Hand-wringing is nothing new to boxing. And you can easily argue that in many ways, boxing is as popular as ever. Over at ESPN, where Bob Yalen maintains the farm system with 60 cards a year, viewership is stable. Showtime's Larkin is aggressively pushing his schedule, which includes the return of ShoBox, a late-night series of cards featuring up-and-comers. And HBO continues to reward top fighters with huge contracts.
Still, the landscape is changing. Don King, who used to run the sport through control of the heavyweight division, may be running that business model into the ground. A reliance on Evander Holyfield and Chris Byrd does not auger well for his future. That's just the way it is: The urban kids who wanted to be like Ali now want to be like Mike, and we don't mean Tyson.
So the available talent—at least the portion that speaks English—is scarce, and often rushed into overambitious matches. Emanuel Steward has been toying around with Thomas Hearns's son, a former Division I basketball player, and has reluctantly agreed to turn him pro after two amateur bouts. Even the Hitman was stunned. But nobody has an amateur career anymore, not in this impatient country. Says Steward, "That's why boxers from other countries, where amateur boxing means everything, dominate."
Steward, now involved with USA Boxing (the sport's amateur governing body), wishes it were otherwise but seems resigned to the self-perpetuating defeat of the program, where loss reinforces apathy, which allows the talent to drift away.
Of course, boxing is always down, never out, and for a sport that breeds cynicism, it is oddly hopeful. "This guy we saw playing basketball," says Steward, hardly believing he's saying this, "he's never boxed. But based on what's out there, he may be the solution."
That's the thing about boxing: You just never know.