It's fight night at the Lake Charles (La.) Civic Center. The headliner, Hasim (the Rock) Rahman, the IBF's third-ranked heavyweight, emerges from his dressing room—which hours before was the weight room for a minor league hockey team—and nearly trips on an extension cord. He slips past the ring card girls, who are so busy with their nachos that they don't turn to look at him, and finally climbs into the ring to fight Steve Pannell, a foe so esteemed that his name is misspelled on the bout card. After scoring a second-round knockout, Rahman returns to his dressing room to find the door locked.
What's a top-tier boxer such as Rahman doing in a place like this, as far removed from a Vegas title fight as a carousel ride is from Churchill Downs? "Just getting in some work until Lewis or Holyfield gives me a shot," he says sheepishly.
The plight of Rahman, now 28-0, is emblematic of the near extinction of boxing's middle class. While Mike Tyson scratches his head trying to figure how he squandered $100 million, the vast majority of his colleagues live glove-to-mouth. "Never in boxing's history have there been so many terrific fighters who aren't making any money," says Philadelphia-based promoter Russell Peltz. "There are so many belts these days that the only big-money fights are for major titles."
Though pay-per-view bouts continue to thrive, the three major networks have seen their fight ratings plummet and now televise boxing fewer than 10 times a year-down from about 25 only a decade ago. "With fewer and fewer chances to get on television, the mean income for a Top 20 fighter is $20,000 a year," says Rahman's co-manager Robert Mittleman. For his laugher against Pannell, Rahman was paid $25,000. That may sound like respectable wages for four minutes of work, but boxers face more hidden costs than do mortgage-loan applicants. Fighters pay for everything, from medical exams to sparring partners to their garish robes. On top of such operating expenses, each boxer traditionally dispenses 2% of a purse to his cutman, another 10% to his trainer and one third of the gross to his manager. If Rahman was a smart shopper, he netted perhaps $13,000, before taxes, from the Pannell fight. It's not peanuts, but it's a pittance compared with the $1.75 million (minus expenses) that Shannon Briggs, an inferior fighter, made by getting slapped around by Lennox Lewis in Lewis's heavyweight title defense in March.
One consequence of this disparity is that most professional boxers also hold down nine-to-five jobs. Charles Brewer, a computer programmer in New Jersey, moonlights as the USBA super middleweight champion. Tony (the Punching Postman) Thornton was back delivering mail two days after Roy Jones Jr. knocked him out to retain his IBF super middleweight belt in 1995. Still, thousands of fighters keep at it, their fire fueled by the belief that they are thisclose to "making bank," as Rahman calls it. Until that day comes, boxing's risk-reward lottery has more fighters than ever on the ropes