Boxing is back (!), they proclaimed breathlessly and wrote relentlessly after last Saturday night's near perfect performance by Manny Pacquiao, who turned Miguel Cotto's face into a swollen, mushy crimson tide, in 11-2/3rds of mostly one-sided rounds. Pacquiao is a brilliant, lethal mixture of speed, power, resilience, timing and boxing intellect. His career path and remarkable resume suggest that he is not only the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today (although Floyd Mayweather, Jr. would disagree respectfully or otherwise), but among a fistful of the greatest in the history of his sport.
We should all gain weight and strength as gracefully as Pacquiao does. Pacquiao is a gastronomical and fistic freak, winning his first world title at 112 pounds and his 7th and most recent at 145 pounds. From flyweight to welterweight, he is a fiscal super-heavyweight.
The Pacquiao-Cotto was box office boffo. An unqualified success. A gold mine. A million and a quarter pay-per-view buys, good for 70-million dollars. HBO is giddy. The fighters made a bundle, 20-million give or take for Pacquiao, while Cotto can heal his wounds with 12-million dollars. Promoter Bob Arum made a killing. And Vegas?...a sold out house at the MGM generated another 9-million dollars. Isn't life Grand? All high-rolling charity happily accepted. A nearly 80-million dollar night.
But is boxing back? Two questions: Back from where? And heading in what direction? In the first half of the last century the three biggest sports in this country were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Only baseball still has a transcendent hold on the sporting public, although not quite what and where it once was. That is another story for another time.
These days the public's interest in the pugilists and the ponies is roughly on the same back track. Borrowing a political term, each sport has its own energized base which has been evaporating over the years. Can the casual fan (not the base) even name more than a half-dozen present day prizefighters.
In the years I covered boxing there would be a half-dozen or so Pacquiao-Cotto fights, in different weight divisions nearly every year. Ali, Holmes, Cooney, Norton, Bowe, Holyfield, Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Duran, Tyson, etc. etc. They weren't merely fights, they were events. Weigh-ins and press conferences were broadcast live. It was boxing's last Golden Era. There were considerably more quality fighters who were better chronicled because, they were seen more, be it on ABC, CBS, NBC and later on HBO, ESPN and Showtime. But of course, the broadcast networks long ago abandoned the sport. So unless there is a major fight (and there aren't many of those anymore, are there?) boxing is relegated to the agate page of the paper, or buried near the obituaries assuming of course you are, like me, still reading a newspaper.
It used to be future fighters fought their way out of the ghetto; (Irish, Italian, Jewish, African-American, Mexican-American) because the athletic kids really had few other options. Now they do. They've got basketball or football with hopes and dreams of a college scholarship, a chance to turn pro and make more money than any average fighter. And the bonus? They don't have to get hit in the face several times a day everyday in a sweaty, foul-smelling gym to do it. Short of that, they might actually get an education.
Why the decline in boxing's day-to-day popularity? The equation seems rather simple: Less quality athletes boxing (minus), less quality fighters fighting less quality fights on a dwindling number of television outlets (minus), fewer boxing writers working for a dwindling number of newspapers = declining broad based interest.
There, of course will continue to be the occasional big event. Next up next spring, Pacquiao-Mayweather which will likely be a spectacular event, should they agree on the prize money, of which there will be a boatload. And so, consequently they will. (My recommendation to those at the negotiating table, a 50-50 split, with one extra dollar bill going to the winner.)
We interrupt this portion of this blog with a Pop Quiz: Can you name the 7-foot, 2-inch Russian Shrek-look alike former WBA heavyweight champion, who was decisioned and dethroned by an equally anonymous Brit, who was a foot shorter and 100-pounds lighter only a week before Pacquiao-Cotto? A third of the heavyweight championship of the world at stake! Give up?...Nickolay Valuev lost to a bloke name David Haye. Who said Haye is for horses?
Once a year for two or so minutes on the first Saturday in May, horse racing becomes must see TV, it's the Kentucky Derby. Then it's the Preakness. And if the Triple Crown is at stake, well then your talkin'. But as of Thanksgiving week 2009, do you have any earthly idea who might even race at Churchill Downs? Do you care?
At least boxing fans can reasonably expect and look forward to Pacquiao and Mayweather having at it. Until then, how many fights and fighters will you watch, read about or care to see? For now the sport of boxing, it's back to the base and the basics, until its Kentucky Derby next spring, and a couple of stallions named Pacquiao and Mayweather.