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Lasting legacy?

LAS VEGAS – Oscar De La Hoya has been saying for months that his fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden goes well beyond a prizefight.

"We're trying to save the sport here," De La Hoya said solemnly. "This is how boxing should be promoted. Boxing needs this kind of an event."

Even a guy as rich as De La Hoya needs it. When you make a guarantee of $23.3 million for showing up and are looking at a haul of more than $40 million when all is said and done, you tend to have a lot of good things to say.

De La Hoya might be on to something here, though. He's repeated this mantra so often that the thought seems to have gained widespread acceptance.

Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser discussed it during "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN on Wednesday. It's the headline blaring across the cover of the May 7 issue of "Sports Illustrated," which features the grim visages of De La Hoya and Mayweather.

And it has been the headline du jour in newspapers around the world for the past few weeks.

If only it were true.

Sports Illustrated devoted its cover and six pages inside the current issue to Saturday's blockbuster fight.

That's nice for those who stand to make a buck or a hundred million off the fight, but if I had to guess, I'd bet that SI will devote just a little less coverage to the middleweight title fight two weeks hence in Memphis, Tenn.

Promoters of that fight, between unbeaten champion Jermain Taylor and Cory Spinks, the son of 1976 Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, will be lucky to get a paragraph advancing it in Sports Illustrated with De La Hoya-Mayweather by then a distant memory.

This talk of needing to save boxing is nothing new, either.

"I don't see where this sport is in a position that it needs to be saved," said Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports and the driving force behind the "24/7" documentary series on the fight. "This is a sport rich in tradition with a colorful 100-year history. People have been counting it out for over 100 years. But this fight, and a series of other fights around it, can remind people how beautiful and compelling it can be."

Boxing manager Shelly Finkel keeps a clipping from a 1935 edition of "Fortune" magazine with him.

On it is a picture of the legendary heavyweight Joe Louis in a double-breasted suit with the words, "Can Joe Louis save Mike Jacobs and boxing?" Fortune was asking that question, I might add, in the same year in which a Louis fight at Yankee Stadium with Max Baer drew 88,150.

Finkel correctly points out that boxing is in difficulty only in the U.S. It is front page news in much of the rest of the world. Finkel has steered several fights to Germany, which has become a boxing hotbed.

Fighters such as heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and his brother, former champion Vitali Klitschko, have made Germany a home base and have become national icons.

Super lightweight champion Ricky Hatton and super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe are almost guarantees to draw at least 30,000 any time they fight in the U.K. Calzaghe's title defense on April 7 in Cardiff, Wales, against the lightly regarded Peter Manfredo drew 35,018.

Imagine how many paying customers a Calzaghe-Taylor fight at Wembley Stadium in London would attract. Let's just say this: It will dwarf the 16,200 who will be inside the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday by a multiple of at least three, if not four.

"There is more television now and they get higher ratings than ever," Finkel said of boxing in Germany. "It's huge throughout Europe. Look at what Ricky Hatton's doing. Look how loyal his fans are.

"In Mexico, they get gigantic television numbers. It's only in the U.S. that boxing is lacking."

Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer has lined up an impressive array of sponsors for Saturday's card. From beer to tequila to energy drinks to soda pop to airlines to fitness joints, the roster of sponsors for this bout is unlike anything boxing has seen in years.

And those sponsors are the key to reviving the sport in the U.S. Because if a handful of them decide they're willing to buy advertising on fights on a regular basis, it could lead to a return of the sport on network television.

There is no shortage of televised boxing today. ESPN, HBO, Showtime, Versus, Telefutura, Univision, Fox Sports and others regularly carry fight cards.

The problem with most of them is that the best fights are almost always on either premium cable or pay-per-view. The result is that the fewest eyes see the biggest fights.

But if promoters were to bring a Shane Mosley against Miguel Cotto bout for the unified welterweight title to ABC, the impact on the sport would be significant and long-lasting.

That is what would save boxing.

No matter what happens in the fight on Saturday and no matter how many folks buy it, unless those sponsors are convinced to stick with the sport, the only real long-term impact of the De La Hoya-Mayweather bout will turn out to be on the fighters' bank accounts.

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