Can two foreigners conquer America?
I’m the last person to keep track of who the alphabet extortionists are calling “champion” from day to day. But I nevertheless found this statistical trend interesting: In the spring of 1998, there were 21 American-born fighters who wore IBF, WBA or WBC belts. In the spring of 2008, that number was down to 14. And right now, in the spring of 2009, the total is seven.
There are belts everywhere, growing out of each other like mogwai in the bathtub, and yet American fighters are increasingly hard-pressed to snag them. That says one of two things: Either there’s an anti-American conspiracy permeating the boxing world, or the talent of American fighters is on a rapid decline in comparison to their colleagues from around the world.
Chances are it’s the latter, and that trend sets the stage for an unusual circumstance this Saturday night: The biggest fight of the first half of the year will take place in Las Vegas without an American fighter in the ring.
To have an American vs. a foreigner in a major pay-per-view event is a routine occurrence. But you don’t get the casual American sports fan caring about a foreigner vs. foreigner fight very often.
Times have changed, though, and on the heels of Oscar De La Hoya’s retirement announcement, the American superstar fighter is an endangered species. There’s really only one of them right now, the about-to-unretire Floyd Mayweather. Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley are established names, but not necessarily major PPV draws. Roy Jones isn’t a superstar anymore. Paul Williams isn’t a superstar yet. Kelly Pavlik once looked like a lock to become one, but now his crossover potential is uncertain.
So the environment might be perfect for a fight like Ricky Hatton vs. Manny Pacquiao, a British fighter vs. a Filipino fighter. If you’re American and you like boxing, can you really be picky anymore about whether the fighters you watch are your countrymen?
“I think the typical American boxing fan wants to see a good fight, a good matchup, and both Pac-Man and Hatton are the kind of fighters who put it on the line,” said veteran boxing publicist Norman Horton, who is in no way affiliated with this particular fight. “Selling this fight to Americans might be an issue if it were any other two foreign fighters, but with Hatton and Pacquiao, it doesn’t matter much what country they’re from. Fans know there’s going to be a lot of action in this fight. And the fans know these fighters because they fought the biggest American stars, De La Hoya and Mayweather. There was huge marketing that went into those fights. Pac-Man and Hatton have been introduced to American fans on a high level. This is a perfect fight to market.”
Ed Schuyler, the retired former longtime Associated Press boxing writer, is much less convinced that this fight will prove to be a financial success.
“If you’re going to be successful on pay-per-view, you can’t just count on fight fans. You have to have fighters that interest the casual fans. And I can’t think of any casual fight fans that give a damn about Ricky Hatton anymore,” said Schuyler. “I think Hatton’s the big problem here. I could see American and Mexican-American fans being interested in Manny Pacquiao. I mean, Pacquiao-Mayweather, now we’re talking a fight. But Hatton? I know a lot of writers in England, and they’re not even very excited about it. It just doesn’t look like a competitive fight. I think it ends when Pacquiao decides it ends.”
That may well be, but a lot of people assumed De La Hoya-Pacquiao would end when “The Golden Boy” chose to end it (which, come to think of it, is kind of how it turned out), and the fight still sold 1.25-million PPVs domestically despite mismatch predictions. So apparently consumers are willing to pay money to watch a fight for which they think they know the outcome, as long as they care about the fighters involved.
Which leads us back to the question of whether American fans care about non-American fighters. There have been big U.S.-based fights in the past involving two foreign fighters, such as Julio Cesar Chavez-Edwin Rosario, Chavez-Hector Camacho and Roberto Duran-Wilfred Benitez. But none of those were the premier big-money fight of the year, the way Pacquiao-Hatton could possibly prove to be.
“I think Pacquiao-Hatton will do better than Pacquiao-De La Hoya in the United States,” declared Bob Arum, who, we must point out, is co-promoting Saturday’s fight and is not exactly unbiased. “Fight fans never cared about nationality, and they certainly don’t care now, in this era of globalization. Americans are not xenophobic as they are in a lot of countries.
“Pacquiao has now transcended not only boxing, but sports. He is a global figure, somebody that people can’t get enough of, somebody that’s written about by people other than boxing writers. The interest in Hatton is confined to sports fans. Hatton’s a delightful young man, but he certainly doesn’t transcend sports. But Pacquiao does. Pacquiao is being looked at as a potential president of his country.”
So everyone agrees Pacquiao has madeÔÇöor at least is well into the process of makingÔÇöthe leap to mainstream recognition. But Hatton seems to be the question mark in that regard. Thankfully, “The Hitman” is aligned these days with a name that means something to American sports fans: Mayweather.
