- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Boxing makes its return to Madison Square Garden in New York tomorrow with two heavyweight fights that could draw as many as 12,000 fans. A week later, there’s a Don King-promoted show in Atlantic City featuring seven world champions in five title bouts; it’s nearly sold out.

Still, promoter Lou DiBella remains worried about the health of his sport.

DiBella, the former boxing boss at HBO, sounded an alarm recently when he called for a “summit” of promoters to figure out ways to save boxing.

“We’ve got to fix this sport,” DiBella declared. “If we do nothing, we’re dead.”

And there is evidence the sport needs help.

• ESPN recently decided to stop paying rights fees to promoters for its “Friday Night Fights.”

• The top heavyweight fight on pay-per-view this year drew 600,000 buys, a huge drop from bouts in recent years that drew more than 1 million.

• The heavyweight division — the sport’s driving force — has lost or is losing its stars, and there are no compelling fighters on the horizon.

• There were few major fights in 2003 that captured the attention of the public.

Predictions of boxing’s death are nothing new. The sport always has bounced back, though never to the level it enjoyed early in the 20th century, when boxing and horse racing dominated the sports pages.

But there is a sense this time is different. This time, perhaps, there won’t be an upturn.

“This is the sport of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” DiBella said. “When I was a kid, there was nobody more important to the sports world than Ali. I want to work in that sport again. I want to work in the sport of Joe Louis.”

There are no Alis or Fraziers or Louises in boxing now.

The heavyweight division is devoid of stars and, some would say, talent. The fighters who carried the division for the past 17 years, starting with Mike Tyson and including Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, are too old or unstable to sustain the heavyweight class.

Bowe is in jail. Holyfield has become a pathetic figure, hanging on past his prime. Tyson is a shell of his former self and shows no interest in fighting anymore. And Lewis, the most recognized title holder, has not fought since June and appears to be retired.

Two of the major fights in the division the past year featured a light heavyweight champion, Roy Jones, and cruiserweight title holder, James Toney, moving up to fight as heavyweights.

Combine that with continued scoring controversies and confusion with all the sanctioning bodies — there are three major organizations and about a half-dozen smaller ones, each with some form of world champion — and the buzz that sometimes brings boxing to the forefront has remained subdued most of 2003.

“We still attract fans,” DiBella said. “We still get ratings on cable. But advertisers are leaving the sport because of the questions of the credibility of boxing. … It will never totally die. The idea of men fighting each other has been around since time began, and it’s not going to stop. But the sport is fading, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to revive an industry that is suicidal.”

Days after DiBella called for a summit, ESPN made its announcement regarding the “Friday Night Fights.” For the show to continue, promoters will have make up their fees through their advertising sales and promotion.

“Isn’t that a sign of the health of the sport?” DiBella asked.

DiBella’s sentiments are echoed by promoter Bob Arum, who promotes Oscar De La Hoya, among others.

“It really gets me angry to see the sport like this,” Arum said. “I think a summit of promoters to sit down and sensibly talk about the industry problems could lead to solutions, if there is cooperation.”

Fellow promoter Cedric Kushner long ago called for such a meeting that would include everyone involved in the sport.

“We are in a situation where the game is going through a difficult time,” he said. “But I believe that if we get together, we can come up with solutions.”

That doesn’t appear likely to happen.

DiBella’s proposal was met with skepticism by other promoters, including King, perhaps the sports most influential figure.

“It is absurd to think boxing is dying,” King said. “You have two shows in two weekends coming up with about 24,000 sold in back-to-back shows. That’s not a sign of a dying sport. Boxing will never die. It is symbolic of life, the struggle to get to the top. And one guy can come out of nowhere and make it red hot.”

There is no red-hot figure now, though. Contributing to the perception that boxing is in a freefall is the reduced coverage in newspapers in recent years. Bill Caplan, a publicist who has worked in boxing for 40 years, said the coverage has dropped off significantly.

“Every major paper used to have a boxing writer, pretty much full time,” Caplan said. “There used to be four full-time boxing writers in New York. Now there is one.”

But there are those who believe the sport is not suffering, such as Gary Shaw, the promoter for Shane Mosley.

“There has been more boxing on television in the last two years than anytime before with HBO and Showtime and Telemundo and NBC,” Shaw said. “I think the sport is in good shape. Promoters have to put on good fights, and fighters have to be willing to fight each other.

“And boxing shoots itself in the foot. Lou DiBella yelling that boxing is dead — that doesn’t help. And Arum yelling boxing is fixed doesn’t help either.”

Some would argue that the most powerful forces in boxing — and the ones that shape the sport — are not promoters but two cable television networks, Showtime and HBO.

Showtime officials could not be reached for comment, but Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, said it would welcome a promoters’ summit.

“We are supportive of any initiative that is going to help the fighters and, in turn, the sport,” he said. “We hope the promoters’ dialogue will be productive.”

HBO officials say they have had a good year, pointing to the 975,000 pay-per-view buys for Mosley-De La Hoya II and the 4.6million homes that tuned into the Lewis-Vitali Klitchko fight in June. The network’s last pay-per-view event was Roy Jones, dropping down to fight as a light heavyweight, against Antonio Tarver last month. That drew 275,000 homes.

Still, those pay-per-view numbers represent a serious decline. Lewis and Tyson fought nearly two years ago and drew 1.9million pay-per-view buys. Lewis and Holyfield attracted 1.2 million in March 1999.

The top pay-per-view heavyweight event this year, between Jones and Ruiz, drew 600,000. The only other heavyweight pay-per-view show of 2003, between Toney and Holyfield, drew just 175,000.

And while the perception is that boxing is losing the interest of the sporting public, it remains a strong favorite of Hispanic fans. De La Hoya has done well putting on shows featuring Hispanic fighters with his company, Golden Boy Promotions, and Arum also has carved a niche promoting Hispanic fighters.

“We saved ourselves with the Hispanic fight fans.” Arum said.

But those fights are primarily among the lower weights. The heavyweight division usually attracts the most attention.

“The key is straightening out the heavyweight division,” manager Steve Nelson said. “It would be good to have a true American heavyweight champion. That goes a long way toward helping the sport.”

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