Thursday 22 March 2018

The night boxing fights for its life... Mayweather v Pacquiao

It is being hailed as the fight of the century but can tonight's bout between Mayweather and Pacquiao save boxing from terminal decline?

John Costello

It was as beautiful as it was brutal. The stunning uppercut was followed by a left, a right and then - smash!

Buster Douglas had landed a devastating knockout punch. No one could believe it. Most likely not even Douglas, who was an overwhelming underdog and a fighter of dubious ability.

Iron Mike Tyson crumpled to the canvas before everyone's eyes and dragged the fortunes of big-time boxing with him.

Up until that fateful fight, world champions had been worshipped the world over as untouchable gods. However, that devastating blow in 1990 sent boxing into a rapid decline. Now, 25 years later, many fight fans are hoping Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao can resuscitate the sport.

But while the pair are currently boxing's biggest attractions, their stature in the sport is a far cry from the heyday of the 'sweet science' when world champions were among the biggest names in sport.

Boxing at its best has always been about the raw fire and fury of two men entering a ring knowing only one victor can emerge. But the sport's reputation has been left battered and bruised, and in desperate need of new heroes to worship.

Defensive: Floyd Mayweather
Defensive: Floyd Mayweather

In the 80-year period before Tyson fell from grace, legends like Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman reigned supreme. And when these gods clashed, the world came to a standstill. But will tonight's fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao spark a return to those days?

Some are saying it is the biggest since the legendary showdown between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971. Regardless, one thing is for sure - it will be the highest earning bout in boxing history with an expected gross well in excess of $300m (€270m).

More importantly for fight fans, however, is that when the two men enter the ring, boxing will enjoy more exposure than it has for decades.

"It's going to put boxing back in the limelight," says American ringside boxing announcer Marc Lichtenfeld. "I would not be surprised if we will look back at 2015 as the year that boxing kind of turned the corner and went back to the upswing."

And God knows it needs it.

It took five years of contractual gymnastics for Mayweather and Pacquiao to finally agree to go toe-to-toe. But even last week, the biggest event in boxing this century was in danger of turning into its greatest embarrassment. Contracts remained unsigned, meaning there were no tickets on sale, as each camp blamed the other as last minute changes were being negotiated. This was all happening even as the promotion for the fight was in full swing. But this is business as usual in the modern boxing game.

Behind the glitz and glamour, the 'sweet science' has always had a murky reputation. If it wasn't the Mob trying to fix fights, it was unscrupulous trainers and promoters. But many believe the downward spiral was sparked by the arrival of Don King and an era where the greed of promoters meant profiting from the sport at the expense of everyone else became the ultimate goal.

This greed had a wide impact. Originally, the World Boxing Association (WBA), founded in 1921, handed out world championship titles at the professional level.

By the end of the 80s, however, there were four - the WBA, the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organisation (WBO). Even though four was already three too many, the famous boxing magazine The Ring added its own versions in 2002, meaning at any given weight there could be five different 'world' champions.

Slugger: Filipino fighter Manny Pacquiao
Slugger: Filipino fighter Manny Pacquiao

The sport has now been left with such a convoluted concoction of sanctioning bodies, constantly fighting for a bigger piece of the pie, that obtaining a 'world title' has become something that many average boxers with the right managers and right promoters can expect. Indeed, over the years there have been many accusations of bribes and rigging to ensure the fighters of certain promoters gained or retained a world title. This has robbed championship belts of the nobility and prestige they used to command. But the impact of pay-per-view on the sport has been the most devastating to its future. Anybody who watched boxing up until the early 1990s will have fond memories of momentous live fights being aired on terrestrial television.

Remember when the whole nation cheered on Steve Collins (with a shamrock shaven into the side of his head) against Chris Eubank? Or when Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvellous Marvin Hagler wowed the world? Such fights meant that boxing and boxers were true sporting stars.

When Mike Tyson held the crown, everyone knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was. But how many of the current heavyweight champions could you name? Wladimir Klitschko, Ruslan Chagaev and Deontay Wilder don't easily slip off the tongue. In the days of pay-per-view (PPV), the sport no longer holds such a grip over the general public.

The first boxing match broadcast as PPV was the 'Thrilla in Manilla' in 1975 where Ali and Frazier slugged it out for a third time. Now all marquee fights are PPV. And only hardcore fans are willing to lay out extra cash for a main event match that could last 30 seconds. This has meant the sport long ago stopped attracting new, younger viewers, meaning boxing is probably at its lowest point in the professional era.

As to how much of an influence Mayweather and Pacquiao will ultimately have on this state of affairs may depend on the fight itself. With both boxers past their prime and in their mid-to-late 30s, some critics are questioning whether the fight, by boxing standards, will be a match to remember. But with both boxers determined not to lose, this fight between a highly defensive fighter (Mayweather) and a slugger (Pacquiao) could prove a classic.

Many believe the future has to see the return of big-time boxing to terrestrial TV if fighters are to become huge household names once again. And there is hope. Limerick's Andy Lee's first defence of his WBO world middleweight title against Peter Quillin in Brooklyn was broadcast live on NBC free-to-air in the US. It drew around four times as many television viewers as are expected to tune in to Conor McGregor's forthcoming UFC bout with José Aldo.

Big-time boxing also made a triumphant return to ITV, when Belfast's Carl Frampton defended his super bantamweight title at the end of February against Chris Avalos.

Fight fans will be desperately hoping for more of the same after Mayweather and Pacquiao go the war. "This may be the last hurrah of boxing," says Robert Boland, sports business professor at New York University. "It's an interesting moment and maybe a moment that boxing will come together and figure out where it goes for the future."

Regardless, what we can expect for the future of the sport, boxing is in dire need of a super fight. And let's hope tonight it can deliver.

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