The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

On The Future of Boxing

As I’m sure has been made clear here many times, I firmly believe that the vast majority of the boxing press, 90% or more, is basically incompetent and occasionally loathsome. And I’m not going to come off of that figure, really; but every so often, once a year or two, I run across something which is just about perfect from someone I did not expect to see it from. This is one of those times: Steve Kim on boxing business trends. I disagree with none of what he has there, and add only these points:

1. Tragedy of the commons, an old concept in economics and sociology of which I have never in my life seen a clearer example than the history of boxing over the last 30 years. It literally should be a text book case if it isn’t already. Everything Kim talks about is, with the exception of the mutually destructive and stupid Golden Boy/Top Rank feud, a manifestation of this same phenomenon. Everyone in boxing more or less acts in ways which are for their own individual best interest, and the result has been that boxing has collectively craterized in popularity, mainstream attention, average fighter quality, and money available to fighters below the superstar level in that time frame. One of the reasons I don’t worry much at all about Zuffa controlling the whole of MMA is because the alternative has been tried in boxing and it’s all but ruined the sport. The situation is fucked, and frankly I don’t know how to un-fuck it at this point.

2. Ethnic promotion is not the way forward. It irritates me personally, but I don’t advocate against it for the most part because I understand its history in the sport. But it’s not going to be the way forward on a grand scale- it’s not the 1930’s (hell, it’s not even the 60’s) and all available evidence suggests that ethnic heroes aren’t the business they once were. Look at the pro wrestling industry which is related as a business: the WWE is easily the most successful company in Mexico these days and towers above both of the domestic Mexican companies (AAA, CMLL) in terms of market share, ratings, profits etc. despite having maybe two Mexicans with any kind of name currency on its roster. If you’d reached the point where nationalist/ethnic appeal is starting to wear thin in Mexico of all places that should tell you something. Yes, you can get a few hits here and there with it, but it’s harder than ever before to make an ethnic draw of any stature and even that ethnic draw will eventually require something else to be a real star: Cotto has legitimate world-class ability, Chavez Jr. has his “Jr.”, John Duddy has… nothing really, which is why he was never more than a minor local deal.

3. The cannibal problem. How do you make a star fighter? Put him in with an established star fighter, hope he looks good, and eventually hope he can start winning against guys at that level. Charisma helps, but the formula is the same basic pattern either way. The trouble is, the massive reluctance of top fighters today (with the notable and respectable exception of Oscar De La Hoya) to take on difficult fights- really unprecedented in the sport’s history on an industry-wide basis- makes it harder than ever to make a star fighter. Kim’s example is a fine one: Andre Berto may be a solid boxer and a recognizable name to boxing fans, but he is in no way a star: his name doesn’t sell tickets, it doesn’t sell PPVs, and he’s never been associated with particularly great ratings. He’s on HBO now because he deals with the right people and because HBO hopes he can be a PPV seller and ratings mover in time. But who does he fight to take him to that level? The Mosley fight was on for half a second until it was either bought out or canceled due to the Haitian earthquake depending on who you ask, which paved the way for Mosley/Mayweather- a fight between two established stars. Will Mayweather fight Berto? Doubtful. Will Mosley? Maybe, but it will mean much less now after Mayweather kicked his ass for 12 rounds. Will Paul Williams? He’s arguably in the same boat as Berto, and Berto probably doesn’t take that fight. Cotto? Different weight class, not really being talked about. Pacquiao’s fights are kept in-house by Top Rank. So who? It’s become a sport with a ton of Winky Wrights and Vernon Forrests, and almost no Shane Mosleys.

