Madison Square Garden is known to fight fans as “The Mecca of Boxing.” However, last Saturday when Heavyweight Champion Wladimir Klitschko defended his title in the hallowed arena, there was little mainstream media coverage to be found. Known as “Dr. Steelhammer,” a massive statue of a human being, Klitschko is by all merits one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Over the last ten years, he has wiped out every contender to cross his path, with the exception of his loyal brother Vitali, an equally dominant and even larger heavyweight. Vitali is now retired and the mayor of war-torn Kiev (the brothers, in honoring a promise to their late mother, vowed to never fight each other). There was once a time in this country where a heavyweight title fight in Madison Square Garden was the focus of the sports world. Muhammad Ali’s fight at the Garden with Joe Frazier in 1971 was one of the most hyped events in American sports history. Those days are long gone.
Instead, the focus of the sports world lies on a fight that will be taking place one week later involving two men who are approximately one-foot and 100-pounds smaller than the two Ukrainian brutes. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is finally fighting Manny Pacquiao, in what is the biggest fight and most hyped event in the boxing world since the first Ali-Frazier scuffle 44-years-ago. If you follow sports at all, and probably even if you don’t, you know about it.
It’s being billed by many pundits as the fight to save boxing, which is absurd. Many others say it doesn’t matter because the sport is already dead, or “on life-support” as Slate’s Robert Weintraub claims. Also ridiculous. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser has been saying for years that no one cares about boxing. The always arrogant Mike Francesa, “The Sports Pope” of New York City, claims he used to love boxing, but simply says there are no fights worth watching anymore, which is why boxing doesn’t matter to anyone. Joe Drape in the New York Times wrote this week, “The epitaph for a sport that once commanded the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and minted heroes and antiheroes ... has been written in larger and larger type over the past decades.”
Commentaries like these are sheer ignorance at best, borderline racism and xenophobia at worst. Those who say that boxing isn’t popular, or that boxing is a dead sport, are really only pointing out that boxing isn’t popular with middle-to-upper-class white Americans, the only demographic they seem to care about. What you won’t find in the mainstream media is someone that claims the sport to be alive and thriving, with or without Mayweather and Pacquiao. Here’s the thing: it is.
Here in the United States, boxing is big in African-American communities, in Puerto Rican communities, and in Mexican communities. Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto, a man who has lost to both Mayweather and Pacquiao, sells out Madison Square Garden every year on the eve of New York City’s Puerto Rican Day parade. Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, the current face of Mexican boxing, brings in huge crowds all over Texas and California. On May 9th, he’ll be fighting in Houston’s Minute Maid Park to an estimated crowd of about 40,000.
Internationally, boxing is a major sport. Recent years have seen an array of great fighters come out of Asia and Eastern Europe. Gennady Golovkin, an always smiling action fighter that has captured the imagination of American fight fans, comes from Kazakhstan. British fans are known to be the loudest and most passionate (see Ricky Hatton crowds). In Mexico, as many people tune in for Álvarez fights as people do for the Super Bowl in the U.S.A. In Montreal, a handful of French-Canadian fighters have large and devoted fan bases.
No, boxing isn’t a mainstream American sport anymore. Does that mean it’s dying? That is akin to saying soccer is dying because people in the United States don’t watch the English Premier League.
Every four years during the World Cup, soccer grasps the attention of mainstream American culture. When Floyd Mayweather fights Manny Pacquiao, boxing does the same thing. Every now and then there is a “super-fight,” and this fight will gain the attention of Katie Couric, ESPN, back-page newspaper headlines, and sports talk radio across the country. When there isn’t a super-fight, it’s a niche sport in the United States. A dying sport? No.
Saturday’s super fight is without a doubt a good thing for boxing. It is fun for boxing fans to see their sport in the spotlight for once, and it is extremely exciting that the two best fighters of an era will finally square off. But is it going to change anything for the sport going forward? Will it make pugilism more popular? Probably not. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Drape went on in his Times article to use the Klitschko fight as an example of boxing’s end-times. “It was underlined Saturday when the current heavyweight champion, Wladimir Klitschko, defended his title for the 18th time but failed to produce a sellout at what is widely considered the cradle of boxing, Madison Square Garden.”
It doesn’t sound like Drape was actually there. I was. It may not have been a full sell-out, but 17,056 spirited pro-Klitschko fans packed the Garden to the rafters. Beautiful women draped in Ukrainian flags and boisterous men sung along with the Ukraine's national anthem and erupted in cheers with every punch landed by the champion. However, if that means that boxing is dead, I don’t think Wladimir Klitschko will mind. His next fight is expected to take place in Wembley Stadium against Britain’s Tyson Fury, where he will have no problem drawing 100,000 fans.
By: Kevin Wetmore.