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.


Charles

It's MMA that's killing boxing. I liked boxing - until MMA came around. Boxing vs MMA is like Punt Pass and Kick vs NFL. MMA is stealing the new viewers because of the larger degree of technical diversity which gives birth to interesting stories. Man, Royce Gracie and the first UFC is better than any storyline I've ever heard coming out of boxing. From that sprung BJJ all over America. Boxing is slow, very limited - jab, hook, uppercut, overhand right, body shots. MMA brings together various disciplines. You'll never see a pure "boxer" survive in MMA; they can't compete and thus it has been exposed as the slightly more realistic version of WWE. Anybody that's ever argued about whether a polar bear could beat up a tiger understands why MMA has more appeal than boxing.

Matt

1) Fixed fights or the appearance there-of

2) Having about 3,000,000 different belts.

Jake

I think boxing isn't as exciting as Ultimate Fighting or Mixed Martial Arts. These MMA have a much higher intensity than traditional boxing. Traditional boxing can get boring with tie ups and very few connecting punches, whereas MMA has more variety of fighting styles and participants. Young kids these days want MMA not boxing. I for one like the change and embrace a new form of competition. I don't wallow in boxings demise, sad as it might be for some.

nic

TO # 17 KENT....

There are so many instances in your reply where you are completely wrong. Boxers don't "sway untill they fall over" for instance. 90% of all kayos are from referee stoppage. A referee is in the ring to PROTECT the fighter. Not to just officiate the fight.

"boxing gloves add a pound to each hand."--Since when does 8-10 oz. equal a pound?

"In boxing, if the fighter is rocked by a hard punch and falls over-he has clearly been injured, but if he can do so in a 10 count, he is allowed to get up and continue fighting-and absorbing more punishment."--This is so untrue. I can tell that you rarely follow boxing. For instance, last Friday night on ESPN, the referee did not even get past a 6 count before he waved off the fight and called for paremedics. Even though Bonsante was not even hurt....this was hilarious cause I know the guy.

Boxing is a sport where you hit and do not get hit. Thats the object. Watching a boxer who is masterful with his defense is beautiful. Watch Floyd Mayweather fight and then try to tell me that boxing defense is not "intelligent."

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BrianD

olympic boxing is exciting...otherwise I'd watch MMA.

Molson

I'd say that one of the main reasons boxing isn't as popular as other sports in the U.S. is because the majority of the top boxers aren't Americans.

Anonymous

I think that the only reason boxing is having a downside at the moment is the fact that the amount of organisations that are over running the sport. Boxing should be more enclosed and have one title for each weight! And the only reason the U.S aren't seeing much of it is probably because your all bored of you fighters. Roy Jones Jr., James Toney, Bernard Hopkins! Retire for god sake! And also this MMA bollocks is a load of sh*t. Whats the point all they need to do is kick the sh*t out of eachother, whilst boxing is more technical than anyother sport in the world. Try doing it for yourself and i garuntee that you wouldn't think it was brutal for one more second.

Jake

Boxing promotion killed boxing. How many sports have equivalents to Journeyman boxers? Promoters decide who will be the next contenders will be and then they have fight their way through 20+ Journeymen (Kelly Pavlik had to win 26 fights before earning a title shot). Most people do not want to watch a chosen "contender" fight numerous journeymen. Without viewer interest, ESPN Sportscenter is not going to cover it.

Kent

jwesmc #43 makes a nice point about the availability of karate studios vs. boxing gyms.

On a related note, compared to martial arts movies, there are far fewer boxing movies, esp. these days. This might lead to fewer kids being interested in boxing and more kids inspired to try traditional martial arts. And from a TMA, it's a quick little hop to MMA.

I will say that MMA is every bit as technical and strategic (if not more so) than boxing, the sweet science. After all, MMA incorporates boxing, but the strategies involved have to be multilayered since a fighter has to be ready for a much wider array of attacks and defenses.

For example: Boxing ends at the clinch. In MMA, the clinch opens up two entirely new worlds, from various throwing, elbowing and knee attacks, to takedowns into groundfighting. Boxing prohibits kicking and tackling. These are staples in the MMA game. Boxing prohibits all targets below the belt. In MMA, destroying your opponent's legs is one of the highest percentage-of-success attacks out there.

If boxing is checkers, MMA is chess. Or, to put it more aptly, if boxing is like chess, then MMA is like Go (an Asian game of strategy -- also known as weiqi.)

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What it is?

