by Tom Lembo

Boxing is dead. That’s the old cliche and some sports fans have heard it so often and began repeating the mantra so many times that without any knowledge or research to support the claim, it’s believed to be true.

The fact is boxing will never die. Not for lack of popularity anyway. When lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez (51-2, 28 KO) defended his title against Martin Murray (26-1-1, 11 KO) on April 27, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina the attendance for his homecoming was in excess of 40,000 fans. In Wladimir Klitschko’s (61-3, 51 KO) most recent defense of the heavyweight title against Alexander Povetkin (26-1, 18 KO) Olympic Stadium in Moscow, Russia sold out in minutes and in Germany the bout drew 12 million viewers, which is approximately 15% of the population of the entire country. Stateside, Floyd Mayweather Jr. (45-0, 26 KO) will sell out the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada for the ninth consecutive time on May 3rd when he defends his welterweight belts against Marcos Maidana (35-3, 31 KO) and his last defense sold over 2 million pay-per-view buys in the US.

That being stated, boxing can always stand to improve the product and entice new fans. There are many issues plaguing the sweet science and in this article I will go in order from most important issues down to pet peeves that could help make boxing more popular.

1. End the Cold War
Top Rank and Golden Boy are to the promotion side of boxing what the Republican and Democratic parties are to politics. They aren’t the only two at the table but together they carry 90% of the power. Unfortunately for fight fans the top promotional companies get along like oil and vinegar. Additionally, the two powerhouses of televising boxing in the US are premium networks HBO and Showtime and they too have drawn lines in the sand. HBO works exclusively with Top Rank and its stable of fighters and Showtime with Golden Boy. This is why fans have been shutout of dream matches like Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao (55-5, 38 KO) or Timothy Bradley (31-0, 12 KO) and continue to get stuck with unimaginative rematches, Pacquiao has fought Juan Manuel Marquez four times and if they win their next fights are mandated for a fifth showdown. It’s up to Top Rank and Golden Boy to bury the hatchet and match the best against the best, it’s the most important thing boxing can do to help itself.

2. Judges
Everyone has seen it. The fight where you scratch your head and wonder what those three people were doing in the ringside seats when they were supposed to be closely monitoring and scoring a world class prizefight. Poor judging must stop for the sport to regain credibility among the fans. My thoughts on this are a bit radical because the issue is so critical to the health of the sport and change needs to be made immediately. I think the fix (no pun intended) can be three-fold; First, we need to judge the judges. Poor scorecards cannot be tolerated and the men and women responsible for deciding these fights need proper training and to be held accountable. Second, increase the number of judges from three to five. The best way to get the correct consensus is to ask as many qualified people as possible. Third, the scoring of rounds is a bit archaic; I propose scoring rounds with 5 points each, a fighter can only win a round 5-0 with a knockdown(s), 4-1 for dominating without a knockdown and 3-2 for winning a close round. This way there will be far fewer draws (which should be popular), and while most rounds will still be decided by one point, boxers will get additional credit for rounds where they put in more work.

3. Drug Testing
This one should be simple, these fighters are risking everything when they enter the ring, the most sophisticated, year-round drug testing possible has to be used for professional boxers. The sport is dangerous enough as it is, no one should have the advantages of steroids or banned diuretics. There is more than enough money in the world of boxing to do everything to keep the fighters safe from cheats.

4. Tougher penalties for missing weight
Fighters weighing above the contracted amount at weigh-ins and paying a penalty has become far too common a practice in the sport of boxing. Many boxers will lose their belts (and some money) on the scales but it’s a fair trade to them if it means they win the bout. Orlando Salido (41-12-2, 28 KO) pulled off this stunt and won his HBO-televised bout with highly touted amateur and Olympic gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko (1-1, 1 KO). For many fighters it’s worth losing a belt (Salido was intending to move up to a higher weight class after the fight anyway) and a percentage (usually around ten) of the purse in order to get the win and the future paycheck(s). It’s time to start suspending fighters for missing weight. The contract is signed and its the duty of the fighter and his team to honor the obligations and make the weight.

5. Pay-per-view vs. Cable
Being a boxing fan hits you right in the wallet. The sport is hidden from those who don’t have premium cable packages or deep pockets to shell out for pay-per-views that range from $50 – $70 each (depending on standard or high definition). It’s critical to the long term health of the sport to be more accessible to potential fans. Recent strides in this department include CBS airing Leo Santa Cruz’ (27-0-1, 15 KO) bantamweight title defense against Alberto Guevara (18-2, 6 KO) on December 15, 2012. It was the first boxing match aired by the broadcast giant in fifteen years. A few months later NBC took notice of the Saturday afternoon success CBS had and aired the heavyweight showdown between England’s Tyson Fury (22-0, 16 KO) and Philadelphia’s Steve Cunningham (26-6, 12 KO). ESPN is next in line, they have aired “Friday Night Fights” on ESPN2 since 1998. Now the main station will air the heavyweight title fight between Chris Arreola (36-3, 31 KO) and Bermane Stiverne (23-1, 20 KO) in prime time (8 pm EST) on May 10, 2014. This is a much higher class of boxing than ESPN has aired in a long time, and they took a fight away from HBO and Showtime, which is a big step toward getting more (and newer) viewers to enjoy an important fight.

6. Standardize rankings and belts
There are far too many belts in boxing. It’s confusing to even the most die-hard of fans. It’s also nearly impossible to win all of the belts in a weight class due to different belt holders having opposing promotional and network ties. Currently there are four fighters who hold light-heavyweight titles; Adonis Stevenson (23-1, 20 KO) is the WBC champ, the WBA strap belongs to Beibut Shumenov (14-1, 9 KO), the IBF belt belongs to the ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins (54-6-2, 32 KO) and the WBO champ is knockout artist Sergey Kovalev (23-0-1, 21 KO). Each weight class really should have one man at the top, not four. It would be great if this could be settled in the ring but Kovalev and Stevenson are with HBO (Stevenson is rumored to be leaving) and Shumenov and Hopkins are with Showtime (see issue #1). Belts used to mean the world to a fighter, now many are used as negotiating tools to make more money for a fight, or worse, are discarded and left vacant by fighters who fail to make weight and use that advantage to win a bout.

7. Reverse the “No standing 8 count” rule
The standard rules of professional boxing include a no standing 8 count. In amateur fights, if one participant is taking too much punishment the referee can step in and access the damage, stopping the barrage for a moment to make a decision if the fight can and should continue. In professional boxing when the referee puts one arm around a fighter and waves the other from side to side, it’s all over. Many times fights end in as much controversy due to questionable referee stoppages (Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios I, Carl Froch-George Groves) as poor judging decisions. A standing 8 count would allow the referee valuable time to make sure a classic in the making isn’t stopped prematurely.

8. Unionize
This may be the ultimate answer to many of the aforementioned issues with the fight world. A strong union for boxers would help with negotiating measures to make the sport safer (issues # 3, 4, & 7), less corrupt (issue # 2) and more organized (issue #6). Additionally, union dues can be used to help aid former fighters going through medical difficulties.

For all that’s wrong, broken and/or corrupt with the sport, there is so much to love about boxing. It’s a sport without a season, a year long never ending drama. It’s an international sport, hugely popular in England, Germany, Mexico, Russia and many other countries. And for all the drama that goes on outside of the ring, nothing competes with the action inside of it. One of the great lures of boxing is the “punchers chance”- you can lose all of the preceding eleven rounds of a prizefight and win it with one big punch, what other sport has that?

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