Boxing Is Taking Over America!!! (Or Is It?)

(In an effort to show that not all boxing blogs  have to be off-the-cuff ravings devoid of analytical thought, the following post will be footnoted.)

It is nice to see that Chris Arreola, after entering the biggest fight of his life grotesquely out of shape and getting hammered for 11 rounds by Vitali Klitschko, will get another fat paycheck under the HBO charity program against the same C-Level competition that got him a title shot in the first place. Shortchanging the public by coming into the ring resembling John Goodman is bad enough, but being rewarded for it is downright icky.  The reason Arreola gets a freebie on HBO is because he is alleged to be some sort of television ratings magnet. The Vitali Klitschko-Chris Arreola telecast drew attention after scoring a 4.8 rating on HBO, which translates to roughly 2.1 million viewers1.  This bit of information was offered as further proof that boxing is taking over the world.  But are the numbers really that impressive?

In addition to having the Mayweather-Marquez replay as a lead-in (do we really need to hear that having arguably the most recognizable fighter in America as an opening act had no bearing on the number of viewers who tuned in to the telecast?), this telecast also showcased the heavyweight division (historically the marquee division in boxing), featured a fairly well-known heavyweight “champion” in Klitschko, and tapped into a dedicated Mexican-American market hoping to witness history.  If this kind of perfect storm hit every time a boxing match was televised, then all HBO shows would score 4.8 ratings.

By the way, 2.1 million viewers can be easily put into perspective with a little research and some facts, two things boxing observers are rarely interested in.  One only needs to point out that 10 years ago one of the highest-rated telecasts on HBO was the Felix Trinidad-Pernell Whitaker broadcast.  This fight drew a rating of 16.52.  This is not a typo.  Again: 16.5.  Only in boxing can it be called progress when the highest-rated show of 2009 draws a quarter of what the highest-rated show a decade earlier drew.

Well, it can be argued that Whitaker was an established fighter–although never an exciting one–and that Trinidad had a devoted Puerto Rican base to draw from.  In that case, maybe a few more examples are in order.  Lennox Lewis, long thought to be an unpopular champion, drew a 10.3 rating to face a virtually anonymous foe, Zeliko Mavrovic, in 19983. Naseem Hamed, a British featherweight, drew ratings of 10.3 and 10.1 in 19984.  Hell, even David Reid drew a 10 share to fight the obscure Frenchman Laurent Boudiani, who retired immediately after earning the largest paycheck of his career5.  Finally, the ratings average for the entire Boxing After Dark season in 1999 was a 7.46.   Keep that in mind the next time you read that boxing is as popular now as it was in the 1980s, when fights were aired regularly on ABC, NBC, and CBS. The “boxing is dead” argument is only slightly less annoying than the “boxing is thriving” argument, but it only takes a little analysis to figure it out.

Lack of established media coverage is proof in itself that the public at large is not interested in boxing.  No matter what overblown but under-thought fan pages say, boxing in the United States lags well behind other sports.  And not only the “Big Four” established sports, at that.

For all the dopey jokes about rodeo events, the October 4th telecast of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Ford Built Tough series drew an average of 1,867,000 viewers7. PBR has had three events televised on CBS since October and has also been televised on NBC.  Similarly, on November 7, over four million viewers tuned in to CBS to watch Fedor Emelianenko stop Brett Rogers in the second round of an MMA bout8 produced not by the MMA superpower the UFC, but by its weaker competitor Strikeforce.

Even peripheral events often overshadow boxing.  More people watched the Yankees victory parade in New York City, for instance, than purchased the Mayweather-Marquez bout across the country9. Mayweather-Marquez is often pointed out as proof that the boxing is on the upswing and that people will galvanize in order to watch the best fights and the best fighters go at it. (When has that ever been in doubt, anyway? If the biggest names in boxing fight each other, people will watch.) One million pay-per-view buys is a very impressive figure, even with the phony weight shenanigans, but citing it consistently only highlights the fact that Mayweather is an anomaly.  Only a handful of boxers have hit 1,000,000 pay-per-view buys in the last 10 years, and only two of those fighters—Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao—are currently active.  Whether Mayweather can reproduce these figures after a dull fight against an outgunned opponent remains to be seen.  With a non-critical media hyping up large-scale mismatches as “superfights,” it is entirely possible.

