This is the biggest fight in boxing history.
Finally, after more than five years of waiting, the world will get the fight it wants Saturday night: Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. Everything about this fight is big. It’s the two biggest fighters in the sport. It’ll be the biggest payout in boxing history — it’s estimated to hit $400 million. It’ll be the biggest boxing gate ever at almost $80 million, nearly four times the $20 million record Mayweather vs. Canelo Álvarez set a couple years ago.
With the rise of the UFC and the increased popularity of team sports like football and basketball, a lot of people have said over the last 10 years that boxing is dead. But this fight will prove that boxing isn’t dead — it’s just been sleeping a little. This is boxing’s opportunity to show the world that the sport is about to wake up in a big way.
This fight has the potential to spark a boxing renaissance.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Atlanta. I remember as a little kid watching Saturday afternoon fights — Boom Boom Mancini, Alexis Argüello, Salvador Sánchez, Arturo Frias — it was something I looked forward to all week. I never missed Saturday afternoon fights.
A lot of poor kids get into boxing because you don’t need money to get started. It’s not like football or baseball, where you need to buy equipment or pay to join a league. If you live in the inner city, you need to learn how to box anyway, just to survive. You don’t even need gloves. All you need is an opponent and a teacher. And on the streets, sometimes that’s the same person.
But for it to become a passion, you need to have heroes. Sure, I wanted to be Muhammad Ali like every other kid, but I wasn’t anything like Muhammad Ali. There’s never been anyone like Muhammad Ali. But it was the fighters I saw on TV, that I could really identify with, that showed me I could go out and be like Muhammad Ali one day. Guys like the Spinks brothers — Michael and Leon — in the 1976 Olympics. The Spinks brothers were from East St. Louis, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, and they weren’t very articulate or well-educated. But man, could they box.
I could identify with them, and when I saw them fighting on TV, I wanted to be like them. Watching the Spinks brothers, who looked like me and came from the same background as me, I thought, Shoot, they used to be me, and now they’re out there winning gold medals, so why can’t I go be them?
Today, kids don’t see boxing on TV, especially kids in poor neighborhoods. The Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight is on pay-per-view and is going for about $100. What inner-city household is ordering that fight? They’re not. They can’t. And the fights today that aren’t PPV are on Showtime and HBO — premium cable stations that poor, inner-city families can’t afford.
Lack of visibility is one of the main reasons that boxing’s popularity has suffered. It’s not because people don’t like boxing. People love violence. People love combat. Look at the UFC: The main reason it’s so successful is that there has been a void to fill. Boxing took itself out of the mainstream by moving to PPV and premium cable, and the UFC took advantage by scheduling a ton of fights and promoting them on basic cable.
Kids can’t have heroes if they can’t see them. Since they don’t see boxing on TV, they choose to pursue football or basketball instead — because those games are televised every week. Those are the guys they see all the time, so that’s who they want to be like. Those are their heroes.
Youth participation has been on the decline for so long now that the quality of boxing we’re seeing is suffering, even at the highest level.
Example: Bryant Jennings started boxing at Age 24, and he fought just 17 amateur fights. (I started at Age 8 and fought 174 amateur fights.) Last weekend — after starting his pro career 19-0 and just six years after picking up the sport — he fought Wladimir Klitschko for a world championship. So a guy who basically just picked up the sport is considered worthy of fighting to become the world champion.
That’s not a knock on Jennings. Jennings is a powerful fighter. Of his 19 wins, 10 came by knockout. But that’s what boxing has become. Fighters aren’t coming up through youth programs and learning how to box strategically and technically. They’re not learning the science and the art of boxing. Guys just know how to fight, and are powerful punchers, so they take up boxing. All you see is Jab, Jab, Haymaker … Jab, Jab, Haymaker. It’s just guys wailing at each other.
Klitschko defeated Jennings because he was skilled enough defensively to avoid the big blows. Without being able to land a wild haymaker, Jennings didn’t stand a chance. He was out-boxed.