Hatton’s trainer, the vexing, perplexing, perpetually flexing Floyd Mayweather Sr., who’s never known an appointment urgent enough to preclude a Taco Bell detour, is rapidly becoming a reality-TV icon. And unlike the two fighters, he is an American (whether his fellow Americans are proud of that fact or not).
Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, is an American as well, and though he’s not half as eccentric as Big Floyd, he has developed into a reliable sound bite and arguably the new dean of U.S. trainers.
To the surprise of no one, HBO has leaned heavily on Roach and Mayweather to fill the air time on Pacquiao-Hatton 24/7. It seems odd to suggest that a sports fan would part with $50 or more because of a coaching matchup, but it’s possible that a 24/7 viewer might feel so strongly about wanting to see one trainer win and the other lose that it ramps up his interest in the fight enough to get him reaching into his wallet. The trainers aren’t going to turn a 500,000-buy fight into a million-buy fight. But two extra identifiable names and faces could potentially make a marginal difference.
Most likely, however, the PPV success of Pacquiao-Hatton will rest on the shoulders of the Filipino phenom. We know that beating De La Hoya doesn’t turn a fighter into De La Hoya. But Pacquiao is the most entertaining and aggressive pound-for-pound king the sport has known since Chavez, and if that translates to mainstream interest, then Pacquiao vs. Hatton – a financial slam-dunk fight based on British TV money anyway – might approach Arum’s lofty prediction for U.S. success.
“I think HBO, now that Oscar’s gone, is trying to build Manny as their bankable pay-per-view fighter,” said Schuyler. “It may be years, or never, before we talk about an attraction like De La Hoya again. It was incredible what a draw he was. But Manny’s the new hope. And if they’re going to put him on pay-per-view, they don’t want him to get his ass beat right away. If you’re building a pay-per-view fighter, you put him on a couple of times against guys where he’s going to look tremendous. He looked tremendous against Oscar, and you don’t want to follow that up against someone who’s going to beat him or make him look bad.”
So maybe Hatton’s the easy mark who sets up Pacquiao for bigger paydays in the future, or maybe he’s the perfect threat who arouses enough interest to generate a million domestic PPV buys this Saturday even in a lousy economy. Or maybe he’s both. Maybe enough people perceive this as a 50/50 fight to spend 50 bucks and make this a blockbuster, and maybe Pacquiao then pounds Hatton in a way that makes his next fight even more lucrative.
The quality of the fight and the quality of the fighters, more than nationality, are what should interest people the most.
How mainstream American fans will respond to this fight between a Filipino and a Brit is a bit of a question mark.
But for the true, hardcore fight fans, it’s not where you’re from that matters. It’s where you’re going.
ÔÇó Prediction time: First, just to give myself a little cred, I was one of the few writers who gave Pacquiao an excellent chance at beating De La Hoya last December. At no point did I view it as a mismatch in favor of Oscar. Saturday’s fight, however, I do see as a potential mismatch. I have a world of respect for Hatton; there’s only one fighter at 140 pounds whom I’d pick to handle him with ease. Unfortunately for Hatton, Pacquiao is that one fighter. I like “Pac-Man” in a one-sided fight that ends in round nine.
ÔÇó If there’s such a thing as buyer’s remorse, is there also such a thing as non-buyer’s remorse? Yes, I’m looking at you, HBO, for declaring Carl Froch-Jermain Taylor a fight unworthy of your consideration. It was dramatic, thrilling and evenly matched, precisely as billed by those in the know. Why ever would you want a fight like that on your schedule?
ÔÇó Speaking of Froch-Taylor, did Jim Gray really try to manufacture a controversy out of ref Michael Ortega saving a completely helpless Taylor in the 12th round? Jeez, Jim, did you also think the Rodney King beating should have gone on a little longer?
ÔÇó It took me a while, but I’m finally on board with the Podcast revolution, and I recommend Adam Carolla’s recent Podcast on which he interviewed Mike Tyson. Call me crazy, but it sounds to me like Tyson is in something resembling a state of emotional peace. I wouldn’t call him happy, mind you. I’m just saying that it might be time to rethink the general prediction that “Iron Mike” would die young in a blaze of insanity. (Especially since he isn’t that young anymore.)
ÔÇó Which has you less excited: Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad II or the Erik Morales comeback?
ÔÇó To the St. Louis fans who booed Cory Spinks as he entered the ring Friday night, I say: What took you so long? Seriously, though, I have to give Spinks credit; he’s one of my all-time least favorite fighters to watch, but he showed guts and guile against Deandre Latimore and the fight was actually pretty entertaining. And props to Showtime for an excellent weekend of boxing.
ÔÇó If Willy Blain is “Little Leonard,” then I’m “Kid Shakespeare.”
ÔÇó It’s not just that Juan Manuel Lopez is scary-good. It’s that he makes being scary-good look so effortless.
Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]