Fighting For Survival

By Jason Menard

One of the biggest problems with the sweet science is that too many people believe the fix is in with most matches. But perhaps a fix for what’s ailing boxing is already before us – and it’s the key that will give the sport a fighting chance to survive.

My wife and I aren’t reality show junkies, per se, but we do enjoy a little fix now and again. One of our favourites is the boxing competition/drama The Contender. Combining boxing basics with a concerted efforts to humanize the competitors and present the contests in dramatic fashions, this show has reaffirmed my faith in the sport – and, more importantly, it’s turned my wife into a potential fan.

And there’s the key – if the presentation of a show can make my wife care about the sport, then there’s hope that the sport can reassume its prominence in the North American sporting landscape.

When I expressed my interest in watching the first season last year, my wife looked at me with a mixture of horror and disgust. To me, boxing is the ultimate individual competition – boxer against boxer, with nothing but their skills and their fists determining their destiny. There is no ball, no bat or stick to help reach one’s goal – there’s just your ability to give and take a punch that stands between you and victory.

Conversely, my wife thought the sport was stupid. Just a couple of morons whaling away on each other until one drops.

That is, that’s what she thought until she sat and watched The Contender with me. It was then, when presented with the stories of real human struggle and when she learned more about the boxers that she developed a vested interest. She cared. And, I must admit, so did I. For the most part, I was a casual boxing fan, following my favourites, watching the occasional fight on TV, but in no way was I invested. I could watch a match and not care who won, as long as the fight was good.

But, this reality-based series changed that, making me care about people. Portraying them as heroes or villains, humble or cocky. We watched to the end of the season, cheering our favourites on. And this year, when I accidentally stumbled across the premiere episode of season two on the dial, we both expressed our excitement.

And that’s when it twigged – this is what’s wrong with boxing. And this is how easy it is to fix it.

At no cost to the boxing industry – although any offers of the commissioner’s position will be accepted – here is my solution. Let people get to know the fighters. That’s it, that’s all. Once people care, they’ll follow the sport and become invested in it. Remember, arguably the most famous person in the world – Muhammad Ali – was a boxer.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Boxing is relegated to late nights on pay-per-view screens with fights scattered across the calendar. There are so many federations and belts that the championship scene looks like a spilled bowl of alphabet soup. And tales of corruption and excess tarnish the sport’s already precarious reputation.

First thing: put boxing back on free TV. The PPV idea was and is terrible – it’s a short-term gain that neglects the long-term potential. Instead of focusing on improving mediocre buy rates, boxing needs to think bigger, get the sport back on the networks with free marquee fights, and bring eyeballs back to the screen. With ratings come advertising, and that means more money for everyone.

Secondly, boxing must be shown on a regular basis. Every week, one night should be set aside for fights. And boxers must fight more regularly. How is one supposed to get excited about the sport when their favourite boxer only steps into the ring once every 18 months? Those looking to climb the ranks could fight monthly (health permitting, of course), while more established boxers could fight every second month – at the latest. More frequency means more interest and less chance for another sport to swoop in and snatch up those fans.

Thirdly, there are more than heavyweights out there. The aforementioned The Contenderfeatures welterweights, yet is fairly popular. Some of the most entertaining bouts, in terms of speed and dexterity are in the lower weight classes like feather and flyweight. Heavyweight is the marquee division, but there is incredible entertainment value in the lower ranks – maximize its exposure and watch overall interest in the sport grow. After all, a kid who knows he’ll never be 230 pounds may not be able to relate – but when he sees a 120-pounder with a belt around his waist, suddenly he has a hero to look up to.

Fourthly, one title, one federation, one champion. Having three, four, five, 20 belts simply dilutes the overall meaning of champion. One undisputed champion in each weight class gives fans someone to root for – or against. And it makes a pecking order clear. When someone’s ranked fifth on one list, first on another, and doesn’t even appear on a third, then you have a credibility issue – not to mention how confusing it is for the casual fan.

Finally, tell the stories. All this repeated exposure only works if you allow the viewers to get to know the competitors. If reality TV has shown us anything it’s that we’ll watch pretty much anything, as long as we feel an affinity for the contestants.

Give fans favourites, let them watch them regularly – for free, of course – and streamline the operation. That’s the only way boxing will have a fighting chance to survive.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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