Business of Boxing: Down for the Count?

Boxing is suffering from image and fan problems. Despite recent Hollywood blockbusters about the sport, boxing doesn't grip sports fans the way it once did.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And today, the business of boxing is our topic.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson returns to the ring this Saturday night for the first time in almost a year. He'll fight Kevin McBride in Washington, DC. Championship fights are no longer carried on network television, and there's not much print coverage, either. Boxing insiders insist the sport and the business of boxing are healthier than they may appear. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Once upon a time, when Mike Tyson was young and fearsome and unbeatable, all a fight promoter had to do to generate interest was mention Tyson's name. Now this is how Showtime is trying to get people to shell out the $45 Pay Per View fee for Saturday's fight:

(Soundbite of Showtime promotion)

Unidentified Man #1: You know his name. You know his power...

Unidentified Announcer #1: ...big right hand by Mike Tyson!

Unidentified Man #1: But what you don't know is what'll happen next.

Unidentified Man #2: There's going to be a train wreck.

Unidentified Man #1: Mike Tyson vs. 6'6" giant Kevin McBride, Saturday, June 11th, live on Pay Per View. With Mike Tyson, anything is possible.

GOLDMAN: You can almost hear the carnival barker: `Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Come see the boxing carnivore. Will he bite his opponent's ears? Will he try to bite everyone outside the ring?' Most likely none of that will happen, but people will come and the mainstream media will cover, because the volatile Mike Tyson always has been an easy sell, and he's pretty much all the general public knows about boxing, even a sports fan like Pete Roman of Kensington, Maryland. Roman essentially failed a boxing pop quiz on the streets of Washington, DC, this week. The question? Other than Tyson, can you name any other current fighters?

Mr. PETE ROMAN (Sports Fan): I know who Winky Wright is. There are a couple of others that I'll recognize if I see them, but otherwise, no, not really.

GOLDMAN: Roman had a much easier time listing the reasons why he doesn't closely follow boxing anymore.

Mr. ROMAN: I think there's a perception that it's corrupt. I think there's a problem because there are just too many divisions, there are too many leagues. You got a problem that there's no real heavyweight star right now. I think you really need a heavyweight star in order to bring people to boxing. The real showcase for boxing is who's the heavyweight champion?

GOLDMAN: Like Ali and Frazier 30 years ago, or Larry Holmes 20 years ago, even 15 years ago with Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. And with the so-called alphabet soup governing organizations--the WBA, WBC, IBF--creating so many different divisions, it is hard for the average person to figure out who's the one real champion in each weight class.

Still, Nigel Collins, the editor in chief of Ring magazine, says boxing isn't quite the wasteland many believe it is. Collins notes last year's middleweight championship match between Oscar de la Hoya and Bernard Hopkins, the largest-grossing fight for 2004.

Mr. NIGEL COLLINS (Editor in Chief, The Ring Magazine): There was approximately one million Pay Per View buys at $55 each. That's 55 million bucks before we even count in the live gate and all the other extras that go with it.

GOLDMAN: There are lucrative fights, according to Collins, and memorable fights that often fly under the mainstream media's radar.

(Soundbite of boxing match)

Unidentified Announcer #2: They take one step back and come forward again, and wail away, those swinging punches...

GOLDMAN: A fight televised on Showtime last month between lightweights Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo turned out to be an epic contest. It was both brilliant and savage, as the two boxers traded thunderous blows round after round, an unforgettable and excruciating experience for Diego Corrales.

Mr. DIEGO CORRALES (Boxer): I had never, ever, in my life felt my insides like I felt my inside. I mean, everything ached like it had been beaten, I mean, oh, with a meat tenderizer. Not the bones, underneath the bones, deep inside pain, things you shouldn't feel.

(Soundbite of boxing match)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Castillo's in trouble! Weeks steps in and the fight is over! Corrales with a remarkable, dramatic turnaround to win this fight. Unbelievable!

GOLDMAN: Corrales won in the 10th after being knocked down twice in that same round. Boxing fans and boxing writers called it one of the greatest fights ever, in the same rarified air as Ali vs. Frazier. But Sports Illustrated magazine didn't mention the fight. Most major newspapers did not have reporters or columnists covering it. That said, the American public still has the capacity to be deeply moved by a good boxing story.

(Soundbite of "Cinderella Man")

Unidentified Man: I got you a fight. Just one fight and one fight only. It's not a comeback.

Unidentified Announcer #3: Looks like they dug old Jim Braddock out of retirement.

GOLDMAN: The current boxing film "Cinderella Man" follows last year's Academy Award-winning "Million Dollar Baby." Americans always have loved boxing tales of gritty characters who achieve great things with heart and tenacity.

(Soundbite of theme from "Rocky")

GOLDMAN: "Rocky" is the gold standard for such films and an example, says boxing editor Nigel Collins, of how Hollywood can help the sport, or at least how it helped 30 years ago.

Mr. COLLINS: Back in the '70s, when there was a lot more coverage on television and in newspapers, you know, when people were suddenly--their interest was sparked. They could pick up the paper that they had every day anyway to read about the baseball and football, and by golly, there was a boxing story. So it's a lot harder for the synergy to work today.

GOLDMAN: Boxing will never return to the days of more than half a century ago when it ruled the American sports landscape along with baseball and horse racing. Can it, though, get back into the mainstream? Reformers say you have to, at best, get rid of the governing bodies, the WBA, the WBC, etc., or at least control them so they don't have so much power and influence. Also there's the enduring belief that Congress can force meaningful reform and control the crooks in boxing. But like Rocky, these remedies are long shots. The problem, says Nigel Collins, is that fighters, managers, promoters, cable TV networks, prefer short-range profits at the expense of the long-range future an integrity of the sport, meaning for the foreseeable future it'll be status quo, boxing as a niche sport with loyal fans, most of the publicity going to Mike Tyson in and out of the ring and to spectacles like the one planned for this summer in Mississippi, when pro boxer Ann Wolfe takes on a male fighter.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of theme from "Rocky")

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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