LAS VEGAS — Battered, bruised and against the ropes for years, the sport of boxing takes center stage Saturday night. Fans will pay a king’s ransom to sit ringside at the MGM Grand. Millions more around the world will plop down $100 to watch on television. Many will be tuning in for their first boxing match in years. Those around the sport are hopeful it won’t be the last.
For years, the boxing world has been titillated by the possibility of Manny Pacquiao, the 36-year-old Filipino fighter who has won world titles in eight weight classes, finally facing off against Floyd Mayweather, the undefeated and polarizing welterweight from Michigan, considered by most to be the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.
But after the telecast goes off the air, boxing faces even bigger questions about its future. For more than decade, the sport’s popularity has waned amid fractured governance and an absence of stars. And just as some sports fans have been repulsed by its brutal nature, others have been drawn away by even more violent mixed martial arts. All of which leads to questions about whether Saturday’s event will amount to the last great prize fight or something that manages to revive sustained interest in the sport.
“Mayweather-Pacquiao will capture the attention of a lot of people who don’t normally watch boxing,” said Stephen Espinoza, the top executive for Showtime’s sports division. “If their interest is piqued, it’s the responsibility of all of us who work in boxing to capitalize on that over the next few months and convert those casual fans into regular fans.”
Most boxing insiders say the sport’s legendary fights run in cycles, acknowledging that boxing hasn’t produced a showdown such as Saturday’s since at least Mike Tyson squared off against Lennox Lewis in 2002. Saturday’s battle comes at a curious time for boxing, which long ago faded to the far edge of the American sports fan’s plate.
“What happens in the next two or three years is, in my view, is going to strongly impact what happens for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Jim Lampley, the veteran HBO commentator. “I don’t see another transformation of this size and this depth coming in the near future.”
Veteran boxing broadcaster Al Bernstein said it’s “absurdly simplistic” to view Saturday’s bout as the sport’s last big hurrah. The mere fact that people are willing to shell out so much money this weekend — tickets are selling on the secondary market for six figures — is an indication that there’s an audience hungry for competitive fights.
“Go back to the ’50s: They’ve been saying ‘last big fight for boxing’ for a half century,” Bernstein said. “I’m not a cheerleader for boxing — I cover it — but it’s especially wrong to say it now. I don’t see this as a final thing. I see this as a beginning.”
While Pacquiao carries the hopes of a nation into the ring and Mayweather’s brash personality has made him a TMZ regular — his domestic violence charges and his outlandish spending habits are popular topics — each fighter’s most interesting characteristic is his exceptional boxing abilities. Thomas Hauser, boxing historian and author, says the bout lacks the social significance to draw comparisons to the sport’s most legendary battles.
“In terms of the historical importance of the fight, it pales by comparison with some of the more important fights in history,” he said. “This is nothing like Jack Johnson against James Jeffries, the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rematch, the first Ali-Frazier fight. In fights like that, you had two diametrically opposed constituencies. When the fight was over, people cared about the results. They carried the results with them for months. . . . This fight is nothing like that.”
That means the only thing that’s really under the microscope Saturday is the sport itself. Boxing observers note that Saturday’s bout can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The fact that the fight is finally taking place after more than five years of public bickering between the two boxers’ camps has made boxing a water-cooler topic for at least one week. But more importantly, the sport has been undergoing seismic changes in recent months, the landscape shifting in real time unconnected to Mayweather or Pacquiao.
A single bout can’t save boxing any more than a single Super Bowl can cure all of professional football’s ills, Hauser said; like football, the sport needs to be buoyed by smaller spots on the sports calendar that can sustain interest year-round.
A Harvard-educated businessman named Al Haymon has been working to do just that. Haymon, Mayweather’s longtime adviser, has built up a stable of fighters — around 150 in all — and more importantly secured financial backing from financial asset company Waddell & Reed. He began meeting with television executives last year, pitching his Premier Boxing Champions promotion, and in recent months has announced deals with all three major networks — NBC, ABC, CBS — with plans to air fights on ESPN, NBC Sports Network, Spike TV and Bounce TV. That means for at least the next two years, fans will be able to watch boxing almost weekly in prime time or on weekend afternoons.
Depending on the point of view, Haymon’s either investing heavily on the sport’s future or gambling wildly. Under terms of his deals, Haymon is essentially purchasing air time and then selling ads to recoup costs. The plan likely won’t be a money-maker for a long time, but Haymon’s banking on awakening a long-dormant base of fight fans.
Boxing will remain on the cable behemoths HBO and Showtime, and even if Haymon’s primary focus is making money for himself and his investors, most in boxing say the sport as a whole should benefit from his aggressive experiment.
“If we put on good shows, you’re going to want to watch us again,” said boxer Paulie Malignaggi, a former welterweight champion who is scheduled to compete on a Premier Boxing Champions card later this month on Spike TV. “You may not have known who we are, but we’re on every network now. And the more that we’re on, the more people are going to be flipping through channels and see us. People are going to be drawn to this because it’s so reachable for them.”
One problem that surely still exist on the other side of Saturday’s bout: The sport is lacking in superstars. Mayweather is 38 and says he might retire in September , following the final bout of his contract with Showtime. Most boxing observers agree Pacquiao is a few years past his prime. There are no household names in the sport, and the celebrated heavyweight division hasn’t been robust in years. Finding stars there, particularly among American competitors, is like a “vacuum cleaner [in] outer space,” said George Foreman, the former heavyweight champ.
“We are looking for heavyweights,” Foreman said. “We are searching everywhere. Looking under beds and under the rocks. Looking for great heavyweights. There just aren’t any around.”
Independent of whether rising boxers have charismatic star potential, the viewing public must decide whether the sport is something they still want. As head injuries and safety issues have become increasingly prevalent in other sports, boxing fundamentally hinges on pain and punishment. Those around the sport say unlike other sports, though, violence is the attraction for fight fans and the record numbers expected from Saturday’s bout are evidence there’s still a huge appetite.
“As long as human beings are alive on this planet, men are always going to fight each other for money,” HBO’s Lampley said. “And so the question is not whether it’s going to exist but how it’s going to exist and who’s going to run it and will fighters get ever their fair share.”
Joe DePaolo contributed to this report.