Boxing needs to be restructured as too much unnecessary holding is allowed and this practice makes the sport boring. When two fighters who do not use this, holding practice, fight, the fans are usually on their feet with excitement. Excessive holding should be monitored and too much of it should be penalized, to save the sport. Just watch how the "top-named" fighters such as Hopkins, Pacquiao, Hatton, Klitschko, Malignaggi and Casamayor hold, and you'll see what I mean. By monitoring excessive holding, the sport will weed out the ones who use and abuse this tactic and the sport will return to its glorious days.

Lars

I am a HUGE fight fan. I have friends that compete in both MMA and Boxing. Anyone that has actually stepped into a modern day ring/cage and has attempted both sports will tell you that Boxing is the sport that requires more talent and skill. While it is true that the MMA fighter also possesses skills and needs a plan prior to stepping into the cage, MMA is more about cracking heads open.
Boxing will be around forever. The problem is the promoters are living in there own little vacuums. These talented promoters need to have a summit and plan for the future.

I suggest that boxing needs to do the following, but not limited, things to get back into the main stream.
1- I think that the idea of playoffs or elimination bouts is a great idea and someone with expert promotional skills should devise a plan for such events. Top Rank, Golden Boy, Don King, Bob Arums, Lou DiBella are you listening?
2- The same promoters need to get on the "front pages" of Sports Center ASAP.
3- Limit the tactic of holding.
4- Make Steve Smoger be the example on how to referee. He is not the attraction. He lets fighters fight on the inside while limiting holding. He gives the fighters every humane chance to get back into a fight. While he is compassionate. He will take a boxer aside during a fight and explain the rules and the warning in a controlled and clear voice.
5- Boxing needs a big corporate sponsor that will take the responsibility that the Gillette Company did back in the 1950's. ESPN does a good job as a modern day example.
6- Here is where it unravels... there needs to be one main governing body that all the alphabets and individual states and countries report.

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Delilah I. Knause

I am a 55 year young white female and boxing is my favorite sport. I used to watch Ali with my father when I was a small girl. Someone commented that boxing is a dangerous and brutal sport. My reply to them is most sports are dangerous and a lot of everyday people have jobs that are dangerous. I myself have had extremely dangerous jobs that I had to do to survive not because I loved them or was excellent at them. A construction worker, steel worker, machine operator, or any number of jobs can maim you or kill you. I think the reason boxing is not as popular as other sports is because it doesn't get the exposure other sports do and because many of the top boxers are not from the U.S. and are not shown on t.v. here. I missed out on almost the entire career of Joe Calzaghe,(who is my favorite boxer of all time) because he received little or no coverage on U.S. t.v. I was so excited the first time I saw him fight on Showtime and I have been following everything about him since than. I cannot afford to see him fight live on Nov. 8th, 2008 but I can see it the next week on HBO. A lot of people do not have HBO, Showtime, or can't afford PPV. I do not find boxing a brutal sport but instead an exiting and emotionally charged sport. I get so excited and smile the whole time that I am watching a good boxing match. I love to watch the humble and quiet boxers that put their fists in the face of the trash talkers and big mouths. There is something so primal and sexy about seeing a man or women defend themselves with just their fists, talent, and pure determination. I wish there was a boxing channel on twenty-four hours a day with all the current boxers from around the world. I love watching Margarita the Tijuana Tornado, Vasquez, Marquez, and my favorite Joe Calzaghe. There is a boxer in Europe that is 7'3" tall that I would love to see box, but it is not on over here in the U.S. It is an awesome and powerfully charged sport and I love it. I hope to see a lot more of it in the future become more mainstream. I showed my niece a tape of Joe Calzaghe boxing against Lacy and she is hooked. She can't wait to see the Roy Jones Jr. and Joe Calzaghe fight. I guess when people aren't exposed to something they don't get a chance to love it. I have watched the MMA and I don't find it as exciting as defending yourself with the talent of fists alone. The art of boxing is to not be hit and the great boxers are good at that. Also you have the boxers that get pummeled but they can take it and come out victorious. I like both styles, the brawlers and the boxers. As long as there are men there will be boxers and I am glad that I get to enjoy watching them. I must admit that I enjoy the male boxers most, but that is just a personal preference.
#1 pugilist fan

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- Eric

I've been a boxing fan for most of my life. Boxing definitely has some major changes before it can become popular again. For one, most major fighters of the past fought each other which fans really loved. Now, it appears as if the boxers are so selective that the fans are not getting the fights (product) they want to see. This is called "customer feedback" in business. This is why MMA, especially UFC is so popular. Because the fans can almost anticipate who should fight who and next thing you know, bam! the fight is happening. Its about having a product that sells. Do you ever wonder what is taking so long for the top five heavyweights to fight each other? I don't either.

