World titles no longer the holy grail

For a new generation of fighter-entrepreneurs, cashing in on PPV trumps all

Originally Published: March 5, 2014
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

The November 1952 cover of The Ring magazine featured an illustration of Archie Moore, arms outstretched, running after a winged crown that hovers tantalizingly just out of reach. The crown represented the light heavyweight title, which the soon-to-be 36-year-old Moore had been chasing for years. The headline read "Why Is Moore Poison?" The answer was simple: He was too good and too black.

[+] EnlargeArchie Moore
The Ring Magazine/Getty ImagesAn illustration on this 1952 cover of The Ring portrayed Archie Moore chasing a world title.

Boxing has changed since then. The sport's biggest star is African-American. But that's not all that's different. The business ethos has evolved to a point where such a concept for a magazine cover would be outdated. Today, the fighter would be chasing a contract to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr., and any title involved would be essentially irrelevant.

In the days when a championship made the fighter instead of the other way around, challengers frequently earned next to nothing. When Moore finally got a title shot, against Joey Maxim in December 1952, Maxim was guaranteed $100,000. The live gate was $60,000, with another $50,000 for TV and radio rights. Archie got 10 percent of what was left, which The New York Times figured might have been enough to cover his training expenses.

While fighters still pursue titles, a world championship is no longer boxing's holy grail. The proliferation of alphabet belts has cheapened the concept to such an extent that winning one is not necessarily the financial jackpot it used to be. Today, a title is just a stepping-stone to where the real money is -- on pay-per-view, preferably against Mayweather.

Fighters of incompatible size need not apply, but for those within range, it's an irresistible goal. They know that even if they lose, facing the fighter aptly nicknamed "Money" could mean a life-changing payday.

Robert Guerrero wouldn't have come within jabbing distance of headlining a pay-per-view card if he wasn't fighting Mayweather. Nevertheless, he was guaranteed $3 million just for showing up. Winning one of boxing's splintered titles carries no such guarantee, so you can't blame fighters for setting their sights on the sport's principal cash cows.

The proliferation of alphabet belts has cheapened the concept to such an extent that winning one is not necessarily the financial jackpot it used to be. Today, a title is just a stepping-stone to where the real money is -- on pay-per-view, preferably against Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Canelo Alvarez, a legitimate box-office draw in his own right, has already had his crack at Mayweather. He didn't win, but he did take home $5 million, plus a hefty percentage of the pay-per-view loot. Alvarez makes the first start of his post-Mayweather career Saturday when he faces Alfredo Angulo at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

The heavy-handed "El Perro" is not the easiest comeback assignment, but if Alvarez can overcome his countryman's potent attack, he will be well in position to build on his pay-per-view brand. He is already arguably the No. 3 pay-per-view attraction behind Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, and an impressive victory over Angulo will go a long way toward making up any ground he might have lost.

Too much control is invariably a bad thing, and Mayweather's routine of holding the sport hostage and turning his opponent-selection process into a soap opera has grown old. The recent dog-and-pony show surrounding the anointing of Marcos Maidana as Mayweather's next adversary was ridiculous. There was something perverse about the way he had Amir Khan on tenterhooks for months before putting him out of his misery.

In the interim, we were treated to numerous delays, broken promises and futile fan polls. Then there were the constant mind-numbing non-stories about how Mayweather had yet to make a decision. This sort of claptrap is not only meaningless, but it reduces boxing to a one- or two-man show, consequently depriving other commendable fights and fighters of the attention they deserve. Is this really the way we want to go?

[+] EnlargeSaul Alvarez
Nick Laham for ESPNCanelo Alvarez, with an impressive win Saturday, would go a long way toward making up any financial ground he lost by falling to Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Mayweather, and to a slightly lesser degree Pacquiao, is just the most recent fighter to control the pot of gold at the end of boxing's blood-splattered rainbow. Before Pacquiao and Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya was the money machine, which made him the target of choice for damn near every able-bodied boxer between 130 and 160 pounds. Prior to that, Mike Tyson was the guy to fight if you wanted to become rich overnight.

Sugar Ray Leonard had a long run as the moneyman. His massive mainstream appeal helped sweeten the purse of virtually every pro opponent he fought. Before Leonard there was Muhammad Ali, who, as much as anybody, ushered in the era of previously unheard of sums of money. Back in the 1970s, people were flabbergasted when it was announced that George Foreman and Ali were guaranteed $5 million each for the "Rumble in the Jungle." But money doesn't solve all problems.

At the best of times, there are usually no more than two or three megastars at the top of boxing's food chain, and therein lies the rub. The clamor to fight a member of this exclusive club creates a warped view of the sport -- one that focuses on the few to the detriment of the many.

With so much of boxing revolving around just a couple of fighters, jockeying for position can backfire. Waiting for a fight with Mayweather became an albatross around Khan's neck. He opted to forgo a bout with Devon Alexander because he thought he had the inside track with Floyd but ended up being jilted at the altar.

Nobody likes losing, but from a monetary point of view, getting beat by a pay-per-view star is better than never fighting one. Moreover, some of Mayweather's old dance partners have done fairly well for themselves. Jose Luis Castillo got an immediate rematch after dropping an unpopular decision the first time, lost again and went on to regain a lightweight title. Juan Manuel Marquez rebounded from his one-sided loss to Mayweather to score the biggest win of his career, a stunning one-punch knockout of Pacquiao.

Not everybody has been so fortunate. After a boring but somewhat competitive match with Mayweather, De La Hoya looked jaded in a tuneup against Steve Forbes and was then hammered into retirement by Pacquiao. Victor Ortiz never really bounced back after being coldcocked by Mayweather and was stopped in both of his subsequent bouts, first by Josesito Lopez and then by Luis Collazo.

Now it's Canelo's turn to see what he can do with his post-Mayweather career.

Regardless of the assorted aftermaths, the majority of Mayweather's opponents earned more money fighting Floyd than they ever had before and probably ever would again. It was pretty much the same way with the guys who fought the likes of Ali, Leonard, Tyson and De La Hoya. What has changed is the enormous amount of money involved. Sure, it's always been about money, but the switch from closed circuit broadcasts to pay-per-view was a watershed moment for boxing and radically changed its economic model.

[+] EnlargeLeonard/Hearns
Focus On Sport/Getty ImagesSugar Ray Leonard, right, who made an astounding $12 million to face Thomas Hearns in 1981, helped usher in the era of unheard sums of money.

According to Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen, Mayweather was guaranteed $41.5 million for the Canelo extravaganza. He said that Mayweather's end, including his cut of the pay-per-view, could push his career earnings to $350 million. That is a staggering figure and epitomizes boxing's top-heavy financial hierarchy.

"That's the present economic paradigm of sports," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Larry Merchant. "Everything is magnified by the amount of money involved. Fighters are not just athletes anymore; they're entrepreneurs."

The fight game works much the same way as the rest of the economy, where the richest 10 percent of Americans control 75 percent of the wealth, leaving only 25 percent to the other 90 percent. According to moneynews.com, income inequality has been growing for three decades, and boxing is not exempt.

There is no denying that life at the bottom of the pile is better than it used to be, but the distance to the top is far greater. Sadly, titles have become little more than bargaining chips, something to throw on the table in a bid to gain a larger chunk of the spoils. It is that larger chunk, or at least the chance to have bite of it, that drives the sport today. Mayweather is at the wheel right now, but it's the aspiration of joining or replacing him that fuels fighters' ambition.

The system has changed -- and not for the good in my opinion -- but the dream remains the same.

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