" fighter, Adamek… at which point NBC analyst Freddie Roach offered this commentary: "That's boxing."
He's been criticized for the remark since, offered up a sign of complacency in the face of boxing's frequent outrages. But he was, in a sense, right. What happened on NBC Dec. 22 was oh so very much boxing for that year: capable of delivering tremendous enterainment in the ring, making progress on the business side of the product, and still infested by unsightly blemishes.
Rather than review what was good and what was bad about boxing in 2012, as we did for 2011, we'll instead review things in two categories: 1. the fights and the fighters; and 2. the business side. They are, of course, related, so understand that the split will feature elements of both in the individual parts.
Fights And Fighters
Although the year started slowly, boxing produced a number of entertaining bouts as the year went on, both in terms of raw action and bouts that had other kinds of appeal.
The Fight of the Year candidates were plentiful and hard to narrow down. The excitement often happened at the most visible level of the sport, too — on some of the biggest pay-per-view bouts of the year, like Floyd Mayweather-Miguel Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez-Manny Pacquiao IV and Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.
It remains surprising the degree to which so many hardcore fans and writers equate action fights or action fighters with business success; often they are the same, but often fights with less action but more of something else do well at the box office, too. Few expected Mayweather-Cotto to be the action fight it was; rather, the essence of its appeal beforehand was arguably the sport's biggest star (Mayweather, who got there with a big mouth and by virtue of being the sport's best fighter and not at all for a record of producing action fights) against a fighter who fell just below Mayweather and Pacquiao on the U.S. popularity front (Cotto, who often does produce action fights and draws the big Puerto Rican fan base). No one — and I mean no one — expected anything but anti-action from Chad Dawson-Bernard Hopkins II, but it was one of the highest-rated shows on HBO this past year, and Andre Ward-Chad Dawson also did well. Meanwhile, action-friendly Gennady Golovkin produced one of the year's lowest HBO ratings.
Point being, fights of significance (in that they feature match-ups between the top men in a division, or some of the pound-for-pound best) or that promise uncommon displays of skill (a la Mayweather or Ward), even in the abence of high-octane brawling, are good for boxing in their own way, or else they wouldn't do well with TV ratings, with pay-per-view buy rates or at the live gate. When all of these things go together, as they did for Mayweather-Cotto, Marquez-Pacquiao IV and Martinez-Chavez, all the better. And we got plenty of solid best-vs.-best match-ups in 2012, too. (There are other kinds of fights and fighters that are successful besides action fights/fighters or best fighters/best-vs.-best, it is worth repeating, among them fights involving boxers with personalities or stories that connect to fans, or that have regional/ethnic followings, etc. There is no magical formula for creating a popular boxer or a popular match-up; there are only elements that lead to success more often than not.)
Too bad, then, that we didn't get many of the fights of significance and/or brawls that we could've for one major reason: the recurring feud between boxing's two top promoters, Top Rank and Golden Boy. This was the year Mayweather-Pacquiao died as a fight that could've once broken all box office records, thanks to Pacquiao losing and Mayweather-Pacquiao losing all its competitive merit. As with all things boxing, the sport can find a million reasons not to make a fight, and Mayweather-Pacquiao had above its quota, but one of the reasons is that Mayweather works with Golden Boy and Pacquiao works with Top Rank. The last time Mayweather fought a Top Rank fighter, Cotto, it was only because he left Top Rank. The last time Pacquiao fought a Golden Boy fighter, Marquez, it was only because Marquez left Top Rank. We were also deprived of, and continue to be deprived of, Nonito Donaire-Abner Mares, Lucas Matthysse-Brandon Rios and other excellent bouts that might have happened if not for the Golden Boy-Top Rank feud.
It's a weird sport in that way; I often have to explain to non-fans or casual fans why Mayweather-Pacquiao hasn't happened. In almost every other sport, the two best teams meet each other automatically. It's expected. And it should be. In boxing, even when a fight between the two best fighters isn't happening for structural reasons (i.e., there's no commissioner who orders it to happen by virtue of a playoff system, for instance), it isn't even happening for financial reasons. Pacquiao-Mayweather might've generated up to $250 million in pay-per-view sales alone, but the egos of the fighters and their promoters took precedence. For the casual fan, this kind of thing limits the appeal of boxing, and it's driven off the occasional hardcore fan, too.
Mayweather and Pacquiao have both proven they can be plenty popular even if they never fight one another, though, as both continue to do well independent of each other. What's in question is how much longer they can do it. It feels like, after Mayweather's performance against Cotto where he struggled more than usual and after Pacquiao's performance where he was knocked cold by Marquez (and even with Cotto looking to be in decline), that a changing of the guard is imminent. This, naturally, is some cause for concern. Mayweather and Pacquiao have served as the sport's biggest stars in recent years, and boxing fans and non-boxing fans alike tend to worry about whether someone can come along to replace them. Someone always does; where Pacquiao and Mayweather took the throne from Oscar De La Hoya, De La Hoya took it from Mike Tyson, and so on and so forth throughout the history of the sport.
