Today, HBO announced that it had broken its record in 2007 for both pay-per-view buys (4.8 million) and pay-per-view dollars ($225 million), toppling its records set eight years ago. It simultaneously announced that about 850,000 people bought the Dec. 8 Floyd Mayweather, Jr. – Ricky Hatton fight, a tad short of predictions, but enough to make it the biggest pay-per-view figure ever for a fight not involving Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson.
The announcement is but one indicator of the landmark year boxing had. The L.A. Times recently published a story on the front of its Sports page about boxing’s revitalization. HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley just the other night called 2007 “one of the greatest years in boxing history.” Lamps is in the business of promoting boxing, but more objective eyes have repeatedly made similar grandiose pronouncements. It sounds extraordinary, whether you’re a boxing fan or not, to hear that kind of talk after years of being told that boxing is dead. But take a look at the case for boxing’s revival in 2007 and tell me it’s not true.
First off: Boxing never really went away, no matter what anyone says. It just moved around. While the heavyweight division withered on the vine, fans migrated their attention downwards into lower weight classes, where sometimes the general public has been captivated (think “Sugar Ray Leonard,” a welterweight [147 lbs.]) and sometimes it has not.
It also has moved around in vicinity. If boxing has been weakened in the States, it has flourished elsewhere. Mexican fans, and Mexican boxers, have helped prop up the sport. British boxing has been undergoing a historic renaissance that culminated this year. Europe in general has never really lost interest, with Germany and a few other countries still serving as hotbeds for the sport. In the Philippines, a boxing star, Manny Pacquaio, is the biggest star in the country, period. But the States have had their share of the action. Even in 2006, seen as something of a down year, De La Hoya registered 900,000 pay-per-view buys against an opponent, Ricardo Mayorga, that hardly anyone in the general public had heard of. And don’t forget that a great many experts and fans — including myself — believe that in 2005, the greatest fight of all time happened: the unbelievably dramatic lightweight (135 lbs.) slugfest between Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo. If boxing was dead, how did it produce such a masterpiece?
But now we’re in 2007. And boxing isn’t just alive and well, it’s prospering, both at the box office and in its overall vibrancy. The biggest-selling fight of all time happened this May when De La Hoya and Mayweather squared off. It didn’t just beat the records. It shattered them. 2.4 million people bought De La Hoya-Mayweather. The previous record was about 2 million. A really good pay-per-view card does 400,000, so De La Hoya-Mayweather was as popular as the previous record, plus another really profitable fight. As good as that was, nearly another million bought Mayweather-Hatton.
But fights involving Mayweather weren’t the only big hits. Fellow welterweight Miguel Cotto sold out Madison Square Garden. Twice. They even had to open up the mezzanine level to accommodate the 20,000-plus fans each time. And if you think that sounds good, consider that more than 50,000 — you read that right — attended the super middleweight (168 lbs.) showdown between Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler overseas. And, momentarily, back to Mayweather — those two fights also sold briskly on closed circuit television.
The reason for all this success is multi-faceted, but I think the main reason is that, because of a variety of factors I’ll get to in a moment, the best are finally fighting the best. I’m not just looking at this from a business perspective, but it goes hand in hand with the entertainment perspective. I want to see the best fighting the best. Every fan does. That translates into cash. In recent years, it was happening far too little.
Some of the 2007 highlights involved numerous fights between the top 10 “pound for pound” fighters, the consensus best in the sport. Mayweather and Hatton were both ranked in the top 10 by most experts when they fought. Same for Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright, when they fought at 170 lbs. in July. And likewise for junior lightweights (130 lbs.) Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez in March. Then Barrera and Pacquiao, in October. Not to mention Cotto and Shane Mosley in November. And some of the other pound-for-pounders were busy too; Calzaghe, the super middleweight division champ, took on his division’s #1 contender, Mikkel Kessler, in November. Jermain Taylor, then the middleweight (160 lbs.) champ, tackled his #1 contender, Kelly Pavlik, in September. Almost all of those fights were excellent, and they were just the most glamorous tip of the iceberg.
