Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sport of kings (only)

I will not be watching Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather a week from Saturday. Neither will most of the rest of  America.

Partly this is because most of the rest of America doesn't care about boxing anymore.

Mostly it's because boxing itself doesn't care if the rest of America cares about boxing.

With a deliberate intent that goes back decades, it has made itself irrelevant, devolving  into a sport almost exclusively targeted to elites. To some extent this is true of most American sport in 2015 -- try taking the fam to an NFL game without dropping a month's worth of paychecks -- but boxing has been doing it longer, and it's taken it to an entirely different level.

Consider: Tickets went on sale the other day for the May 2 fight, which is not the same thing as saying tickets went on sale the other day for, say, the next Komets playoff game. The cheapest seat is $1,500, plus service charges. The most expensive is $7,500. And only 500 are available, even though the MGM Grand Garden seats 16,000.

This is because the rest of the tickets are controlled by Mayweather Promotions, Top Rank and the MGM Grand, which will distribute the tickets to their customers, the fighter camps, fight sponsors, HBO and Showtime (who are putting on the joint pay-per-view), and the brokers with which they do business. In essence, that means this fight, like every big fight, is not really a public event. It's a private screening -- a perception only enhanced by the fact that the pay-per-view, should you decide to go that route, is 150 clams per customer.

What all this means is obvious: A sport largely fueled by working class kids doesn't really need working class money. Nor does it even really want it.

Can't afford a ticket?

Tough. Get a second job.

Can't afford the pay-per-view?

Tough. Get a third job.

The irony in all this is that boxing was a working-class thing at its dawn, and it owes whatever narrow place it maintains in the sporting spectrum to men and women with dirt under their nails. They were the ones who not only provided the entertainment itself, but made it financially attractive. If the high rollers and entrepreneurs took it from skulking illegality to semi-respectable  sporting enterprise, it was blue-collar fans who showed them the way.

And for a long time, it was still a people's game. Radio, in its infancy, took it to the masses in a way it had never been taken to the masses; television, in its infancy, built its empire in part on the Friday Night Fights of the 1950s.

Then came Muhammad Ali, a child of the TV generation and a heavyweight champion virtually made for TV. Shortly thereafter, pay-per-view made its appearance, and whatever mainstream cache the Alis and Fraziers had given the fight game slowly began to erode.

Now the Alis and Fraziers are long off the stage, and boxing's glamour division is a dial tone to most of America. Nine out of 10 casual sports fans couldn't tell you who the reigning heavyweight champion is, and it's been two decades since the heavies have had anything close to a marquee fight.

What passes for a marquee fight these days happens on May 2, when two welterweights on the downslope of legendary careers -- one of  them (Mayweather) a woman-beating punk -- square off. Pacquiao-Mayweather would have been a battle of titans five years ago; now it's just the Battle of Two Aging Titans Who've Been Ducking Each Other For Five Years.

If anyone with clout in boxing cared at all about their sport, they'd have leveraged this fight when it would have  commanded the brightest spotlight possible. And they'd have put it live in prime time on ESPN or network TV, charged top dollar for the advertising rights and still made a killing.

But no one in boxing does care. They're all too busy counting their pay-per-view piles.

The skinny of it is, they'll make plenty off Pacquiao-Mayweather now. So why care that it would have been better for the sport if they could have made it happen earlier?

Once upon a time, Muhammad Ali styled himself the People's Champion. Now there are no people's champions. The "people," in 2015, are standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope, and boxing is carrying on upstairs in a private room to which the people will never be admitted.

More's the pity.

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