The state of boxing in 2012, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part look at the sport of boxing as it enters 2012. Go here for a look at Part 1.

Boxing begins the new year with some ominous signs. Its top fighter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., will spend the first three months in a Las Vegas jail cell and will turn 35 while he’s incarcerated.

Manny Pacquiao, the sport’s second-best fighter and biggest draw, is talking about winding down his career and running for governor of his home province in the Philippines in 2013.

The loquacious Bernard Hopkins has interesting thoughts on how boxing can improve going forward.
(Getty Images)

But promoters, fighters and managers are encouraged by what they see as optimistic signs for the sport’s future, despite myriad problems.

Light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins is among those who believe the sport has a good future. One warning sign is that many inner-city fighters, primarily African-Americans, have abandoned the sport.

But he said if promoters do a better job of making more compelling fights and, particularly, making matches that the fans want to see, the sport will thrive.

He decried the so-called “appearance fights” which have been so pervasive on television, particularly premium cable channels, in which a promoter’s star is given a soft touch in order to look good and pad his record.

Hopkins praised the UFC and said boxing should adopt its manner of match-making.

“You see a UFC card and they make quality fights and going in, it’s not clear-cut who is going to win,” Hopkins said. “It’s OK if you know it’s 60-40 in favor of one guy, but if it’s 90-10 or 80-20, that doesn’t work. I think you have to put the fighters on levels and uses letter grades like we did in school.

“If you do that, then it’s easy. No way an A-fighter should ever fight a C- or a D-fighter. You put them in with guys of their own level and match the styles the right way, and you’re going to have one great fight after another. You’ll never have a great fight when you have an A-fighter going up against a D-fighter.”

Promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events concurred and placed much of the blame for the poor matchmaking on HBO and Showtime, whose executives demand fighters with glittering records. She said promoters used to market all their fighters, not just the top two or three, but because of the demand for fighters with shiny records among the television executives, the focus has shifted to marketing only those with the glossiest records.

As a result, she pointed out, most promoters protect their stars zealously and rarely match them aggressively, so as not to lose.

“I have had far too many conversations with television executives where the same words come out of their mouths: ‘Well, our viewers have seen him lose more than once, so we don’t want to have him back on,’ ” she said. “In today’s world, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward couldn’t get on HBO, let alone fight each other doing it. How much would we have all lost had that been the case?

“Part of what we’re trying to do with the series we’re doing [on the NBC Sports Network] is to get away from that notion that if you lose, your career is over. Because if you believe that, you have no incentive to fight anyone who can beat you.”

Main Events begins a quarterly series on Jan. 21 on the NBC Sports Network [known as Versus until Jan. 2] in which they promise quality, evenly matched fights.

Jon Miller, the president of the NBC Sports Network, thinks the series will be successful because viewers will quickly learn that there are no sacred cows and that anyone who fights on it can’t count on an automatic win.

“It’s incumbent upon us to showcase fighters in competitive fights and help to build a model that shows how great boxing is and what it can be,” Miller said. “The best way that I would equate that is, for example, when you look at the sport of golf. If Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] only played on pay-per-view, you’d have no way of knowing who Ricky Fowler and Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson and guys like that are.

“I think the same is true here. We need to showcase these other fighters and help build them up so that they become more household names and more recognizable, and if they eventually migrate to a bigger payday, then that’s great.”

It’s the kind of news that Robert Guerrero, who holds the interim WBA and interim WBO lightweight titles, wants to hear. The 28-year-old Guerrero is desperate to fight the best challengers and has been calling out Mayweather.

Boxing, he said, is a great sport when two motivated and talented fighters meet with a lot riding on the outcome. He said he’s frustrated at how difficult it is to make the best matches.

“I’m a fighter, but I’m also a fan of boxing and I don’t like it when we don’t see the best fighting the best,” Guerrero said. “The Super Six was great because look at how many great fighters there were going at it. That’s what people want to see, the best against the best, champions fighting each other and risking it all.”

