Commentary

The Monday Hook: Is boxing swimming up 'stream'?

It may no longer be a laughingstock, but boxing is still working its way back into the mainstream. What can the "sweet science" do to regain its place as the apple of the sporting world's eye? Eric Raskin explores.

Updated: May 19, 2008, 10:21 AM ET
By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com

Floyd 'Money' Mayweather Jr.Rob Loud/Getty ImagesShow 'em how it's done: Floyd Mayweather is one of the few boxers who have gone mainstream.
It was the spring of 1998, and 48-year-old Joe Bugner had just signed to fight 45-year-old James "Bonecrusher" Smith.

I'll never forget the manner in which Charley Steiner delivered the news on "SportsCenter." He was like a preteen with a case of the giggles, unable to make it through a single line on the teleprompter.

On the one hand, boxing is to blame for making itself a laughingstock among the mainstream media by giving washed-up punchlines like Bugner and Smith an opportunity to embarrass themselves and their sport.

But on the other hand, the mainstream media deserves criticism for choosing to report news such as that while ignoring positive stories like the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez trilogy.

That's just the way it goes when you're a cult sport. The mainstream media doesn't bother to learn the game because it's easier to alternately pretend it doesn't exist and poke fun at it.

That formula becomes complicated, however, when you're dealing with a cult sport on a hot streak.

That's how you'd define boxing over the past year, since Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya shattered box office records. Suddenly the power brokers woke up to the fact that there was money to be made if the right fights were signed.

Everyone who follows boxing would agree that, since May 5, 2007, the sport has undergone a resurgence in quality and enjoyed at least a slight uptick in popularity.

As a result, it's been a little bit harder for the mainstream media to ignore boxing and a lot harder for them to ridicule it.

For example, 49-year-old Azumah Nelson and 44-year-old Jeff Fenech are both ending decade-long retirements to fight this June, and the mainstream media hasn't done much in the way of lambasting that sideshow.

That suggests the fight game has earned a measure of respect lately and forced the mainstream media to take note of the positives instead.

"I've seen a change; I think the mainstream media has been forced to reward boxing somewhat," said Brian Kenny, who stands on both sides of the fence as both the studio host on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and an anchor for "SportsCenter". "The continuance of good fights being made, Ring magazine champions fighting Ring magazine champions, or fights where the champions take on their true top contenders, like Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler or Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlik, that's what's right with the sport, and I've seen a slight change as a result."

Nobody is claiming boxing is on its way to becoming a mainstream sport again, the way it was in your grandfather's day when baseball, boxing and horse racing were the big three.

But it is creeping closer to the general consciousness, relative to where it was a few years ago.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Mayweather Jr and Karina Smirnoff
AP Photo/Rob DelorenzoTime spent on "Dancing With The Stars" was time well spent for Mayweather's image and public persona.
The ultimate symbol of that is Mayweather, who capitalized on the spotlight afforded to opponents of De La Hoya by appearing on "Dancing With The Stars" and taking part in WrestleMania 24.

Before he fought De La Hoya, many casual sports fans still hadn't heard of "Pretty Boy." Now he's a household name.

Boxing as a whole, unfortunately, hasn't invaded the mainstream media anywhere near as successfully as Mayweather has. But there are signs of progress.

Sponsorship is reaching beyond just Everlast and Budweiser, and the logos of mainstream brands like Rockstar energy drink, Affliction clothing and Southwest Airlines can be found painted on ring canvases.

Hillary Clinton embraced/exploited Pavlik's name prominently prior to the Ohio Democratic primary, indicating that the middleweight champ has gone mainstream, at least in his home state.

And this coming Saturday afternoon, you'll be able to watch world championship boxing without having to pony up extra money for HBO or Showtime. That's because Versus has picked up the Ricky Hatton-Juan Lazcano junior welterweight title fight.

"We love boxing, and we've worked hard the last few years to help build it," said Marc Fein, Versus' senior vice president of programming, production and business operations. "When this fight was brought to us by Golden Boy [Promotions], obviously it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, to be able to have Ricky on the network. I'm sure it will draw a nice rating, and if it does, internally we'll take a look at things for the future."

To have a nonpay-cable network like Versus get involved in major fights on a regular basis, providing promoters with an alternative to having to put nonPPV-worthy shows on pay-per-view, could definitely help inject boxing into the mainstream.

And this is a sport that needs every injection it can get. The marginalizing factors working against boxing the last couple of decades have been explained many times: too many fights on pay-per-view, not enough fights on network TV and too many titles.

Kenny feels the greatest problems have come from the lack of a centralized authority, not only to govern the sport but also to publicize it the way the NFL, NBA and MLB do for their product.

"Because there is no league, everybody's just kind of barnstorming and fighting for their own piece of turf," Kenny explained. "There is no concerted publicity effort, no one to tell producers and mainstream media, 'This is what's important, this is what isn't important.'"

Kenny does know what works and what doesn't, and will nudge the producers from time-to-time.

"I'm continually pushing the sport on my producers, and I'm trying to gauge their level of interest, and I've found it's always helpful to be able to push champions and brand names that they recognize," Kenny said. "You try to sell Vazquez-Marquez as hard as you can, but they just don't know them as well as they know Bernard Hopkins."

"But at least Bernard Hopkins has gotten there," Kenny added with a laugh. "I look at that as a victory."

Kenny used the Hopkins-Calzaghe fight as a prime example of how having one recognized champion in a division helps the cause.

"People want to know, 'Who's the champ?' and when I told them, 'Joe Calzaghe's the super middleweight champ and Bernard Hopkins is the light heavyweight champ and don't worry about any of the other belts,' that meant something to them. Without that, you'd have to explain it: 'Well, Calzaghe consolidated because he had a top-five win against Jeff Lacy even though he's been the champ for 15 years …' You have to start explaining it, and once you start explaining to editors and producers and your fellow anchors, they get that glazed-over look. They don't want to work that hard."

Following a sport shouldn't be work. It should be fun.

And the feeling that you're watching your favorite sport in a vacuum, unable to discuss it with your friends because they're unaware of anything that doesn't involve Mike Tyson, isn't much fun at all.

Maybe boxing is never going to be a fully mainstream sport again. Maybe the Versus network, the home of other on-the-fringes-of-the-mainstream sports like hockey and mixed martial arts, is a logical place for boxing to land.

But at least people know these days who Mayweather is, and at least people can watch Hatton fight this weekend for the mere cost of basic cable.

By boxing's standards, that has to qualify as progress.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.