<
>

Is boxing really dying?

Just because your pay-per-view fell flat on its face doesn't mean the entire sport of boxing is dead, Joe Calzaghe. Al Bello/Getty Images

A few days after Manny Pacquiao defeated Oscar De La Hoya from ring post to ring post at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Joe Calzaghe, the British light heavyweight champion, declared boxing dead.

Perhaps his view was colored by the fact that his pay-per-view boxing show against Roy Jones at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 15 tanked, making only about 200,000 buys.

"The numbers of Jones-Calzaghe were deplorable, and they made very little money," said Bob Arum of Top Rank Promotions. "When that happens, you don't blame yourself; you blame the sport. I've done it myself. On the contrary, I don't think [boxing] is dead. It's more vigorous than it's been in a long time."

Of course, Arum's view is shaped by the fact that he is coming off the most successful boxing event of 2008. The Pacquiao-De La Hoya fight did 1.25 million pay-per-view buys ($70 million in revenue) and was the third-highest-grossing non-heavyweight fight in boxing. And Arum promotes Pacquiao, whose victory over De La Hoya has springboarded him into stardom.

Depending upon your circumstance in the industry, boxing is either in a coffin and awaiting burial, on a respirator and awaiting resuscitation or alive and kicking with a bright future in 2009. There are signs of distress and signals of optimism.

The casino industry in Las Vegas, in the past responsible for multimillion-dollar site fees for boxing events, is slumping. Univision cancelled its boxing program on Telefutura, and ESPN did away with its "Wednesday Night Fights" show, meaning fewer matches will be televised in 2009. But HBO, the premier cable network for boxing, will not shrink its programming calendar and probably will broadcast better matches because there will be fewer pay-per-view shows next year.

That change was ushered in because there really are few bankable pay-per-view options. The boxers at the top end of the sport are older, and the younger boxers in the pipeline aren't ready to step up to pay-per-view grossing levels. That problem will plague Golden Boy Promotions because their main inventory consists of Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and Winky Wright on the top side and young boxers such as Daniel Jacobs and Victor Ortiz on the prospect side.

Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, doesn't believe the demise of De La Hoya means the sport is dead.

"I'm an eternal optimist. I don't ever count out the sport of boxing. People have been doing it for 100 years," Greenburg said. "The next big superstar in the sport is out there lurking in the shadows. I believe that Manny Pacquiao has launched himself into superstardom. He's shown he doesn't back down from any challenge.

"Then there's a guy in Las Vegas by the name of Floyd Mayweather Jr. If Floyd decides to come back to the sport, it will be an instant jolt of electricity."

Greenburg said it will be incumbent upon HBO to start showcasing some of the younger faces in boxing and hope they can carry the sport forward. He mentioned boxers such as Paul Williams, Andre Berto, James Kirkland, Ortiz and Chris Arreola.

Some of the bigger promoters in the sport have a different view on how to stay afloat in 2009.

Kathy Duva of Main Events, a Totowa, N.J., based company, has shrunk her business, laying off several employees. The chief executive officer of the company said she is going back to basics by promoting locally. She has only one world champion in her company, newly crowned IBF cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, who won the title in a scintillating 12-round split decision against Steve Cunningham at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 11.

It was an unusual venue -- Newark hadn't hosted a world championship boxing match in 60 years -- and it was broadcast on Versus. But the raucous crowd of 5,217 was treated to two explosive championship fights. Joseph Agbeko defended his IBF bantamweight title against William Gonzalez on the undercard, and Adamek dropped Cunningham three times on the way to winning the title.

"You have to change with the times," Duva said. "There's a book called 'Who Moved the Cheese?' In boxing, we're looking for the cheese. The model we all worked from for the last 30 years is over. You just can't have this hulking overhead and stay in business. It's financially feasible for me to do it with a smaller staff and going back to our roots."

By contrast, Don King, who co-promoted the Cunningham-Adamek show with Duva, has gone global, doing most of his shows overseas with promotional partners. King will have promoted or co-promoted 10 shows in Europe and Asia this year, including the WBA heavyweight title match between Nikolai Valuev and Evander Holyfield in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday.