Cameron Dunkin, one of the sport’s top managers, with fighters such as Timothy Bradley and Brandon Rios in his portfolio, said he thinks the sport’s future is brighter than at any time since he got into it in 1986.

There are problems, he conceded – “Guys are getting ranked who shouldn’t be and guys are getting title shots they don’t deserve,” he said – but much of it stems from a lack of promoting.

He said too many promoters are willing to take the television money, open the doors and hope the fans flock in without doing anything to convince the public why it should spend its money on a specific fighter or fight card.

Dunkin said he has been pushing his fighters toward Top Rank and Golden Boy because they are promoters who don’t operate that way and are attempting to change the way fights are promoted. He raved at many of the initiatives of Top Rank president Todd duBoef, who has improved the company’s foreign distribution, overhauled the company’s website, dramatically increased its social media presence, hired several prominent boxing executives to scout and recruit the best boxing prospects, brought sponsorship sales in house and worked toward making the in-arena events more lively.

“I see the way a lot of promoters work, and it’s why I’ve been pushing so hard with my kids to get them to those two,” Dunkin said. “There’s a lot more to promoting than getting a television deal. It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘Hey, call Kevin Iole and have him write something about my fight.’ That’s part of it. We need you there writing about the fights but it goes way beyond that, and too many of these promoters don’t get that.

“I see the things that Todd is doing [at Top Rank], and it is amazing. They’re being creative in the way they do things. They’re making the fights events now. There’s a lot of music, they’re glitzy, they’re fun. The kids see that, and they feel like they’re really being promoted. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but what Todd is doing, the groundwork he is laying, is going to result in some great things for boxing. He’s done incredible work.”

Top Rank founder Bob Arum, the 80-year-old Hall of Fame promoter, said he thinks boxing’s bright future is directly attributable to the work done by duBoef, his stepson. He called duBoef “a genius” and said he has laid the foundation for a strong future for the company.

Arum said he believes boxing will wind up on network television in 2012 and will continue to transition toward the Internet. Arum said Top Rank has been working on acquiring sponsors so when it goes to the network, it is what he called “pregnant.” It already will have all the advertising spots sold before it starts.

That will enable Top Rank to introduce fighters to a generation of fans who are missing out on them. The poor economy has forced people to make difficult decisions, and luxuries such as premium cable are often the first thing cut in their budgets.

Part of the issue, he said, has been that many of his competitors are undercapitalized and are either too cheap to spend money or afraid to do so for fear of a loss.

“Boxing is just another form of entertainment,” Arum said. “We can do a lot of things as promoters – getting publicity, doing marketing, so on and so forth – but we can’t control how the fights go. We can make the best matches we can, but once the bell rings, what happens is beyond our control.

“So, to make sure that we create a fun environment and want the person who buys a ticket to want to come back, we’re doing a lot of things in the arena: dancers, lights, music, singers, what goes up on the scoreboard, all those sorts of things. You have to spend money to make money, but there are a lot of people in this business who aren’t forward-thinking and don’t realize that you have to invest in the product. There has been way too little investment in the product for far too long, and it can’t remain that way.”

Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya said he gave a dictate to his matchmaker, Eric Gomez, to put on the best fights possible and said he has told his fighters they should expect to face difficult opponents each time out.

He agreed with Arum that there will be network television in 2012 and said he would be willing to put his biggest stars on free television, with the caveat that they fight opponents they’re not guaranteed to beat.

“I look at the amazing work that Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta have done building the UFC and MMA up from nothing into this great sport and great league,” De La Hoya said. “We should take a look at what they’re doing. They are on network TV now. They put on some great shows. Why are they succeeding when some people say boxing is struggling?

“It’s the fights. The bottom line is, we have to get out there and let people know about the fighters we have, and then we have to put them into great fights. If we do that, boxing can get back to the glory days, easily. It’s not a secret. Dana White can do it and so can we. We just have to all as promoters in this sport work together for the good of the sport and put on the fights the people want to see.”

Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
NFL winners & losers: Lions can’t pass on shot to make bigger roar
Chauncey Billups sees Clippers as strange fit
Hockey’s 10 best fights of 2011

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 25, 2011