Thursday, June 6, 2013

What’s Wrong With Boxing, And Can It Be Put Right?

 By Peter Silkov

Photo source

2013 has been a good year for boxing so far due to the fact, that in the first few months of the year, we have already been treated to some glimpses of what boxing can produce on a good night. We have seen Rios vs. Alvarez 2 and Bradley vs. Provodnikov… two all action fights, which served to remind us of how exciting boxing can be at its best. We also had Rigondeaux vs. Donaire and Trout vs. Canelo… two fights which mixed good action with skills and were both also that rare and precious thing, World title unification fights! We have been treated to the return of the pound for pound king, Floyd ’Money’ Mayweather, in his ’comeback’ fight with Robert Guerrero, a fight in which Mayweather showed that he still had the skills which hark back to the days when boxing was seen by many as a sweet science, an art.

Looking at these fights it would seem that boxing is pretty healthy. We have exciting fights, skilful champions, and a pound-for-pound king who would have fitted in well with any era. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Boxing is regularly described today as a dying sport, it has been buried more times than Dracula, and though it keeps coming back from the dead there are definitely some serious problems within the sport that should not be ignored. Boxing is at the point now where it can still reach back and reclaim some of the credibility and lustre of its past, if it is allowed to, by those that are running it. Alternatively, if things are not changed and the sport is allowed to carry on in the general direction that it is currently headed, then its glory days of the past, will become just a mere memory of a promised land that the sport will be no longer able to reach.

Here is a look at the main issues I feel are detracting and diminishing the sport today:

1. Multiple World Titles at every weight.
For the best part of the last 30 years boxing has been infected by a multitude of world boxing organizations that each claim to have the best interests of the sport at heart and each has their own ‘world champion’ at every weight. What started as a slight infection in the 70s has become an all out disease of multiplicity. First, there was the WBC and WBA in the 1970’s, then the 1980’s saw the rise of the IBF, and the 90’s saw the emergence of the WBO. There are some otherworld bodies too, such as the WBU and IBO, just to name but two, thankfully, these and other organizations have failed to find a regular foothold on the sports world stage. This, perhaps more than anything else, gives some hope for the future. At least there seems to be some kind of limit, after all, to how many different ‘World Champions’ the public will take. Having said that, the list of ‘World Champions’ is still ever-growing; thanks to the greed of the established world boxing organisations. If there was any doubt that these organisations are primarily concerned with lining their own pockets, rather than the health and integrity of the sport itself, then perhaps the answer lies in the relatively recent emergence of multiple ‘Champions’ within these single bodies. Now we are treated to interim Champions, Champions in recess, silver champions, super champions, and of course, regular Champions! Indeed, it is a situation, which leaves most fans confused or at best flies over their heads, but for the organizations involved, each extra ‘champion’ brings in a little more money for their coffers. One of the worst culprits of this activity is the WBC, who have never been afraid of raising a few dollars for themselves over the years. The way that the WBC recently basically took away Middleweight Champion Sergio Martinez’s title, awarding him something called ’the Diamond Championship’ and installing Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. as its ’regular’ World Champion, illustrated all that is wrong with present day boxing and just how much integrity the organizations that run the sport truly possess. Today, is it any wonder that even the most dedicated boxing follower will struggle to name every ’World Champion,’ at every weight, without resorting to the internet? Small wonder too, that the average person will struggle to name even a handful of today’s champions. The various organisations seem to be intent on making the whole idea of ’World Champions’ as impressive as those in the WWE wrestling world, indeed boxing is certainly catching up with wrestling, in terms of world champions.

As if, just for good measure, the WBC have come up with the idea of introducing open scoring to their fights; meaning that during the fight the house MC will announce the judge’s scores after the 4th and 8th rounds. This idea is not new as it was originally tried out in the 70s and used during the 1977 Ali vs. Shavers World Heavyweight title fight. The fact that the concept was so unpopular in the 70s that it was dropped, says it all for the WBC’s attempts to reintroduce it today. One of the innate attractions of boxing is the ‘not knowing’ who is truly winning a fight until one of the fighters is stopped or declared the winner. This is one of the main attractions of a good close fight. To give the scores of the fight during the action is basically blasphemous and completely sullies one of the most integral aspects of the sport. It is not hard to see how this ruling can also give an unfair advantage to one of the principle boxers on the night, with a fighter who knows he has a good or unassailable lead being able to fight accordingly. Therefore, making it even harder for his opponent to compete, while also ruining the fight as a competitive event. Once again, the very essence of the sport is under attack from one of its ruling bodies.