In that sense, it is good to see that in 2012, boxing's next generation of potential stars began materializing in a much more palpable way than in past years. Figuring out who's "next" is a dice roll, and not everyone who has the look of a future star ends up one. We'll talk about them more in posts in the near future, but it's hard not to be encouraged by the emergence in 2012 of Andre Ward, Adrien Broner, Saul Alvarez and Chavez, who represent the continuum of "best" to "most popular" in about that order, but all possess some element of both qualities.
On a slightly less significant note, it was disappointing to see the slippage in the quality of undercard fights on major PPVs. Only Martinez-Chavez had a decent offering, and that was because of some unique circumstances involving some competition between HBO and Showtime that I'll discuss soon. It seemed to me that last year when PPV cards provided quality undercard bouts, those PPVs did better. Apparently promoters decided that wasn't the case. At any rate, even if it didn't result in a net gain on PPV buys, it's a customer satisfaction issue that builds long-term fans and keeps others. As with all things that are wrong in boxing, a failure to recognize the long-term value of something and instead satiate the nearest-term bottom line is what's wrong here.
For the 2011 review, I wrote how boxing's in-roads toward more mainstream exposure paled in comparison to what the UFC — something of a rival to boxing — was doing by getting live events on Fox. But in 2012, those in-roads became far more comparable. It strikes me as the most important boxing trend of 2012, in fact. Live boxing was back on CBS. Live boxing was back on NBC. HBO struck a business deal with ESPN to promote fights. All of these things had some hitches in the execution, like NBC airing a bunk decision in Adamek-Cunningham II or ESPN failing to recognize the Marquez knockout of Pacquiao as a "top play." But all of them were big steps forward, not mere baby steps, and look to be the start of a trend rather than a one-time development, according to those who put together the events.
Oddly enough, it's not clear it had any immediate impact. When I tell people I write about boxing, they aren't shy about offering reasons why they don't watch — they can't make heads or tails of who the champion is in any given division, they find the sport too brutal and stopped watching after Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear, etc. This year, more than any previous year, I heard "I don't know anybody who fights these days." Often they'd know the names "Pacquiao" and "Mayweather" when I reminded them, and this is obviously not the most scientific of surveys. It's just strange that in the year when boxing has gotten its biggest mainstream exposure in a long time, it hasn't translated. One suspects that it will, eventually.
Over at the boxing mainstays of HBO and Showtime, things also were looking up, overall, not that they didn't have their flaws. The new leadership — Ken Hershman and Stephen Espinoza — brought some fresh vantage points, created some new programming and boosted ratings. Some of that is due to the rising overall popularity of both networks, I would expect. According to this, HBO/Cinemax subscriptions grew by 7 million globally ("globally" is an important adjective there, but the trends point to some growth domestically) and according to this, Showtime has increasingly caught up to HBO. Some of those improved ratings might reflect the growth of the sport. Some of it might reflect the new programming decisions made by the new leaders of HBO and Showtime, such as HBO's increased use of digital features or the "Fight Game" program or Showtime's use of Sho Extreme to air more supporting bouts. HBO also did pretty good business with its PPVs, with Mayweather-Cotto doing a very large 1.5 million, Pacquiao dropping off some (vs. Bradley, approximately 900,000 buys; vs. Marquez, approximately 1.15 million buys) and Martinez-Chavez proving a success (475,000 buys).
About those flaws: While both networks aired significant fights and action fights, sometimes they offered plain puzzling fights, like Keith Thurman-Orlando Lora on HBO or Jayson Velez-Salvador Sanchez, Jr. on Showtime. Showtime's puzzling fights were often related to its newly minted allegiance with Golden Boy and adviser Al Haymon, and most often afflicted ShoBox, the network's usually reliable program focused on prospects. And while HBO bucked some of its free-spending habits in 2012, it also spent an awful lot on Ward-Dawson in relation to return on investment. They also spent swaths of 2012 counterprogramming each other, especially on Sept. 15. While both of those cards, headlined by Alvarez-Josesito Lopez and Martinez-Chavez, ultimately proved successful, and while the competition forced both cards to up their overall game with stronger undercards and generated a lot of talk because of the head-to-head business, it's also 100 percent true in my estimation that if they had aired on different weekends, both would have been bigger for it. Espinoza said the same thing.
