By David Carter
It's official: On Mar. 12, the Washington (D.C.) Boxing & Wrestling Commission granted a boxing license to Mike Tyson, thus putting the District of Columbia atop a very short list of possible venues for a Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis bout. This spectacle, which could set a record take for the fight game, will most likely take place on June 8 at Washington's MCI Center. Sadly, it's almost as if, with this decision, the nation's capital has taken a dive. If there's a bright side, it's that D.C. is allowing the sport of boxing to show just how dysfunctional it has become.
After Tyson, who bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a bout in 1997, went after Lewis -- allegedly biting him, too, during a promotional appearance in Las Vegas last month that turned into melee -- Nevada boxing authorities refused to sanction the Lewis fight. Promoters decided to shop this dust-up from state to state, looking for a local government willing to forego common sense and decency in the name of economic development.
New York, Colorado, and Texas all followed Nevada's lead and declined to sanction such a controversial bout. Although Georgia granted Tyson a license, Governor Roy Barnes was adamantly opposed, calling Tyson, who served jail time on a rape conviction, "a sexual predator." The Peach State ultimately decided this event was the pits. California, which has yet to formally rule on Tyson's request, took a similar, albeit unofficial, position. Golden State Governor Gray Davis spoke out publicly against hosting the event.
The District of Columbia bit, however. Why? According to the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp., the city has lost an estimated $1.2 billion following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In effect, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has told the sporting world and local business and community leaders that, in exchange for the opportunity to inject upwards of $10 million into the local economy, the city will tolerate the stain associated with all things Tyson. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Oh, and about those latest sexual assault charges against Tyson: They were dismissed on Feb. 21. The fight's advocates would have you believe that they're standing up for one of the nation's primary beliefs: All Americans are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. What's the fuss? Tyson's behavior may be boorish, even uncivilized at times, but at least this latest incident wasn't criminal.
Still, thuggishness is nothing to build a match around. This is no way to promote a once-proud sport, and Washington should be ashamed to host the bout. Allowing Tyson to fight in the District empowers not only Tyson but a perception of lawlessness in the boxing world. It's unfortunate that the sport's powers-that-be are willing to look the other way following Tyson's most recent string of indiscretions, rather than take a stand, strike down the match, and use the opportunity to improve the sport's integrity in the process.
Promoters are leaning on another cherished cultural tenet: The sanctity of the free-market system, where the laws of supply and demand dictate business decisions. Many people in the fight game are licking their chops: The Tyson-Lewis fight could be the richest bout ever, generating as much as $200 million in revenues, with each fighter earning at least $20 million, not including percentages of pay-per-view and gate receipts. The District of Columbia is simply facilitating what the public wants to see. People are willing to pay $49.95 a pop for the privilege. Let the market work its magic.
Arnold McKnight, vice-chairman of the Boxing & Wrestling Commission, hopes to quell the opposition by reminding District residents that the fight is for their own economic good. "The biggest obstacle is the public's understanding of what is good for them," he says, "and the public's understanding, very frankly, is that an individual ought to be allowed a right to do what he is trained to do. In this instance, that is to fight."
It all reminds me of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, who famously observed that "there's a sucker born every minute." Sure, win or lose, Tyson and Lewis -- a truly affable guy -- will each take home a nice piece of the purse. And it's also true that Washington could realize an infusion of cash. But the short-term gains from this spectacle could quickly fade to long-term pain. Washington already has its share of image problems, and Tyson-Lewis will only add to them.
Then there's the possible long-term economic damage to the entire sport. Sanctioning this bout runs the real risk of alienating fans. What's the difference between this and one of those pay-per-view "ultimate fighting" matches -- the ones where fighters trade kicks, head butts and all but gouge out each other's eyes out? Not much, really.
Sports-industry analysts believe the pay-per-view customer for a heavyweight fight is overwhelmingly male, with no significant skewing toward any one racial or ethnic group. Because these bouts are much bigger events than run-of-the-mill fights, they draw wider audiences of men between the ages of 18 and 52, than, say, wrestling, which tends to attract younger males.
Because boxing's major events deliver broader audiences, the sport is susceptible to losing those future fans interested in the true athleticism boxing has to offer. After this bout, boxing won't look so much like a sweet science anymore.
It's a pity boxing couldn't find a way for Tyson to fight the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Promoters would find a blockbuster market for that. Like the upcoming Tyson-Lewis match, it would give boxing another short-term boost -- and further shrink its rapidly diminishing reputation.
Carter teaches The Business of Sport at the University of Southern California Graduate School of Business and is a principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht