It once commanded Americas national consciousness, but US boxing has been in decline for decades. Can the circus in Las Vegas bring it back to life?
Jimmys Corner is a classic dive on 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan, a half-block east from the neon marquees and flashing Jumbotrons of Times Square. The bar is warmly lit and slender, hardly wider than a walk-in closet, open seven days a week from 11.30am to 4am. The booze is cheap, the jukebox is loaded with Stax classics and the walls are a dense assemblage of posters, memorabilia and photographs culled from owner Jimmy Glenns panoramic life in boxing.
Glenn, who turned 87 on Friday and still holds court into the morning hours on most nights, has worn many hats during more than six decades in and around the fight game. He had 16 fights as an amateur, once going the distance in a loss to Floyd Patterson. Hes worked as a cutman and hes managed a number of fighters and trained a few more, steering Jameel McCline to a pair of heavyweight title shots in the early 00s but never winning the big one. For years he owned and operated the famed Times Square Gym two blocks down on 42nd Street, where he worked as an occasional trainer for his friend Muhammad Ali when he was in town. The gym and the building that housed it are long gone, razed in the 1980s amid a redevelopment that transformed Times Square from gallery of drug dealers, sex shops, pickpockets and hustlers to the Disneyfied tourist destination of present day. But the bar endures one of the last vestiges of the areas gritty, pre-Giuliani incarnation, not so different today than when it opened in 1971.
When theres a fight in town, its not uncommon to see promoters, trainers and ring types along the long bar or clustered around the tables in the back. But these days Jimmys is less a town square for boxings colorful cast of players and more of a throwback to a time when the sport commanded the national consciousness like no other public spectacle.
The conversation among the barflies tonight is the forthcoming fight between Floyd Mayweather, the finest boxer of his generation, and Conor McGregor, the mixed martial arts star and the first fighter in the 23-year history of the UFC to hold titles simultaneously in two weight divisions. Theyre the biggest pay-per-view draws in their respective sports, but Saturdays fight on the Las Vegas strip is under boxing rules, an arrangement that some have likened to a 5000m race between Usain Bolt and Mo Farah or a trumpet competition between Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix.
The fight has thrust boxing into the national conversation in America once more, but the rhetoric hasnt been positive. If a circus match like this is the best that boxing has to offer, what hope does the sport have for the future?
An inability to govern itself
Lou DiBella, the whip-smart and bombastic New York fight promoter, regards the trade that represents his livelihood with an insiders knowledge and outsiders healthy skepticism. The 56-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, who opened a promotional company after an 11-year run as HBOs boxing czar, has never been one to whitewash the sports flaws, but he scoffs at the notion that Mayweather-McGregor is a negative. That ship sailed long ago.
This fight isnt bad for boxing, DiBella says. Boxings been bad for boxing for a long time now. It went from being one of the one or two biggest sports in America to, in a half-century, becoming marginalized.
The decline of boxing was hastened by the fact there is no monopoly in boxing. There is no one dominant company in boxing. Boxing has had a decline largely based on its own inability to govern itself. There hasnt been a sensible business model or paradigm for the industry in years and years.
The sweet science of bruising was Americas preeminent sport during the first half of the 20th century and New York City was its commercial and spiritual epicenter, home to meccas like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, where scribes like AJ Liebling and WC Heinz spun legends and made folk heroes out of such champions as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet even as the sport thrives abroad with dynamic stars like Anthony Joshua selling out Wembley Stadium, boxing in the US has found itself muscled further to the periphery of a sports and entertainment landscape thats never been more crowded.
The reasons are manifest and well-documented, but the lack of clearly identifiable champions rates high on the list.
Fifty years ago, there were eight world champions, from flyweight to heavyweight, and everyone knew who they were. But the sports lack of a central authority has wrought four major sanctioning bodies the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF that can each designate multiple champions, super champions, interim champions, regular champions and champions emeritus, in 17 divisions instead of eight. Its created an alphabet soup thats made the sport incomprehensible to casual observers while cheapening the currency of a world title.
It would be like if they gave out four Olympic gold medals for every event, says Thomas Hauser, the author and boxing historian. The heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted title in sports. Everyone knew who the heavyweight champion was. And not only when it was Muhammad Ali or Rocky Marciano, they knew when it was Ingemar Johansson. These days, thats just not the case.
