Oscar De La Hoya drew a deep breath. The CEO of Golden Boy Promotions and Hall of Fame boxer was talking about all of the fights that could have happened in 2016, but haven’t, and he seemed pained.
It’s been a tough year. For whatever flaws he may have, De La Hoya is a legitimate fight fan, and it pains him to no end that the conversation surrounding the sport is more about what hasn’t happened than on what has.
“I think 2016 should go down as one of the worst years in boxing history, maybe the worst,” De La Hoya said, firmly.
There are two months left in 2016, and some of the best matches – on paper – of the year are still to come, but it’s almost tragic to consider what has become of the sport that lifted De La Hoya to unimaginable levels of fame and wealth.
HBO and Showtime, the two premium cable networks whose money has largely kept boxing alive over the past 25 or 30 years, have had long stretches with no fights and when they did broadcast boxing, many of their offerings were utter mismatches.
Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions series suffered serious cutbacks. When there were no bouts on NBC early in the year, a PBC spokesman said the shows had been pushed back until later in the year, a strategic move he said was designed to give the company’s shows maximum exposure.
But when it became obvious later as 2016 unfolded that the PBC would not put another show on NBC this year, that same spokesman said its fight cards for NBC were being pushed back to 2017.
There is now, more than ever, competition for boxing from other forms of fighting as well as from other forms of sports and entertainment on television. Boxing promoters and the networks that air their fights responded to this challenge with a whimper in 2016.
They regularly gave us one-sided matchups or, worse, none at all. A bigger concern is that there is a significant lack of fighters who are capable of headlining an HBO or a Showtime show than there ever have been in the past since those two networks came into prominence boxing-wise.
The inclusive five-year period from 1996 through 2000 when De La Hoya grew into the biggest star in boxing is hardly regarded as one of the sport’s golden eras.
Yet, many of the sport’s biggest stars were in, or coming into, their primes at that time. Boxers like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad, Marco Antonio Barrera, Riddick Bowe, Erik Morales, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Fernando Vargas, Kostya Tszyu, Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, James Toney, Arturo Gatti, Roy Jones Jr., Ricardo Lopez, Terry Norris and – need we go any further? – were legitimate stars who appeared regularly in significant matches.
There aren’t nearly as many stars now and thus, not nearly as many marquee matches to be made. As a promoter, De La Hoya is as guilty as anyone for not making the Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin fight when there was enormous public and media demand for it.
But it’s not just that one fight that has been the problem. And the profile of the fighters simply isn’t what it used to be.
“That is a concern,” De La Hoya said. “Our job as promoters is to get these guys the exposure they need.”
De La Hoya pointed the finger at himself and his peers. This probably isn’t an issue that began in 2016, but he correctly pointed out that promoters can’t rely simply on the television networks and the media to give their fighters exposure.
That’s part of it, but it has to be a multi-faceted approach that reaches all segments of the audience. The demographic of the boxing fan skews very old compared to other sports, and the sport doesn’t do a great job of courting potential younger fans online.
“I’ll be honest, you don’t see fighters being promoted like we’d gotten used to seeing,” he said. “When [Top Rank’s] Bob Arum promotes someone, you know it. When I promote Canelo, you know it. There is talent out there, but promoters need to step up to the plate and promote their fighters. We need to go to the highest mountain and shout about all these guys and what they bring to [the table].”
Boxing is an individual sport that relies on stars to attract interest. Stars, though, are what make box offices swell in movie theaters and what makes the NBA and the NFL so popular.
Don’t let LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis play this year, and don’t show games between the Cavs and Warriors on TV, and see what happens to interest in pro basketball.
All sports rely on stars, but stars take a more prominent place in boxing since promoters focus so heavily on the main event to the detriment of the rest of the card.
De La Hoya, though, believes better times are soon ahead.
“I think there is a lot of talent out there, but the fights the fans want to see are not being made,” he said. “I strongly feel that when we do make Canelo-Golovkin in 2017, it’s going to give boxing the boost that we’ve been waiting for. That will get people talking boxing and writing about boxing and it will be ‘Boxing, boxing, boxing,’ everywhere.”
But one fight, no matter how high-profile and how good it turns out to be, will ever “save” a sport. That was proven conclusively by the 2015 match between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, which set all sort of financial records but was a dismal event in the ring and had no long-term positive impact.
Things can change quickly, and when there are good fights and big names, fans will turn out. That’s regularly been proven.
It’s on the powers-that-be to remember their customers whenever they’re making a deal. Treating the customer well is always a good thing, and catering to their concerns only leads to making them more loyal customers.
In boxing, that starts by investing in the sport, and not relying solely on TV money. It means pitting good fighters against each other, and pushing the product hard.
De La Hoya is right. Pretty much no matter what happens in the final two months, 2016 is going to be remembered as a down year for the sport.
But the responsibility is on him as one of the sport’s most prominent promoters to live up to his word and give the people what they want.
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