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BOXING IS IN A SORRY STATE IN THE UNITED STATES, WHERE INTEREST IS AT AN ALL-TIME LOW WELCOME TO PUNCH-DRUNK, U.S.A.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

I'm looking for a good fight.

To get the blood boiling, the guys together, people talking, taking sides, making ridiculous boasts, pounding their chests.

A boxing match to get America excited.

With fighters of true interest. Champions to admire and follow and cheer.

Instead, boxing is vanishing on the American landscape.

It's dying a slow death. Swallowed by international interests and a weak U.S. output of boxers and poor network/cable television decisions.

Most people seem fine with this. The lament is seldom heard. Like thoroughbred racing, a sport that had its day.

Yet never has boxing been so low in this country, been all but ignored or forgotten or intentionally dismissed.

The general American sports fan could not name three top boxers today, and that's if you spot them soon-to-be-retired Oscar De La Hoya. Would be hard pressed to name the last fight that truly captured the American imagination.

Boxing in this country has been in a downward spiral for years, but it's never been this invisible, never this unimportant on the sporting scene. It's wobbling, a boxer who has taken one too many blows in the late rounds.

``I believe it,'' said Gil Clancy, the Hall of Fame trainer. ``The major thing that's happened is, before in the heavyweight division there was always a guy coming up that captured the American imagination. There's not one guy like that anymore.''

Boxing has inherent problems on the modern scene. There are too many boxing organizations (four) that recognize their own champion and way too many divisions (17).

That makes for a whopping 68 individual champions. And of the 17 weight classes, there is not a single unified champion. All but two divisions actually have fourdifferent champions.

It's confusing and nonsensical and self-defeating for a sport that needs focus. A sport that delivers its own body blows.

Yet this surplus of champions, and only a handful are Americans. Of the 68 po tential champions, only seven are Americans. And chances are, you've never heard of most of them.

``It's sad,'' Clancy said.

There are champions from Canada and England and Denmark and Japan and Mexico, and from all over the former USSR. Like in other sports, America continues to lose ground internationally.

``I don't see it changing,'' said promoter Bob Arum.

Boxing fans remain in number, but for the sport to flourish it needs the casual sports fan to pay attention. But they no longer follow boxing, no longer follow any individual fighter.

The heavyweight division has always been the glamour division. Most of the sport's great champions, its legends, sprang from those landing the biggest blows.

America developed great heavyweights one after another, until it almost felt it was a birthright. Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Lewis, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson.

Now the four current heavyweight champions all come from the former USSR -- Nikolai Valuev (Russia), Oleg Maskaev (Kazakhstan), Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine) and Sergei Liakhovich (Belarus).

There is no great U.S. heavyweight and none on the way.

``There is nobody who has captured the American imagination,'' Clancy said. ``We don't have anybody like that.

``I still have faith that all of a sudden a hero will arrive. But I see nobody on the horizon. I don't see it happening now.''

Arum said the boxing pipeline is drying up. The general interest in America long ago waned.

``The gyms are empty,'' he said. ``What fighters there are, are usually Hispanic. There are very few Americans because they don't see the opportunity.''

America is left to put up with the ongoing clown act of the 40-year-old Tyson, who is now ready to charge $29.95 to watch him fight exhibitions against more guys nobody has ever heard of. On Tuesday he even announced he might fight women; no word yet on Tonya Harding's availability.

America still loves a good fight movie (Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man), and will watch a contrived boxing reality show (The Contender). It just has precious few U.S. boxers to cheer.

Arum places much of the blame on cable, which regularly broadcasts fights, but typically of established boxers. He said other countries televise their own boxers and provide an avenue for them to develop.

``We're not developing the home-grown talent like we used once did with the Sugar Ray Leonards and Marvin Haglers,'' Arum said. ``Part of that is because it's very difficult when a kid is breaking in to get that fighter on a network.

``In other parts of the world they broadcast the local talent -- in Japan and Thailand and England -- because they feel that's what attracts viewers. Here the focus is on the top talent.

``The American kids are not getting exposed, they're not being developed.''

It's something of a Catch-22. HBO and Showtime prefer to broadcast title matches, but if they're usually with foreigners, the American following is not developing like it could and national interest declines.

``They don't think that way,'' Arum said.

Arum said he has Ohio's Kelly Pavlik, who is 28-0 with 25 KOs, but struggles to get him on prime broadcasts.

``Years ago, he would have been a sensation,'' Arum said. ``An undefeated middleweight who knocks people out everywhere. He can't get on the premium channels. It's the most frustrating thing.''

Probably America's best boxer, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is scheduled to box Carlos Baldomir on Nov. 4 in Las Vegas for the latter's welterweight title. It should be a top fight, though the buzz is difficult to hear.

Fights no longer get America in a sporting tizzy, don't send hearts racing, no longer have significant impact.

``In my opinion, Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden (1971) was the greatest sporting event in American history,'' Clancy said. ``Everybody who was anybody was there.''

That was a long time ago. A long time to go looking for a good fight.

stephen.dilbeck@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) ERIC "MIGHT MOUSE" AIKEN, former IBF featherweight champion (2 -- color) Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, 40, has set up a tour to fight unknowns, and has also suggested a fight against a woman.

Hector Mata/Getty Images

(3 -- color) Today's heavyweight division is a far cry from the days of Joe Frazier, left, George Foreman, center, and Muhuammad Ali.

Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

(4 -- color) Nikolai Valuev, right, of Russia, with promoter Don King, is one of four heavyweight champions from the former USSR.

Ronny Hartmann/Bongarts/Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 18, 2006
Words:1085
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