That might be tolerable if the sport delivered compelling match-ups with regularity, but it doesnt. Boxing is healthier than its given credit for, with a loyal and robust audience that turns up for and buys the big fights. But too often that loyalty is abused by promoters who fail to produce the fights the fans want to see and are far too self-satisfied on the rare occasions they do.
This criticism metastasized into a mainstream controversy with Mayweathers inability for years to come to terms with Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino slugger who threatened Floyds status as the worlds best fighter. Its rare that two boxers considered the best in the sport will come from the same weight class and rarer still that both are roughly the same age. This was no dream fight, it was an obligation: a fight the public had made. It finally happened in 2015, breaking every revenue benchmark imaginable. But the underwhelming product between fighters past their physical peaks left a bad taste that promoters almost unilaterally claim did more harm than good, leaving the sport in an extended hangover.
Worse still, the sports power brokers have placed their biggest events behind a paywall. Where Americas four major over-the-air TV networks broadcast major bouts as recently as a quarter-century ago, the biggest fights are now carried exclusively on HBO, Showtime and other pay cable networks. Pay-per-view costs for marquee events have soared as high as $99.95, pricing out the casual fan.
How big would Tiger Woods have been, Hauser asks, if people could have watched him in the John Deere Classic for free, but had to pay $79.95 to watch him in the Masters?
These days, a boxer needs a special something to cross over into the cultural mainstream, whether its a hyperkinetic, made-for-YouTube style (like Mike Tyson or Manny Pacquiao) or a built-in fan base (like Oscar De La Hoya).
No one knows this better than Mayweather. For years he was billed as Pretty Boy Floyd, an extraordinary boxer with little profile beyond hardcore fight fans. Then in 2007, he bought out his contract from Bob Arum for the princely sum of $750,000 and recast himself as a villain, aided by the advent of HBOs 24/7 docuseries and his 2007 superfight with De La Hoya, and became a crossover star. Mainstream-cracking appearances from Dancing With The Stars to WrestleMania followed. Hes since amassed a fortune greater than any other fighter in history, no less than a miracle given his risk-averse, defensive style that appeals to a subset of aficionados but not a broader public thats always preferred slugging to boxing.
Mayweathers net worth only ballooned after he decided to be the cowboy in the black hat: since 2006, hes generated more than $1bn in revenue mainly because more people fork over their money in hopes of watching him lose. For several years hes been at the top of Forbes highest-paid athletes list despite virtually no income from endorsements, which may strike some financial minds as wasted earning potential but which in reality makes him beholden to nobody but himself.
Now the greatest heel in American sports since Jack Johnson stands to make a record windfall on a fight that many purists have decried as a craven money grab, a backlash DiBella claps back at.
I love fighters and I like the fact that its a sport of poor kids, I like the poetry and the drama and the theater of boxing, DiBella says. But whos going to start talking about the purity and sanctity of boxing? Get the fuck out of here with that. The holier-than-thou shit thats coming out of this fight, a lot of its from people who wish they were economically involved.
Its not fun to get punched in the face
Youd never know that boxing was dying from one glance inside the Morris Park Boxing Club in the Van Nest neighborhood of the Bronx on a simmering August weekday afternoon, amid the thwap-thwap of gloves on punching bags, the faint whistle of jump ropes, the smell of leather and sweat. Thousands of young professional and amateur fighters come through the gym since it opened shop in 1977, among them homegrown world champions like Davis and Lou Del Valle.
But a quarter-century ago, an estimated 150 gyms were scattered throughout the five boroughs. Today there are fewer than 10. Boxing gyms have struggled to keep their doors open as business declines, while rents escalate and gentrification encroaches.
The famed spaces of yesteryear are all gone: Gramercy Gym, owned by Cus DAmato, trainer of world champions Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and Mike Tyson, has become a PC Richards store near Union Square. Grupps is a Food Bank For New York City. Others have been converted to storefronts for Jamba Juice or Urban Outfitters. Many gyms, like Gleasons and the Church Street Boxing Gym, now primarily cater not to aspiring fighters but to white-collar clients, who may want a rigorous workout but arent looking to boxing for a livelihood.
