By P.H. Burbridge (A voice in the crowd) – The sport of boxing is a high stakes shell game with moves that can be interpreted not only as slight of hand trickery but as symbols of our own moral deficiency as a society. From John L. Sullivan refusing to fight Peter “Black Prince” Jackson to Jack Dempsey being swayed away from Harry “The Black Panther” Wills to Joe Louis getting the first crack at Jimmy Braddock ahead of Max Schmeling. Those events were all justified based upon the racial or nationalistic bias of the day. At the time the desired result was achieved and that was to prevent a fighter the opportunity he truly deserved. In the case of Louis he reconciled his “open” debt to Schmeling in a manner that we can all appreciate. But, in the other two cases they simply faded into the boxing landscape like so many other wrongs that scar our collective psyche.
Are we really the “red light district of sport” as one writer famously wrote? Sometimes it sure feels that way. As fans we’ve been abused and conditioned year after year to accept “questionable” matches and arrangements so often that we no longer bat an eyelash when it happens. It’s expected. At one time boxing was controlled by organized crime and because of it many a casual observer still believes things are not “on the up and up”. It’s a terrible legacy. For managers and promoters it’s still a “Hustler’s paradise” that offers incredible financial rewards if you attach yourself to the right fighter. But for the fighters they are often taken advantage of and left for broke not only financially but spiritually. That’s the worst part of this sports legacy. If we discussed the incredible number of fighters who have been used and discarded in a disgusting and shameful manner then this article would never end!! However, we do have other examples that are not nearly as upsetting but clearly underline the point of our constantly eroding credibility. Such as championship matches that are made involving a fighter who’s been inactive or is not even ranked. How do you get a championship fight if you’re NOT ranked?
How Vitali Klitschko can go from being a retired fighter to returning right back into a heavyweight championship fight against WBC Champion Samuel Peter simply defies logic. The concept of earning your shot is nowhere to be found. How did Evander Holyfield get a shot at former WBO Heavyweight Champion, Sultan Ibragimov back in October of 2007? By beating Lou Savarese? Evander Holyfield is a FIRST BALLOT hall of famer but he DID NOT deserve a title shot at that stage of his career and no one can justify him getting one based on his record leading up to that bout. Before beating Savarese, he beat Jeremy Bates, Fres Oquendo and Vinnie Maddalone! Before the Maddalone fight he GOT BEAT by LARRY DONALD. Suffice it to say NONE of those guys were top contenders at the time. So, how and why do things like this happen?
The answer is simple. In both cases each fighter was “ordained” a legitimate contender because they’re FAMOUS! Not because they fought and beat the ranked elite of the division to mandate a shot. They get their shot because their name was and is considered “bankable”. Money is the MOST important factor in boxing NOT sport and that sends the wrong message. The business interest of the sport has turned boxing into a popularity contest and not the talent contest it should be. The main culprit(s) in this tragic comedy are the sanctioning bodies. The sanctioning bodies in theory were designed to govern the sport by administering rulings, penalties and mandates based on their own pre-established rules and by-laws. But far too often concessions are made to allow money fights to take place. Rules appear to be up to interpretation when a real money fight is on the table and the sanctioning bodies seem to be able to accommodate almost any set of circumstances to allow such a fight to take place.
The all important “championship sanctioning fee” is the central factor in making these matches and it doesn’t matter if it’s the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO they’re all operating under financial motives. There’s such a HUGE contradiction in all of this it’s near impossible to expect any level of fairness whatsoever.
Until we have ONE universal all encompassing organization that controls every aspect of the sport then we will continue to witness this down slide into mediocrity. Fighters dedicate themselves to training year after year and make countless personal sacrifices to try to achieve their goal of winning a world title. And the MAJORITY of them end up with nothing to show for it because of the unethical practices of sanctioning bodies, manager, promoters and in some cases big name money fighters. There are so many variables that have nothing to do with talent like promotional alliances that you wonder how fighters make it at all. Our sport has been politicized to such an extent that it rivals American politics. Substance is NOT the main ingredient FAME is. In professional boxing there is nothing more important then a fight between two “marquee” names regardless of whether each of the combatants can still fight or if they are even in the same weight division. This type of a fight usually disappoints us and pushes the casual fight fan further and further outside. Hardcore fights fans realize that we need to put our best guys in each division in against each other in order to generate the electricity that ONLY world class boxing can. When we do that then nothing compares to it in my mind not even the Super Bowl. When we get our Ali vs Frazier or our Leonard vs Hearns or our Chavez vs Taylor or Cotto vs Margarito it reminds people of just how exciting a “real” fight can be. We need to manufacture that excitement as much as possible and raise the overall standard of boxing.