Taylor lost where Calzaghe didn’t. And, amazingly, the world didn’t end when top fighters suffered losses. Doesn’t everyone still want to see Hatton, De La Hoya, Mosley and Kessler? A number of fighters saw their status raised by losses, not diminished. Besides the crew I just mentioned, Taylor — who had become something of an unpopular champ — won more fans in his valiant losing effort to Pavlik than he would have lost if he had won and bored everyone to death. There is a time-honored precedent of this happening in boxing. Zab Judah never won so much praise as when he tested Cotto in June. Same happened when Paulie Malignaggi tested Cotto the year before. Those losses put them on the map.
All of this fierce competition has put some of 2007′s biggest accomplishments in a comfortable place, historically speaking. Calzaghe continued a history-making title reign, and his win over Kessler legitimized him fully in the eyes of fans who had complained that streak was built on poor competition. He’s now widely viewed as the best super middleweight ever. The two fights in 2007 between junior featherweight (122 lbs.) champ Israel Vasquez and the moving-up bantamweight (118 lbs.) champ Rafael Marquez have put them on the verge of waging one of boxing’s all-time great trilogies, once they meet for a final third time early in 2008. And the welterweight division is as good as it’s ever been. It’s got young established stars in Mayweather and Cotto; big names — at least visiting the weight class — in Hatton, De La Hoya, Mosley and Ike Quartey; rising stars in Paul Williams and Kermit Cintron; dangerous standard-bearers in Judah and Antonio Margarito; young prospects in Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto. It’s at least as good as it was in the late 90s, when De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Pernell Whitaker and Quartey were roaming around. It’s probably close to as good as the days of Leonard and Thomas Hearns in the 1980s. All the modern-day talent would be impressive in its own right, but they’re also all fighting each other: This year, we got Mayweather-Hatton, De La Hoya-Mayweather, Mosley-Cotto, Cotto-Judah, Margarito-Williams… And there’s more potentially on the horizon.
So how did boxing accomplish all this? It starts with some of the things mentioned in the Times’ piece. Foremost among them, in my mind, is that all the rival promotional companies stopped their insidious feuding. The two biggest, Golden Boy and Top Rank, had been mired down in a lengthy cold war. The ending of that cold war cleared the path for, among other fights, Cotto-Mosley and Pacquiao-Barrera. Other promoters caught on and realized it would be good for business — as obvious as it sounds — for the best to fight the best. Their hesitation was not without reason, however dumb it looks in retrospect. HBO’s long-term contracts with individual fighters could be canceled if a fighter suffered a loss. Needless to say, fighters avoided getting into situations where they might lose. And because of that, Showtime, with its policy of “great fights, no rights,” became the epicenter for hardcore boxing fans. Once the financial powerhouse known as HBO wised up in 2007, Showtime was suddenly relegated again to secondary status.
There were other business improvements, besides. Notably, on the promotional side of things, boxing got a lot more savvy. Boxing’s outreach to the mainstream, non-boxing public was significant. Evander Holyfield had already made appearances on “Dancing with the Stars,” a popular reality TV show, but Mayweather’s appearance was a watershed event for his outside exposure. Speaking of reality TV: The “24/7″ documentaries on HBO drew in several million viewers every week, because it was, simply, compelling television. All kinds of people who don’t usually follow boxing kept coming up to me and talking about how great those series were. We saw the maturation of boxing’s own resident reality show, “The Contender” as it morphed from decent television to decent television with a greatly improved stable of fighters and produced a candidate for “fight of the year” in its finale. The multi-city press tour made a comeback in 2007 for a few fights. The list goes on.
One of the major results is that boxing produced, to varying degrees, three distinct crossover stars. Mayweather heads the list. I’ve examined his stardom in-depth before here, so I won’t revisit it. Cotto, too, matured into his own star, albeit one who has yet to expand his audience beyond some key niches. I have no reason to doubt it will happen. The third is Pavlik, who isn’t quite yet in the league of Cotto and Mayweather, but who has some unique circumstances at play — like Cotto and Mayweather, he fought the best, but part of his appeal is, frankly, that he is white. He’s from the Midwest, too, and he dragged a ton of fans from Ohio out to his fight against Taylor. But he’s a fighter with a fan-friendly style that will appeal to anyone and everyone who watches him.
