Corruption and greed leaves boxing on the ropes

Governing bodies must resolve issues within the sport to stave off irrelevance

Manny Pacquiao, 40, successfully defended his World Boxing Association (WBA) welterweight belt in an unanimous decision victory over challenger Adrien Broner in Las Vegas, late last month. However, it remains a split decision as to what was more embarrassing, Broner’s ring performance or his post match interviews. The counter-puncher’s game plan was comprehensively dismantled by Pacquiao, who still showed instances of his old speed while angling for a rematch against Floyd “Money” Mayweather. Mayweather, 41, sat ringside throughout the title fight and when prompted showed little interest for a rematch. At the time of writing, he has not responded to Pacquiao’s latest callout.

However, one must stop and think about the bout that Pacquiao is trying to set up. It was widely regarded that the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight was long overdue and both fighters were past their prime. The highly-anticipated clash was constantly postponed due to career upsets and promotional disputes and only took place in 2015, when it could have happened as early as five years before. It is anyone’s guess as to how long this sequel may take to organise and sports media is not particularly recipient to the idea so far. Regardless of the changes about the contract terms, the question of money takes priority and those concerned may not pay heed to the effect it will have on the sport’s image.

Prizefighting will always entail some disappointment after such hype, but a particular angle that developed around the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight was the threat of extinction that the sport of boxing faced. “The fight of the century”, as it was deemed by many pundits,  was set to revive the flagging sport, with the enormous revenue and attention, eventually trickling down to other title cards and boxing promotions. Now, however unlikely a rematch between the two is, the sport of boxing is in a curious stage of popularity. It is also highly improbable that another bout such as the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight would contribute anything to qualifying the popularity status of pugilism today.

Critics rightly branded Mayweather’s exhibition bout against Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa a $9 million freakshow. Boxing pundits also criticised Mayweather’s flagship 50-0 fight against Conor McGregor as grotesque and bad for the sport of boxing but marvelled at the attention and hype involved. It is boxing’s ability to generate and attract this interest that really sets it apart from other sports, along with the raw competitiveness and sheer individual nature of stepping into a ring. However, when this attention starts to slide, murmurs and grumbles quickly develop, condemning the sweet science to an impending death.

Two factors have contributed to the popular perception that boxing is shuffling off this mortal coil. The first is honestly the sad state of affairs in the heavyweight boxing division. Long heralded as boxing’s premier and most romantic weight class, under Wladimir Klitschko’s ruthless, efficient but boring reign, the heavyweight title fights struggled to attract major attention. Some of this could be attributed to the scant coverage from British and American media. The weight class was traditionally dominated by UK and US-based fighters, so to have a champion rise from a more obscure place was not of as much interest to them.

This idea of otherness stimulated by the media can extend to other weight classes. The former middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, from Kazakhstan, was largely unknown to sports fans until he faced Kell Brook in the UK and later twice fought Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in Las Vegas. Canelo is an outlier in this critique of media coverage as the red-haired Mexican is widely-known throughout America and is a national icon in Mexico.  Mexico though has a long tradition of producing boxing talent that competes in America, which may be a mitigating factor.

After Tyson Fury’s dramatic upset win over Klitschko in 2015, and the rise of Anthony Joshua, this could all be set to change as the American and English sports media begins to take an interest in heavyweight boxing again. One unfortunate snag, however, is the lack of genuine competitive challenges for Fury and Joshua, as both fighters avoid the question of when they will clash. The American Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder’s curious anonymity is largely attributable to his lack of serious opponents. A suspect win over Tyson Fury also raises the spectre of corruption, the worst of boxing’s demons.

There is also a common perception that the rise in mixed martial arts (MMA), particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), spells the end of boxing. The MMA’s move from niche sport to mainstream primetime event is exceptional in itself and prompts the question whether boxing has moved from mainstream appeal to a niche category of combat sports.

However, a critical look at MMA and the UFC talent roster reveals a vacuum of top-tier athletes, and a dearth in super star promotional material. Conor McGregor remains the UFC’s last real superstar but his boxing fight with Floyd Mayweather earned 4.3 million PPV buys, compared to his best numbers with the UFC at 2.4 million PPV buys last October against lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. When Mayweather fought Pacquiao, boxing trumped MMA again with 4.6 million buys.

Even setting aside flagship fights such as these, almost two million people tuned in to watch Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachenko fight for the super lightweight championship, a belt that does not usually attract major attention. Rigondeaux was the better known of the two fighters, although Lomachenko remains one to watch. The UFC would be very pleased with those numbers on any night.

However, boxing’s problems are not just at the top end. Amateur boxing had a troublesome Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, with questionable decisions made in the men’s heavyweight and bantamweight divisions, most notably Michael Conlan’s shock defeat to Vladimir Nikitin in the quarter-finals. In the aftermath, the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) suspended all 36 judges and referees as a cloud of suspicion gathered over the sport.

Ahead of the Tokyo Games next year, boxing’s inclusion as an event remains uncertain as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspends planning for boxing at the tournament and conducts an investigation into the AIBA. If, as expected, the IOC sanctions the AIBA and withdraws their right to organise the boxing in Tokyo, then the task of boxing’s next generation of top-tier talent advancing to national and international recognition becomes much harder. The best chance of seeing boxing at the Olympics is if recently elected AIBA President Gafur Rakhimov steps down. Rakhimov is allegedly linked to organised crime in Central Asia and has been listed on the United States sanctions list since 2012.

The death knell of boxing has been sounded regularly before. In 1961, former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey said: “Without fresh talent, boxing is dying.” In 1965, ahead of the rematch between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano lamented: “I don’t care who sees what on TV. Boxing is dead.” However, amateur boxing’s mission and image is far more concerning than the popular perceptions of professional boxing’s decline. The fickle attention of the public will come and go, but the reputation of the AIBA is much more precious.