Boxing In 2011, Reviewed

If you ask the two top promoters in boxing how things are going in boxing, they’ll give you a shit-ton of shiny happy talk about how terrific the sport is these days, and how the future is so very bright. They are, though, “promoters.” The salesman accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. “This car goes really really fast,” a salesman will tell you, and doesn’t tend to volunteer the part about how it also breaks down every three months. I’m not holding it against promoters for promoting. And it’s not as if the car driving boxing isn’t sometimes going fast. It’s just that it also breaks down every three months.

From a business standpoint,nothing about boxing’s 2011 really knocked my socks off. When I look at how the year went, I see some ups, some downs, some fleeting progress, some deterioration. There was a time where I could be happy with that. The early 2000s were marked by a lot of floundering and a whole lot of backward steps, with the occasional high moment. The year 2007 saw a quantum leap forward when Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya fought one another and broke pay-per-view records, and in 2008 more often than not good fights were being made, then in subsequent years there has been more progress in fits and starts, with increasing recognition in the mainstream media following shortly behind that boxing was neither “dead” nor “dying,” but in fact was getting healthier.

Problem is, baby steps don’t do it for me anymore. It’s easy to forget about what’s wrong with the business of boxing when there are bonkers television ratings in Europe, when pay-per-view stars are raking in the cash in record ways, and those aren’t things that used to happen so often. Now, it’s the norm. And it feels to me like there’s been a plateau.

Boxing and mixed martial arts aren’t the same sport. They can co-exist. They compete, however, at least marginally, for some of the same audience. So nothing throws such heat-lamp light on the boxing business’ inadequacy like the deal the UFC signed with Fox this year to air MMA. Early in 2011, a lot of boxing writers (myself included) were celebrating the fact that CBS was airing any boxing-related programming at all, even if it was only a documentary/marketing series on Saturday afternoons aimed at selling the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley pay-per-view on Showtime. It offered an in-road to boxing’s return to network television. Along came this UFC deal, and I thought to myself, “Wait, why was I celebrating that CBS thing?” And when the in-road to boxing’s return to network television quickly evaporated as Pacquiao’s team took his next fight back to HBO, it made the whole CBS thing seem so very small, hardly worth any of the attention it generated whatsoever.

This blog entry isn’t meant to propose a cure to the boxing business. It’s something of an evaluation of the symptoms, but even that can’t lead to a diagnosis. There are a lot of salesmen in the boxing media who will tell you, “If boxing just did X, everything would be great!” Problem is, there simply isn’t enough evidence from the symptoms to suggest that any of those potential miracle cures work as advertised on a consistent basis. In 2011, boxing was messy in the ring, and it created a lot of uncertainty, as friend of the site Adam Abramowitz wrote here. In 2011, boxing was messy on the business end, too, and it goes into 2012 with a similarly uncertain picture.

What Boxing Did Right In 2011

I don’t want to entirely dismiss 2011’s progress. There was indeed some to be had. It was good to get boxing programming back on one of the big networks, with that CBS deal. Inevitably, some new eyes were exposed to boxing, which is what the sport needs — it can only grow so much without expanding it’s audience. And while the short-lived, one-fight deal didn’t prove to be boxing’s path back to airing live fights on those networks, it’s not as if there weren’t upsides. Top Rank’s decision to take Pacquiao — the sport’s biggest global cash cow, second domestically only to Mayweather — to Showtime forced HBO to get more creative, leading to its deal for Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez III that included airings on CNN of the 24/7 documentary series and other innovations. These are good steps. They are baby steps because I strongly doubt that it made that much of a difference in generating a new audience for boxing to air a boxing documentary series on CNN at midnight on a weekend, or on CBS on a Saturday afternoon.
 
More heartening was the general trend of more boxing being aired in the United States all over the place. A few years back, boxing hit a new low in the availability of boxing on television. Now, mainstays like Showtime, HBO and ESPN2 are joined by the likes of FSN, NBC Sports (starting in 2012) and WealthTV in airing boxing programming. Some of those are new additions, some of them old, but the overall quantity has increased. Combined with the expansion of boxing to the Internet — Top Rank has been particularly good on this count, joined by periodic contributions from Epix, RingTV and ESPN3 — there was a remarkable amount of boxing available out there available for viewing in 2011, more than, arguably, ever. That situation speaks to an underlying increase in the health of the sport; sponsors, thanks to the work of Golden Boy and Top Rank in particular, have come to see the value in boxing programming, which means more television and Internet outlets see that value as well. Maybe this trend continues and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s all moving in the right direction for now.