2. Making the weight.
Since fighters have been allowed to make the weight the day before fights, rather than on fight day itself, there has been a steady increase in fighters putting on huge amounts of weight by the time of fight night. Many fighters regularly put on between seven and ten pounds by the time of the fight. Some, however, have been known to put on twenty or more pounds as they re-hydrate, a huge amount, which not only renders the whole weight division issue a farce, but it also gives an unfair advantage to boxers who will enter the ring on fight night far heavier than their opponent. There are some fighters who seem to specialize in being able to regain a huge amount of weight between the weigh-in and fight night. One such fighter has been Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., whom despite fighting officially as a Middleweight, has been known to put on over 20 pounds by fight night, making him in reality a Cruiserweight, and giving him a huge advantage over opponents who enter the ring against him far lighter. Chavez is far from being the only boxer to benefit from this curious ability to lose and gain so much weight in such a short space of time, yet he is probably one of the most well-known cases because his size advantage over his opponents is so obvious and telling. For example, having fighters billed as Middleweights, yet weighing as high as Cruiserweight makes a mockery of the weight divisions, as is having lightweights weighing as much as Welterweights.
The result is that the whole idea of the weight divisions has become devalued.

3. Boxer’s Inactivity.
Too many fighters today, especially top contenders and ’World Champions’ only fight once or twice a year, so take this activity, or rather lack of it, in addition to the multiple titles on offer, then it becomes clear why so many of the top fighters and ’Champions’ never fight each other. Indeed, looking at the multiple mess that is boxing’s world titles, it is surprising that we get as many good match-ups that we actually do. The main reason for this, is that many fighters still actually want to fight their top rivals and find out who is the best, even though it goes against the general set up of the modern game. Having said this, there are still not enough big fights in boxing, due to the reasons stated earlier. We seem to get overly excited these days when two top class boxers fight each other, even though this is what boxing is supposed to be about. When a ’Champion’ meets a highly rated contender these days, it is often hyped as a ’superfight’ but, twenty or thirty years ago these were the fights that the boxing fan expected to see. Now such fights are the rarities, even though they are the lifeblood of the sport. Unfortunately, it is often in the promoters interests to keep their house ’champions’ matched up against second tier contenders, allowing them to build long runs of defenses against mediocre opposition, until the promoter sees fit to match his Champion with a genuinely risky challenger. While such shenanigans have always been part of the sport throughout its history, never has it been more prevalent than today, as the multitude of multiple world titles allows the top fighters to avoid each other with an ease which never existed previously in boxing.

4. The coverage of Boxing.
Limiting boxing to pay-per-view, with very little, if any, free coverage in either America or England, severely restricts the growth of popularity amongst fans and leaves boxers struggling to gain recognition outside the core of genuinely dedicated and knowledgeable fans. Today, unless you are a Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, you can be world champion and still largely anonymous and unknown, even amongst regular boxing fans, let alone those whom flick in and out of the sport when the mood takes them. With ever more ’World Champions’ and a dwindling number of real ’stars’ within the sport, boxing is in danger of finding itself drowning in a flood of mediocrity and anonymity. While the internet has helped in some ways to promote the profiles of some fighters who otherwise may not have gained any exposure, it is only a thin bandage over a deepening wound. Most of today’s most dedicated boxing fans grew up watching the sport when it was free. Pay-per-view is no match for the coverage offered in the past when it was free to view and so much more accessible, especially for younger viewers. The chances are that anyone paying to watch boxing on their TV is already a follower of the sport to some degree; the problem with this is that there is less chance of someone being exposed to the sport that is not already familiar with it. In this way, pay-per-view limit’s the access to a new audience that free TV used to achieve. Unfortunately, some promoters make huge amounts of money with pay-per-view coverage of boxing and do not worry that the depth of the sport’s audience is thinning.

5. Performance Enhancing Drugs.
The use of drugs in boxing is a very controversial subject. Recently a spate of boxers have been found using a variety of PED’s (performance enhancing drugs.) Worryingly, there have been inconsistent punishments and some of their drug results swept under the carpet. Some have received six month suspensions, a few have received bans for a number of years, while others have seemingly walked away unpunished. The sport’s treatment of those who try to cheat seems to be muddled at best and the subject of PEDs in boxing is still rather taboo, with some insisting that it is not a problem. While I won’t pretend to be an expert on this side of boxing, I do think I know enough about the sport and the human body to say that it is increasingly suspicious when so any boxers are able to climb multiple weight divisions with ease, and others regain huge amounts of weight between the weigh in and fight night. You do not have to be an expert in the human body to know that some of these ‘feats’ are highly dubious.

So what can be done about the various issues I have raised here? Are there any quick fix answers to the sports most pressing problems? Here are some solutions that I have come up with, and no, it’s not rocket science!

