Boxing: Headed for Extinction?

Dode Bercot, portrait

Dode Bercot, portrait

Relict:

  • Noun (plural: relicts)
    1. In biology, a species which has survived from a previous age; something that was once abundant but which now survives only in small numbers or in a limited area

 

There was a time when, along with baseball, boxing was one of the big two sporting endeavors that this country obsessed over.  Depending on who you ask, the Golden Age of boxing may have begun anywhere from the late 19th century up to the 1930s and ended in the 1940s, ’50s, or ’60s.

Who killed boxing?  The consensus in the mainstream press is that the advent of nationally televised sports programming (especially professional football) started the job.  The multiplicity of sanctioning bodies (the WBO, the WBA, the IBF, the IBO, et al, with their politics and their sanctioning fees, their mandatory challengers, and their regional champions and champions emeritus and champions in recess) are also a likely culprit.  Another theory says that American prosperity has thinned the talent pool, but there are still plenty of enthusiasts – both domestic and immigrant.  But undeniably its popularity has ebbed to the point where many Americans no longer consider boxing a mainstream sport.

And yet it has been seen in the last couple of decades that Americans still have an appetite for combat sports.  First kickboxing, and later MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) have gotten a toehold in the American sporting scene.  Though kickboxing has gone the way of the dodo bird, MMA is in full swing right now, with organizations like UFC and Affliction capitalizing on its popularity.

What does MMA have going for it that boxing doesn’t?  There are two evident main factors at work.  First, the competition seems accessible and fun to a generation that has perceived boxing to be stodgy and boring; an old man’s sport.  Secondly, and probably more relevant, MMA is run by for-profit corporations (UFC and Affliction, to name two) which control every aspect of the game; in particular the schedules and pay of the participants.  This arrangement helps to ensure that fans will see the matchups they want, and that the enterprise will be profitable enough that it can put on major shows with regularity.  Why is this an advantage?  Imagine if the reigning NFL champion had the privilege of choosing their own challenger – the New York Giants would remain champs until beaten, and they could select the weakest possible challenger, instead of the opponent that had earned a shot at the championship.  Even more wacky, imagine that there were four different organizations naming the league champion, and each organization named a different champ.  That’s the system under which boxing currently labors.

And yet boxing survives, if only a vestige of its past popularity.  Why?  If two combatants are fairly matched and willing to mix it up, there’s no more exciting sporting event than this pugilistic pursuit.  In boxing there is nowhere to hide and there are no teammates to bail you out when you screw up.  For the fan, there’s no more direct connection to an individual’s will to win (or desperation to not lose) than one-on-one competition without a safety net.  And here’s the advantage that boxing has over MMA: it’s simple.  At its core, boxing is a far simpler competition than MMA, because there’s only striking and defense, no other aspects exist.  The competitor who strikes his opponent with greater force and more frequency wins, either by stopping his opponent or by the consent of the judges.

Could boxing make a comeback?  Well, the Canada Goose did.  All it takes is some favorable conditions.  Frequent shows with regular local participants would be a good starting point.  If the local fans get to know their local fighters, the stage is set for hometown fans to root for their favorite prizefighter.  Affordable ticket prices would magnify the effect, as more people would be more easily exposed to the excitement and would begin to choose favorite fighters.  The next piece of the puzzle is for local fighters to step up and fill the void.  Here in Minnesota, we already have a lot of good pros, but we’re still looking for a man who will step up and be our great champion.  While Anthony Bonsante has sometimes been that man in the past, due to his age his shelf life is limited.

We’re fortunate to have a vibrant local boxing scene in Minnesota.  Twelve amateur gyms have registered with the statewide governing body to participate in Golden Gloves competition in 2009, and there are more operating that haven’t registered.  Dozens of pro fighters are active in our area, and in the past year there have been shows in Duluth/Superior, Fargo/Moorhead, Walker, Hinckley, the Twin Cities, Rochester, and Sioux Falls.  If we stay involved and enthusiastic, and if the new generation catches on to the excitement of the game of gloves, boxing can be returned to its rightful place in the mainstream of sports.

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