Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part feature. Read Part 2 here.
Todd duBoef likes to refer to himself as "a boxing evangelist," an odd choice of words for a low-key man who prefers to shun the spotlight. He's an impeccably dressed 44-year-old who looks as if he's stepped out of a Wall Street board room. He comes from a prominent Las Vegas family and could work in virtually any business he chose. He's not promoting boxing because he needs to do something to pay the bills.
He's willing to stake his future, though, on the health of a business that is often shunned by the media and derided by its customers.
He is evangelizing a sport that many say is dead, which one rival promoter terms "deathly ill" and which hasn't been regarded as a top-tier sport for years.
Yet, the normally low-key Top Rank president displays a messianic zeal for the fight game and scoffs at a suggestion from fellow promoter Lou DiBella that boxing "is deathly ill and getting sicker by the day."
From a global perspective, duBoef said, it has been a long time since the boxing business has been as robust. In Mexico, boxing does a booming business and the highest-rated network television program in 2011 thus far is the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight from Nov. 12. That match did a 30.2 rating and attracted almost 40 million viewers on the free over-the-air network TV Azteca.
"It was the highest-rated program of everything for the year: The Academy Awards, the World Cup, everything," duBoef said.
Boxing has long been a star-driven sport and it is no different today. Fights involving either Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. are big business and routinely generate $100 million or more in gross revenue. Mayweather's fight with Victor Ortiz sold 1.25 million on pay-per-view and generated $78.4 million in pay-per-view revenue alone.
Pacquiao fought twice in 2011, doing just over 1.3 million buys for his May fight with Shane Mosley and registering 1.5 million sales for the bout with Marquez. The Pacquiao-Marquez bout generated $11.65 million in ticket revenue at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
But it's not just fights involving Pacquiao and Mayweather which are doing well. Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito fought on Dec. 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York, drawing a sellout crowd of 21,239. The fight did more than 600,000 buys on pay-per-view.
Matches involving heavyweight title-holders Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko routinely fill soccer stadiums in Europe. Wladimir Klitschko's bout with David Haye on July 2 in Germany drew in excess of 50,000, though that is no surprise since he's drawn over 200,000 in his last four bouts.
"Boxing is a much healthier sport than it was 10 or 15 years ago," duBoef said. "It has evolved to be positioned with the major brands out there. It's positioned there. Before, it was a huge property that was huge for only one night, but it didn't have the overall brand appeal. Now, you can see the brand appeal very, very relevant on a global basis."
He said that while the NFL is by far the most popular sport in the U.S., its global reach doesn't come anywhere close to that of boxing. DuBoef conceded that if Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning walked down a street in the U.S. alongside Mayweather and Pacquiao that Manning would be much more recognized by the average person he came across.
But, duBoef said, take that same trio anywhere but the U.S. and both Mayweather and Pacquiao would dwarf Manning in recognition.
"Look," he said, firmly. "We drew 80,000 for a press conference in the Philippines [involving Pacquiao and Marquez] and 50,000 for one in Mexico City. Think about that for a second. We draw 130,000-some people for two press conferences. Doesn't that tell you something?"
He's not alone in his belief in the sport's health, despite plenty of skepticism from outsiders. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said he's "never been more bullish" about the sport's future. Golden Boy staged 104 shows in 2011 and Schaefer said the appetite for it has yet to be quenched.
Kathy Duva of Main Events laughed at suggestions that boxing will die once Mayweather and Pacquiao retire. The Duva family has been involved in boxing for many decades and have been one of the sport's leading promoters for more than 35 years.
She has heard the cries of boxing's impending doom for much of that time.
"Change the name Manny Pacquiao to Muhammad Ali and people were saying the exact same thing 30 years ago," she said, laughing. "I can remember we were doing shows and people would say to us, 'Why are you staying in this business? When Ali retires, it's done.' Well, Ali retired, and Mike Tyson retired, and Oscar [De La Hoya] retired and, guess what? Boxing is still around."
Boxing is not without its issues, clearly. Attendance varies wildly at events. Many tickets are given away to fights that are held in casinos in Las Vegas, which is nominally the boxing capital of the world. Fans have lost touch with the fighters and are puzzled by the dizzying array of sanctioning bodies and championship belts.
The International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Organization are considered the four major bodies that award championship belts.
Given that there are 17 divisions in boxing, that means that at any time, there is the potential to have 68 men who call themselves a world champion.
It gets more bizarre than that, though. The WBC also has the "Diamond Belt" and the "Silver Belt," and it recognizes some men as interim champions and others as "champions in recess." The WBA has several divisions in which it has multiple champions, because it refers to certain title-holders as so-called "super champions."
A trip to a Las Vegas mall one day led to interviews with 25 fans about boxing. Of those, six said they never watched the sport and were never fans. Of the other 19, only eight identified themselves as hardcore fans and of those eight, only five could name a world champion other than Pacquiao or Mayweather.
Those fans said they had many issues with the sport, but the vast majority cited the sheer volume of champions as their top issue. They said they couldn't keep up with who the champions are.
There's also a palpable sense among the public that the sport is corrupt and that decisions favor the most-connected fighters.
Schaefer, who was outraged by the officiating in Amir Khan's loss to Lamont Peterson in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10, conceded it is an issue, but said commissions should use the money generated by fights to fund education of referees and judges.
"Look at the kind of money we are pouring into state coffers," Schaefer said. "It is not an insignificant amount of money and I think that needs to be used to help the business. Right now, there are some judges in world title fights, or referees, who aren't at the same level as a lot of others, and when you get that, you get the kind of results that make people question the sport.
"It's the same thing as if you asked me to fly a jumbo jet from Los Angeles to New York. I'm not qualified to do that and I haven't been trained to do it. It would be a pretty bumpy ride, I would think. The corruption that people talk about comes from the mobster days, when the mob was running boxing, but that doesn't exist any more. But there are a lot of officials out there who aren't qualified and that needs to be fixed."
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