1. Multiple World titles.
Of all the problems in boxing, I feel this is the most severe. The sport desperately needs an end to the dilution of its world titles and in an ideal world one champion per weight division. Unfortunately, to wish for such a thing as a single world champion at each weight is almost akin to hoping for the second coming, it’s highly unlikely that it will ever happen. At the same time, it really wouldn’t be so hard to achieve if certain people were willing. The recent Super Six elimination tournament in the Super Middleweight division succeeded in raising the profile of the division and the top fighters in it. The fact that the world titles, at that weight are once again fractured, is almost incidental, as Andre Ward proved himself the best 168-pounder in the tournament. If boxing were to have a series of elimination tournaments, throughout its many divisions, it would do wonders for the sport as a whole. Even if one champion per division is hoping for too much, if the amount of champions per weight could be reduced to just two, then that would be a huge improvement on the half dozen, which we have at every weight now. Two ’Champions’ is far less confusing and distracting. People can compare two champions against each other much easier than five or six. Boxing’s world championships are the pinnacle of the sport, if that pinnacle is blurred by a multitude of anonymous peaks, and then the whole of the sport becomes blurred and reduced.

2. Making the weight.
As stated earlier, I believe the enormous fluctuations of weight of many fighters, from the weigh-in, to fight night, has made the whole concept of the weight divisions farcical. What is the point of having two men fighting for a Lightweight title if they are both weighing in at Welterweight by the time they climb into the ring? I believe that boxers should have a limit in how much weight they are allowed to put on after their final weigh-in. Is it perhaps too fanciful to wish that fighters could actually weigh within the boundaries of the weight division that they are supposed to be fighting in on the day of the fight, rather than the day before the fight? Surely, if there was enough supervision and perhaps a number of weigh-ins, culminating with a weigh-in on the day of the fight, then everything could be done safely. How healthy is it, at the moment, when boxers gain so much weight in the last 24 hours before a fight? Regulations need to be brought in to persuade boxers to operate within the weight class for which they are really built, rather than the one they can boil themselves down to.

3. Boxer’s Inactivity.
Boxers fighting less, especially the higher up they are in ranks, are deeply entrenched now, and it is a problem when boxing’s biggest names operate only once or twice a year. Perhaps the best way to turn this problem around would be the introduction of unification tournaments, which would keep the top boxers a little busier as well as providing more big fights. There is little doubt that the more big fights there are available to a fighter; then more often, he is likely to fight.

4. The coverage of boxing.
To promote the growth of new fans, the sport of boxing needs far more ’free’ coverage. This means that some promoters and TV companies need to reach agreements to allow fight cards to be either repeated or shown live for free.

The recent growing feud between HBO and Showtime in America is a great example of what boxing doesn’t need. Such a feud will encourage each side to have their own ’house’ fighters and ’Champions’ with little chance of boxers from different sides ever meeting in the same ring. Unfortunately, for most promoters and TV executives the health of the sport comes second to their own individual short-term interests.
5. Performance Enhancing Drugs.

I think the solution to this issue is really quite simple! All fighters should be given random Olympic style mandatory drug tests and a clear set of penalties should be set for those who are found to have ’cheated.’ We really have no idea how prevalent PEDs are within boxing, but I feel that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.

Perhaps none of these things will ever change and boxing is doomed to become an ever more watered down mockery of itself in the decades to come. In many ways, the fact that the sport remains as popular as it does, is a testament to the abiding strength of the sport’s attraction and how it can become an overriding obsession with many fans. One can only wonder how successful boxing could be if it was run in a more positive way for the sport itself, rather than based mainly upon short term pay-per-views for a small collection of promoters and managers.

Changes for the better could be made within the sport. Nothing, which I have suggested, is particularly original, it is really just a common sense way to run boxing in a positive manner. Much has been said recently about the rise of MMA and UFC and their respective threat to overtake boxing as a major sport. While I do not for a minute believe that either MMA or UFC can ever approach boxing either aesthetically, or technically, the danger is there. If boxing continues down its present route, then there is a possibility that the new generations will be drawn towards MMA and UFC, which for all their faults are more basic and approachable sports, without the maze of politics and titles which flood the boxing world. Not to mention, the MMA and UFC seem more available to watch freely, than the overpriced pay-per-view boxing matches do.

I believe that boxing is the greatest sport in the world, a sport that is far more than simply a ’sport’ but at the moment it is a sport that is in danger of knocking itself out if it doesn’t change its attitude.

 Originally published at The Boxing Tribune 5-11-2013
Copyright © 2013 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved.
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