Top division bottoms out

Boxing's elite heavyweight class awaits next superstar to resurrect its popularity

December 16, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

When Jack Dempsey defended his heavyweight title, America huddled around the radio. When Muhammad Ali defended his, the world watched.

But how many know that when John Ruiz and Nicolay Valuev battle in Berlin tomorrow night, they'll be fighting for a heavyweight belt (the World Boxing Association version)? The bout won't even be on television in this country.

These days, it seems uncertain the average sports fan could name one heavyweight champion, much less all four. And when Vitali Klitschko retired abruptly last month and abdicated his World Boxing Council belt to Baltimore native Hasim Rahman, the division lost the closest thing it had to an alpha-dog.

How has heavyweight boxing devolved from a spectacle that could galvanize so many to a cult pursuit that holds meaning for so few?

Those who've watched the metamorphosis say monopolistic promoters, a diaspora of title belts and a decreasing pool of talented American fighters have all contributed.

"This is probably the most difficult time period I can remember in the heavyweight division," said Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, the major broadcast player in boxing over the past 30 years.

"I find the division uninteresting as a fan and boring as a programmer," said Jay Larkin, who until recently booked boxing for HBO's chief competitor, Showtime. "I think it may have outlived its usefulness. I think as a force that drives boxing, the heavyweight division may be over."

But many observers say such down periods are cyclical and that the perception of an unbroken chain of heavyweight greatness - Dempsey to Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano to Ali to Mike Tyson - amounts to little more than revisionist history.

Dempsey once went three years without defending his title because he lacked a suitable opponent. Louis fought his "bum-of-the-month club." Non-entities like Pinklon Thomas and Tony Tucker held titles for a few years in the 1980s.

"The history of the division is that there are periods when you're waiting for the next dynamic, exciting, galvanizing champion to emerge," said HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley.

The sport suffers, he said, because millions of baby-boomer sports fans were weaned on Ali and his great challengers.

"Of course, that period is the one great glowing anomaly in heavyweight history," Lampley said. "So the boomers think boxing is dead when, really, we were just spoiled."

Bob Arum, who promoted the canceled Klitschko-Rahman fight, agreed the division's health is determined by the quality and appeal of fighters at the top. Dips in popularity have thus been inevitable.

"But whenever you say no, there's no sign, it's hopeless, something happens," Arum said.

As heavyweight boxing reached its popular zenith with Ali, the forces that would chip away at its appeal were gathering. Business decisions that seemed logical when made would produce unforeseen damage.

Lampley said boxing began to shoot itself in the foot in the 1970s, minting too many new belts to serve network demand for title fights on Saturday afternoons.

"The sport created the scenario of too many champions, too many title belts and too much confusion," he said. "And that isn't what works for galvanizing an audience."

Lampley's Showtime counterpart, Al Bernstein, said the heavyweight division needs a single champion more than most. "That was always such a big thing," he said. "Who is the heavyweight champion of the world?"

Two promoters, Arum and Don King, thrived in the chaos.

King came to rule the heavyweight division. He signed multiple champions and insisted on controlling future matchups for fighters who wanted to battle anyone in his stable. Thus, he kept top fighters on parallel tracks. They earned money for themselves and him but didn't always collide in the matchups fans wanted.

"His focus has been mostly on promoting multiple heavyweight champions and keeping them apart," Lampley said. "That's been good for Don King but bad for the appeal of the sport."

Lacking appeal

Through the 1980s, sponsors and networks grew less interested in paying for big matches, and managers and fighters learned they could make far more money by staging events on pay cable or pay per view. This made existing stars richer but narrowed the audience for boxing and made it less likely future stars would gain a wide appeal.

Because boxing deals are made case by case, no individual had the power to halt the trend and insist that some big fights go off on the wider forums of network television and basic cable.

"A league can do that," Arum said. "In boxing, you can't."

From promoters to fighters to networks, everyone in boxing dances with the pay-per-view devil while cursing it out of the corners of their mouths.

"You look at any other sport, and the biggest events go out to the biggest audiences," Arum said. "But in boxing, the biggest events go to the smallest audience."

Even HBO officials have become frustrated that fighters insist on headlining pay-per-view cards rather than regular broadcasts on the pay channel.

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