It is now entirely reasonable to assume that the sport of boxing is engaged in a concerted, systematic effort to kill itself off. And there is good news for those tasked with completing the job: Your work is nearly done.
This is nothing new. There's a long tradition of predicting the death of boxing. Sometimes, it's merely wishful thinking by those who believe an enterprise run by unsavory characters for the benefit of unsavory characters should always be on the brink of destruction. And then there are times like now, when the sheer weight of the sport's problems -- most notably, the lack of compelling personalities and fights -- threatens to collapse the entire operation.
The evidence is piling up. The heavyweight division excites nobody, and the best fighters in the other divisions -- super middleweight Andre Ward and bantamweight Nonito Donaire, for example -- don't have the kind of counterparts to ignite interest. Of course, there's one fight everybody wants to see but nobody can make happen. Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. have engaged in a schoolyard-level squabble that seems like it's lasted a couple of decades.
Their back-and-forth is the only thing propping up boxing right now. But with the pipe dream of Pacquiao-Mayweather being replaced by the reality of Mayweather-Miguel Cotto and Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley, how long can talk sustain interest? If the Big Fight is ever going to happen, now we're looking at late 2012 or early 2013. Both fighters are already past their prime, which raises another question: A year from now, how much is going to be proven anyway?
The excuses are legion. It's about money. It's about dates. It's about drug-testing. It's about jail sentences and arena configurations and who's dodging whom. In other words, it's long past time for normal folks to stop paying attention.
All this publicity for a fight that -- let's face it -- probably won't happen. Ever. It's a perfect indicator of the state of boxing. If there were other fights out there, everyone could move on and tell Pacquiao and Mayweather just to let us know if and when they're ready. (Or tell them something worse -- your call.) But since the field is so barren and the focus so narrow, every little piece of information pertaining to Mayweather-Pacquiao qualifies as major news.
And that, unfortunately, means that every grammatically challenged tweet that emits from Mayweather's fingers gets national attention. Mayweather's tweet from Wednesday -- "I'm fighting Miguel Cotto on May 5th because Miss Pac Man is ducking me" -- was grammatically sound, but typical for the level of discourse we've come to expect. Seriously, should a man who is about to serve time for assault on a woman be so openly misogynistic?
Mayweather is so transparent it's laughable. He has exhausted his arsenal of excuses for not fighting Pacquiao, so he's decided to twist the argument to blame Manny. There are enough people confused -- and, frankly, disinterested -- by this point that the tactic actually might prove to be effective. Floyd's move is a classic pre-emptive strike. It's also the kind of thing you hear near the third-grade hoop at recess:
Even the maturity-challenged among us can see through this charade. But maybe the joke's on us. Maybe this is the Mayweather-Pacquiao plan. Drag this whole thing out as long as possible, fight other guys along the way and then, in the end, say they couldn't reach an agreement and they've both decided to retire. That would suit Mayweather, anyway. They'll make the same amount of money fighting two fights nobody cares about, so what's the difference?
Without veering into a lengthy UFC vs. boxing tangent, it's really no mystery why MMA is rising in popularity while boxing struggles to remain relevant. The issue isn't the respective merits of the two sports. Instead, it's about the way in which they're conducted, and the people doing the conducting. Boxing has no unified governing body to make sure the best fights happen. The fighters and promoters are on their own to argue about dates and opponents and purses. There's good and bad in that. But from a fan's perspective, the UFC is a far simpler operation. It has a clear-cut organization that sets fights between the best competitors regardless of their demands or desires. You can argue all you want about the fairness of the fighters' purses in UFC, but there's no debate about the matchups.
Meanwhile, Mayweather continues to dictate terms, refusing to give Pacquiao a 50-50 split, while Manny rightfully refuses to take anything less. Hey, they don't call him "Money" for nothing.
And if they don't fight, it'll give boxing's dwindling romanticists an added bonus. They'll be treated to an eternal discussion about what would have happened if they did fight. That's about what boxing's become, anyway: a series of hypothetical conversations about who would have beaten whom if they'd ever met in the ring. Why should Mayweather-Pacquiao be any different than Ali-Tyson?
Boxing hasn't been this bad, and this irrelevant, since World War II. I can easily make the argument for this being a healthy development for the civilized world. Maybe the idea of fewer young men deciding to punch and be punched should be celebrated as the evolution of the species. But we're in the sports business here, so we'll refrain from partaking in that celebration. Besides, there's no indication boxing is suffering from a dearth of willing participants, just good ones.
Speaking of which: Did you know there are three heavyweight title fights coming up? Before your excitement gets the best of you, here's the lineup: Vitali Klitschko vs. Dereck Chisora; Alexander Povetkin vs. Marco Huck; Wladimir Klitschko vs. Jean-Marc Mormeck.
That leaves only one issue still to debate: Is boxing killing itself off, or is it happening organically?
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.