Sat, Mar 07, 2015 - Page 19 News List

Some betting heavily boxing is not dead

By William C. Rhoden  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Al Haymon makes a habit of not speaking to reporters, but that is fine. What Haymon is attempting speaks louder than anything he might say anyway. Haymon, a Harvard-educated boxing manager and adviser, is challenging the pay-per-view model that has enriched a few people at the expense of an entire sport.

Beginning tonight, Haymon will begin a bold, three-year initiative with NBC to bring top-notch boxing to the public on network television.

Haymon will spend at least US$20 million annually to buy airtime on NBC and NBCSN to televise bouts that will feature some of the many fighters he manages (though not Floyd Mayweather Jr, whose much-anticipated fight against Manny Pacquiao in May remains a valuable pay-per-view commodity). NBC will provide two veteran announcers — Al Michaels and Marv Albert — to call the action. Haymon will provide the color analyst: Sugar Ray Leonard.

However, the US$20 million question is: Are there enough boxing fans to make this work? More important, is there enough blood lust to bring boxing back into the sports mainstream in the US? The answer to that question is definitely; all one has to do is look at the meteoric rise of mixed martial arts.

“I think it’s great for the sport,” said Justin Blair, who owned the Church Street Gym in Lower Manhattan for 17 years.

Blair still produces a series called Friday Night Fights and consults on combat sports, mixed martial arts and boxing.

“I think there’s a tremendous demand and appetite for combat sports in general,” he said. “What’s most important for the growth of the sport are well-matched events. It’s all well and good to have one star, but if it’s one star against a guy who has a 5-50 record, or has lost four in a row, the entertainment value’s just not there. That’s really what’s been the downfall of boxing.”

I am pulling for Haymon and NBC to succeed. I grew up with boxing, and my Uncle Eddie was a Golden Gloves champion.

However, I do not make the argument that boxing is safe. We know that the sport is not safe. However, we also know that football is not safe, and let’s go further: being a jockey is not safe; driving in NASCAR is not safe; climbing mountains is not safe. Risk is part of the excitement and — for paying customers — part of the attraction of all of those sports, just as it is in boxing.

My argument for boxing’s rejuvenation is based on the opportunity the sport provides, especially at a time when opportunity continues to shrink.

“Boxing first and foremost is a poor man’s sport,” Leonard said during a recent interview in Manhattan. “If there was a fee for me to start boxing, I wouldn’t be boxing.”

Boxing, Leonard said, is not dead. Not by a long shot.

“There’s so much talent out there,” he added, saying the problem is merely exposing a new generation of fans to it. “It’s not getting on television. It’s all about exposure. They just don’t get the platform.”

Now they will.

Andre Rozier, who trains boxers at the Starrett City and Sadam Ali gyms in Brooklyn, was ecstatic about the new programming, calling the moment “monumental.”

“We’re the only sport that doesn’t really get the exposure that the other sports do through free television and advertising and selling the athletes to the public,” Rozier said. “That’s how you build the brand of boxing.”

Thanks to network television, we can follow young tennis players and golfers as they mature into championship athletes. Generations ago, the same was true for fighters; audiences followed promising boxers through fight-of-the-week telecasts, and later they were introduced to stars like Leonard and Roy Jones Jr and Oscar De La Hoya in the Olympics.

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