What Happened To Boxing’s Golden Age? A Freakonomics Quorum

INSERT DESCRIPTIONBruce Silverglade at Gleason’s Gym, Brooklyn, NY

Sports fan or not, chances are you’ve heard of Sugar Ray Robinson, George Foreman, and Rocky Marciano.

But unless you follow boxing, you probably haven’t heard of Antonio Margarito, who recently beat Miguel Cotto to become a three-time welterweight champion.

This disparity may explain why boxing isn’t as popular as other U.S. sports today, writes East Side Boxing‘s Aaron King:

… [a friend of mine] loves all sports, including boxing … I asked him why he didn’t enjoy the sport as much as he did others, and he gave me a short response. “I don’t see the fighters on SportsCenter.”

So why aren’t we hearing boxers’ names alongside the likes of Brett Favre and Leon Powe?

We gathered a group of people who fight and/or know the sport well — Bob Margolis, Bruce Silverglade, Kasia Boddy, and Andre Henry — and asked them the following questions:

Will boxing ever again see a golden age in popularity, comparable to football and baseball today?

Why are the 1920’s often referred to as a golden age for the sport?

Why is modern-day boxing compared to horse racing?

(The two were often legalized together.)

Here are their responses. Feel free to share your theories as well.

Bruce Silverglade, president of Gleason’s Gym, Brooklyn (former training headquarters for Muhammad Ali), former president of the Metropolitan Amateur Boxing Federation and chairman of the National Junior Olympic Committee, matchmaker, promoter, and booking agent.

“Since we are changing from one group of athletes (blacks) to others (Hispanics and Eastern Europeans), we are on down time. When the transition is complete the chances are better that the superstar will be there.”

I know that everything goes in cycles. There will be another golden age just because it will happen.

Boxing is still popular in the United States though we have slipped from the levels of the past. This is due to competition from other sports. When there was a smaller baseball season and a smaller football season and no other major sport, boxing ruled. Now that the major sports have expanded and a huge variety of other sports are available for viewing, boxing is getting squeezed out.

The nature of boxing prohibits it from being like other sports. A boxer only fights once, twice, or maybe three times a year. Their audience can’t match the audience of the N.Y. Yankees that play 162 times a year. However, when the exciting boxer has a date, he garners a huge one night audience. The statistics for Pay-Per-View bear this out. The largest audiences for any PPV shows are always boxing.

We are getting many Eastern Europeans into the sport. They are the latest group of immigrants. Some are talented and if one or two superstars emerge the golden age will be here.

The thing that excites the public is talent. If a boxer is talented, he is exciting and people want to follow him. Half the people love him and want him to win and half the people hate him and want him to lose. But they all watch and follow his career. There is always a possibility for a superstar. You can not predict when he will arrive. Since we are changing from one group of athletes (blacks) to others (Hispanics and Eastern Europeans), we are on down time. When the transition is complete the chances are better that the superstar will be there.

Marketing always helps. But it really comes down to the boxer. If the boxer has talent and is exciting the marketing will spread the word. If the boxer is not talented and exciting the people will not continue to tune in.

Boxing can be seen on TV seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year. That isn’t too bad.

Boxing has several parts to it: Professional, which has some excitement and is on TV all the time, amateur, which is exciting but has very little viewership (there will be coverage of boxing in the Olympics), and recreational boxing which is bursting at the seams. Every gym in America today offers boxing classes. This growth in popularity has happened over the past 15 years.

The golden age of boxing that you refer to in your question, 1920, is only one of many golden ages. The late 1700’s produced a golden age in America when the European (especially English) boxers brought the sport to our shores. The mid and later 1800’s had a tremendous amount of boxing all across America. Since the 1960’s we have had the Muhammad Ali era, The Sugar Ray Leonard era, and the Mike Tyson era. Yes, the 1920’s was an exciting time for boxing with the great influx of immigrants to The United States. The era produced more Jewish champions than any other sport. The Irish and Italians also excelled.

