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The start of 2015 breathes new life into boxing

19
Jan
Floyd Mayweather Maidana II arrival fukuda

Photo by Naoki Fukuda

 

During the vast majority of the 20th century, boxing occupied a prominent place not only in America’s sporting firmament but also its cultural fabric. In the early 1900s, the “Sweet Science” shared a leading role with horse racing and baseball and remained a powerful force even after the NFL and NBA became multi-billion-dollar entities. The heavyweight championship of the world was long considered the single greatest prize in sport and when the likes of John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Mike Tyson held it, each was recognized as the single toughest man on Earth.

But somewhere along the way, boxing lost its way. Its jumbled logic, fumbled public relations and prohibitively expensive TV universe caused many fans to walk away en masse. A once-proud sport became marginalized, seemingly beyond repair. The reasons are plentiful but beyond the fractured titles, nonsensical scoring and perceived corruption, three particularly stand out: boxing’s absence on free, over-the-air network television, the inability to produce all the big fights the public craved and, after nearly a century of almost uninterrupted dominance, America’s lost grip on the heavyweight championship. It is often said that boxing’s fortunes are dependent on the state of the heavyweight division and, in America at least, the decade-long drought all but dried up interest in boxing among the army of casual sports fans and their collective wallets.

The good news is that many aspects of life tend to be cyclical and if the last several days are any indicator, boxing is laying the foundation for a full-blown resurrection.



The first sign was produced soon after the turn of the New Year as the long-awaited Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao superfight gained new steam thanks to intense and fruitful talks between the camps as well as between HBO and Showtime for a possible joint telecast. Hopes were raised even more on Jan. 13 when Top Rank Promotions’ Bob Arum announced that Pacquiao had agreed to terms for a May 2 fight at the MGM Grand, that included a reported 60/40 purse split in Mayweather’s favor and a drug-testing protocol. If that’s true, then the fight everyone has been waiting for is just one signature away from becoming reality.

Should Mayweather affix that signature, the ink from his pen will be like the healing fluid flowing from an IV tube, both in terms of boxing’s overall health and how Mayweather’s career will be perceived. Another indicator that Mayweather-Pacquiao is close to happening is that the proposed Miguel Cotto-Saul Alvarez fight, once a prominent roadblock given Alvarez’s demand for a fight on the Mexican holiday weekend as well as the bout’s own immense money-making potential, is no longer is in the picture for the May 2 date.

The final announcement of a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight would be breaking news not just in the sports world but also among people who normally wouldn’t give boxing a first thought, much less a second one. Because of that, boxing will regain its former axis-stopping glory – at least for one night – and if the fight somehow lives up to its stratospheric expectations, it could plant the first seed of a revival in terms of esteem.

But while Mayweather-Pacquiao would be a heck of a one-night stand, promoter Al Haymon’s $20 million deal with NBC could rekindle a long-term marriage between boxing and the over-the-air networks. The deal, announced Jan. 14, called for 20 telecasts in 2015 – nine on NBC Sports Network and 11 on NBC’s main channel, including five in prime time. The five Saturday night shows mark the first multi-show prime-time commitment to boxing by a top-line terrestrial network in nearly a generation (Fox aired a short-lived series in the mid-1990s). The press conference at NBC’s headquarters in New York City was appropriately star-studded as three of the “Four Kings” – Sugar Ray Leonard (who will be part of the broadcast team along with Al Michaels), Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran – shared the stage with the six athletes who will fight on the first two telecasts. On March 7, welterweights Keith Thurman and Robert Guerrero and junior welterweights Adrien Broner and John Molina will meet in a potentially explosive double-header while on April 11, 140-pound titlists Danny Garcia and Lamont Peterson will do a Carlos Zarate-Alfonso Zamora by engaging in what should be a unification fight at a 143-pound catchweight. The matchmaking indicates a promising start and with more than 150 fighters under his umbrella, Haymon has plenty of combinations with which to work.

One of those combinations could involve one of the most prominent members of his stable, newly-crowned WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. “The Bronze Bomber” impressively outpointed Bermane Stiverne last Saturday in Las Vegas to become the first American-born fighter to claim a piece of the heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs scored a last-second KO over Sergei Lyakhovich in November 2006. Wilder’s victory ended a 17-fight losing streak by American big men, the nation’s longest string of futility in division history and had “The Cannon” not scored the buzzer-beater against Lyakhovich, that streak would have encompassed 24 fights dating back to December 2005, when Nikolay Valuev controversially lifted John Ruiz’s WBA belt.

The reversal of fortune has been staggering. In the 107 years between January 1894, when James J. Corbett stopped England’s Charlie Mitchell in three rounds, and January 1991, when Ray Mercer scored a one-punch KO over Italy’s Francesco Damiani, Americans were 43-11-1 in heavyweight title fights against international opponents, a .782 winning percentage. In terms of time, the longest drought for the internationals took place between June 1934 (when Max Baer stopped Primo Carnera) and May 1959 (when Floyd Patterson stopped England’s Brian London), a seven-fight stretch, while the lengthiest losing streak in number of fights was 21 from June 1960 (Patterson KO 5 Ingemar Johansson II) until March 1983 (Larry Holmes UD 12 Lucien Rodriguez). That run was ended when South Africa’s Gerrie Coetzee stopped WBA titlist Michael Dokes in September 1983.

