In the Wake of Pacquiao/Clottey, Boxing Needs to Change Its Approach

Posted on March 14, 2010

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For the sake of full disclosure, I must first note that I did not watch  Saturday night’s bout between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey from Cowboys Stadium. As such, I can only verify what was said about the fight by observers, both casual and expert, and relay the consensus reactions of both part-time and hardcore boxing fans.

That said, the sporting of boxing has to change its approach.

MMA as a whole sells entire fight cards and brand names. This is not to downplay the importance of an intriguing name event or star power, as every promotion needs it in order to thrive and succeed. However, a disappointing or less than intriguing main event can still succeed and give fans their money’s worth based on the strength of the card and overall presentation. This is how the UFC not only became successful, but also made its name its biggest asset: the main draws aren’t just their champions, it’s the UFC itself.

Pacquiao's domination of Clottey had fans twiddling their thumbs and analysts grumbling (photo: Chris Cozzone, The Times Online)

Boxing is a completely different animal, and not just for its style and presentation.  Since its inception, the business model for boxing has been to sell fights and/or individual fighters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, obviously, since the sport has survived and thrived for many years using this method. The problem is that it gives the appearance that the promotional system in place for boxing is archaic and out of touch. As cliché as it sounds, we live in a rapidly changing world. Technology, the world economy, business, travel, and communication have evolved, warped, and changed at a nearly incalculable and unprecedented rate. Attitudes and expectations have swung in wildly different directions in some industries. Combat sports, and boxing specifically, may be no different.

Unfortunately, boxing hasn’t changed much in terms of its approach in the last decade. They have stuck to a formula of personalities over principles. Promoters still negotiate the most politically viable fights possible, even and particularly when it comes to championship bouts. For even the most loyal boxing enthusiast, championships and rankings are suspect and questionable in an industry where the two best fighters in the world can’t come together because of political power plays, grudges between a boxer and promoter, and a litany of reasons having nothing to do with actual sport and competition.

Granted, these problems exist in MMA and other sports as well, but the fact that there are really only two major draws left in boxing – Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao – should signal to many that it’s time for a major change. Even moreso that neither of them are anywhere close to heavyweight, which is still the biggest potential money maker in combat sports despite the fact that it doesn’t even exist in the eyes of the mainstream in North America. I’d like to say that mainstream fans have simply come to appreciate the more technically sound and faster-paced lighter weight classes, but the unfortunate truth is that an industry that thrives on marketing personalities cannot sell North American audiences on bouts between Eastern European and Russian boxers.

Then again, maybe they could if boxing changed its approach. Pacquiao and Mayweather are still drawing mainstream attention and money, but perhaps nowhere near what they could bring in. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to help the industry as a whole. It may be time for them to shift to a model where interest is built around an entire evening of bouts with an intriguing main event, rather than a single fight built around a superstar facing a fighter for whom millions of dollars is spent in vain to convince a skeptical audience is a worthy contender.

The pay-per-view will do good numbers based on the presence of Manny Pacquiao and the fact that the fight took place in the spectacle of Cowboys stadium. Unfortunately, you can’t pull the same ballyhoo trick of a stadium locale twice. Fans are going to be more skeptical than ever, particularly after what they saw on Saturday night. The announcers (who themselves may see a need to change to a more big-card rather than big-fight approach) completely buried the undercard throughout the broadcast and openly admitted to the audience that the fights and fighters they were watching belonged nowhere near a card costing in excess of fifty dollars. As for the fight itself, to call it a one-sided affair would be an understatement. Pacquiao threw 1,231 punches over the course of twelve rounds to Clottey’s 399. That’s not a typo.

As far as how to execute a new game plan, I won’t pretend to have all the answers. I concede as well that making these changes is easier said than done. Boxing doesn’t have the benefit of having come up in the last two decades under essentially one banner, and as such you have a lot of powerful and influential promoters and players involved. Beyond the logistics of getting everyone to come together for the benefit of the sport and against their own individual financial interests, it’s tougher to stack a full boxing card as opposed to MMA since boxing fights tend (and are scheduled) to last longer.

All I’m saying is that something has to be done. Despite what some analysts would lead you to believe, boxing and MMA are not engaged in a direct competition. It’s not a zero sum game where people won’t watch boxing because they watch the UFC. I myself am primarily a fan of MMA, but I’ll certainly watch boxing when it’s made available (and intriguing) to me. However, there are two big obstacles to me developing a greater and more consistent appreciation of boxing. One is the cost of pay-per-views, which in addition to all of the MMA shows would break me. The other is lack of interest amongst both personal friends in the area and local establishments that would potentially show these fights.

Different promotional strategies, like the Super Six World Boxing Classic, are key to attracting and maintaining a new audience.

In fairness, there are people in the boxing game that recognize this as a problem and are offering attempts at a solution. Showtime and Sauerland Event promotion organized the “Super Six World Boxing Classic,” a tournament containing six top-ranked Super Middleweights to decide a consensus Unified Super Middleweight Champion (consisting of the WBC and WBA titles).  The tournament started in late 2009 and is ongoing. Though criticized by some, it’s a unique and fascinating approach. It has created interest not only in a whole boxing division that had been ignored, but also makes names out of six fighters who otherwise might be unknown to the layman fight fan.

Hopefully it’s the beginning of a new trend of promoters and promotions trying new techniques beyond throwing someone up against a mega-star and praying that enough people buy him as a viable challenger. Boxing isn’t dead or on life support, but to pretend it hasn’t lost much of its luster stateside is foolish and self-defeating. There is a way to renew interest in the sport and pull in fans such as myself. They just have to concede to change and not write me off as an unreachable audience.

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