Item: On June 5 a fight between Renaldo Snipes and Tim Wither-spoon on ABC beat the Belmont Stakes on CBS 9.9 to 8.8 in the ratings (the percentage of TV households tuned in).
Item: Two weeks later a brawl between Clint Jackson and Frank (The Animal) Fletcher on NBC beat golf's U.S. Open on ABC 6.8 to 5.7.
Item: Even NBC's atrocious Ayala-Epps fight on Aug. 1 was victorious. Final score: Ayala-Epps 5.9, ABC's National Sports Festival and CBS's Talladega 500 both 5.0.
"In the last six months, boxing has been used as the greatest counterprogramming tool in sports history," says Mike Cohen, former director of sports information at NBC and now a boxing promoter. "Golf, tennis—it kills those events. Basketball and horse racing, same thing. The only sport boxing probably can't beat is professional football."
There used to be an unwritten rule, mentioned sotto voce around the networks, that on TV a black couldn't fight a black and a Hispanic couldn't fight a Hispanic. The apparent demise of that rule testifies to boxing's current acceptability in the hinterlands. So does an interesting trend in the networks' "overnight" ratings, which measure viewership in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. A few years ago, boxing averaged some two points higher in large cities than it did elsewhere. Now the ratings are roughly the same for all sections of the country.
One unwritten commandment in television that survives is "Thou shalt not put on a fighter who has lost more than two bouts—or, pushing it, three." This chew-'em-up, spit-'em-out approach leads some observers to predict that TV will exhaust the supply of boxers just as it did in the 1950s. That's nonsense, at least as long as today's two cable networks, ESPN and USA, continue to act as the sport's farm system.
ESPN is to boxing today what the old fight clubs were to it 25 years ago. ESPN's Thursday night boxing series, promoted by Arum, has helped develop for the major networks such fighters as Bobby Czyz, Donald Curry and Dwight Braxton. Some of ESPN's worthies are as incompetent in the ring as Too Tall Jones, but at least viewers are warned of the fighters' inexperience by the announcers. The real problem comes with ESPN's "big name" Saturday night bouts, which began Sept. 4. Also staged in conjunction with Arum, they can charitably be likened to a meat market sweepstakes. One month does not a season make, but ESPN's need for a boxing adviser has quickly become apparent. This Saturday night it plans to carry Czyz against Chris Linson, who shouldn't be in the same ring with Czyz.
Two weeks ago, ESPN featured Gerrie Coetzee against an alleged opponent, Stan Ward. "If I lose to Stan Ward, I no longer belong in the ring," said Coetzee, whereupon he dispatched Ward at 2:10 of the second round. The fight reportedly cost ESPN $150,000.
So where does this leave us? Because the FCC doesn't allow the networks to promote fights directly, television isn't likely to get out from under King, Arum, et al., anytime soon. Having Sharnik, Pacheco and Iger serve as quasi-matchmakers—saying no to this fight from King, no to this bout from Arum, and yes to this match from a new promoter such as Phil Alessi—is the best TV can do at the moment.
But the networks could stop lending credibility to the WBA's and WBC's rankings of boxers, which are outlandishly political. How about using the ranking system of an independent organization with no sub-rosa ties to promoters, such as the International Boxing Writers Association? Also, no network should cede power to a promoter by signing long-term contracts with fighters or agreeing to quid pro quos. There should be no rematch options. Let "one contract, one fight" be TV's manifesto. Finally, there's a need for more journalism from the networks. Tell us how many heavyweights King has hidden beneath his wings and why Greg Page most likely will never fight Michael Dukes. ( King controls both Page and Dukes, and he doesn't permit his boxers to fight one another.)