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Interest in boxing bruised, not broken

by Mark Kram
Philadelphia Daily News - May 7, 2008

Joey "Minnesota Ice" Abell stood tearing the tape from his hands in his cramped dressing room at the Blue Horizon when Gerald Nobles appeared waving a wad of $5,000 in small bills.

"How much you want to fight?" baited Nobles, a well-fed 37-year-old heavyweight who had shown up earlier that day at the weigh-in to announce his intentions. It was one of those scenes you always seem to get with boxing, the way you always get a fortune cookie with a Chinese dinner. But whatever screwball humor the intrusion summoned, it clearly annoyed matchmaker Don Elbaum, who called out angrily from the back of the room: "Get him the hell out of here, would ya!"

Five grand is chump change if Elbaum is ultimately correct in his assertion: That the still-unranked 6-4 southpaw from Coon Rapids, Minn., is just a year away from a shot at the championship. While Abell is even by his own admission a work in progress, the ex-defensive end from North Dakota State had just stopped a flabby Maurice Wheeler cold in the second round with a flurry of punches that pitched the Philadelphia heavyweight through the ropes, where he practically landed in the lap of former Eagle Brian Baldinger. From up in the balcony, the crowd roared, "JOEY JOEY JOEY," which explained in part the delirium that later consumed Elbaum, who told the pens that wagged before his eyes: "This is the guy who is going to bring back boxing!"

Setting aside the question of whether or not Joey Abell can actually become what Elbaum envisions, he does seem to bring something to the table other than a healthy appetite. In fact, he is a symbol of eternal longing: A heavyweight who is not just American but the color of driven snow. While it is politically incorrect to say so, even Abell understands that when it comes to forging a boxing career, the only thing he has missing at this point is a tattoo on his arm that says MOTHER. "Not to sound racist or anything, but a white heavyweight from America would be a big thing," said Abell, who would indeed be a big thing for a sport that has slipped so far out of the public consciousness that some would say it could be packed up in a pine box. Because far larger than even the raw abilities of the still unproven Abell is what someone like him represents: The possibility of a new face that can coax the sport out of the crypt.

But before you bring in your scalpel and begin performing that autopsy on "The Sweet Science," you should probably take a closer look at the patient. Doctor, there appears to be a pulse. For the aficionados of boxing, the sport remains endlessly fascinating, full of intriguing encounters such as the recent Bernard Hopkins-Joe Calzaghe bout in Las Vegas. Boxing has a problem attracting the casual fan, who disconnected from the sport when Mike Tyson ceased being a factor in the heavyweight division. Chances are the casual fan does not even know who the heavyweight champion is today, and it appears that he has become intrigued with a hybrid version of the sport, Mixed Martial Arts. For the casual fan, boxing as we once knew it is down for the count.

History tells us that these things are cyclical. At the height of The Great Depression, the void left by the exit of Jack Dempsey from the heavyweight champion division attracted a dim galaxy of stars that included Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera, Max Baer and the aging James Braddock. The landscape was so arid that Fortune carried a poster of young heavyweight Joe Louis with a headline: "Can This Black Messiah Lead Boxing to the Promised Land?" Ensuing periods have faced similar slumps in general popularity, only to be propped up by the arrivals of shining talents such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard and others.

How boxing got to where it is today is the function of an array of factors: The absence of an interesting American heavyweight champion; the fragmentation of titles among four opposing sanctioning bodies; the disappearance of boxing from network television; the dispersal of the sport into the realm of cable and pay-per-view; and the dwindling volume of press coverage that has been encouraged by the inability of the sport to hold a big event within a reasonable framework of newspaper deadlines. There is also the emergence of MMA, which has given younger fans the option of Ultimate Fighting Championship and other exercises in unabated brawling.

But if there has been a slippage, you would probably get an argument from a hardcore boxing fan. Philadelphia's Blue Horizon was packed with fans during a recent Friday evening, even if the boxers who climbed through the ropes were uneven in their abilities and largely unknown. The card was far better the following night at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, where again a big crowd showed up for the HBO welterweight doubleheader that featured the superb Miguel Cotto. But with the exception of Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and perhaps Hopkins, the casual fan is more or less oblivious to fine talents such as Cotto, Kelly Pavlik and Philadelphian Steve Cunningham. HBO hopes to remedy this by showing more of the better fighters out there as part of its standard cable offering.

