- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

LAS VEGAS — Is this a celebration or a wake?

Oscar De La Hoya will face Floyd Mayweather in a super welterweight title fight tomorrow night at the MGM Grand, a massively promoted, highly anticipated bout that could be one of the highest-grossing matches in history.

Much has been written about the fighters, but as much attention has been paid to another, grimmer matter: whether the meeting between boxing’s Golden Boy and the unbeaten Mayweather is the sport’s last stand, its last big fight.

At issue is not so much the death of the sport: A number of great fights, bouts that included dynamic boxers like Marco Antonio Barrerra and Manny Pacquiao, have drawn interest among core boxing fans and delivered lucrative pay-per-view numbers.

And the old club fighting scene has revived — though in the suburbs. That has been the case in places like Fairfax, where Jimmy Lange managed to draw 5,000 to shows at Patriot Center and has another one scheduled May 12.

That, though, is boxing’s version of community theater. The real question remains: Will the sport ever play Broadway again? Is this the last so-called megafight, a bout that reaches beyond the core boxing public and garners attention the way fights between Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns or Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield did?

The heavyweight division usually drives boxing, and that division has been a shambles since the demise of Tyson and Holyfield and the retirement of Lennox Lewis.

There are at least four heavyweight champions from four different sanctioning bodies, and most people wouldn’t recognize any of them if they were in the next seat on a plane.

Only Shannon Briggs, who holds the World Boxing Organization heavyweight title, is an American. The other three are from Eastern Europe, where a number of recent heavyweight title bouts have taken place and where boxing is doing well.

De La Hoya, the super welterweight champion, has filled the void left by the dismal heavyweight division. He has been the biggest draw in boxing and ranks third in career pay-per-view revenue behind Holyfield and Tyson.

But when De La Hoya leaves the sport, might they shut out the lights and close the door?

Several industry experts believe that, even though no star with crossover appeal has emerged in the sport since De La Hoya won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, someone will come forward to light the fighting flames again.

Jay Larkin, who used to be the head of boxing for Showtime, says a big fight can happen again but acknowledged there are none on the horizon save the possibility of rematches between De La Hoya (38-4, 30 knockouts) and Mayweather (37-0, 24 KOs).

“This will be the last one for a while, but it does not have to be the last one,” Larkin said. “A few solid wins against real opposition can produce a star quickly, and, of course, there has to be a parallel course to create the magic of the big show. Big shows are created by anticipation, and that comes from the press.”

Larkin believes the lack of a star to follow in De La Hoya’s footsteps is a result of boxing’s questionable matchmaking decisions.

“The industry and the sport has tacitly cooperated to dry up the supply of young, homegrown stars and up-and-comers in general,” he said. “Everyone has made less money except the high-end fighters, who continue to command and get purses that are not in line with the reality of the business. Consequently, they seldom fight and create a false floor for other fighters who demand disproportionate purses.

“Good fights become harder to make and often don’t happen at all. This trickles down from the A list and affects fighters who could mature into stars.”

Rich Rose was the president of Caesars Palace, which played host to some of the biggest fights of the 1980s and 1990s. He still is optimistic someone will step forward when De La Hoya is gone.

“The sport took a hit when Ali retired, and Larry Holmes, although a fine fighter, was no great shakes in the personality department,” he said. “When Oscar leaves, there will be a loss in his crossover appeal. But if Floyd wins in dramatic fashion and has the opportunity to move himself forward, perhaps the void won’t be as large.

“There are still many outstanding fighters inside the ropes. What differentiates them from the megastars is the absence of charisma, personality, whatever you want to call it. I believe there are athletes who will recognize the opportunity that exists in boxing to ascend to the top. It will be up to the public to decide whether they will receive the accolades.”

But what public will there be to decide that? The problem looming for the entire industry is the remarkable rise of mixed martial arts, particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championship company brand that has captured the young fans who perhaps now see boxing as their fathers’ sport.

Particularly alarming for those in the boxing business is the deal in the works between UFC and HBO, the driving force behind boxing the past two decades. Even while promoting tomorrow night’s fight, HBO officials are meeting here with UFC officials to finalize a deal.

If UFC — a single entity with no sanctioning bodies, promoters or managers to deal with — is a hit on HBO, the network could shift its focus away from boxing. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said one has nothing to do with the other.

“I think it is apples and oranges,” Greenburg said. “There’s major league baseball, there’s football and the NBA, and at times two of the three will play at the same time. They coexist. These are two combat sports that coexist. They have a very unique and different fan base, and I think they can both coexist and prosper.”

Boxing may exist, but will it prosper without its meal ticket?

De La Hoya also runs a promotional company called Golden Boy and is the promoter for tomorrow night’s fight, and that question causes him some concern.

“I don’t think there will be this kind of megafight for quite some time,” he said. “It’s a challenge for us as promoters to create stars. But boxing is going to take a hit. I understand that.”

It has taken a lot of hits over the years.

The question is will it get back up or stay down for the count?

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