In conclusion, I would like to state that boxing will be around long after the other sports are done away with. When there were the first three men on earth, two of them got into a fight and the third cheered them on. The same thing will happen when there are only three men left on earth again.

I have heard the sport of boxing being compared to the sport of horse racing. This reference is not especially directed at modern-day boxing. Usually the reference has to do with the boxer being treated like a horse.

The boxer, usually, has very little to say about when he fights, who he fights, how often he fights, how much he will earn per fight, or anything else about his career. Also, like a horse, anything can happen on a given day … I think this type of comparison is disrespectful to the boxer.

Andre Henry, the 2007 141 lb. Open NY Metro Champion and 141 lb. Open Silver Gloves winner in the Daily News Golden Gloves, a first degree black belt in a hybrid kick boxing style, and a black belt in Judo and Ju Jitsu.

“The only way we can increase the popularity of boxing is to take small steps and inform one person at a time.”

I don’t believe that boxing will ever be able to compare in popularity to baseball or football. America was built on these sports — even soccer has a hard time competing. as far as boxing is concerned, we have to first try to open the eyes of people who are against boxing.

To some boxing is a sport that’s too barbaric and should be banned from television; where I can personally say that boxing has saved my life and turned my life around completely.

Boxing is a sport where two athletes are trying to out think each other like a game of chess, trying hard to set the other person up for checkmate.

In chess we use pawns and various other pieces to control the middle of the board. In boxing we use our jab along with other punches to control the tempo of the match. When you look outside the box and look at the bigger picture, boxing is a sport that brings out the best in an individual in all aspects of their life.

The only way we can increase the popularity of boxing is to take small steps and inform one person at a time. Unfortunately good news doesn’t spread as quickly as bad news.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONImage from Boxing: A Cultural History, Advertisement for “TV Fights,” The Ring, February 1955

Kasia Boddy, English teacher at University College, London and author of Boxing: A Cultural History.

“The myth of a golden age requires a consensus about what and who matter. Within boxing, there is no such consensus.”

The 1920’s were referred to as a golden age of sport in general, and of boxing in particular after the twenties were over. In other words, the idea of golden ages is inevitably a nostalgic one.

There have been golden ages of boxing since the 3rd century A.D. when Philostratus looked back to the good old days before “the energetic became sluggards, the hardened became weak, and Sicilian gluttony gained the upper hand.” In the 1950’s, The New Yorker‘s A.J. Liebling wrote wistfully that the arrival of televised boxing marked the end of a “heroic cycle” (which he located in the 1930’s and 40’s). Today the period most keenly remembered is that of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a time dominated by Muhammad Ali; a time, as one documentary put it, “when we were kings.” The [era of the] late 70’s and early 80’s is another candidate for some.

Yet certain factors mark out the 1920’s. The major difference between boxing before 1920 and afterwards was that it became legal, and once legal it could become big business.

At the heart of the business was Madison Square Garden, which, in close partnership with the Hearst Corporation, made boxing fashionable. The sports pages of national newspapers were first introduced by Hearst in 1895; by 1929, research by the American Society of Newspaper Editors revealed, one out of four readers bought a paper for the sports page. The editors voted Jack Dempsey the “greatest stimulation to circulation in 20 years.”

Boxing also benefited from the development of radio into a mass medium. The first title fight to be broadcast live was the 1921 Dempsey-Carpentier fight — the first million-dollar gate but also a calculated mismatch. And this was not the only respect in which 20’s boxing was merely gold-plated. The moment Dempsey won his title in 1919 he announced that he would “draw the color line.” There was no money to be had in matching Dempsey against black opponents such as Harry Wills who might have actually beat him.

Will boxing ever again see a golden age ?

I don’t think so.

Today it’s hard to think of any sport in terms of golden ages. The myth of a golden age requires a consensus about what and who matter. Within boxing, there is no such consensus.

The television era has seen the proliferation of governing bodies and “Alphabet Titles.” Only a limited constituency of hard-core boxing fans care to keep track. More generally, boxing now competes in an over-crowded sports market. No single sport or sportsman can lay claim to the kind of fame possible in the 20’s.

