There was a time – before many of those reading this were born – when live boxing on free-to-air television (although the phrase did not exist then) entertained a generation of Americans two or three times a week.
That was the Fifties, the tail-end of the golden age, according to nostalgics, with Sugar Robinson and Rocky Marciano among the most recognised sporting celebrities on the planet.
In Britain, boxing fans grew up with live boxing on the BBC – even the amateurs, with stars such as Dick McTaggart and Terry Spinks known to a vast audience because they wore no headguards and the sport was still widespread in schools and clubs. ITV came to the party later and, for a while, there was that most treasured of capitalist commodities: competition.
Then came Sky, and the terrestrials took flight, for a variety of reasons.
And, whatever the excellence of the satellite station’s coverage – along with that provided by Showtime and HBO in America, as well as a string of minor outlets – it is the move away from readily available, subscription-free coverage that those who have only a passing interest in the sport regard as the beginning of the end for boxing as mass consumer entertainment.
That’s not the whole story. Being spoilt for choice with hundreds of channels is a natural consequence of growth in the industry, not an excuse to complain there is nothing to watch or that it is too hard to find your allegedly favourite sport. But then I’m not a casual fan. Nor are the hardcore subscribers who watch BoxNation. This is the last redoubt of the sport, a fortress for those who will watch just about anything involving unarmed combat.
However, the return of ITV to cover Carl Frampton’s defence of his IBF super-bantamweight title in Belfast last weekend, when he stopped Chris Avalos so emphatically, was a welcome development. If they are serious about boxing – and Channel 5 remain interested – the whole landscape changes.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, not exactly a home for boxing coverage since those heady days more than half a century ago, was stirred to comment the other day on a story that might yet take us all back to the glorious past, although these are early days in Al Haymon’s experiment with NBC (shared with Channel 4 here).
In a well-argued piece, William C Rhoden summed it up nicely what is regarded as boxing’s self-inflicted poison: “Too many belts, too few personalities and lawlessness became a turn-off.”
We are familiar with the hinterland that sentence describes and there is little point arguing against its validity. What Haymon is trying to do (probably not for any philanthropic reasons, it is fair to say), is return boxing to its wider constituency. It is to be hoped it works. As history tells us, a fit and rousing fight game in America gives the sport a buzz that can be felt all over the world.
Haymon must be well pleased with his first show on NBC, according to reports of the main event, a belting 12-rounder for the WBA welterweight title in which Keith Thurman decked Robert Guerrero in the ninth, paying for his lop-sided points victory with a sizeable egg on his left eye.
Waiting for Floyd
In the best tradition of having a bit each way, Al Haymon has his real earning beast on pay-per-view, of course. And Floyd Mayweather’s teasing build-up to his eventual – some (retrospectively, at least) would say inevitable – showdown with Manny Pacquiao has been a masterclass in media manipulation.
At the time of writing, it seems the only time they will share a media podium before the real hullabaloo of “fight week” will be in Los Angeles on Wednesday, an accreditation-only affair that might be interesting or could retread too many familiar themes to be worth even a cursory glance.
Anything with Mayweather’s name on it, however, generates plenty of ink; ditto Pacquiao. It is probably why the promoters are not bothering with a media tour, as such. There is little need. The fight sells itself.
And will the actual boxing match the millions and millions of words that precede it? You would hope so, or the fight billed as the greatest in the history of boxing might be remembered as a limp comma in a very long sentence.
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