The 'dying sport' outdoing itself in '08

The problem with succeeding beyond expectations is that inevitable pressure-packed question: What do you do for an encore?

Unless you're Francis Ford Coppola working on "The Godfather Part II" or the Beatles following each groundbreaking album with one that breaks even more ground, the challenge of living up to the high standard you've set can be overly daunting.

For the sport of boxing, 2007 was praised by both insiders and the mainstream alike as "the comeback year," with the fight game entertaining and mattering more than it had in a while.

Even the most optimistic of fans couldn't have expected 2008 to surpass the highs of '07. The hope was simply that some of the momentum would carry over and the new year would be a worthy successor. If '08 was half as good as the reinvigorating year the preceded it, that would be good enough.

Well, here we are, a little more than halfway through '08, and for sheer entertainment, boxing is on pace to improve significantly upon what it gave us in '07.

We were hoping for a worthy successor; we might be left asking whether '07 was a worthy predecessor.

In terms of box office, 2007 will be tough to catch, as the HBO PPV numbers -- 4.8 million total purchases, $255 million in revenue -- smashed records.

But in terms of fight quality, thanks to the boost offered by Saturday's Antonio Margarito-Miguel Cotto classic (a microcosm in that it was saddled with overwhelming expectations and justified them), boxing fans are being downright spoiled this year.

HBO's Jim Lampley termed Margarito's 11th-round knockout of Cotto "an epic fight with an epic conclusion," and yet it runs only a strong second for fight of the year in my book, behind the March 1 Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez rubber match.

With five months still remaining in the year, I'll already take the combined fury of this year's best two fights over Vazquez-Marquez II and Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor I in 2007.

And it's not like the list of strong candidates ends there. In a weaker year, the bitter struggle between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez on March 15 and Joel Casamayor's off-the-apron knockout of Michael Katsidis on March 22 would both warrant serious consideration.

And in 61 extraordinary seconds on July 5, Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres delivered a fringe contender for fight of the year and a front-runner for round of the year and knockout of the year.

You never have to look hard to find reports of boxing's demise, largely because the world is full of self-important people who can't grasp the concept of a sport having a healthy fan base if they're not a part of it.

Thankfully, the "dying sport" diatribe quieted during boxing's exceptional '07 campaign. And in the midst of a fantastic follow-up year, any notion that 2007 was a fluke is being smacked down as well.

"In many ways, the best fighting the best was the key to last year's boxing revival," The Ring magazine wrote in its annual year-end awards issue, "and if the industry wants to keep the turnstiles spinning in '08, the same recipe will have to be followed over the next 12 months."

So far, so good. The difference that can be made by something as simple as promoters, networks and fighters realizing that what most interests the fans are in the best interests of everyone standing to profit is amazing.

The floodgates opened after Top Rank and Golden Boy Productions reached a truce in June of '07, and though that relationship has shown signs of strain this year, the precedent was effectively set. Everyone's eyes were opened to what can be achieved when smart matchmaking prevails over petty differences.

2008 has been such as blessed year, in fact, that when everyone loses sight of the formula and the powers that be attempt to stick us with Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya II, we're miraculously spared.

Sure, there have been some low points. Wladimir Klitschko swatting at Sultan Ibragimov's arm stands out. The injuries suffered by Oscar Diaz make the sport challenging to defend. Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins was as boring as we all expected it to be. And when the Versus network attempted to bring back Saturday afternoon championship boxing, the fights were upstaged by a between-rounds haircut.

However, the positives have far outnumbered the negatives and the same holds true for the remaining schedule.

Saturday's Josh Clottey-Zab Judah fight packs poor-man's-Margarito-Cotto potential, pitting a relentless stalker against a quick-fisted boxer-puncher.

If Juan Diaz vs. Michael Katsidis on Sept. 6 isn't an instant classic, I'll streak around my neighborhood wearing nothing but Katsidis' gladiator helmet.

Making it three pick-'em lightweight fights in eight days, Joel Casamayor meets Juan Manuel Marquez and Nate Campbell meets Joan Guzman on Sept. 13.

Casamayor-Marquez may or may not be an inspiring action fight, but it inspires great prefight debate about the outcome, and the same can be said for the cross-generational clash between Kelly Pavlik and Bernard Hopkins.

Antonio Tarver-Chad Dawson is a great light heavyweight fight for the hardcore fans and Joe Calzaghe-Roy Jones is its mainstream counterpart.

And there's a chance the year will end with De La Hoya saying farewell against Manny Pacquiao, a fight that has gradually gone from sounding preposterous to it being preposterous if it doesn't happen.

No doubt about it, this is a great time to be a fight fan.

2007 served as everyone's reminder of what could happen when the right fights were made.

2008 is showing that boxing doesn't have to take a step back in order to take another step forward.

Like Margarito seeing a bloodied and battered man in front of him, boxing only has one gear right now.

That gear forced Cotto to take a knee. Sports fans would do well to take a seat.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.