Boxing and horse racing developed in parallel in 18th-century England. Both appealed to wealthy aristocrats who liked to gamble. With large bets came the need for rules. In boxing, these first came in 1743; after 1746, gamblers adopted the notion of horse handicapping and began to divide boxers into weight categories.

Bob Margolis, content manager at Thomson-Reuters and jazz guitarist who has trained for boxing at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn for 18 months.

“I wonder if the American audience in this current day and age wants to deal with something as raw as the sweet science.”

Considering the intermixing of corporate America and football and baseball, [boxing] reaching their level of popularity is like a third party gaining the presidency!

When the sport becomes regulated and the point system changed, then it has a shot. By rarely having one “undisputed” champion in a given weight class, the titles awarded become meaningless.

Why not regulate the types of gloves used and other external factors that can influence a fighter or the fight’s outcome? It’s not that different from seeing what happens when the free market runs unwatched — a mess which hurts many. So imagine what goes on in a sport as violent and on the edge as boxing. How many fighters need to be hospitalized after a 12 round fight?

The amateur game is relatively safe compared to football, but also soccer! So, if the idea that a jab counts as much as a powerful shot, then the strategy, movement, and nuanced maneuvering which make the sport so beautiful will be revealed.

It’s also a brutally honest sport despite the presence of pageantry. I wonder if the American audience in this current day and age wants to deal with something as raw as the sweet science. Like jazz music, what seems straightforward, easily understood, and mastered is, well, not.

Regarding the idea of the 1920’s and 30’s as boxing’s golden age? I suppose when Jack Dempsey was on the scene that couldn’t hurt. Maybe Joyce Carol Oates went overboard when she called him the “very embodiment of hunger, rage, the will to do hurt; the spirit of the Western frontier come East to win his fortune.”

But she has a point: in a way, boxing might have been an extension of Frederick Jackson Turner‘s frontier theses from the late 1800’s. This was also the time of classic liberalism which placed the emphasis on the individual, not the collective. So what better example than boxing?

Besides the obvious betting angle, I would think there is a crossover of fight fans and those who go to the track. But also both sports are forever linked to corruption and all sorts of dirty activity, which probably increases their popularity.


Crash Bandicoot

Is boxing even really declining in popularity? I'm pretty sure 2007 was the most profitable year in boxing's history.

And as far as the MMA versus boxing arguments, what is the point? They are completely different sports. Some people enjoy boxing, some people enjoy MMA. But I don't believe that MMA is hurting boxing's popularity, mainly since I don't believe boxing's popularity is suffering.

If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please post it.

Brett Dunbar

I think that PPV has a lot to do with the decline of Boxing in the USA. The high costs of PPV mean that a casual fan or a curious non-fan is unable to see any competive high level boxing match. All that tends to be on free television are low level matches and uncompetative warm up matches, which are not terribly attractive. In contrast in Germany where the ARD channel routinely shows top quality matches for free, boxing remains popular. Sven Ottke the long reigning IBF Super Middleweight champion was extremly popular despite a rather dull style. All of his fights were shown live on free television and attracted huge audiences as he was clearly one of the two best boxers in his weight class (along with Joe Calzaghe).

Spencer Shubert

Mixed Martial Arts has gained lots of ground, especially in recent years. I'd bet if you looked at a chart comparing trends in popularity of MMA vs. Boxing over the last 20 years or so you'd see their paths cross somewhere in the middle. UFC and Pride are making big bucks through merchandise, broadcasting, and ticket sales, and the popularity and demand is only continuing the increase. The MMA fad continues to gain ground and bury boxing deeper and deeper into the ground, and until it is stopped (doesn't look like this is going to happen any time soon) boxing will have a very difficult time recovering.

jwesmc

One thing we may all be overlooking here; twenty years ago there were a lot more gyms where a kid could go to learn how to box. Even in small towns you could usually find a program at a YMCA or somewhere similar. Those days are seemingly gone unless you live in a large city.