This same pattern is being replicated over and over with any number of young fighters, and it’s gotten so bad that even other young champs who aren’t draws yet are refusing to fight each other to build their names out of fear of a loss and because they can keep getting HBo money to fight lesser opposition. So (for example) Devon Alexander and Amir Khan and Tim Bradley and Marcos Maidana are all busily engaged in fighting anyone but each other, and no one is getting ahead unless you really think that taking turns beating up on Andriy Kotelnik is going to make these guys superstars. They could have done a tournament… but Golden Boy killed that because they were scared of taking a risk even after seeing what a success the Super Six has been, and HBO was gutless enough to let them (see below). And that’s just one weight class today, and one of the more talented ones at that where in theory it should be easiest to make meaningful fights. If you want to know how this story ends, look up a few weight classes to heavyweight: Lennox Lewis crushed all available contenders from old legends like Holyfield to young guns like Grant and Tua to veteran prime-of-their-career contenders like Vitali Klitschko, then retired without losing to anyone. The result is a heavyweight division in which for years even Vitali and Wladimir, easily the top two guys, had no credibility with many people and below their level 90% of the division is a no-name joke. The Klitschkos don’t have too many years left, and it seems inconceivable that anyone will beat them, and then what? Get ready for Kevin Johnson vs. Cristobal Arreola for (one of 5 or 6) world heavyweight titles. It’s been said as goes the heavyweight division, so goes boxing; we’re starting to see that play out, and it’s a scary future.

The refusal of stars to take hard fights ensures that with each generation of fighters, there are fewer and fewer stars to help build the next generation. It goes back to tragedy of the commons: is it in boxing’s interest that, before he retires, Floyd Mayweather takes on the hardest possible fights against bad match ups and loses? Yes. Is it in Mayweather’s? Not unless HBO makes it worth his while, and given what boxer pay at the superstar level has become they simply can’t afford that. The same holds true for Alexander or Bradley or the rest: it’s in boxing’s interest that they fight each other and try to become stars, but if they can hang around soaking up HBO money and fighting no one, that’s what they’re going to do. I don’t blame Mayweather or the junior welters individually, or HBO individually; I blame the structure of boxing, and the fact that none of the various individuals is willing to try to get everyone onside to do the things required for the sport collectively instead of each themselves individually.

4. Incestuous stupidity. Let it be noted that all the phenomena noted here and in Kim’s article are made worse by the boxing industry equivalent of regulatory capture. HBO has over the years been noted for getting way too close to certain people and organizations, and because of those relationships with Al Haymon, Golden Boy, Lou DiBella, etc. they frequently as an organization are persuaded not to push their self-advantage in times and places when it would actually do some good. Most obviously, why the hell are certain fighters- no doubt you’ll have your own nominees- allowed to occupy valuable space on HBO’s air and budget when they never fight anyone of consequence and aren’t major stars in and of themselves? More on this at the end.

5. As Kim puts it, “The era of the HBO license fee has created a generation of lazy and inept promoters.” I don’t disagree with it really, but… let’s talk about promoters. Who exactly are the next generation? Bob Arum’s deal with the devil is going to run out fairly soon, Don King died 5 years ago and sooner or later is going to have to acknowledge it, Shelly Finkel (a manager, yes, but also a power broker) just retired… who’s left? The Golden Boy collective, Lou DiBella, Gary Shaw, and a collection of unimportant local goofuses. Who am I forgetting? The reality is that HBO (and to a far lesser extent, Showtime) effectively is the meaningful promoter in the game, and the game right now is rigged to support their fighters and a long list of middle-manager types whose major skills appears to be their ability to deal with the cable companies. That is not a sustainable business model for a sport.

As much as I loathe Bob Arum and nearly all his works, the fact of the matter is that he is in some ways the last of the real old-school promoters who’s shown the ability to take a kid in a gym and make him a name known around the world. When Arum dies, that skill dies with him. Where is the next generation of potential-star prospects coming from? The Olympics is dead (Andre Ward makes that medal mean something; the medal does not make Ward) as a proving ground and the HBO management complex doesn’t have the skill or the interest to do what Arum does. Most of the promoters around today outside of Top Rank can’t even figure out how to run a decent local draw, which results in Paul Williams fighting Kermit Cintron somewhere in California in front of the square root of no one and Chad Dawson, one of the best young fighters in the sport, having to travel to Montreal for a title defense against a French Canadian because he can’t sell a damn ticket within 100 miles of his own home and survives off of HBO TV money alone. The reality is that all of these “promoters” are interested in making as much money as they can off of this generation of fighters before they retire, and they transparently don’t give a fuck about what happens to the sport after that. Tragedy of the commons. Bob Arum is an asshole, but he’s an asshole who cares about boxing; Ricard Schaefer is just a guy with the right friend and an opportunity. Once Arum and the current generation of fighters are gone it’s going to be up to Schaefer and HBO to make the next generation of stars, and if the best they can manage is Andre Berto (as an attraction, not a fighter) then we’re in real trouble.