Some boxing promoters and networks bragged in 2011 on how things appear to be changing in the boxing audience itself. Hispanic fans have propped up boxing for a long time, and the consensus view is that boxing’s audience is, overall, skewed older than that of MMA. But an ESPN2 official this year said that ratings went up in the younger demographic. Top Rank’s Bob Arum seconded the younger-skewing audience trend, and also noted that “Anglos” were buying back into the sport. Black fans, thought to be abandoning boxing over the years, turned out heavily in my home town of D.C. to catch the Lamont Peterson-Amir Khan fight, and while that’s too small a sample to notice a trend, it’s nonetheless a positive indicator more than a negative one.

In the ring, the product was better in many ways. It’s been an annual gripe in these parts that pay-per-view undercards are treated like nuisances by boxing promoters, whereas the UFC realizes it needs to give its customers bang for their buck to engender brand loyalty. This year, there were few out-and-out crappy undercards, some the result of design and some of luck. The only bad undercard for a major pay-per-view on paper was for Pacquiao-Mosley, but that one sprung a surprise excellent fight on us with Jorge Arce-Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. The undercards for Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito II, Pacquiao-Marquez III, Mayweather-Victor Ortiz, Marcos Maidana-Erik Morales and even Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson were, as a whole, better than the kind of undercards we’re used to seeing in boxing, and sometimes quite good. This is not to say boxing can’t do better. It can. It’s just that we’re finally getting at least somewhat worthwhile undercards on a regular basis.

The stable of quality fights in 2011 was rather large, too. Narrowing down my list of Fight of the Year candidates was no easy task. There have been years where that hasn’t been the case. They came pretty fast and heavy, often appearing in unexpected match-ups: even though it was a decent style clash, did anyone really expect Ortiz-Andre Berto to be THAT good?; and how did so many mismatches on paper, like Maidana-Morales or Arce-Vazquez, turn out so exciting? That we got lucky when some of these fights surpassed expectations mitigates the degree to which I can celebrate this, but month after month, we got some really nice fights, and that goes into the “win” column, accident or no.

And boxing outside the United States continues to flourish in ways that make my American ass envious. Andrew Harrison detailed for us what a great year British boxing had. Pacquiao-Marquez III beat the stuffing out of any other television programming in Mexico. Our other North American neighbors have the best fight town on the continent in Montreal, where sell-outs and rabid fans are now the norm. The Klitschkos continue to fill up stadiums in Europe. Boxers like Mikkel Kessler of Denmark and Tomasz Adamek of Poland are massive draws and television ratings boosts in their home countries. Much of the rest of the world is boxing-mad, whatever kind of niche sport boxing remains in the United Stataes.

That’s not every single thing that went right for boxing in 2011, but it’s a nice snapshot of some of the happy-making developments.

What Went Wrong For Boxing In 2011

For all the good fights there were in 2011, there were a whole mess of bad ones. I’ve documented the “whys” on this before, but some of the peripheral ones include the fact that lackluster efforts by “opponents” were profligate and bad refereeing and bad judging were all too common. Mostly, too many of the fights were not expected to be competitive and didn’t end up that way. It’s remarkable, per what I wrote above, how many boxers defied the gambling odds. But gambling odds are gambling odds for a reason. More often than not, an 8-1 underdog is going to lose. We shouldn’t have been surprised by how often they lost, and how often they actually performed like 8-1 underdogs.

The most common thread I found, when searching for patterns amid highly-rated shows on HBO, was that the match-ups featured top fighters against one another did the best ratings most often. Other things also helped — I recommend reading that piece again for additional insights. In a subsequent piece about why so many high-profile fights were bad in 2011, I found that it wasn’t merely about good vs. good. When boxers didn’t fight the absolute best available opponents, the fights tended to disappoint.

There are a lot of reasons the best fights aren’t happening. Take, for instance, one of the fights everyone wanted to start 2011: Juan Manuel Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa. We’d been teased with it for years, but Top Rank kept insisting on “marinating” it. Then Lopez went and lost to Orlando Salido, and the fight is further away than ever. What was the point of “marinating” a fight everyone already wanted? It wasn’t going to get bigger, and now, if anything, it’s smaller. Or take Khan-Timothy Bradley. Bradley got into a fight with his promoter and decided to leave him, prompting him to turn down a career-high payday so he could free himself from Gary Shaw. Or take Saul Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. At one point, Top Rank spoke of wanting to make the fight, realizing that “marination” had backfired for Lopez-Gamboa and/or was a bad fit for these two fighters. Now, Top Rank isn’t on speaking terms with Alvarez’ promoter, Golden Boy.