On the other hand, just about every little town has a Karate studio or some other type of martial arts training so that kids may be identifying themselves more with the MMA crew than with boxing. This could explain the youthful preference for MMA.

I prefer the more technical aspects of boxing, after all it is the "sweet science." And, if you have ever read the accounts of boxing history by the likes of AJ Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates or Norman Mailer you can understand its appeal.

joey

boxing had a huge 07 and is having a dam good 08 u cant compare the nuthugging mma to boxing, u wanna compare then go look at the ppv #s for boxing vs mma in 07 and u will see that boxing beat out mma ufc is total buys and dollars boxing rules and is only getting better w amurging superstars like pavlik, margiroto, cotto and berto mma has no true stand out fighters cause all there guys are 12-7 and lose on the regaluar

THE KOALA

I am a boxing coach currently working at gleasons gym in brooklyn for the past 10 years been in fight game for 20. Boxing not as popular because:
1 no free fights on network tv look what mma did with kimbo slice
2 hardly any free boxing gyms left low income kids cant afford high price gyms hell gleasons gym is 85 dollors a month
3 boxing people are dinosours they live in the past they run things a old boys club its the 21 century
4 mix martial arts they use the internet media well and build stars
5 and last there are to many weight divisions to follow to many paper champs boxing should go back to the 12 traditional weights and 1 champion per weight class

DC

Like others have said, the answer to me is obvious - the best fights are not on broadcast TV. Thus, it stopped picking up casual fans. A sport can't grow in popularity unless it picks up new fans.

I think this is true of all sports. Football has exploded in popularity in the U.S. because every game (at least local games) is on over-the-air TV. That makes it easy for the casual fan can watch it. And you get secondary effects; since multiple networks show games, people see ads for them in a lot of places. You can't get the same effect for a fight on PPV.

I'm also of the belief that this has contributed to the NBA declining in popularity - too many games on cable, especially playoff games. Again, it's related to gaining and keeping casual fans. Unlike with network TV, no one turns into ESPN unless they're there to watch the game. And, for the most part, the casual fan doesn't see ads for games on cable on network TV.

In short: boxing lost it's popularity because it wasn't easily seen on TV, and thus wasn't able to reach new fans. It won't return to popularity until the best fights are back on non-PPV, non-cable TV.

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Economist Grunt

I may be the only one here that finds MMA much more boring than boxing. Most times I catch MMA all I see are two men flopping around like fish trying to lay on the other one.

Boxing is dull as well, fights stopped for aggrivating reasons, decisions are a joke, too little access to events. I like the sport, but have no reason to watch it. Basically it's become a classist notion, I cannot afford to see boxing, so I cannot afford to care about it.

If you are in Chicago, a good place to see a fight is at The Aragon in Uptown.

The best place to see a fight is between the crack heads behind the alley of The Aragon in Uptown.

BT

Boxing? Who needs it!

I think boxing is not all that popular because people are just not as violent as they used to be. The world has gone soft, at least softer than anytime in history. I can't remember the last time I saw people fight physically, let alone me fighting someone.

PurpleSlog

1) I find boxing boring. MMA is interesting with the different styles and variability.

2) All the top boxing matches are now Pay-per-view (not so even in the early 1970's. I can watch top notch football for free on Sunday afternoons. I can watch good MMA on Cable TV (Spike TV or VS).

ng

Boxing's decline in popularity precedes MMA's rise in popularity, so I feel like a lot of these posts comparing the two sports (as if MMA has replaced boxing) are off point.

Steve Gluck

www.BoxingArts.com

Ben

I think boxing has less popularity because it has too many weight classes and too many people to keep track of. It takes serious investment by fans to learn who is who and what belt they are fighting for.

Kent

Raj #30: "Obviously, there are figures with untarnished reputations in EVERY sport, violet or otherwise - I just thought that the Tyson episode was a rather jarring reality to have been faced with."

If Tyson was a jarring reality for you, I'm going to guess you're too young to have seen/read about Jake LaMotta, or see the classic Scorsese movie "Raging Bull." You really should, it's excellent, and Jake and Mike Tyson were cut from the same cloth.