Besides those big two, a variety of smaller networks got active in 2012. Wealth TV and Epix were a godsend at points, with Epix airing Carl Froch-Lucian Bute and Wealth TV airing Brian Viloria-Tyson Marquez, although both also aired a fair amount of dreck. NBC Sports put on a number of smaller but quality, evenly matched fights that helped convince NBC to air live boxing on the big network. We haven't heard much yet from ESPN2 about how its programming fared in 2012, although I think most would say it wasn't one of the best years over at Friday Night Fights in terms of the fights themselves.
That's the TV angle, but there's more to the boxing business than TV. (I've obviously focused here on U.S. TV and on the United States overall, btw. In other countries, boxing is doing just swell, as when more than 70 percent of all TV viewers were watching boxing in Mexico on Sept. 15, or in Germany, where the Klitschko brothers remain huge sensations.)
There remains a dearth of expectionally strong regional draws, an important factor toward building stars and fan bases. Cotto drew 13,096 to Madison Square Garden for the Austin Trout fight, but that's lower than what he usually does at MSG. Chavez has traditionally done well in the southwest portions of America, although his numbers dropped off a little bit in his last Texas appearance. It still added up to more than 10,000 tickets sold. Alvarez does well in southern California but fought in Vegas for both of his 2012 fights. Ward sold 7,611 tickets to his Dawson fight, a rebound from the figures he had been doing in Oakland these days. Fighters like Robert Guerrero and Broner showed some signs of becoming big regional draws in California and Ohio respectively, but are not quite to "big" yet. Broner is moving around a lot, too, although it was encouraging to see him draw a predominantly black audience in New Jersey, given the degree to which black fans had been thought to be fleeing the sport. Steve Kim, who heavily emphasizes the value of boxers fighting away from casinos, said they did it less this year, and while I haven't done a study I'll assume he's right about that given his emphasis.
One way or another — usually with PPV revenue — boxing is producing some of the richest athletes on the planet. That makes it hard to argue against the vitality of boxing as a viable business, even if it's not what it once was in its heyday.
There are, nonetheless, threats to the business. The longest-term one is the decline of the U.S. amateur system, which hit such a low in 2012 that no U.S. boxers won medals in the Olympics for the first time. Boxers skipping the Olympics are increasingly common, and maybe it's for the best if it trains people to score glancing blows to impress judges under the peculiar scoring system of Olympic boxing, but U.S. Olympic success serves as a recruitment tool for future young boxers who get a leg up toward becoming future U.S. pro boxing stars. Fewer amateur boxers also equals fewer boxing gyms, which equals fewer would-be boxers enteriing the sport.
2012 was the year that Ring Magazine no longer could credibly serve as the custodian of authentic lineal champions, so as to distinguish from the glut of alphabet sanctioning gang "champions," because it changed its championship policy to allow an expanded number of contenders to fill a vacancy in a box-off. Fortunately, the newly-formed Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (of which I am a founding member) is trying to fill that gap left by Ring's policy change, but it will take some time for it to grow into universal acceptance. One of the misstatements I hear about the Board's ambitions is that it will "save" boxing, but to quote Larry Merchant, "you can't save boxing and you can't kill it." The Board is trying to do its part to HELP boxing, but it is only addressing one component that needs help, namely establishing credible champions so as to make sense of the cloudy title picture that turns off casual fans.
Another long-term threat that reared its head massively in 2012 is performance-enhancing drugs. A number of big names tested positive for banned substances, from elder statesment like Antonio Tarver and Erik Morales to youngsters like Lamont Peterson and Andre Berto. On one level, it's good that people are getting caught, because it means the problem is being exposed. On another level, it became clear that boxing as a whole had no idea what to do about it once it was exposed. States haven't really recognized the results of testing outfits like VADA or USADA. Golden Boy appeared eager to get into the PED fight and intially used VADA, then switched to USADA, then didn't seem eager to share information about failed tests. Top Rank didn't do anything. Some individual fighters are playing roles, most notably Nonito Donaire with his year-round testing, but no one else has followed his lead. It's hard to say whether 2012 produced more good than bad on PEDs, but it would be great if the sport could figure out a way to crack down on them before someone gets hurt because of their use (assuming they haven't yet), or becomes embroiled in a scandal that shakes the competitve credibility of the sport.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Some of boxing's most watched fights in 2012 had suspicious outcomes, among them Adamek-Cunningham II and Pacquiao-Bradley. I got a lot of questions from my friends who know I write about boxing regarding how Bradley in the world Pacquiao got that decision over Bradley, and that kind of thing evokes an era of boxing where the sport was outright fixed, for people not so positively inclined toward it.
It all goes back to something I said earlier this year: Boxing is indeed a business. But it's also a sport, and it's a business BECAUSE it's a sport. When it doesn't behave like a sport — the best fighters not facing each other, fights not producing outcomes that can be taken seriously as an honestly officiated contest — it limits the extent to which sports fans become fans of boxing.
For a 2012 that was better than 2011 in significant ways, there's plenty yet to fix in 2013.