The best fighters in each weight division must fight each other. Having FOUR recognized champions in each division has diluted the talent pool to such a degree that today’s “championship” fights lose their allure. Today’s championship bouts are not as significant to a fan because he or she may or may not recognize THAT particular defending champion as being the best in the division. If there was one champion in each division it would establish a standard of expectation that you ARE seeing the best in the division. I do like what the Ring magazine has done in terms of creating their own rankings as well as listing one champion per weight division but we can’t expect a publication to clean up this mess. We need a recognized organization to govern the sport so we can move into the 21st century along with all other professional sports. If we need a model to work from then we don’t have to look that far to find one.
The UFC love them or hate them are extremely organized at managing their sport and have nearly eclipsed boxing in popularity and credibility. They control every aspect of the business from talent development to merchandising and they do it in a manner which reminds a lot of people of how Pete Rozelle developed the NFL in the 1960’s. When this incarnation of MMA started to gain prominence 5 years ago or so I was one of those skeptical boxing guys holding on to the belief that “our guys” would hammer “their guys”. I took every opportunity to point that out when an MMA fighter put himself in a “bad” position or angle I preached “if he had done that against a boxer HE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN KNOCKED OUT”! And I did it constantly. I could not wrap my boxing brain around this new sport and tirelessly tried applying theories that simply weren’t applicable. And then my “light bulb” moment came! I started to see MMA not as a rival to boxing but as a different sport. Just because I watch the NFL doesn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy Australian Rules Football (Rugby). It also began to occur to me that MMA fighters were simply getting better technically and I started to identify their training ethic with those of professional boxers. The availability of MMA events and news through the various media outlets is abundant to say the least. I started to pay attention to the Randy Couture’s, the Chuck Liddell’s of the world and it really established a solid level of credibility in my mind. As time passed I become more and more interested in their rivalries. It’s marketing 101 and it works. The UFC build up their fighters by exposing you to them regularly and you become emotionally invested in seeing someone’s story end either in a championship win or defeat. You know that the TOP fighters in each division are going to face each other eventually because that’s where the money is in that sport. It’s a complete product. Dana White who is president of the UFC is an ex-amateur boxer who obviously understands the business side of boxing and it’s obvious that he’s trying to make the UFC everything boxing is not. The UFC is getting bigger every year and you can’t argue with their success. They also took a huge step forward in the credibility department when they hired Marc Ratner the former Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission as its vice president of regulatory affairs. Marc Ratner was and is one of the most respected people in professional boxing and when you see people like that walking over to a relatively new organization then you know they are serious about establishing a solid infrastructure. The entire culture of their sport has improved greatly in just 5 years. I remember in the 1980’s when people were calling for it to be outlawed and now they are an accepted sport. Pretty amazing. The UFC is here to stay and we’ll just have to co-exist.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking boxing is dead because the fight game is the great survivor of sport!
We do however need to incorporate infrastructure similar to the UFC in order to prosper. If boxing had the organizational focus and business model of the UFC it would raise to a level of acceptance that most would think impossible. Think about it! One organization and one champion per weight division!
Let’s pretend WE can fix this thing for a second. What would professional boxing become if you had the ability to fix it?
I’d like to hear all of your thoughts on this and what you think makes sense. If boxing was completely over hauled and NEW people came into power that cared about giving the fans what they wanted what would our “new” fight game look like?
In a future column I’ll share my thoughts on your ideas and we can keep the discussion moving forward until we have a pretty good outline of how WE would like to see boxing evolve in the 21st century!