ESPN can’t decide whether boxing is thriving or dying

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

It's an old, tired narrative mostly used by lazy journalists who have heard the same lie and choose to repeat it without doing any research: Boxing is dead.

If you haven't heard that narrative recently, it's because you haven't been watching ESPN, listening to ESPN Radio or reading ESPN the Magazine.

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Dan Rafael is ESPN's boxing writer and does a terrific job covering the sport. Rafael is a long-time boxing fan whose passion for the sport shows in his coverage. Rafael (Disclosure: Rafael and I have been friends since 2000, when he began covering boxing for USA Today) knows boxing isn't dying.

Yet, he has failed to convince many of his colleagues of that fact. Tim Keown, in an otherwise outstanding profile of Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the current issue of ESPN the Magazine, makes that mistake. The last sentence of his exceptionally well-written piece notes, "Floyd never breaks stride, his chin held high as he inhales the last of his sport's oxygen ... "

That theme, which runs throughout the Keown piece, misses the evidence that boxing is not, in fact, anywhere close to dying.

Boxing has its problems, to be sure. There is rampant performance enhancing drug use among many of its athletes and little is being done to quell it. Many of the sanctioning bodies are corrupt, incompetent or both. The two largest, most successful promoters refuse to pit their fighters against one another, despite the fervent wishes of their customers, to carry on some childish, inane feud. There is no regular network television coverage of the sport.

Boxing isn't perfect, and it's not the NFL or NBA.

But boxing has a solid fan base, television ratings are up across the board on the networks that regularly televise major matches in the U.S., attendance has been extraordinary and the fights have been compelling.

You wouldn't know that, though, if you watched Thursday's episode of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were the latest ESPN talking heads to bury the sport.

Kornheiser and Wilbon are among the finest and most respected sports columnists of their era, but they take the easy way out whenever it comes to boxing. On Thursday, Wilbon was talking about Mayweather when he said, "He's the last guy out there for a sport that is all but dead. This is it. It's over for boxing after this."

Boxing fans heard that when Muhammad Ali was nearing the end of his career. And then they heard it again when Sugar Ray Leonard's career was winding down. They were told to fear for the sport's future post-Mike Tyson, just as many lamented a future without Oscar De La Hoya.

The May 7, 2007, edition of Sports Illustrated had De La Hoya's image on it and referred to his upcoming bout with Mayweather as "The Fight to Save Boxing." Boxing, of course, didn't need to be saved then and it doesn't need to be saved now.

Boxing was one of the Big Three sports in the U.S. from the early 1900s through the early-to-mid 1950s, along with horse racing and Major League Baseball.

It was still a significant sport through the 1980s, but it has lost a lot of media coverage in the last 25 years or so.

But that's because the world is a much different place than it was in the first 60 years of the 20th century. The NFL really didn't become a mega-sport until the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants game in 1958. The NBA didn't take off until Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came along.

There weren't 500 television choices that carry a diverse roster of sports such as MMA, fishing, triathlon, poker, skiing, equestrian, track and field, golf, tennis, hockey, football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and pretty much everything else but hopscotch.

Mayweather is the biggest star in boxing, and deserves his $41.5 million payday and all of the attention he receives. As great as he is as a boxer -- and he's one of the best who's ever done it -- he's even better as a promoter and a marketer.

So he overshadows other outstanding fighters who have strong and loyal followings.

The schedule of major bouts for the rest of the year is as good as it has been in years. Among the non-Mayweather fights fans have to look forward to seeing are Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios, Juan Manuel Marquez-Tim Bradley, Mike Alvarado-Ruslan Provodnikov, Gennady Golovkin-Curtis Stevens, Nonito Donaire-Vic Darchinyan II, Carl Froch-George Groves, David Haye-Tyson Fury, and, likely, Adrien Broner-Marcos Maidana.

And that's not to mention Danny Garcia versus Lucas Matthysse, which will be held as the primary undercard fight to Mayweather on Sept. 14.

It was just pure laziness that led Kornheiser and Wilbon to make such uneducated comments, and that is very much unlike them as top-quality journalists.

But Keown made the same mistake. ESPN's First Take hosts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith do it, too. As did ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson after Pacquiao's loss to Marquez.

None of them, apparently, bother to read Rafael, one of the world's most prolific boxing writers, whose work is on their own site.

As Rafael wrote on Twitter in a classic rant about PTI's mindless dismissal of boxing, "People who say #boxing is dead (I'm looking at you, @PTI) are just ignorant and/or lazy. Sport is in good health right now around the world."

Things can improve in boxing, without question. But boxing will thrive in the post-Mayweather Era, just as it did when every one of its major stars finally retired.

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