Saturday’s big fight between Floyd “Money” Mayweather and Manny “Elected Representative of Half a Million People” Pacquiao is already being touted as “the fight of the century.”
That moniker, when it was applied to the 20th Century, really meant something. So, that it’s been used to describe a fight just 15 years into this century comes with something of a wink. It is unquestionably the biggest fight of the last 15 years. That said, I think there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll exit this century with the “fight of the century” title intact.
Because Saturday’s fight could very well end up being the last great fight in boxing’s long and glorious history.
Boxing is Dead
To say that Pacquiao-Mayweather is the “end of an era” doesn’t quite seem accurate. The “era” to which one is referring, where boxing reigned supreme among sporting events, really ended at some point in the 1990s. The revolution was televised. The rise of football, as much as anything, is probably the primary culprit, but the broad cultural shift that left boxing by the wayside was pretty tremendous.
So why is Saturday’s fight still such a big deal? It’s the residual effects of a sport that spent decades as the primary source of sports entertainment. Saturday’s fight is the death rattle of a once-great empire. These two fighters reaching this point where the nation is still watching on Saturday is just an example of boxing coasting into its finish. This is the last bit of momentum grinding to a halt. The marketing machine that used to make top-tier prize fights the biggest event of any given year has just enough oomph left in it for one final ride.
That’s part of what makes Saturday’s fight such a cultural curiosity. There doesn’t seem to be any voices out there suggesting that this is what’s needed to “save boxing” or hoping that this fight might introduce the sport to a new generation of young athletes who might inject energy into things. Instead, boxing analysts and writers at this point are largely men in their 50s who got into the business at a time when they were already being told that the golden age was over.
So, why does Saturday essentially mark the end of big-time boxing? Let’s review…
No Future Generation of Boxers Forthcoming
There was a time when being the heavyweight champion of the world meant something. If you were walking down the street in 1965 and asked a random American who held the title, not only would the odds be pretty good that they would have known it was Cassius Clay. The same Cassius Clay who would become Muhammad Ali and who would become one of the most notable sports personalities of all time.
Fifty years later? As Frank Deford observed, Wladimir Klitschko is approaching Joe Louis’ record of 25 successful defenses of his heavyweight title and pretty much nobody seems to care. In fact, Klistschko’s most-recent title defense just last Saturday failed to even produce a sell-out of Madison Square Gardens, a venue steeped in boxing tradition smack in the middle of the nation’s most populated cities.
Why? Because if Joe Louis were born 25 years ago, he probably wouldn’t be a budding, young boxing star right now. Joe Louis, at 6’2”, would probably be a huge star in the NFL. Or, if he were 6’6” or taller, the NBA. Either way, gone are the days where elite athletic talent is getting funneled into boxing.
Not Really Doing Much of Anything for Their Audience
One legacy of boxing being the predominant sport in America for the better part of a century is that the structure remains one that emerged from an era when its value was a given. In the 1960s, the existence of a half-dozen different sanctioning organizations and mind-blowing corruption wasn’t THAT big a deal. Odds are, you put on a fight with two big names, people would come to watch. The market could actually support a bunch of different fill-in-the-blank boxing associations.
Today? The sports landscape is crowded, and boxing’s inability to consistently supply the fights that people would actually want to see has really killed it. Perhaps nothing did more to demonstrate this than UFC. Say what you will about the sport, but the ability to have all its fighters under a single umbrella and actually organize fights that represented the best pairings from a competitive and entertainment standpoint gave MMA a huge advantage over boxing.
If boxing could actually pull itself together and see that erasing barriers in favor of one, central organization is what needs to happen for it to maintain any sort of market share, the future might be better. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see that happening. You get the sense that boxing, on the whole, is largely populated by people who aren’t interested in a rebirth. They’ve been in the sport most of their life and they’re just on the ride until it’s finished. The sort of youthful talent and exuberance that would be necessary to completely reorganize the sport does not appear to be forthcoming.
This is NOT Your Grandfather’s Media Landscape
The trend in most media has been towards more openness. Has been for decades. The ability to firmly control access to your event once meant the ability to maximize profits. Now? It basically doesn’t exist. More and more, media companies are shifting towards a model where access is cheap enough that it has a broad appeal. People today pay a small monthly fee to access an enormous library of entertainment.
That makes boxing’s event-oriented model of capitalizing on a series of tentpole pay-per-view events all the more outdated.
Don’t get me wrong, MMA and pro wrestling events are supplying plenty of proof that the pay-per-view model has plenty of juice left to it, but you could also argue that the way the team sports that gave away their product for free viewing (most notably football) more-than lapped boxing over the last 50 years or so, and anticipated this trend to some degree. You can make more money off of a single event if it’s behind a paywall, but the fact that anyone could watch the Super Bowl has helped grow the popularity of football enormously over the years.
Concussion Conversation Oddly Absent
The fact that we’re having a national conversation over whether or not football, the nation’s most popular sport, may ultimately stop holding a place in our culture due to the danger it represents to the human brain while no one appears to have started a similar debate with regards to boxing is pretty telling. Namely, it sort of seems like the broader culture doesn’t care. Not about concussions, we clearly care about that. Just about boxing.
Across the board, sports everywhere are coming to grips with the reality that concussions are extremely serious and involve serious long-term consequences. Of course, in boxing, this has been known for decades. The trope of the “punch-drunk boxer,” long retired but not right in the head, has been around long enough that…well, that it’s a well-known trope.
So, given that concussions are and have always been woven into the very fabric of the sport of boxing, a part of the action as opposed to a consequence of it, it’s hard to see boxing mounting some sort of comeback. On the off chance that people actually start watching this again, someone may notice that grown men repeatedly slamming fists into each other’s heads for 45 minutes tends to create a level of brain injury that makes football look tame.
Down for the Count
To say that boxing is “dead” is clearly an overstatement. It’s probably going to remain a piece of the culture, even if it’s greatly diminished in its popularity. Who knows, a comeback could be in the ether someday down the road. However, for the time being, don’t expect there to be another fight on the level of Pacquiao-Mayweather for a long, long time. The days when those men were building their popularity, just 15 to 20 years ago, are already long passed.
So, I’m going to be watching Saturday’s fight like I would the last bit of the Titanic slipping beneath the water’s surface. The crash that caused this happened long ago, the trend has been irreversible for a while, so we may as well sit back and watch this once-great franchise slowly slip away.
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