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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Boxing's dead? Check its pulse again

By Diego Morilla
ESPNdeportes.com

Floyd Mayweather
Does Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao set off more heat than light? Maybe. And that's OK.

There's food, and there's caviar. There's tap water, there's beer and there's champagne. There are boxing matches for boxing fans, there are big-time bouts for the mainstream audience, and there's Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather Jr.

The difference could throw off even the most knowledgeable sports observer. But when it comes to determining the actual state of the union in boxing, this confusion has deadly implications. As in, dinosaur dead.

Apparently, the new argument to declare boxing buried and gone -- a fossilized sport -- is the fact that the best possible fight available isn't being made, when the fact is that it will happen -- and sooner rather than later. Perhaps not as easily as some people might like, but the truth is that there is too much money in it for the fight not to happen. The nickname of one of the fighters is "Money," for crying out loud. The other guy is a politician, so the greed is inherent, right? And I'm not sure about Bob Arum's nickname, but I never heard anyone call the Top Rank boss "Chump Change Charlie." The fact that a mere phone call placed from one of this saga's protagonists to the other is newsworthy adds an undeniable air of truth to this notion.

Independent of what Congressman Pacquiao and momentarily pardoned jailbird Mayweather are doing right now to make this fight become a reality, the reality is that boxing can hardly be considered extinct when the sport sets new pay-per-view records every year. Or, come to think of it, when potentially the biggest fight in the history of the sport would involve a Filipino fighting an American in the welterweight division. Shouldn't this honor have been reserved for a couple of heavyweights, perhaps a European and American, possibly of two different skin colors?

Instead, the fact that the fight that will pulverize all revenue records for a single boxing event will be competed among lighter weights, and that it won't be the final match of a worldwide elimination tournament but rather a clash that has been created out of public demand, only heightens the value of the achievement.

Riddick Bowe
Riddick Bowe never fought Lennox Lewis, but that never slowed down the career arc or profitability of either fighter -- or fan interest in boxing.

And the fact that this isn't the first situation of its kind to arise is an indication that boxing has survived far worse missed encounters, only to thrive in the future. Way, way back in the late 20th century, the boxing world hung on a possible heavyweight megafight that could have "saved the sport," one that ultimately never came to pass. The claims that boxing's continuity as a major sport was in jeopardy if the bout failed to materialize were as loud and generalized as today's Pacquiao-Mayweather outrage. But the much-anticipated matchup between Olympic rivals Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis was destined to become part of boxing's long list of what-ifs. This, however, stopped neither fighter on their paths to becoming two of the heavyweight division's all-time greatest attractions, racking up pay-per-view records in quick succession and engaging in fights as exciting as their failed encounter could have been.

Couldas, wouldas and shouldas aside, it's obvious that boxing depends on these buildups -- as exaggeratedly long as they may seem to both impatient fans and trigger-happy detractors of the sport -- to flourish and maintain profitability. Boxing is a sport of individuals fighting other individuals, and oftentimes rivalries must be created out of nothing. There's no colorful jersey to defend, no storied tradition to uphold, no "team honor" to fight for. And only a handful of national rivalries tracked over the sport's timeline register strongly enough to justify printing national flags on a fight poster. It's just a guy against another guy, and each is standing in the other's path toward glory and personal fortune.

For a Red Sox-Yankees game, fans sell out entire stadiums without knowing whether it will be Roger Clemens or Heathcliff Slocumb on the mound. Boxing isn't quite there yet, and it probably never was. Thus the need for tweeted epithets and hastily placed phone messages. Fights have to be created out of thin air, and every little thing counts in the buildup of a big fight. These kinds of shenanigans are as old as the pictures of Jack Johnson standing next to a pile of bodies covered in ketchup, which were sent to his likely opponents as warnings about the fate they'd suffer at his hands. As old as John L. Sullivan's claims of being able to "lick any son ... in the house." As old as the stubborn predictions of boxing's imminent demise.

Sure, the delay in making the latest "Biggest Fight Ever" might kill the interest of fly-by-night bystanders, but it remains a hot topic of conversation around many water coolers, barbershops, liquor store sidewalks, parole officer's waiting rooms and prison yards -- on the minds of the strange mix of respectable and unsavory characters that comprises the boxing faithful.

Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao appeared mortal in his third bout with Juan Manuel Marquez -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing for business.

In fact, the value of Pacquiao-Mayweather grows with every minute that passes, and it will probably be worth even more if (when?) either looks vulnerable in a fight. After all, the next-best thing to a hero in boxing is a beatable hero. (Are you going to miss it if Superman looks like he might get his butt kicked?) Pacquiao already appeared lackluster against Marquez. If Cotto manages to check Mayweather on May 5, expect the stock on this fight to rise again.

It's always difficult finding time to figure out where the good fights are and which fighters are the ones to watch. Fans of other sports have the benefit of finding satisfaction in rooting for the same team time and again, win or lose. Boxing requires more effort, and occasionally its fans have to stomach a distasteful fare.

But turning up our noses at boxing for its failure to produce the best, only the best and nothing but the best is a snobbish and juvenile, at best. You don't turn down mom's homemade ravioli just because there's a surf-and-turf special at the local food court. It's the same reason you don't ignore Maidana-Morales, Marquez-Diaz or even Rodriguez-Wolak because you're saving yourself for "the real thing." If you're a boxing fan, every punch is the real thing, no matter how much you paid for it or how hard it was to find a free internet feed to watch it.

There's food and there's caviar. There's death and there's a death wish. Confusing these concepts will only draw out the agony of those who want to abandon boxing for their own reasons -- and put an unnecessary strain on those of us who want to enjoy it while it's alive and well.

Which, if you look closely enough, is right now.

Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPNdeportes.com.