That’s another reason Saturday’s fight is so important for boxing. There are so few boxers as technically skilled as Mayweather and Pacquiao because most fighters don’t learn how to box anymore. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the perfect fighters to showcase on the biggest stage. It’ll be boxing at its very best. But it’s what needs to happen after the big fight that could determine boxing’s future. To really start this boxing renaissance, three things have to happen.
Step 1: Create Interest
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao will take care of that itself. The whole world will stop to watch this fight.
Step 2: Increase Visibility
We need boxing back where people — especially kids — can see it, which is on standard cable TV. Boxing manager/adviser Al Haymon is already starting this movement.
Already in 2015, Al Haymon — who many believe is the most powerful man in boxing — has made deals to bring his Premier Boxing Champions series to NBC, CBS, Spike TV and Bounce TV. The series has already aired five fight cards over the last couple months and has contracts to air 20 total cards in 2015. Boxing is finally being reintroduced into the mainstream because it’s on cable TV again.
There are even some fight cards being aired on Saturday afternoons, just like when I was a kid.
After the worldwide spotlight Mayweather vs. Pacquiao shines on the sport, bringing this series to cable TV has the opportunity to carry that momentum and keep fans interested. Saturday’s fight can put boxing back on the map, but Al Haymon’s cable TV deals have the potential to keep it there long-term.
Step 3: Develop Youth Programs
With Saturday’s fight and Al Haymon’s TV deals, boxing’s interest and visibility will be the highest it’s been in a long time. But there is one more step to truly sparking a renaissance for this sport. And that is the development of youth programs.
The overall quality of boxing today isn’t what it used to be. There’s a difference between fighting and boxing. Today, there are more fighters — like Bryant Jennings — than there are real boxers. And it’s because guys never truly learn how to box like I did, at a young age, working out at the Boys Club.
They say the best baseball teams are the ones that have the best farm clubs. Where’s the farm system for boxing? You can have all the exposure in the world, but if you don’t have a feeder system to groom the next great boxers, you can’t grow the sport.
If the trend of bad boxing continues and the quality of fights keeps slipping, people will stop watching — even hardcore boxing fans. Unless we increase participation in youth programs and develop the next generation of fans and fighters, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao and all of Al Haymon’s efforts won’t have any long-term impact. Those guys will still make a ton of money. But when it’s over, boxing will be right back where it started.
The old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. Boxing needs to get creative.
Imagine having the Evander Holyfield Youth Boxing Club. We could have regional tournaments. We’d call it the Legends Boxing Tournament series. It’d be Mike Tyson’s New York team vs. Bernard Hopkins’s Philadelphia team. Oscar De La Hoya’s Los Angeles team vs. George Foreman’s Texas team.
Maybe we could even get some of the fights on Al Haymon’s cable TV undercards.
I like the sound of that … and it’s possible.
I’m excited that Mayweather vs. Pacquiao is finally going to happen. Yes, it’s going to create a huge opportunity for boxing because of the exposure it’ll bring, but it’s also gonna be a great fight. Mayweather and Pacquiao are both on the older side at 38 and 36 years old, but they’re in better shape than any athletes in the world. Say what you want about Floyd Mayweather, but he’s a workout maniac. You won’t find an athlete at any age in better shape than Floyd. And Pacquiao could go for 20 rounds if he had to. You’ve never heard a commentator say “Pacquiao’s getting tired” during a fight. It doesn’t happen.
Even though I’m more excited to see what happens after the fight, and how boxing takes advantage of the exposure, there’s nothing like fight night. I’m not making a pick in this fight because I know that with the extreme contrast of styles — right-hander vs. southpaw, relentless offense vs. impenetrable defense — it could really go either way. I will predict that it will go to the judges, and my only hope is that it will be these two great boxers that decide this fight, not the randomness and subjectivity we’ve seen too much of in judges’ decisions.
Lastly, I hope this fight can be the spark that puts boxing on track to getting back to the glory days of Saturday afternoon boxing — with guys like the Spinks brothers on TV screens across the country, and with little Evander Holyfields watching and thinking, I want to be like them. When I grow up, I want to be a boxer.