6. The media. They are not responsible for this, but they also do little to arrest this process and more than a little to speed it up. The boxing media suffers from an alternate, almost inverted form of what plagues the MAM media: where the latter is unreasonably critical of the power-brokers in their sport for all the reasons listed below in the Fedor post, the boxing media- trapped in a shrinking sport regularly assailed by inept outsider perspectives- has effectively closed ranks around the sport, denying that almost any problems exist or identifying those problems as transitory and unimportant things. Even the best of the boxing media like a Dan Rafael tends to confine their criticism to either soft targets like the sanctioning bodies or else to individual cases, with little recognition of the overall trends at work. And Rafael is head, shoulders and torso above a Doug Fisher or a Kevin Iole or the people at boxingtalk.com, who tend to make excuses for everything from promotional malfeasance to incompetent judging to the sort of godawful refereeing which gets fighters killed. That’s what makes Kim’s piece so extraordinary: it’s one of the very few honest, perceptive, big-picture pieces on the business of boxing written by someone within the boxing media. It’s a glint of self-awareness in the dark.

If there’s anything to take away from the situation, I think it’s this: as boxing has been falling for 30 years, slowly enough for excuses to be made, so it still has farther to fall. A reckoning is certain eventually once these trends become too pronounced to be ignored, but that day is still a ways off. In 5-10 years, once all that’s left is HBO and Showtime with half or less of the stars they have now, limited experience in developing new ones and no heavyweight division to speak of, perhaps things will finally begin to change. Perhaps there can be a real movement for people to take seriously and care about the health of the sport. Or perhaps not; perhaps in 20 years boxing will have ceased to exist in North America as anything other than a low-level regional club sport when HBO realizes bringing the sport back is a massive investment and decides to wash its hands instead. It’s hard to say. I do know this: until the people in positions of power in this sport from the networks to the promoters to the advisers and the managers and the media get serious about understanding what’s happening to their sport, nothing is going to change. Right now everyone is part of the problem.

If there’s hope, it’s that once “the sport of boxing in America” basically consists of low-level local promotions an an HBO TV show, perhaps HBO will finally be able to shake things up and bring their enormous and ever-increasing influence to bear on changing the foundations of the boxing industry. In theory, at the broadest extreme with a different economic framework in place, the sport of boxing and HBO share basic interests: to make stars and get people interested in the fight game. Right now that alignment is frustrated by a thousand different factors, but it stands as the best principle around which the sport can be reorganized in time. It’s going to require a crushing of fighter pay and a reduction of fighter and manager power which will allow the network to force more frequent and more competitive fights (and that is the fate the current generation of fighters is storing up for their successors) which will be an almighty war to bring about, but it’s a chance. To save boxing, HBO may have to become boxing’s Zuffa: an over-arching body with control over the sport and a powerful interest in its long-term health.

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June 30, 2010 - Posted by | Boxing, MMA

3 Comments »

  1. You know what that article by Kim made me do…yawn. This is an up and down sport, but it has nothing to do with the future. We’re coming off of several SENSATIONAL years of great fights, but we’re supposed to conveniently forget that? Please. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN.

    Comment by Tony M | June 30, 2010 | Reply

  2. Who said anything about quality of fights or how big the biggest fights are? That’s not what Kim or I am talking about.

    Comment by theshipbesinking | June 30, 2010 | Reply

  3. Well Kim was saying how these disturbing trends are going to affect the sport going forward into the future. But it’s all about the fights. If good fights are made, the sport is healthy and all these disturbing trends are for not. It paints this bleak picture of the sport. But I’m just not buying it because with exception of one fight, every big fight that I have wanted to see over the last five years, I’ve seen. The sport is fine, if not in far better shape than it was pre-De la Hoya v. Trinidad.

    Comment by Tony M | June 30, 2010 | Reply


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