"I think we are trying to lure back the casual sports fan," said Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, which entered boxing in an era when the sport glowed with talents such as Leonard and Tyson. "We clearly had the average sports fan attracted to the sport, and we lived through that era kind of taking it for granted. So our aim has been to trigger a new enthusiasm."

A good place to start in that regard would be the discovery of an American heavyweight champion - black, white, orange, whatever; just so long as he can communicate in English. Greenburg is not alone in his opinion that a popular American heavyweight "lifts all boats" throughout the sport, especially if that heavyweight happens to be the lethal puncher that Tyson once was. Opponents feared him to the point that British challengers such as Frank Bruno blessed himself with the sign of the cross repeatedly in his corner before the opening bell. America got behind Tyson because of the wake of destruction he left behind, which included the poor souls who ventured into the ring with him and, ultimately, himself. One of the reigning heavyweight champions today is Russian Wladimir Klitschko, who is as remote to the American public as one of those Siberian outposts to which the Kremlin sent dissidents.

Note that we said one of the reigning heavyweight champions. In fact, there are three: Klitschko is the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization champion, while Samuel Peter is the World Boxing Council champion and Ruslan Chagaev is the World Boxing Association champion. By latest count, there are also two cruiserweight champions, four light heavyweight champions, two super middleweight champions, three middleweight champions, four welterweight champions and two lightweight champions. We could go on, but the bottom line is that not one weight class has a unified champion.

(Pop quiz: Without looking it up, if you can identify the IBF featherweight champion, I will personally sing at your wedding.)

"If I said to the average person, name the three heavyweight champions, they could not do it," said Joe Hand Sr., who provides bars and restaurants with satellite feeds of sporting events. "I know for sure I could not name them. And no one who works for me could name them."

Remember how we discovered boxing? If you are of a certain age, you flipped on the television one Saturday as a youth and found it on "Wide World of Sports." There would usually be some bobsledding, some Acapulco cliff diving and then: Live from San Remo, Liguria, Italy - Nino Benvenuti vs. Don Fullmer. The top stars in the sport could be accessed for free, and that included talents such as Ali, Frazier and George Foreman, who we became acquainted with when he waved the American flag upon winning the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Network television gave us the 1976 Olympic class that included Leonard and even the emergence of De La Hoya at the 1992 Olympics. Free TV provided unknown fighters with widespread exposure and created new fans for the sport.

That changed with the ascension of pay-per-view. Closed circuit had been around for years, but only for the big championship fights: Ali-Liston; Ali-Foreman; Ali-Frazier and so on. But Tyson became a big hit on pay-per-view, and it led to an expansion of the concept, which began to embrace events that years before you would have seen for free. Suddenly, boxing was always in your pocket: $39.95 for this bout, $49.95 for that one. While HBO got big numbers for the De La Hoya-Mayweather pay-per-view bout last May - it generated a record 2.4 million buys - the rematch between the two this September and other top bouts will be available as part of the HBO package, which Hand Sr. applauds as "stepping up to the plate and addressing the problems that boxing has." Said Hand Sr., "They are giving the public one hell of a package this year."

While Showtime and ESPN have had pieces of the boxing pie, HBO has distinguished itself with its coverage. The productions are artfully done and the commentary is superb, especially the consistently outstanding analysis of Larry Merchant (yeah, the former Daily News sports editor). Greenburg is weary of hearing how the sport is in decline, and even fired off a letter to Sports Illustrated that criticized a cover story asking if the De La Hoya-Mayweather bout could "save boxing." Greenburg thinks that sports editors are simply rationalizing a cutback in coverage, but the fact remains that HBO is in part culpable for that. The Cotto fight on April 12 did not go off until 11:04 p.m., in West Coast prime time, and the fighters still had not come in for the press conference by midnight. Is it any wonder that the Inquirer carried a single paragraph on it at the bottom of the second-to-last sports page the following day?

