Business as usual risky for boxing

Media focus on ancillary matters has taken spotlight off what is truly important

Updated: February 27, 2013, 12:59 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

I was hurrying to work on a brisk February morning, collar turned up, cap pulled down and hands stuffed in my pockets. As I hunched my shoulders against the chill and squinted in the bright sunlight, a newspaper vending machine caught my eye.

Although much of the media seems to have forgotten why people fall in love with boxing in the first place, true fans remember: It was the fighters who fought and the thrills they gave that got us hooked -- not contract negotiations or conspicuous displays of wealth.

I wasn't sure at first, but the image on the cover appeared to be that of a boxer. A few more paces and I realized it was a photo of Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe being hoisted aloft following his upset knockout of Tony Mundine. The headline read: "Briscoe: A Swinging American In Paris." I couldn't get the grin off my face as I bought three copies and continued on my way to work, proof of Briscoe's triumph tucked securely under my arm.

Today, I easily could have found the result on my smartphone as soon as the fight was over. But there was no Internet in 1974, cable television was in its infancy, and local TV and radio coverage of boxing was inconsistent. Newspapers, most of which still had a boxing writer on staff, were your best bet for reliable information. There's also something to be said for the delicious anticipation of waiting for the early edition to hit the streets the morning after an out-of-town fight.

Moments like that are virtually gone now, along with the feel of the pulp and smell of the ink, and that's probably the way it should be. Everything evolves and changes -- but not always for the better.

Sadly, despite the staggering amount of information at our fingertips, boxing coverage has, for the most part, wandered badly astray. Gradually over the years, much of the media's emphasis has switched from fights and fighters to ancillary matters. Instead of visiting gyms and talking to boxers and trainers, it's far more likely that a reporter will seek an audience with a promoter or network executive. Moreover, litigation has become such a significant part of boxing that lawyers such as Judd Burstein and Pat English, who specialize in such matters, have become an all-too-prominent part of the industry.

[+] EnlargeBob Arum
Jeff Bottari/Getty ImagesDisputes between promoters like Bob Arum of Top Rank often get as much or more play in the headlines than what goes on inside the ring.

Then there is all the hand-wringing and hysteria about performance-enhancing drugs diverting attention away from what's taking place in the ring. Some of these distractions are like zombies rising up again just when you thought you were rid of them. The avalanche of material churned out about a mooted Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight has enjoyed an incredible shelf life. Basically, the same story has been regurgitated ad nauseam for several years, with no end in sight. Just this week, I watched, mouth agape, as a TV sportscaster asked Mayweather the stock Pacquiao question.

When Mayweather moved from HBO to Showtime, it dominated the boxing news cycle for most of the week, while the announcement that he would be fighting Robert Guerrero in May was given short shrift in the rush to fawn over Mayweather's monetary bonanza. The move deserved to be the lead story, but apparently some chroniclers seemed under the impression that boxing has turned into a game of Monopoly. Ironically, once the opening bell sounds, a boxing ring is one of the few places left where money can't help you.

The feud between Top Rank and Golden Boy is another negative story that has taken on a life of its own. Everybody knows the deal by now. It's just the same old, same old -- month after month, year after year. Wake me when it's over; any additional episode on the subject is bound to be a rerun.

"People want to read about fighters, not about promoters," said old-school promoter J Russell Peltz, "yet it seems the fights between the promoters are getting as much play as the fights between the fighters."

That's a sad commentary on the state of boxing journalism, unless Bob Arum and Richard Schaefer decide to settle their differences in the ring. There are, however, other ways of looking at it.

"The political/sinister side of boxing has always intrigued people as one of the aspects of the sport," said Hall of Fame broadcaster Larry Merchant. "Whether it's being overemphasized now or not, it is an expression of dissatisfaction with the fact that so many of the fights that we want to see are not being made. If those crowd-pleasing fights were made, we would be talking about them rather than asking why they aren't happening."

The inability or unwillingness to make the matches the fans want is crippling the sport. Take Nonito Donaire versus Abner Mares. It's the hostilities between Golden Boy and Top Rank that are getting in the way of that potential matchup, not the fighters. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. versus Canelo Alvarez -- a fight all of Mexico, and much of the rest of the world's fandom, would pay to watch -- is another example of this phenomenon. It's a trend that has alienated longtime fans and confused or turned off newcomers.

The emphasis on outside-the-ring events -- or in the case of Mayweather and Pacquiao, a non-event -- has deprived other fighters of the attention they deserve, a point that has not, thankfully, been entirely overlooked.

"I stopped interviewing promoters about 15 years ago," Merchant said. "Promoters are just salesmen, and even though they are colorful characters and sometimes say interesting things, I made the decision to just interview fighters. The public wants to hear from the fighters."

The media's tendency to stray beyond the ring has been creeping up on us for a long time. If there was a catalyst, it was most likely the advent of enormous salaries for professional athletes and the extravagant lifestyles it afforded them. It broadened the field of inquiry and interest, eventually becoming instrumental in making a wealthy athlete the perfect vehicle for living vicariously in today's celebrity-worshiping culture. There aren't as many boxers in this category as there are athletes participating in mainstream sports, but the handful we have -- such as Mayweather and Pacquiao -- have routinely been among the top money earners in sports.

But even that has a downside.

[+] EnlargeMayweather
Chris McPherson for ESPN The MagazineThe boxing media's tendency to focus too much on business has helped make the wealthy athlete a perfect vehicle for living vicariously in today's celebrity-worshiping culture.

"Boxing has changed its economic model," Merchant said. "Everything now seems to pinwheel around getting in position to fight with one of the top guys. And because of the money involved at that level, you don't get to see the top attractions as often as you did before."

Although much of the media seems to have forgotten why people fall in love with boxing in the first place, true fans remember: It was the fighters who fought and the thrills they gave that got us hooked -- not contract negotiations or conspicuous displays of wealth.

The business of boxing needs a new attitude, and those who support it with their hard-earned cash might be the only ones who have a chance of making a difference. Boxing is a product, and fans are consumers, free to discriminate wisely and avoid purchasing inferior products. You'd be surprised how quickly things will change if the collective power of the purse is felt by those who have become accustomed to business as usual.

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