By Roberto José Andrade Franco
During the last 2 decades since Mike Tyson was a household name—even if infamous—any talk of boxing comes with what seems like a pre-required statement of its death. Granted, boxing, at least in this country, is not among the top sports it was a century ago. But neither is it the social pariah it was, ironically, around a century ago. And while the sport has its problems, most talk about the death of boxing confuses a lack of personal interest with an overall absence of popularity. But despite the sport’s eternal death, boxing had an eventful 2017 and 3 fights symbolize the current state of boxing. From its international popularity to the elements of carnival that continue to attract, from questions of identity it inspires, and to the problems that persist, boxing in 2017 was about as good a year as we could expect.
In April, Anthony Joshua, a 27-year-old Englishman, defeated the 41-year-old Ukrainian, Wladimir Klitschko. The victory marked an era’s transition as Klitschko, along with his older brother, controlled the heavyweight division—historically, boxing’s most popular and important division—for the better part of 2 decades. This is the natural progression of every sport where the young and talented replace the veterans but the nature of boxing makes this transition between eras much more overt. The fight, in front of 90,000 fans in London’s Wembley Stadium, also pointed to boxing’s reemergence in England and, in general, the United Kingdom, where modern boxing began. The victory for the charismatic Joshua brings hopes of boxing attracting a larger audience that’ll bring an even larger revival.
With Joshua as the division’s, and likely the sport’s, most recognizable champion, questions of the United States’s importance in hosting boxing’s major fights have emerged. New York and Las Vegas have long been the hubs of major boxing events, but with Joshua’s popularity and ability to sell-out stadiums in the United Kingdom in record-time, there’s a likelihood that unlike past boxers, he will not need to fight in the United States. This re-centering of venue, signals an enormous change since boxing came to the United States along with English and Irish immigrants during the mid-19th century. But although the fight between Joshua and Klitschko may have been the most impactful, long-term, it was not the most popular; that “fight”—if we are being generous to describe it as such—occurred in August when Floyd Mayweather Jr. faced Conor McGregor.Embed from Getty Images
Mayweather is a generational talent that’s marketed himself brilliantly as “The Best Ever”—a self-appointed title that’s delusional but easily accepted by some fans who, lacking critical thought and historical perspective, value an undefeated record that ignores strength of opposition. Regardless, the supremely skilled Mayweather fought McGregor, who is an accomplished mixed martial artist but a boxing novice. Though the fight was a boxing match, there was historical precedent for 2 fighters of different disciplines facing each other. Similarly, as boxing has a history of using race to sell fights, the promotional tour featured many of the racist tropes that never quite disappear.
The “Fight of the Century,” that unlike what that title suggests, seemingly occurs about once a decade, Mayweather versus McGregor was the second most watched pay-per-view fight of all-time and, by far, the most financially successful of the year. Mayweather won and earned a guaranteed $100 million that with incentives, could have paid him four times as much. For his part, McGregor made at least $30 million. This obscene amount of money has only inspired others to want to fight McGregor as he poses little risk to most accomplished professional boxers while potentially earning them millions for their effort. Mayweather versus McGregor was a fight that no one wanted but sold, in large part, on spectacle. Conversely, a fight that boxing fans have clamored after for years, finally occurred in September.
Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez faced Gennady Golovkin on September 16th; a Mexican holiday which along with Cinco de Mayo are the sport’s most important weekend dates, pointing to boxing’s reliance on its Latino, particularly Mexican, fan base. The fight was one marked by issues of identity as Álvarez, a fair and freckled-skinned, red-headed Mexican, fights in a defensive style that’s alienated many within the Mexican and Latino fan base. Conversely, attempting to appeal to that same fan base, Golovkin has marketed himself and through promoters as a “Mexican Style” boxer.
Remarkably, despite being from Kazakhstan, this tactic has had some success in appealing to the machista aspect within Mexican culture that, with boxing, values an offensive style with only a passing defensive focus. The fight ended in a controversial draw that resulted in the Nevada Athletic Commission removing a judge who turned in a wildly inaccurate score. The result also raised the questions of corruption that have always, and will continue, to haunt boxing. Since the sport relies on the rare fighter that appeals to more than just the small but loyal boxing crowd, there’s an inherent conflict of interest when the entire sport’s well-being is dependent on a few athletes. No one benefits if the sport’s top, young attraction losses. This is what makes the proper transition between Klitschko to Joshua was so important as well as why Mayweather has built part of his marketability on being undefeated. It is also why, when controversial decisions award a draw to someone like Álvarez—along with Joshua, the most marketable boxer—many will cry corruption.
If we only consider the fights and the attention they brought, 2017 was great for boxing with the upcoming year already showing promise. Increasingly, with network deals like in the case with ESPN, boxing is available to a wider audience. The deal will address one of the supposed problems linked boxing’s decline of popularity as major fights moved to the pay-per-view model. Another of the supposed problems was the lack of a heavyweight champion from the United States. In 2015, Deontay Wilder—from Alabama—won a version of the title and in 2018, wants to fight Anthony Joshua. If the fight does happen, even if in the United Kingdom, expect boxing to again, return to the top of sports conversation. Whether it stays there, after that potential fight, will depend on boxing; a sport with propensities of being its own biggest obstacle to overcome.
Besides the usual controversies and flat-out robberies, some promoters, as with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, have refused to help their boxers who’ve been seriously hurt. Families of these brain-damaged boxers have filed lawsuits against boxing promoters and state commissions. In one case, what’s believed as New York state’s “largest personal injury settlement,” a boxer received $22 million this past year. And for as good a year, fights-wise, as boxing had, it will always have serious problems with its participants risking grave injury. Boxing, we should not forget, remains a brutal sport where for every boxer who earns millions, thousands who risk brain damage while barely earning enough to survive. For all its positives, boxing in 2017, was no different.
Roberto José Andrade Franco is a history Ph.D. candidate at Southern Methodist University, studying how sports influence identity—specifically with boxing and Mexico. You can follow him at @R_AndradeFranco, where he shares his work and interesting archival finds that aren’t related to his research.