Commentary: How Boxing Could Get Off The Ropes

It's a little past midnight in a dimly lit corner of the Georgia Dome, and boxing pooh-bah Don King is booming into a microphone about how he plans to make his "next $100 million." His fighter on the Sept. 19 card, Evander Holyfield, has just managed to defend his twin heavyweight championship belts in a unanimous decision over a surprisingly strong challenge by a guy 25 pounds overweight, whose opponents' combined record is 181-511-19.

But even for a man who recently won a lawsuit in which he was accused of bilking Lloyd's of London of $350,000 (nine jurors later went to the Bahamas on King's dime), who has beat an IRS tax-evasion rap, and who survived almost four years in prison for manslaughter, King's next $100 million won't be a cakewalk. At least, not in boxing.

The fight game's most recent downward spiral began 15 months ago when Mike Tyson bit off two inches of Holyfield's right ear and was subsequently banned from the sport. If Tyson passes tests he has been undergoing to determine his mental stability, the Nevada Athletic Commission could reinstate him as early as Oct. 3. But even the return of a big box-office draw like Iron Mike might not be enough.

MISMATCHES. With the dearth of marquee fighters, cable TV has largely lost interest in boxing, and mismatches continue to be as common as comebacks. Traditional fight towns like Las Vegas and New York have significantly scaled back their events. And a Babel of sanctioning bodies has turned the sport into a Marx Brothers movie.

In June, a Holyfield title defense was canceled the day before the bout when challenger Henry Akinwande tested positive for Hepatitis B. Henry lost a $2.5 million payday, but the promoters weren't weeping: Madison Square Garden had sold only 7,500 tickets, and a woman fighter on the undercard, Maria Nieves-Garcia, turned out to be 21 weeks pregnant.

With a market that wobbly, two of boxing's most ardent supporters, USA Network and ESPN, have in the past month dropped coverage of live weekly fights. USA replaced its 18-year string of weekly bouts with La Femme Nikita--a hitwoman in place of Hitman Hearns. ESPN, which was paying promoters around $125,000 per event, now pays about $60,000 for fewer fights on ESPN2. Says promoter Cedric Kishner, who supplies fights to HBO: "Domestically, I'm seeing about 70% less revenue now."

Less TV time for boxing could make it difficult to develop the next generation of champions. In the 1970s, when boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman became household names, TV networks were running 50 fights a year. Now, the sport is relegated to premium cable channels like Showtime and Time Warner Inc.'s HBO. And despite an average audience of 2.7 million viewers for several recent big boxing events, premium cable has its limits. "We can't make stars like ABC can," concedes Jay G. Larkin, senior vice-president for Showtime Sports.

The absence of boxing's biggest star, Tyson, has certainly taken its toll on pay-per-view. In 1997, six megafights generated an estimated $203 million in revenue for the pay-per-view arms of Showtime and HBO. This year's only megafight--involving the sport's Great Hispanic Hope, Oscar de la Hoya--produced less than $30 million.

It's hard to stir up excitement when promoters keep going for the sure thing by matching their fighters with patsies. Seth G. Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports, tried mightily to line up a legitimate heavyweight title bout between Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. But the fight, announced in June, was called off when Holyfield demanded an extra $5 million. "Don King is the Everest in front of us," Abraham says. "He couldn't afford it if Holyfield were to lose."

OVERKILL. But what boxing needs more than legitimate fights is a clean, single sanctioning body. It simply doesn't mean as much to be a world champ anymore. Last year, some nine sanctioning bodies offered 201 world-title fights. Reducing the number of sanctioning bodies would bring some meaning back to title bouts and help eliminate mismatches. More important, making it easier to follow a boxer's rise might bring back old fans and win new ones.

Fortunately, boxing has allies in high places. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former amateur boxer, introduced the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in June. McCain says one reason he initiated the bill was a Don King contract with Oliver McCall stipulating that King would get $2 million of the fighter's $4 million purse, regardless of whether he promoted the fight. "There are egregious violations like this at all levels of the sport," McCain says. If passed, McCain's bill would help protect boxers and force sanctioning bodies to reform their rating systems. It surely wouldn't prevent King from making his next $100 million. But he might have to do it the old-fashioned way.

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