But it is just not what boxing has done to itself that has driven away the casual fan. Competition has come forward from the MMA, which is populated in large part by former college wrestlers. While not quite the Wild West shootout it once was, when it was not uncommon for a 150-pound man to climb into the ring with a 400-pound man and engage in assorted forms of eye gouging, head butting and hair pulling, the sport has caught on because it offers a level of sustained intensity that can be lacking occasionally in boxing. Young people love it. Greenburg says it seems to embrace some of the characteristics of a video game, which is to say the combatants look like they could chew through an iron pipe. Held inside of what appears to be a steel cage, you are apt to see one of them sit on the chest of his opponent and pound him in the face, where you expect him to steal his wallet, hop over the fence and begin running down the street.

What is interesting is that boxing has always been construed as too violent. The irony is that it might not be violent enough. Good boxing matches can often be tactical affairs and lead to controversial decisions, which local boxing historian John DiSanto said "is not good for drawing new fans." DiSanto says he always tries to introduce new people to boxing, only to have "the fight turn out to be a dog." But you have none of that problem with MMA, where the outcome is not decided by "a slight shift in strategy" but an elbow in the jaw.

Thirty-two states have sanctioned MMA, including Pennsylvania. Those which have not can expect a visit from Marc Ratner, the vice president of governmental and regulatory affairs for the MMA and former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Association. Ratner claims that while it would appear so, MMA is not as violent as boxing. In the 22 years he worked for the Nevada commission, he saw fighters die in the ring from concussion blows to the head. But he says that of the 150 MMA cards held in Nevada, the worst injury he has seen is a broken arm. While he says there has been an increase in MMA cards and a drop-off in the smaller shows, he thinks that MMA and boxing can co-exist.

"There is plenty of room for both sports," said Ratner. "I look upon them as two different sports, like soccer and rugby."

Joe Hand Jr., who promotes boxing shows at the New Alhambra in South Philadelphia, agrees. "I think that each of the sports has their own fans," he said. "MMA appeals to a younger audience. But our boxing shows continue to draw big crowds, so I think the sport is doing well."

DiSanto and others say it remains to be seen if MMA has the staying power that boxing has. "Boxing has been around forever," said DiSanto, who added that pro wrestling experienced a similar spike in popularity back in the 1980s with Hulk Hogan and others. Greenburg says he is less concerned with losing fans to MMA than luring "the average baseball, basketball and football fan back to boxing." He agrees that an American heavyweight would help in that effort, and he knows that he is out there somewhere.

"There has to be some big, strong American boy hitting a speed bag in Dubuque who is going to come forward in a couple of years," said Greenburg. "I know this because I know boxing and it always happens. He is going to come forward, climb to the top of the Empire State Building, jump down and say: 'Here I am, America! Come with me.' "

The crowd at the Blue Horizon was spilling out onto Broad Street. Upstairs in the dressing- room area, which was littered with torn pieces of tape and smelled of Ben Gay, Gerald Nobles was telling anyone who would listen how he has been "blocked" as a contender. He said that no one wants to answer his challenge because of his punching ability, and that if he ever got the chance, he would knock young Joey Abell "on his [butt]."

Sweat dripped off Abell as he stood by his locker. He spoke politely but carefully. The fight had been a frustrating one at times, especially as Wheeler had grabbed him repeatedly by the waist. Abell eventually just flung him to the canvas. "I am usually pretty good at holding my temper," said Abell. "But I think he was playing it smart. Hit me with a couple and hold on." Abell said he did not know who he would fight next, but would leave it "up to the men," which is to say his managers and Elbaum. Elbaum says he would have eight more appearances this year, including one in Sweden in the summer.

“They love him over there," said Elbaum.

"Hey," said Abell, "somebody hand me a towel."

Elbaum continued, "Then next summer - him and Klitschko."

Somebody then handed Abell a dirty towel. He wiped down, got dressed and headed out the door, past the yakking Nobles, down the stairs and into the chilly spring night.

(Pop quiz answer: Robert Guerrero.)


Mark Kram writes for the Philadelphia Daily News. This article was originally printed in that newspaper in March 2006.


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