Finally, all the world title belts have to go. As mentioned, I am a boxing fan and I cannot even keep up with the belts and titles. I'm not necessarily saying reduce it to one belt, but possibly three and that's it. At this point, the casual observer does not understand which belt is most significant. It's like saying there are 4 to 5 NFL champions, NBA, etc. How do I know who is the "real" champion?

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kevin mitchell

Kent, in his first post way long ago, is wrong on all four points. Boxing referees are, generally, quick to intervene if a fighter is in trouble, certainly as responsive to danger as their counterparts in MMA. The damage done in boxing and MMA is cumulative. One punch rarely kills or maims.

As for the gloves, it is ill-informed to suggest lighter means safer. Look at the damage inflicted in the days when boxers wore 4oz gloves. Look at the bareknuckle days.

And look, finally, at the aesthetics. Tell me, please, who is better to watch: Ali, floating and stinging, or Couture, grappling and grunting?

John

True boxers are hard to find today ! Two guys sluging it out
is not real boxing . Boxers like Benney Leanard, Willie Pep.
Sandy Sadler, Barney Ross and Joey Archer are what I call
true boxers ! Any mug can slug it out, but a true Boxer is a work of art, dancing around the ring avoiding taking the
hits that come back to plage fighter in there later life .The
sport needs more good trainer who can TEACH the
boxing ARTS to young BOXERS !

J. Jerome

mandy

hi my son wants to start up boxing but im worried i would like to know wat age do they have proper fights in the ring thank you

Grant

"Boxing can be seen on TV seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year. That isn't too bad." --What?! NO way. Boxing is on TV 0 days a week. This is the problem. Sportscenter (probably because of copyright laws from big corporations who own HBO and Showtime etc.) doesn't show boxing, and does NOT talk about boxing. Every once in a while I'll see a boxing match on Versus, but that's it. Friday night fights has pretty much gone off the air. Boxing's appearance on TV and in Sports pages in America is virtually non-existent. But, like one of the speakers up there interviewed, I believe boxing will see a comeback. Even if I have to be the boxer to do it. ;-)

noppvbxng

I always enjoyed boxing and grew up watching it with my dad. I love the sport but the day that I payed $50 to watch Tyson fight Holyfield I got ripped off and disenchanted with the sport.

If you want people to watch boxing then bring it out in the open like football and other sports. Put it back on the mainstream media instead of making people pay for cable or PPV to get it. The perception and reality of it is that boxing is all about the money. With cable bills costing $150 a month who wants to add another $50 to watch PPV?

Tim Scott

My Father was a lightweight boxer in the 50`s His name was Charles Elmer Scott he fought out of Cincinnati Oh.But he was from Wilder KY.Does anyone remember him.His brother was Walter Scott and he never went pro like my father.Please let me know if you remember him or have any information about him thanks.

Boxing went down because of corruption some of the trainers in my opinion.
I think it could make a great come back if you could get rid of the crooks.

Chris Turner

In my opinion the reason boxing has slipped in popularity and will continue to slide is because Kids today are growing up different from the way they did 30+ years ago. I believe Mike Tyson may have been the last great American Fighter and here is why: First and foremost God created all men equal in every way (I'm also an African American man)... the reason blacks had a long run in boxing is because in the big cities there was usually a boxing gym in or near the inner cities....kids simply grew up hanging around the gym or "slap boxing" with friends in the streets which often lead them to the gyms...long story short it started at an early age...and with all the despair of growing up in the ghetto, a kids stress release or outlet to get away from all his troubles was to spend time in the boxing gym or basketball courts and when they were there they poured everything in it! Today the culture in America has changed...kids today are growing up playing video games and hanging out at the mall....that "HARDNESS" & "EYE OF THE TIGER" is lost. Now in the former Soviet Union boxing gyms started springing up around the same time the Berlin Wall was coming down....life in Russia is still hard in most parts and the young men who are growing up around the gyms are growing up to be hard, tough, fighters........ the same characteristics we saw in American kids in past years.
On the other hand, Soccer has exploded in popularity in America and kids of every ethnic and economical back ground are playing....it wont be long before America is a force to reckon with in soccer.
In closing I believe the Russians will have a long run in heavyweight boxing. Kids growing up here in America with the physical gifts to become a top heavy weight boxer are more interested in football at that critical young age when young boys start playing sports.

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