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28 JULY 2014

 

Precipices




By John Lumpkin: Whenever an organization loses its leader, there is always doubt amongst the public as to whether or not the organization will regain its stature. A few weekends ago, boxing’s perennial cash cow was soundly thrashed most likely forever tarnishing his drawing power. It would not be surprising to see him fight on and still command substantial fees; after all, the comeback story is one that boxing thrives on.

This does not necessarily mean he will have the type of success that will propel him in back into the ranks of the elite, but rather that our own curiosity coupled with his immense popularity will provide a sufficient outlay of funds to pay him more than most of today’s top competitors. Nevertheless, his days are numbered and the time has come to seek a new king.

The man who dethroned him isn’t a spring chicken and has publically stated that he does not expect his own career to extend beyond more than a few fights. While there are several immediate desirable challenges, should he fair well in those contests, there are not many great options remaining. The rapid rise in weight has placed him in a position where much of the opposition isn’t worth the risk. It is the same problem that afflicted the previous pound for pound king and constrained a division.

Boxing is doing fairly well these days as the many pay per view cards and premium cable shows attest. We have been riding high off the crest of the established stars that have been willing to extend their careers well past their fighting peeks. Over the next year or two, however, those same stars that rose to prominence in the previous century and during the turn will begin their inevitable departure from the sport. This is the normal cycle of boxing, but what might be a little different this time is that there are an inordinate number of stars in almost every weight class who is beyond thirty years in age.

The USA has frequently enjoyed having many of the top fighters in the world competing at the highest levels of the sport which is one of the primary factors that had led to the USA being the place for a fighter to earn his highest paydays. Much of our talent edge resulted from a combination of a good system for developing amateurs and the absence of Eastern bloc amateur greats in the professional game. Since the 1970s, which could arguably be the heyday of American boxing, we have witnessed a steady decline in America’s interest in the sport. Network television rarely show boxing on its airwaves, mainstream newspapers in most major cities relegate boxing to the back pages if they allot any space to the sport at all, and amateur clubs have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

Many of the stars of today have their roots in the USA amateur boxing program. Not all of them have Olympic medals, but many have earned their pedigree through countless fights and years of top international competition. When a nation’s amateur program suffers from a lack of participants, it is difficult for those involved to gain the level of experience needed to be the best. We saw some evidence of this in the last Olympics as the USA sent less than a full team and very few of our boxers performed well in the tournament. No stars were born.

Previous Olympic classes have performed much better than this year’s class, but there has been a steady decline which does not make this year’s performance all that surprising. To put things in perspective, consider that every class from 1976 through 1996 (including the 1980 class that did not attend) produced a fighter that at one time during his professional career would be considered the pound for pound best. The class of 1996 produced 8 world champions with 4 of them earning their first title within 4 years. The class of 2000 generated just 3 champions, none of which currently hold a belt. The 2004 class has several prospects, but none have yet to challenge for a title.

There have been a number of small resurgences of boxing participation in recent years within the USA, but nothing close to restoring what has been lost over the years. It is this decline within the underpinnings of the sport that will reshape the competitive landscape. We are already seeing signs of it as competitors from Europe and other places are usurping the roles previously under the stranglehold of US competitors. This is not necessarily good or bad, but it does raise an important question. Will the USA persist as the place where boxers can continue to earn the largest purses or are we at the precipices for a sustained decline of boxing in the USA?

December 16, 2008


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