As for Pacquiao, he is a legitimate superstar and a genuine attraction.  If boxing continues its upswing it will be because Pacquaio and Mayweather Jr. will keep on stirring interest in casual sports fans.  If so, tens of thousands of potential converts may become interested in the sport.  And when they do will they be frustrated by the fact that boxing is not as accessible as the NBA or the NFL or Major League Baseball?  Only time will tell.   But limited exposure is part of the problem.

As it stands, current televised boxing is teetering on the edge as well.  As noted previously in The Cruelest sport:  “Over the last 15 years TNT, FX, ABC, HBO Latino, CBS, Versus, USA, FSN, Telefutura, NBC, and Fox have all abandoned boxing at one point or another.  A decade or so ago you could see Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather Jr. on TNT, Bernard Hopkins on FSN, Stevie Johnston on ABC, etc.  Today the only outlets that regularly televise boxing are HBO, Showtime, ESPN2, Azteca America, and Telemundo.  Occasionally ESPN Classic, or a regional network like MSG in New York, will step in and televise a heavyweight title bout no one else cares about, and syndicated shows still air occasionally on local cable outlets.”

But the trend is clear: television, propped up by boxing in the 1950s, is no longer as interested in the sport as it used to be.  Even ESPN2 cancelled its “Wednesday Night Fights” series and scaled back its “Friday Night Fights” episodes.  So an entire sport survives on about 40 total television dates offered by HBO and Showtime, and a handful of blockbuster Pay-Per-View shows.”  Thankfully, Fox Sports has recently jumped in the mix and will now be airing “Fight Night Club,” where future champions take turns beating up Cristian Favela.  When boxing returns to network TV in a significant way, the real mainstream floodgates will open.  Until then, boxing will continue to be a relatively minor pursuit in the United States, with one or two superstars holding it up like Atlas holding up the celestial spheres.

To hint, as the Associated Press recently did, that boxing is as popular now as it was in the 1980s is so loopy as to be asinine.  “Mainstream sponsors like Pepsi and Subway have shown interest in Pacquiao-Mayweather,” wrote the anonymous optimist, “one more sign the sport is returning to the popularity level it enjoyed in the early 1980s.”1o

Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Larry Holmes, Ray Mancini, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Mike Tyson were household names in the 1980s.  Most of them had product endorsement deals and all of them had mainstream sponsors backing their televised fights, not just two or three of them.  Right behind the superstars were popular fighters like Bobby Chacon, Hector Camacho, Barry McGuigan, Aaron Pryor, Michael Spinks, and Matthew Saad Muhammad.  Holmes, for example, used to defend his heavyweight title on network television during prime-time.  Every fight televised on ABC, CBS, and NBC was a mainstream sponsored event.  Sasson, Pony (it was the 80s, what do you expect?), Budweiser, Michelob, Sprite, etc. all sponsored boxing 25-30 years ago.  As proven by the HBO ratings cited above, boxing, if anything, is getting closer to early 1990s popularity levels.

Context, along with facts, of course, is something most boxing websites, blogs, and writers can do without, but why not try it once in a while instead of shaking pompoms day and night?


1. Rafael,Dan.

2. Ring Magazine, July 1999

3. Ring Magazine, January 1999

4. Ring Magazine, September 1998

5. Ring Magazine, July 1999

6. Ring Magazine, April 2000

7. rodeo


9. New York Times

10.  Associated Press

Tags: ALEXIS ARGUELLO Boxing BOXING HISTORY Chris Arreola Floy Mayweather Jr Footnotes HBO Larry Holmes Manny Pacquiao MArvin Hagler New York Yankees Pernell Whitaker Pom Poms Professional Bull Riders Ray Mancini Roberto Duran Rodeo Sasson Sugar Ray Leonard

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