In the end, we’ll remember 2007 in part for the departure of several boxers from the most recent generation of TV-friendly warriors. Marco Antonio Barrera and his arch-rival, Erik Morales, both retired, leaving behind a legacy of greatness that includes their own all-time great trilogy of fights against one another. Both are bound for the Hall of Fame, in the same year if they both stick by their commitments to hang up the gloves. A tier below them in greatness but not in excitement were Diego Corrales, who died in a motorcycle accident, and Vargas, who put up a spirited fight in his losing farewell bout against Mayorga.
Yet for every fan-pleasing star on the way out, there are others on the cusp of taking their place. Like Williams, the freakishly tall welterweight who guarantees action with his outrageous volume of punches. Like young college student and lightweight Juan Diaz, whose personality is just as endearing as his own volume-punching, all-action style in the ring. Like the power-punching Kermit Cintron, whose knockout of Walter Matthysse became a minor YouTube phenomenon. There are a bevy of young heavyweights out there who are promising, and no matter how much people accept the smaller fighters these days, good heavyweights are always good for boxing. And there are a bevy of ultra-talented fighters who could, like Mayweather, become stars even if they end up being polarizing, people like light heavyweight (175 lbs.) talent Chad Dawson.
For the time being, it looks like boxing has learned the lessons of 2007 well. Early 2008 offers tremendous promise. We should see Mayweather, Cotto and De La Hoya in big fights in 2008. With any luck, they will all fight each other. Even if we don’t, there’s more than enough to kick off 2008 in excellent fashion. Pavlik will be back in against Taylor in February. In March, Vasquez and Rafael Marquez will complete their trilogy, with both now inhabiting all the top 10 pound-for-pound lists. In the same month, pound-for-pounders Juan Manuel Marquez and Paquiao will have a rematch of their amazing 2004 draw. Oh yeah, and that moribund heavyweight division? It’ll get its first unification fight since 1999, when two title-holders, Vladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov, fight in February.
But boxing needs to keep it up, and expand on what it’s done, too. What it needs is exposure, exposure, exposure — constantly. In Midwestern stadiums, as Maxboxing’s Steve Kim suggests for Pavlik should he fight fellow popular white fighter John Duddy this summer. On YouTube. On ESPN; a friend complained to me that highlights of Hatton-Mayweather didn’t air on the dominant sports network, a complaint I can’t verify but that, if true, is ridiculous. Perhaps most importantly, boxing needs to get on non-pay channel TV. Sure, it’s on Vs., and that’s a good start. Sure, it’s on ESPN, and that, too, has been good at times. But sometimes those match-ups are lackluster. I’m talking about big name fighters, in big fights, fighting on free TV. Say what you will about mixed martial arts — I don’t enjoy it — but it has undoubtedly profited from its alliance with Spike TV, and though boxing types don’t admit it, they surely have learned from the way MMA does business. Believe it or not, even after Antonio Tarver lost to Bernard Hopkins last year, Tarver — with memories of his role in “Rocky Balboa” no doubt fresh on TV executives’ minds — almost fought Elvir Muriqi this year on ABC. If you saw that fight, you know what a disastrous setback that might have been for pugilism, because nobody would have come away from that non-slugfest and thought, “Wow, I forgot how much I love boxing.” That’s why it’s got to be big fighters, fighting in big fights.
And it’s why it’s so vital that the big promotional companies keep making great matches. If a Calzaghe-Hopkins fight never happens, it’ll be a sorry exception to the recent rule, and likewise if we don’t end up getting the likes of Cotto-Mayweather and so forth. Because, let’s face it, this resurgence is at a delicate point. And boxing still has its share of problems. Anyone who saw the Mosley-Cotto undercard might very well have come away with the impression that boxing was still fixed, based on the judges incomprehensibly declaring Joel Casamayor the victor in his fight with fellow lightweight Armando Santa Cruz. Don King, a promoter who apparently didn’t get the memo about how much better boxing promoters are behaving these days, is standing in the way of a rival promoter making a potential 2008 fight of the year between lightweights Diaz and Michael Katsidis. The list of what is wrong with boxing — with what still ails boxing — is long. A flare-up in any of these sensitive areas could result in the whole fragile revitalization project crashing to the ground.
Until then? I’ll be basking in these glory days.