"I maintain, owing to the sheer volume of blood spilled at UFC fights over boxing bouts, that UFC is tougher."

The amount of blood spilled at a UFC fight is generally much worse than it looks. That vivid red can look jarring, but you'd lose more by donating blood at the blood bank.

Kent

Nic #39:
I never said boxing isn't "intelligent" -- it is unbelievably cerebral and strategic.

I said that while both boxing and MMA include rules in which a fight is stopped when one fighter cannot "intelligently defend himself" -- the standard for what constitutes an "intelligent defense" for MMA is much higher.

8-10 ozs. -- OK, not quite a pound. Still substantial. There's a reason why street thugs used to fight with a roll of coins in their hands (and a roll of coins isn't even 8 to 10 ounces.) It's still a huge advantage for the striking boxer.

However, contrary to what you believe, I do follow boxing, as do most MMA enthusiasts I know. And sorry, but especially when the heavier weight classes are involved, many boxing fights allowed to continue would be stopped by an MMA referee. (And should have been stopped by the boxing referee, to be honest.) The fighter's eyes are vacant, and sure, he has his hands up, but any idiot can see that guy's not home anymore. But the boxing referee will let it continue. Sometimes the guy can recover, focus again, and re-enter the fray, but by then, the damage has already been done, and each hit he takes (and he WILL take more punches) just magnifies the damage.

In MMA, there is no such thing as a standing count. If you're that out of it, you're declared the loser. In boxing, you get to stand up and get pounded on some more. I fail to understand why you think the 10 count practice I cited is "untrue" -- IT'S SPELLED OUT IN THE OFFICIAL RULES.

Nic, boxing, like MMA, is a sport where BOTH COMPETITORS GET HIT. Even if the world champion faced a slug like me, he'd get hit at least once, and we're talking about a huge skill differential.

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JD

A couple of factors contribute to its decline: first, there is no ONE clear system. There are multiple belts and circuits, leaving the possibility that at a given moment, there can be three or more athletes claiming they are the (fill in the blanks)-weight champion.

Secondly, boxing used to the celebration of the strongest. In the US at least, the best athletes now are going into other sports where they are able to make money.

In the end, it needs the right story and the right personality. Tyson came close--if he had continued to dominate, his sins would be forgiven in the eyes of the public.

Henry

I live in Mexico, a country that has had it's share of famous boxers, and the word around here is that since boxing broadcasting went to Pay-per-view, social groups that were the hard-core fans and where most new boxers came from could not see their sport on TV, and the younger generations are no longer interested in a sport they rarely see.

Raj Pandravada

@Kent #25:

I was being facetious when I wrote that the 'fallacy' of boxers being gentlemen was dispelled. Obviously, there are figures with untarnished reputations in EVERY sport, violet or otherwise - I just thought that the Tyson episode was a rather jarring reality to have been faced with.

I didn't know that scheduling load adds to the 'toughness' of any given sport - I still believe that the sham of pro-wrestling must be at least slightly easier than boxing. Also, while I agree with you about the momentum of a punch from a heavier glove causing brain damage, I maintain, owing to the sheer volume of blood spilled at UFC fights over boxing bouts, that UFC is tougher.

Oh and another aside, this time a paraphrased Seinfeld monologue:
Who came up with pro-wrestling? If there was no pro-wrestling, would you come up with the idea? Let's take two big guys in bathing suits and let them pretend to fight - MILLIONS of people are gonna watch!

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Rick

While I think complaints about the brutality are valid in terms of limiting the audience, the primary failing in my estimation is the lack of a clear narrative. The "season" format of the big sports provides a structure with which the fan can engage. Even the casual fan understands the single season, regular season / playoff / champion, format of sports like MLB and the NFL.

Golf and Tennis have standard every weekend, punctuated by majors.

With boxing, the weight-class system is confusing, matches seem to be scheduled at random, and there doesn't seem to be any top "league". In short, it's just too diffuse to attach a broad narrative.

Ap

To be honest...attention spans are too short. Thus the youth male love for MMA.