Boxing gets a big fight

There's a buzz in this gambling town, where the events of next weekend are making some remember boxing's better times.

updated: April 30, 2007 15:46 IST
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Las Vegas:

There's a buzz in this gambling town, where the events of next weekend are making some remember boxing's better times.

The city is sold out, the beautiful people are on their way, and Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr are acting as if it's 1985 all over again.

The conventional wisdom is that the sport is dead, killed by greed and mismanagement and scorned by a younger generation that would rather watch fighters try to choke and kick each other.

But you would never know it by Super Bowl-like ticket resale prices that start at $1,000 for nosebleed seats and go to $20,000 for ringside next Saturday at the MGM Grand hotel-casino.

The fight is a perfect storm for boxing, at a time it desperately needs it. If you believe the hype, and there's no lacking of hype when it comes to this fight, it could be the richest ever when all the various sources of income are finally added up.

The bout is so big it not only has its own beer can, but its own reality show. Tecate is peddling the beer, and HBO is peddling the fight with a half-hour reality series starring the wacky Mayweathers in their role as the dysfunctional first family of boxing.

Tune in and you'll see Floyd's father walk out of camp because his brother, who trains Mayweather, is disrespecting him. If you're lucky, maybe the grizzled and dreadlocked Floyd Sr., who used to train De La Hoya, will recite one of his fractured poems about their fractured relationship.

De La Hoya, meanwhile, will concentrate on doing what he does best, look good. That's his role in this fight, while Mayweather has undertaken the chore of being the villain to US boxing's only remaining superstar.

Mayweather has done his job well, so well that this figures to be the biggest of all the big fights De La Hoya has been in.

That includes a lot of fights, since De La Hoya has basically been the only fighter other than Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield who has consistently been able to sell the pay-per-view buys that are the linchpin of every boxing promotion.

De La Hoya has generated an astonishing $492 million in pay-per-view revenue alone in his career, and this fight will move him past Tyson and Holyfield to become the biggest grossing boxing attraction.

He's doing it even while fighting sparingly in recent years, and losing two of his last four fights. Despite that, De La Hoya remains the only true box office attraction in a sport that used to have them in bunches.

And that is where the real problem lies.

One huge fight is one thing, but it's an aberration. Boxing has been losing fans in such numbers that even a megafight like the ones that seemed to happen almost every year during the 1980s isn't likely to bring them back into the fold again.

There are so many titles the average fan doesn't know who the champions are, you have to reach into your pocket to watch the best fights on TV, and there is no US network television coverage at all.

The best US athletes go into basketball and American football these days, the U.S. national amateur system is a joke, and promoters don't reinvest a dime in anything that won't sell their next promotion.

Tyson and Lennox Lewis are retired, Holyfield should be, and the heavyweight division is ruled by Russians and a Ukrainian. Younger fans who grew up following the theatrics of pro wrestling now cheer mixed martial fighters because they saw them on television in a reality series and can relate to them better.

Even more troubling is this: If De La Hoya loses to Mayweather and oddsmakers make Floyd Jr a 2-1 favorite, boxing may have lost its last megastar. Mayweather may be regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, but he doesn't come close to selling tickets like De La Hoya.

For one night, though, those problems will be forgotten. The fight has already set a record for the biggest live gate at $19 million, celebrities are jockeying for ringside seats, and $50 tickets to watch on closed circuit at other Las Vegas hotels already are being sold for three times that amount.

Promoters are being coy, but it's clear they think they have a chance to come close to the record 2 million pay-per-view sales set in the second fight between Tyson and Holyfield. There's little doubt the fight will be the richest nonheavyweight fight and could be the richest fight of any kind.

It won't revitalize boxing overnight. It might, however, get some people paying attention again. Now all De La Hoya and Mayweather have to do is deliver. Because boxing doesn't just need a big fight. It needs a great fight.