Yup. We’re stuck in this rut again. The two biggest promoters in the game won’t work together anymore. We had a brief respite for Gamboa-Daniel Ponce De Leon, but other than that, boxing’s two top promotional forces haven’t collaborated since, having fallen back into needless, petty squabbling. Both have been incredibly insular on the whole in 2011, but Top Rank particularly so with its tendency toward in-house shows. Arum hasn’t even hidden his disdain for other promoters. He thinks he’s the best and all the others suck, so why work with anyone else? Because, Bob, you haven’t signed the world. Eventually, you’ll need other promoters’ fighters to match up with yours.

The biggest fight of them all, Mayweather-Pacquiao, still hasn’t happened after years worth of unproductive negotiations, accusations, counteraccusations, grandstanding and every other kind of political maneuvering. I honestly no longer care whether this fight happens. I’d prefer it, because I think it would be good for the sport, but this has been the biggest fight in boxing for years and it still hasn’t happened, so why invest any aspriations in it — especially considering that both are older and less in their primes than when the fight was first discussed? Anyway, I say this all the time, but I’ll say it once more: That a fight that would break all pay-per-view records and make hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t happening is damning to the sport as a whole. And there are dozens of reasons Mayweather-Pacquiao isn’t happening, or, at least, that many theories.

But there’s one reason that fights aren’t happening that I think require discounting. When people say that boxers and their promoters are only doing what’s best for them economically with the fights they have made, they only ever mean in the immediate, short-term. It’s easier for Top Rank to milk a lot of lesser fights out of Pacquiao than to risk him losing to Mayweather, but what would the consequence be of losing to Mayweather? Anyone who liked Pacquiao before — especially with his Filipino fan base — is probably going to like him afterward, too, and winning would turn him into a mega-star the likes of which boxing hasn’t seen in decades. And someday, who knows when, Pacquiao WILL run out of viable opponents outside of Mayweather who make him the kind of pay-per-view dough he does now. Sooner or later, he’ll have to go in with someone competitive, and even if he doesn’t, he might still end up losing to someone who isn’t expected to be that competitive, a la Lopez-Salido. When that happens, won’t some of his handlers look back and wonder whether they should’ve taken the Mayweather fight after all? And this isn’t me wholly blaming Pacquiao’s team for not making the fight, because at various times — more often than not — I’ve blamed Mayweather’s side. I’m merely using that as an example. Sometimes, boxers and their teams are making decisions that aren’t related to how much money they can make overall. They’re making decisions based on how much money they can make tomorrow.

It’s no coincidence that the return of boxing to some degree of respectability originates with a several-year stretch where more often than not, the most desirable fights — not merely “somewhat desirable” or “acceptable” — are happening. And sometimes the failure to make those fights has nothing to do with money whatsoever. It has to do with personal connections or grudges, where, say (in an example from previous years) Shaw refused to put his man Vic Darchinyan in against Nonito Donaire in a rematch because Donaire left his promotional stable and Shaw didn’t want to have anything to do with Donaire.

What’s Uncertain Now, And Later

To some degree, assessing how well boxing did in 2011 is hard because some of the fundamental data is hard to come by. There are no longer any journalists in boxing who do regular reporting on ratings figures, and, as it turns out, all of the original data we used to get might have been wrong anyway, owing to “apples to oranges” comparisons and shifting methodologies for counting ratings. And HBO, for three consecutive pay-per-views, has not publicly released sales figures for its cards, making it so we have to rely on the word of the promoters, the occasional anonymous HBO official and whatever reporters manage to obtain their own data — and those reported figures, by the way, rarely if ever match from reporter to reporter.

You hear a lot of proposed solutions for how the boxing business can improve out there from boxing writers, but often that’s based on inadequate data or inadequate scrutiny of the data. And some of the silver bullets are demonstrably false.

I’ll start with one of my own frequent proposed solutions, although I’d hasten to add that I never propose it as a cure-all. Simply matching the best vs. the best doesn’t guarantee success, or else more people would’ve showed up for Andre Ward vs. Carl Froch. Best vs. best is an ingredient for success, as my survey of HBO ratings showed, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Action fights aren’t the only answer. Brandon Rios-Urbano Antillon this year was a surefire action fight, and everyone who knew boxing was aware of this. Yet only 3,500 showed up for that fight, a little more than showed up for Ward-Froch, a fight where attendance (forget about the announced figure — it was around 3,000, by everyone’s count) was heavily criticized.

Action-friendly fighters aren’t the sole cure. Defensive-minded fighters like Mayweather and Wladimir Klitschko do huge PPV figures or massive ticket sales, respectively. Meanwhile, Gamboa — who at his best is as offensive-minded a fighter as there is in the sport — barely can sell tickets to his fights.