Once the sports center of gravity, New York has been supplanted by Las Vegas, where the casinos offer free venues, vast site fees and complimentary hotel rooms to just about everyone involved with a promotion. Even when promoters want to stage a major fight in New York, its simply not feasible. New Yorks higher cost of living has also undercut the talent pool. Many professional boxers train in the South, where life is cheaper, or in Las Vegas or along the Gulf Coast where there are more casinos and opportunities to fight.
The worlds highest paid athletes have, almost without exception, always been American boxers. But it does not follow that boxers in general are highly paid and the sports shrinking middle class has never felt as condensed as today. When you consider the stratospheric spike in professional football and basketball salaries other sports that draw their enlistees from Americas underclasses its no wonder that Americas next great prizefighter is most likely playing middle linebacker or power forward today.
Its not fun to get punched in the face, Hauser says. Its hard and theres no glory in it. If youre an Olympic gold medalist, maybe youll start out making a million dollars a fight. But boxers starting out today are far more likely to be making $200 or $300 for a four-rounder.
At home on the brink
Saturdays fight between Mayweather and McGregor is expected to eclipse the domestic pay-per-view record of 4.6m buys set by Mayweathers summit meeting with Pacquiao two years ago. At a price point of $99.95, that could mean up to $500m in pay-per-view revenue in addition to the live gate, international broadcast rights and sponsorship deals, which altogether could approach an additional $200m.
But what does it intimate for a sports long-term health that a one-off stunt, a spectacle thats drawn comparisons to Muhammad Alis risible fight with the Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976, will be the sports biggest event in years, casting a long shadow over big-ticket events like Septembers middleweight title unification fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin?
I dont believe anyones getting cheated, I dont believe its immoral or unethical, DiBella says. It is what it is. The world is the world. There are a lot of things I shake my head at all the time in 21st-century America. People like events and celebrity and conflict and immediate gratification.
I dont understand the Kardashians being stars. I dont understand Housewife shows. But lets cut all the self-righteousness, lets cut all the pseudo-intellectual analysis and cut to the bottom line. Its happening because a lot of people want to pay to see it.
Three days after the Mayweather-McGregor fight was announced, Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev met in a rematch of a gripping unified light heavyweight title fight in November that ended in controversy. It was, at least by one metric, the best fight that could be made: Ward and Kovalev were rated the two best prizefighters in the world, pound for pound, by Ring magazine. Yet it badly underwhelmed at the box office, reportedly generated 130,000 pay-per-view buys and a paid attendance of 6,366, generating a live gate of $2.19m.
No one gave a shit about either guy in the fight, DiBella says. People didnt care about that, people care about this. Mayweather, whatever you think of him, a lot of people love him and a lot of people hate him. But that makes people care. And McGregor is like a singular personality in MMA, definitely the biggest self-marketer in the UFC, a guy who has unbelievable swagger. Hes a guy whos crazy enough to think he could win, whos charismatic enough to convince the world he could win, against the biggest name in boxing.
One prevailing narrative attributes boxings decline to the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts promotion thats launched McGregor to stardom. The UFC is a centralized entity that holds all of its fighters under contract, empowering the organization with the ability to make the fights the fans want to see. But executives from both sports have disputed the characterization of combat sports as a zero-sum game.
The core demographic for boxing is black, Hispanic and baby boomers, while the UFC targets younger adults who grew up watching WWE but arent married with kids yet, says one high-ranking TV executive, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity. Look at the brands [the UFC] associates itself with and places where it holds events.
Nor is it an age problem. A recent analysis of live TV viewership on broadcast and cable telecasts found the median age of viewers for UFC was 34 a decade ago compared to 47 for boxing. Last year, the median for both sports was 49.
The fact is, this has always been a sport thats existed the precipice of extinction, from the backlash to the English bare-knuckle fights of the 1700s to the mob corruption of the mid-20th century to the renewed abolition movement of the 1980s, often led by white middle-class reformers disconnected from the countless impoverished and disenfranchised youth, mainly black and Hispanic, its saved. Surely boxing has been complicit in its own downfall in the United States, but it will take a lot more than one circus match to put it down for the count.