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Fight of the Century

Could next month’s long-awaited bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao be the last major boxing mega-event for a generation? Elisha Chauhan reports.

Negotiations of some form or another have been taking place for six years, but last month it was finally announced that unified welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. would enter the ring with Philippine national hero Manny Pacquiao on May 2.

Taking place in boxing capital Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the fight is widely expected to break pay-per-view (PPV) records in at least the United States. Only 16,000 spectators, after all, will be able to watch the fight in person.

“Fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao are the Super Bowl and FIFA World Cup final all rolled into one,” says WBC (World Boxing Council) president Mauricio Sulaimán. “During the year, I would say that there are four or five mega sports events that capture the world’s attention, but fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao only happen once in a decade.”

Don’t think, however, that the fight is representative of a healthy boxing industry: many claim that the bout is the last major fight the sport will see for many years to come, with the undefeated Mayweather announcing last year he will retire in 2015 having dominated boxing’s and sport’s headlines. 

World-renowned boxing writer and TV presenter Dan Rafael approaches that argument with caution. He believes that every big fight in recent history has been branded as boxing’s last hurrah, citing Mayweather’s bout with Oscar De La Hoya in 2007 and Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson in 2002.

“I definitely don’t think that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is the last big event in boxing,” Rafael told SportBusiness International. “In 2007 when Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya, the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine had a picture of both boxers with a headline ‘The fight to save boxing’. To the mainstream that was a talking point and narrative, but to anyone who really knew about boxing that was a joke.”

Sulaimán agrees that May’s mega fight, billed the Fight of the Century, will certainly live up to its name by setting new PPV records, but he believes there will be fights in the near future that will have the potential to surpass it.

“This fight has been slated for many years, and it has certainly come at a time when boxing needed it the most. There is absolutely no doubt that it will be the greatest fight of this century,” Sulaimán told SportBusiness International.

“Logic and history dictates the new record will stand for several years, even decades. But today is a different world: social media, smartphone accessibility and technology create new ways of generating audiences that could then break those records.

“This fight will also be the platform for many others to come, because boxing will have the world’s attention from now until May 2. This is a great opportunity for other fights in different divisions to be magnified.”

Disjointed Organisation

The recurring theme of ‘the death of boxing’ can primarily be put down to the irregularity of the sport, which by and large is based on events that that are organised by individual boxers and their promoters, rather than the WBC, WBA (World Boxing Association), WBO (World Boxing Organisation) and the IBF (International Boxing Federation) associations.

Despite each of these bodies producing multiple belts per weight class, promoters control the fights that their boxers participate in, which technically means that once a fighter has won a belt they could choose to fight less successful boxers to help prolong their title. In addition, the recovery time needed after a fight – often coupled with a big cheque, with Mayweather and Pacquiao expected to receive over $100 million each from next month’s bout – produces large gaps in the boxing ‘calendar’.

The major problem is that boxers are only fighting once a year because they’re happy with the amount they are earning

“In recent years, the major problem is that boxers from each level are only fighting once a year because they’re happy with the amount they are earning from PPV income,” says Sulaimán. “They used to defend their titles around four to five times a year, which would keep them active, boxing news rolling, and fans engaged with the sport. This reduction in fights has had a huge negative impact on public interest in boxing. 

“Boxers are away from the ring for a prolonged period of time, but now they can keep the world engaged through social media. But at the end of the day, the stars need to get in the ring and fight bouts that fans expect to see, instead of fights against lower-ranked boxers. Promoters also need to do a better job of marketing the sport and its events.”

Rafael, on the other hand, believes the irregularity of big fights is down to the fact rivalries can only grow organically.

“The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is a total exception in terms of it taking over five years to put together,” he adds. “Most of the time when there’s a really big fight – that everyone’s going to make money from and the fans are all anticipating seeing – it doesn’t take a long time to organise. The negotiations for the Mayweather-Canelo Álvarez fight [in 2013] only took a couple of months, for example.

“If there are four or five major PPV events a year, that’s probably good for the business of boxing as long as the fights are worthwhile. But I don’t think it’s a case of how many big rivalry fights there should be, but rather how many can naturally grow. If there was another rivalry fight in the same year as big as Mayweather-Pacquiao, then so be it. Saying that, I do believe that a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight happens once every decade or so.” 

Unified World Champion

WBC (World Boxing Council) president Mauricio Sulaimán says plans are in progress to launch a Unified World Champion title.

“The WBC invited all [its fellow boxing associations] to meet and look into ways of making boxing better with respect, unity and reciprocity,” he told SportBusiness International.

“We initiated meetings with the WBA and IBF to reach agreements to have a much closer relationship, and we met twice. The WBO opted to not participate.

“We want to launch a tournament of champions, so we eventually have only one worldwide recognised boxer [per weight class]. The problem comes when TV networks and promoters want to create events, and market them by saying they are ‘world champion’ fights – it’s a complete fiasco, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

“All the international federations now need to work together to educate fans and the media about what the real world champion is. Our proposal calls for there to be only one world champion…others would be called XYZ champion, but not world champion.

“It could be faster to get the process going; we are trying to have a couple [of fights] this year and go from there. The idea has been perceived as positive, and we are moving forward slowly but firmly, but it will take some time to accomplish.”

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