What to make of all this? "It's never been worse," says Lou DiBella, who has been trying to make promotional inroads outside the Don King/ Bob Arum axis. "I'm very worried about the sport."
The most obvious concern is the heavyweight division, which is a big concern given that it's the face of boxing for most of the world. Now that Lewis is in wind-down mode (and at 37, why wouldn't he be?), the rest of the bunch is jockeying for pay-per-view stardom. It's not going to be pretty. Holyfield, always too valiant for his own good, is now too old and needs to get out of the game. And he's the legitimate one. The rest—David Tua, Hasim Rahman—are retreads, hoping to be recycled into a payday.
Only the Klitschkos, Ukrainian brothers Wladimir and Vitali, offer intrigue. At better than 6'7" and 240 pounds, they are both of the super heavyweight class of carrier, like Lewis, and have a bit of charisma to go with their punch. Lewis was going to test Vitali, the older and less clever fighter, until he got sidetracked by the idea of a Tyson rematch. Wladimir, the more athletic, is considered the division's salvation, but he has yet to prove himself, except in the classroom. (He holds a Ph.D. in sports science.) For all we know, he could turn out to be Michael Grant with an accent.
"Boxing skews a little lighter these days," says Jay Larkin, who runs Showtime boxing. That's an understatement, and here's the reason: What 250-pound athlete would choose boxing when surer and safer money beckons in more mainstream sports? And why would he be inclined to box anyway? Who's the last hero he had to emulate? For years there has been no coverage of boxing to speak of on the broadcast networks. Even the amateurs are invisible. In 1976 a kid might have been swept away by Sugar Ray Leonard. These days the networks want no part of Olympic boxing. And who's to blame them? What corporate sponsor wants to tie its products to programming in which the hometown boys are pummeled by Kazakhs?
Among the pros, all the excitement is at the lower weights, almost as it was in the 1980s when Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns converged in a fierce and lasting competition. The difference now: The combatants are almost all Hispanic, and only De La Hoya has shown crossover appeal.
Is that bad? Well, not if you're a real boxing fan. What Morales and Barrera and so many others bring to the ring is a crowd-pleasing style of fighting—all action, all the time. But even Arum, who uses Hispanics predominantly, acknowledges that this is niche marketing. "Only among Hispanics is boxing still a major sport," he says. "You just try to cross them over as best you can."
But they don't cross over. Having wonderful Hispanic fighters sounds democratic, another noble sports assimilation. But there is little assimilation, just further ghettoizing. The Hispanic boxers fight on Spanish-language TV, especially Univision's TeleFutura. Or on basic cable, where the boxing audience is increasingly Hispanic. Or on pay-per-view cards that rely on Southwestern subscribers. Occasionally Arum breaks a fighter out of this mold, or tries. But mostly he's content, and successful, with boxers who are "household names—just not in your house." It's not for him to enforce affirmative action. "I fish where the fish are," he says. "I'm going where the fans are."
DiBella doesn't blame him, but he wonders about the health of a sport that must survive in ethnic pockets, even if those pockets are large. "This will kill the sport," he says. "We're just serving a market that happens to be fading less. The sport is dying among English-speaking Americans."
DiBella, who used to make the matches at HBO, took a chance by signing up young black fighters out of the Olympics. Now he can't get them on basic cable, he says, because those networks skew so mightily toward Hispanic viewership. "I paid $1.4 million for Ricardo Williams [the 2000 silver medalist at 140 pounds], and I'll never get that money back. He's the most talented, but he's black." (Of course, to become TV attractions anywhere one has to win; Williams suffered his first loss last month.)
Meanwhile, NBC announced it was returning to boxing coverage—with each show preceded by an hour of the undercard on NBC's Spanish-language network, Telemundo, to steer viewers its way.