Is Boxing Going Through an Image Crisis?

20 September 2019

When Floyd Mayweather – a boxer with 50 professional wins to his name during his impressive career – retired, many thought that boxing had lost its last major star. Some had been writing about the possibility that boxing would go into decline as a public spectacle for years – even before Mayweather chose to hang up his gloves. Of course, few people would argue that current heavyweight boxing, in particular – the weight division in the sport that attracts the most attention – can stand up to the glory years of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and George Foreman.

In fact, this has little to do with the nature of the boxing itself and more to do with the big personalities that dominated the sport in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Yes, boxing has seen its stars since then but, with the possible exception of Mayweather, few have really broken through into the wider public's consciousness. As such, some have wondered whether boxing has an image problem that means it cannot break out of its fan base. If so, could the entire professional sport be in a crisis?

Was Mayweather boxing's last great entertainer? Source: Harry (Howard) Potts

The Challengers to Boxing's Crown

All professional sports operate in a competitive marketplace. Not only do the pro sportsmen and women who ply their trade in sport have to compete against one another but the various administrations that run sports compete among themselves, too. After all, boxing needs to generate revenues from ticket sales and television rights in competition with other sporting events. Indeed, boxing has to generate sufficient audiences to sustain the sport bearing in mind the wider entertainment sector. There are just so many alternatives for TV schedule fillers and sponsors to spend their money, let alone eye-catching sporting events for the public to bet on. Of course, it has not helped that there have been so many administrative bodies in boxing that have vied against one another for the various titles over the years. However, that is nothing new, so we'll pass over that awkward fact for the time being.

When you look at what first made boxing so appealing as a professional sport, it was the chance to see some genuine aggression, albeit of a controlled variety, being played out for supremacy before your eyes. Although other martial sports – like judo, for instance – have been around for decades, it was not until the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA) that boxing really faced a challenger. Many of the big personalities in combat sports understandably gravitated towards MMA franchises where showbiz was welcomed with open arms. To some people, modern boxing even looks a little dated with limited razzmatazz by comparison.

Has Boxing Been its Own Worst Enemy?

Boxing may have rested on its laurels for too long but it has not helped itself by attracting new fans, either. Many of the top fights that attract the most interest are broadcast very late at night and behind a paywall. This has led to only hardcore fans watching them with many of the rest of the public simply catching up the next day with the headlines. Another big problem for the sport is that there has been a dearth of American heavyweights in recent years. After all, the United States constitutes the largest potential audience for top bouts with one of the most lucrative income streams for the sport. From the start of the twentieth century until the rise of Lennox Lewis in the late 1990s, nearly every heavyweight champ was American. Thereafter, fans have had to get used to top fighters coming from other countries and some people have – inevitably – lost interest.

True, some Americans have got to the top since then. Deontay Wilder took the WBC title in 2015 and Charles Martin took the IBF title in 2016 but neither could be described as truly household names and certainly neither has the personality of a Mayweather or an Ali. Only the Brit, Anthony Joshua, who unified several of the titles, and – to a lesser extent – the Kiwi Joseph Parker have really looked like they were going to buck this trend. However, when Joshua unexpectedly lost to the Mexican fighter, Andy Ruiz Junior, in June 2019 few fans thought that the sport had found the saviour for its image crisis.

What Can Boxing Do?

Whether you think that boxing is going through a genuine crisis or that one new fighter will be able to single-handedly rejuvenate the sport, there are some things it could do to improve the current state of affairs. After all, professional boxing has a heritage that many sports would like, especially when compared to other combat sports, so it needs to make more of this aspect when it markets itself. It could also do with raising the profile of women's boxing which – in fairness – it is trying to do and having some success with. There is a potentially large audience that is currently being untapped by placing nearly all of the emphasis at the top end of the male sport.

Of course, boxing's image is tarnished when there are so many sanctions that are applied. The various bodies that apply sanctions should come under one, unified administration. This would help to do away with the sport's reputation for match-fixing, something that has, rightly or wrongly, helped to diminish it in the eyes of many. In addition, numerous fans now agree that more judges are needed to get better decisions. Few top sports rely on only three judges, so boxing should modernise in this regard, too. It is all about the transparency that both fans and sports gamblers want from a genuine sporting contest.

Joseph Parker, New Zealand's most famous boxer. Source:Australian Embassy Samoa

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