“Building regional attactions” isn’t the lone solution. It doesn’t even happen these days. When I asked people on Twitter a few months back for the HBO ratings survey about what would be an impressive ticket-selling figure, everyone roughly agreed on 8,000. Here are the people who reached that figure in the United States in 2011 that I know of: Lamont Peterson; Miguel Cotto; Alvarez; Pacquiao; Mayweather. Of those, only three could be considered “regional attractions,” since Pacquiao and Mayweather fought in Vegas. Yet there are plenty of other fighters who hit more than a million viewed on television, even without a regional following. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good idea to put Peterson fights in D.C. And there are other fighters who have benefited from regional followings without hitting the 8,000 figure in 2011 or who might never — Tomasz Adamek, Adrien Broner, Fernando Guerrero, Ward, Chavez. I just don’t think building regional attractions is a magical answer; there are tons of fight fans in the United States right now who don’t ATTEND fights, and just watch them on TV, and while it’s better to have a regional following, you can’t predicate everything on it.

Having a great promoter or that promoter putting marketing muscle behind a boxer is also wonderful, but no guarantee of success. Top Rank is viewed as the best promoter when it comes to the actual art of promoting a fight, but some of its fighters — Rios, Gamboa — just haven’t done that well yet under the Top Rank banner. Top Rank also talks about how it would promote other promoters’ fighters better, like taking out ads in newspapers for Sergio Martinez. Yet when Top Rank put some of its marketing muscle behind Donaire for his fight in New York City against Omar Narvaez, it’s not like a gazillion people showed up for that fight: 4,425. (Martinez’ bout against Serhiy Dzinziruk got about 3,500.)

I could go on and on with this stuff. Everybody has their own “if/then,” but few people think about whether the then follows the if. The boxing business, or so it seems, is more art than science. You can’t just put in the input and expect a certain output.

Instead, you have to put as many of the inputs in as you can and increase the chance of the output being what you want. All of these miracle cures are good to do in greater quantities. If you have the best fighting the best, if you have an action fight on paper, if you have boxers who are regional attractions, if you have excellent promotion backed by hefty marketing… the odds go up that you’ll have a successful business. You can’t guarantee all of those things even under the best of circumstances — quick, name an action fighter who regularly fights top competition and has a regional following and a great promoter who invests a ton in marketing him! You can’t do it. So you just have to do as much of it as you can, when you can. Boxing needs all of those miracle cures more than it ingested them in 2012, and often in far, far greater volumes.

Boxing moves into 2012 on this plateau with a lot of variables that could make things better, or worse.

Top Rank and Golden Boy both expect boxing to be on network television this year, but we’ve heard that chatter before and we’re only marginally closer to it actually happening.

We have new leadership at the mainstays, HBO and Showtime, who could take things in whole new directions. Early returns are wildly inconclusive. HBO doesn’t appear inclined, as in the past, to overpay for crappy fights — but it allowed itself, strangely, to be outbid for Ortiz-Berto II by the smaller Showtime. HBO’s boxing budget, by all accounts, is going down, which may have had something to do with that bidding loss. Some think HBO and Showtime competing on more even footing with smaller budgets could force boxers to fight more often and improve the quality of programming. That’s possible — but why is Showtime already making dubious programming decisions outside of Ortiz-Berto II? And if boxers get paid less, what does that do to lure new talent into the pro boxing ranks, when the athletic talent in the United States is already inclined to seek alternatives that don’t involve getting punched really hard in the face for a living, and the amateur system has been on a long, steep erosion?

And what of the potential for new scandals? The rate at which boxers are hiring nutritionists with backgrounds in dealing steroids is alarming. The scandal of widespread steroid use did, for a time, negatively impact baseball. What might it do to a fringe-y sport like boxing?

Boxing, as a business, is getting outclassed by MMA, in the United States. It’s funny how many boxing writers and promoters talk admiringly about the UFC business model, but dismiss so many of its specifics, like putting top fighters in against one another regularly. Unfortunately, boxing, as a business, can’t do the things that the UFC does even if it wanted to. There are too many powerful, vested interests who would oppose a unified, one-boss structure like the UFC has. That inherent structural flaw might be too difficult to wholly overcome.

That leaves things messy going into 2012 — just like they were in 2011. All I know is, boxing can do better in so many ways than it did last year. Otherwise, this, where boxing is now, is the ceiling. And the floor — where boxing spent so much time in the late 90s and early 00s — is pretty far down.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a staff writer for CQ Roll Call.

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