11.08.2011

Smokin' Joe and Boxing's Decline

Smokin' Joe Frazier's death at a relatively young age drew an outpouring of emotion from those who covered him from the press box and faced him in the ring (even Ali, which undoubtedly brings a wry smile to the face of anyone familiar with their history). Family members, friends and fans alike have all expressed sincere sadness at his passing. And while many of the emotions expressed regarding the passing of this American sporting icon were undoubtedly brought on by a real affection for the man himself, there must have also been a sense among many that his death was another nail in the coffin for the sport he shed blood, sweat and tears for.

While we don't typically write about individuals on this site (with Steve Jobs being a notable and recent exception) the decline in boxing which is emblemized by the declining health and increasingly frequent passings of the greatest stars of the sport's not-so-distant past is also an economic story. Of course there are some fighters who still garner media and fan attention, and thus create wealth. Global stars like Manny Pacquiao are big pay-per-view draws and Vegas still buzzes like the old days when the latest lamb is led to the ring with him. However there aren't many Mannys left in the sport and very few names in the boxing world generate enough interest to merit high ticket prices. Only 'true' boxing fans tune in to most bouts.

While this state of affairs has been enough to keep the sport on life support for some time, the numbers of 'real' fans are dwindling, and there is hardly such thing as a casual fan in the sport anymore. Most Americans probably couldn't name the heavyweight champ (not even one of them) at any given time. Likely even fewer have watched a fight any time in the past year. Some might say that this is a sign of the times, that such violence doesn't have a place in America any more. The rise of mixed martial arts of course renders such sentiments invalid.

It is probably rather a grab bag of issues which has led to boxing's decline. A lack of star power, an unwieldy number of governing bodies, corruption, high prices for tickets and televised events, a lack of accessibility, the rise since boxing's hey day of other sports such as football; all these factors and more have likely contributed to the decline of the sport.

However, this wasn't always the case. To have a decline, something must have an apex, and boxing's apex was as high as the Rockies. While the sport's decline has been precipitous, within the lifetimes of most of our readers Mike Tyson appeared in Pepsi commercials. And within the lifetime of some of the older readers of the blog, it was arguably the biggest sport in the country. Big title matches used to be bigger than the Super Bowl. Stars of the sport were social ambassadors. Champs graced the covers of magazines like Time and the front pages of the biggest newspapers in the land.

All of which leads to the punchline. Though of course the business and the essence of boxing are both different from many of the other popular sports in the US right now, it is also true that those involved with the sport over the past 25 or so years have presided over its downfall, taking it from a top sport and a very lucrative business to an almost unsalvageable mess. It might behoove those involved in a certain labor dispute to remember just how big boxing used to be, and just how fast the sport has fallen as they plot out the path of their sport. Otherwise, there is a great risk that someday people will wake up and just not care.

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