King said the sport needs to work more on entertaining the fans and developing marketable stars. Although the Pacquiao-De La Hoya bout earned a lot of money, King said it didn't earn the sport any fans.

"That '24/7' show [on HBO] about the fight was better than the fight," King said. "You told everybody how great the fight was going to be, and then they watched it and it didn't measure up to the show. They got the show for free, and they had to pay $55 for the fight. The whole show was 15 rounds of boxing. It was one of the worst promotional events for the kind of money they were asking that I've ever seen.

"Oscar did damage to his legacy with that performance. You don't want to be a robber of the public. He quit on his stool when he was supposed to fight. And when he was in there and was supposed to be fighting, he wasn't fighting."

King said promoters must do a better job of promoting fights and then delivering on what they promise.

"I'm a promoter of the people, by the people and for the people," he said. "I'm not going to be giving them something that they can't relate to. The work ethic in promotions leaves a lot to be desired right now. The pride and the glory are gone."

Arum said King has given up on promoting.

"I don't regard him as a real promoter anymore," Arum said. "He's thrown in the towel. He's going overseas and doing a lot of co-promotions. He's not interested in developing fighters anymore. I'm not saying he can't do it anymore. I'm saying he doesn't."

Arum said he recognizes the economy is tough, but he won't throw in the towel or go overseas to partner with anyone.

"The economic downturn can help the sport if people realize there's an economic downturn and adjust accordingly," he said. "With Mosley and [Antonio] Margarito, in the old days, we would have done it in Las Vegas and let the casinos bring in people. But the casinos aren't bringing in people like they used to. We moved it to the Staples Center in Los Angeles and priced the seats right to make it work."

Arum was hit hard by Univision's canceling the boxing program on Telefutura. But he is undaunted. He is looking at raising sponsorship money and buying time on network TV to garner greater exposure for his young boxers.

"I'm making a prediction -- there will be more shows on TV, even without Telefutura, in 2009 than there was in 2008," Arum said. "A lot of people are working on alternatives. There are certain promoters that stand back and say the sky is falling, and others who work on alternatives."

Lou DiBella of DiBella Entertainment, a New York-based promoter, agrees with Arum that the economic downturn will give those in the industry to make adjustments.

"I expect to see some guys disappear next year," DiBella said. "2009 should be the last year for guys like Hopkins, Mosley and [Marco Antonio] Barrera. That's the best hope for boxing. It will force people to build some new attractions. People will have to be more creative."

DiBella runs a monthly boxing show called "Broadway Boxing Series" in New York. He has made an adjustment, but he hasn't back.

"I'm going to a smaller room. It's not that I'm the savior of the sport by doing this, but it keeps my guys busy, and I'm not losing money," he said.

In DiBella's view, the big guys in boxing will be fine, but the little guys will be squeezed in this dreadful economy. He said people in the industry have to start looking long-term and start thinking that the economy won't turn around anytime soon.

"No one is taking a good look at the industry as a whole," he said. "We're still looking at this as if it were as viable as it always was. Most newspapers in the U.S. didn't even have a result from the Pacquiao-De La Hoya fight. The weak economy may actually reinvigorate the industry."

Hopkins believes the economic downturn will actually have a positive impact on boxing.

"Promoters will have to step up their game because they know they have to in this tough economy," Hopkins said. "They're going to have to take risks with their guys. They can't just cherry-pick opponents to build up a guy's record. Those days are over."

Hopkins, a partner with De La Hoya in Golden Boy Promotions, said he can see a few of Golden Boy's top prospects -- Ortiz and Jacobs especially -- being moved along a little sooner and possibly fighting for a championship in late 2009 or early 2010.

Hopkins foresees better matches on TV because promoters will scramble for fewer dates and will have to offer their best matchups to compete.

"They will have to bring their best show because they know their rival will be right behind them with a good show,'' he said.

DiBella doesn't think boxing is dead. He doesn't think it will ever die.

"It's been marginalized, and we have to figure out a way to keep it from being minimalized," he said. "I believe boxing is eternal. There has always been people fighting. There were cavemen fighting. It's not going away. It's really at a nadir right now. Maybe that creates some opportunities that weren't there before."

Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.