But starting with Lennox Lewis’ points win over Tony Tucker in May 1993, the internationals had gone 44-16-2 (a .710 winning percentage), including 30 wins by KO, before Wilder’s victory. The Americans’ longest unbeaten string was eight fights from September 2003 (Chris Byrd UD 12 Fres Oquendo) to September 2005 (Lamon Brewster TKO 9 Luan Krasniqi), a period that included a draw between Byrd and Andrew Golota in April 2004 but if one removes the draw, the longest U.S. win streak was just four fights, of which three belonged to Brewster.

The profound lack of success by American heavyweights caused U.S. interest in the division to dwindle to virtually nil while the successes of Lewis and the Klitschko brothers helped boxing to boom on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, the dearth of boxing coverage on American mainstream media platforms helped persuade an entire generation of potential U.S.-born heavyweights to look toward the NFL and NBA, leagues that receive near-saturation coverage even in the off-season. Wilder would have taken that route too – he wanted to play wide receiver or power forward for his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide – but early fatherhood prompted him to abandon those dreams. In order to maximize his earning potential – and to raise a daughter born with spina bifida – he turned to boxing at the advanced age of 20. Wilder soon discovered he had a talent for the sport and his progress was such that he won the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in just his 21st fight. He went on to win a bronze medal in Beijing, losing in the semi-final to Italy’s Clemente Russo but also becoming the last American male boxer to win an Olympic medal of any kind.

Despite scoring 32 consecutive knockouts to start his career – a streak longer than those of Vitali Klitschko (27), Sullivan (25), Herbie Hide (22), Frank Bruno (21) and Tyson (19) and the best overall runs of Foreman (24), Marciano (16), Ken Norton (14) and Liston (11) – many observers, including this one, still had questions about Wilder’s chin, stamina and poise under pressure. He answered his doubters in most emphatic fashion. He absorbed Stiverne’s bombs unflinchingly, commanded distance with his ramrod jab and punished him time and again with laser-guided crosses that landed with frightening frequency. He also found enough time before, during and after the fight to show off his fun-loving side as he chattered with Stiverne, mugged for the cameras and busted a dance move or two. In the end, the unmarked Wilder looked fresh enough to fight another 12 rounds.

Wilder didn’t produce the spectacular one-punch knockout many thought he could score but his dominance was such that Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole declared it a “star-making performance.” Statistically, Wilder was superb; he out-landed Stiverne in all but one round in compiling connect gaps of 227-110 overall, 120-38 in jabs and 107-72 in power shots and he was incredibly accurate as he topped the 50% mark in power accuracy in rounds two through 11, peaking at 69% in round four.

For years, U.S.-based pundits pined for a heavyweight like Wilder to come along and it is fitting that the Stiverne victory took place on the 73rd birthday of Muhammad Ali, to whom Wilder dedicated the fight during the post-fight press conference. Ali captivated the public with his blend of dazzling skills and loquaciousness and Wilder, who has the one-punch crunch Ali never had, has the raw materials to launch the dawn of a new golden age.

At 6-foot-7, Wilder stands one inch taller than the world’s best heavyweight in Wladimir Klitschko and his 83-inch reach is two inches longer than that of “Dr. Steelhammer.” At 219 pounds, Wilder is impeccably conditioned – always a plus in terms of career path as well as in marketability. At 29, he is nine years younger than Klitschko and is at the peak of his physical powers. His right crosses carried enough thunder to stagger the stout-chinned Stiverne on several occasions and he demonstrated admirable discipline even when he had Stiverne on the edge of extinction.

But for all of his boxing talents, the asset that will take him the farthest with the American public is his personality and his ability to project it in fan-friendly ways. Wilder is made for this sound-bite era and while he’s composed and professional inside the ring, he can be light-hearted and goofy outside it. Think Riddick Bowe with more discipline. He’ll be a natural for the late-night talk circuit and other platforms that are usually beyond boxing’s reach. For a sport starving for attention, Wilder is the perfect prescription.

For all of the positives that were produced by Wilder’s victory, there still are issues to address. For one, Stiverne never landed more than one or two power shots at a time and his long stretches of inactivity allowed Wilder to set his own pace from first bell to last. Therefore, how will Wilder hold up under a persistent, determined attack? Also, can he stay at the top long enough to build his brand and establish himself as a credible counterpoint to King Klitschko, whose current reign is second only to Louis in terms of time and whose combined reigns are threatening “The Brown Bomber’s” records for time spent as champion as well as successful title defenses? And if Wilder manages to notch a few title defenses to secure a Klitschko bout, can he actually dethrone the king of the heavyweight mountain, even if said king is pushing 40?

If Haymon is smart – and all indications point to him being very smart – he could use one of the Saturday night prime-time spots for Wilder’s first title defense, which would surely be a ratings bonanza. If Wilder scores a highlight-reel knockout, the sky’s the limit in terms of how far he can take boxing in this country.

Yes, things are looking up for boxing: A potential Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in May, a consistent presence on free network TV (which, if successful, would prompt others to join the party) and a charismatic, hard-punching, freshly-minted American heavyweight titlist. Boxing is poised to return to its rightful place in the sports pantheon – and not just for the short term. For those of us who reveled in the peaks and suffered through the valleys, it’s been a long time coming.

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Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.

 

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