A Square-Ringed Circus

Animal acts at the circus seem to be going the way of the dodo, though perhaps not fast enough. There are enough reports of the cruelty involved in such acts that the weight of public opinion will not allow these productions to last much longer, at least here in the United States.

The circus is not alone in its anachronistic state; other entertainment productions are also seeing their suns set, including acts within the world of sports. Horse racing isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be. Competitions in track and field barely move the needle these days. Even a sport as entrenched as golf has seen a dramatic fall-off in its following among the general public.

And then there’s boxing. No game has seen its star fall as far as boxing has. A sport that used to stand at the pinnacle of athletics–and even at the height of cultural prominence–limps along these days, mostly as an afterthought. Will the May 2nd Pacquiao-Mayweather fight change that?

The DFR: HockeyThe hype machine for Pacquiao-Mayweather is humming along at full tilt now, despite a general consensus that says this fight will take place five years too late. Even if the event lives up to the wildest of expectations, it is unlikely that this high profile bout will bring boxing out of its doldrums.

Not that the sport isn’t trying. The new Premier Boxing Champions initiative has brought bouts back to network television for the first time in a long time, some even in prime time.

That strategy will be important if boxing is to regain its footing in the modern sports world; the sport did much to kill itself over the last 30 years, and not the least of those wounds came from moving bouts off free TV and turning them into strictly pay-to-view pursuits. These days, when much of the consuming public expects its entertainment to come at no cost (testify, music industry), having your sport on free TV is essential if you want people to take an interest in your games.

“What if the promises being made now…are broken via a boring fight featuring past their primes pugilists? What will you get if most fans wind up feeling ripped off–again. Most likely, another nail in the sport’s coffin–that’s what.”

For example, despite routine shrieking about its imminent demise, baseball–another potential anachronism sport–has maintained its relative health by putting more and more of its games on TV. True, many of those games are on basic cable, which is not free by any means, but basic cable’s ubiquity–service is often included in the rent for apartment dwellers–provides practically the same effect. And let’s not forget, the current king of all sports, NFL football, has kept all of its relatively small allotment of games on free, over the air broadcasts, at least in local markets. (Assuming the games are not blacked out–and even the asinine blackout restrictions seem to be on their last legs.)

So a high-profile fight, and more bouts on free TV, are all steps in the right direction for the sport–but problems remain.

We’ve all heard that “the children are our future”–sound advice from those musical sages Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston–but boxing is not exactly kid-friendly entertainment. Unlike other sports, which make marketing to kids a cornerstone of their growth strategies, there would be something profoundly unseemly about selling severe head trauma to the children. (Perhaps that’s why the UFC and other brands of MMA have seen such tremendous success: though it’s a fight sport, the game is more about submission through holds and technique versus pounding a guy into the canvas.) Certainly, with today’s overly-neurotic parenting producing more and more wussified kids, trying to sell those children on the advantages of boxing as an athletic pursuit would be a really hard sale indeed.

Then again, if boxing had a higher profile in the culture as a whole, it might not need to sell itself to kids. When I was young–in the 1970s in particular–boxing still had such a high profile that most kids knew all the top boxers, whether they were fans or not. Muhammad Ali was a cultural icon far beyond the sports world. Names like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes, and Leon Spinks were common knowledge to any American boy. Everyone paid attention to what the U.S. boxing team did at the Summer Olympics. Things stayed that way through Mike Tyson’s early days; whenever the champ stepped into the ring and put the belt on the line, even disinterested parties took notice–or otherwise risked losing their “man” credentials.

Then came the clown show–when boxing turned from sport into circus (just without the performing elephants). Tyson floundered, bit off a guy’s ear, and became a parody of himself (albeit an extremely dangerous parody); corrupt promoters turned watching the sport into a moral dilemma; and the move to pay-per-view for most important fights left people feeling played for suckers, especially when that pricey buy-in evaporated after a one-round knockout.

And that’s the danger boxing faces now, on the eve of Pacquiao-Mayweather: the hype is sky high, and so are the ticket and television prices. What happens if the fight stinks? What if the promises being made now–and there are inherent promises in all this hype–are broken via a boring fight featuring past-prime pugilists? What will you get if most fans wind up feeling ripped off–again. Most likely, another nail in the sport’s coffin–that’s what.

In that case, it may just be a matter of time before boxing, despite anyone’s best efforts, really does go away, like gladiator games of the past, like animal acts in today’s remaining circuses. For better or worse, we’re not the society we once were; we won’t stand for that kind of brutality anymore, especially from a square-ringed circus that offers nothing more than savagery chased by swindles. It’s time for boxing to come into the 21st century, or go away entirely.


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