Barriers To Entry: Why Superfights Are So Difficult To Make

To say that boxing is not as popular as it once was is to utter an obvious truth to those that know and understand the history. I’m referring to times when Gene Tunney’s upset win over Jack Dempsey made for front page news in The New York Times, or a time when the President of the United States invited Joe Louis to the White House to inspire the champion by saying “we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” Boxing will always survive, but with a plethora of different controversies plaguing it — the countless bad decisions, the failed drug tests, the absurdity of having several different world “champions” for each weight class — the sport often has fans shaking their heads in bewilderment, just as often as it leaves us thrilled and inspired.

Front page of The New York Times after the first Dempsey vs Tunney ‘superfight.’

But perhaps the chief culprit for pugilism’s retreat from the mainstream, from it occupying, as it clearly once did, a central and secure position in the larger culture, is the simple fact that public demand is seldom met when it comes to the best fights boxing can make. The biggest events are still largely centralized within boxing’s capital cities, and few pay-per-view events — what we once called superfights — are attractive enough to capture the attention or the dollars of mainstream sports fans.

Part of the larger culture: the first Ali vs Frazier superfight was bigger than sports.

Meanwhile, most telling is the fact that now, more often than not, the most attractive duels just aren’t happening. In order to stay relevant, boxing needs big fights, matches of genuine significance, to occur on a regular basis. After all, intriguing clashes that create excitement are the reason boxing exists in the first place. But there appear now to be too many obstacles, too many barriers, blocking superfights from happening. Of course, this isn’t exactly new; such hurdles have always been part of the fight game. So let’s take a look back at how the obstacles which prevent the best from fighting the best have evolved over time.

1. Legality: Before anything else, what got in the way of a good ol’ blockbuster prizefight back in the day was the pesky obstacle of the law. And even now boxing endures the claim of criminality, as countries such as Norway and Sweden have only recently made pugilism legal, while it remains banned in places like Iceland. More to the point, during the 1800’s, and despite widespread interest, it was a criminal activity in much of the United States, though those barriers began to lift, largely on a state-by-state basis, by the turn of the last century.

In the past illegal prizefights took place in the middle of fields or forests.

Thus many historic fights were staged in obscure locations to evade police detection, including John L. Sullivan vs Paddy Ryan or Jack McAullife vs Harry Gilmore, which were fought outdoors and in a blacksmith shop, respectively. However, many potential classics were deterred by the fear of the authorities intervening, including the first fight between “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Joe Choyinski, which had to be postponed due to police interference. But once legal restrictions began to subside in the early 20th century, other barriers emerged.

2. Racism: As pugilism gained more legitimacy, so too did the best black boxers of the time and the obstacle of the so-called “color line” derailed numerous excellent match-ups. Those impacted include the great Peter Jackson, Sam Langford, Harry Wills, Sam McVea, and Joe Jeanette, all of whom fell short of getting a title shot due to the color of their skin. Highly popular white heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey reportedly considered facing both Wills and Langford, but serious efforts to make such matches happen never got very far, in large part because white America had been so traumatized by the reign of Jack Johnson.

The great Sam Langford (left) battles the great Harry Wills in one of their 17 tilts.

While the far more placid Joe Louis, boxing’s second black heavyweight king, helped subside to some degree the otherwise widespread racist sentiments which reached a crescendo during Johnson’s incumbency, racial inequality in matchmaking persisted. If the age of the “Great White Hope” had passed (for now), a supreme warrior like Archie Moore still had to wait until he had no fewer than 160 bouts on his record and was 36-years-old before he finally got his first championship fight.

Sadly, numerous top talents were barred from competing for world titles because they happened to be black, including such brilliant ringmen as Charley Burley, Holman Williams, and Eddie Booker, just to name a few. The members of the famed “Murderers Row” instead had to battle each other over and over again, with Holman and the brilliant “Cocoa Kid” facing each other an amazing thirteen times.

Holman Williams and Cocoa Kid.

While racial preclusion became less of an issue in the latter half of the 20th century, racial exploitation created mega-fights out of match-ups that otherwise wouldn’t have been major events, the classic example being the 1982 heavyweight superfight which featured world champion Larry Holmes and Caucasian contender Gerry Cooney.

“I fight three black guys and don’t make the money,” pointed out Holmes at the time. “But I fight one white guy and make all the money.”

While Cooney was a legit contender, he was hardly battle-tested or deserving of a title shot, his only truly significant victory being a quick blowout over an inactive, 37-year-old Ken Norton. And yet he found himself leap-frogging over the best contenders in the world to get a shot at Holmes, while other legit title threats like Greg Page or Pinklon Thomas represented high risk, low reward propositions because they lacked Cooney’s pale complexion.

Cooney battles Holmes:

But if the racist dynamics of the 1970’s and 80’s have, to some degree at least, faded into the background, another stumbling block of that time has only gotten worse and remains arguably more difficult to overcome due to its organizational underpinnings.

3. Sanctioning Organizations: Before all hell broke loose with “regular,” “interim,” “super,” and now, laughably, “franchise” champions, there was the National Boxing Association, who sanctioned their first official title match in 1921 between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. While the NBA was, compared to today, a rather benign enterprise, their transformation into the World Boxing Association in 1962 gave rise to one of boxing’s most controversial organizations. A year later the World Boxing Council formed in Mexico City in 1963, followed by the International Boxing Federation in 1983, and finally the World Boxing Organization in 1988.

The first NBA title fight: Dempsey vs Carpentier.

In addition to all the controversy, corruption, sanctioning fees, and undeserving or sometimes even phony mandatory contenders, sanctioning bodies also play an active role in making big fights even more difficult to make. Of course, boxers who have the economic value of a Saul “Canelo” Alvarez can do without a belt, as he famously vacated the WBC middleweight title in 2015 rather than make a fight with Gennady Golovkin, but how many others have that luxury?

The unfortunate truth is that without a belt to their name, top fighters, no matter how talented, often have little to no negotiating power to make the matches the fans want to see. Take Brian Castano, for example. After engaging in a terrific back-and-forth draw with Erislandy Lara in March, an immediate rematch was derailed by the WBA’s inexplicable insistence that Castano face a “regular” title mandatory challenger in Michel Soro, a French contender Castano previously defeated in 2017. The point here is not to denigrate Soro, but to highlight that if it were not for the WBA, we likely wouldn’t have to wait for a Castano vs Lara rematch, which is clearly the more attractive — not to mention logical — next fight for both men.

Lara and Castano should be fighting again, but the WBA says ‘no way.’

The power of enforcing mandatory defenses would be more widely accepted if the mandatory challengers themselves deserved to be considered “mandatory,” which is often not the case. Recently, the WBA somehow found a way to declare Fres Oquendo, a former fringe contender who has been inactive since 2014, as their WBA “regular” heavyweight title mandatory challenger. In other words, the WBA are content to have Oquendo stand in the way of far more deserving, not to mention active, fighters. This is nothing short of lunacy.

But if the absurd decisions of such farcical organizations get in the way of the big fights we all really want to see, so too do the machinations of other operations with their own vested interests.

4. The Promoters & Broadcasters: With the demise of HBO Boxing, we are left with three principle venues to access live fights: ESPN, DAZN, and PBC/Showtime. And while each network originally appeared to be a bargain to many fans due to the broad access they offer, top level fighters such as Terence Crawford and Canelo Alvarez have each committed to fight on ESPN and DAZN, respectively, for the foreseeable trajectory of their careers.

For better or for worse, Canelo is married to DAZN.

Extensive network deals are nothing new, but boxing has already been frustrated enough by dueling networks and their cold wars and with prime attractions like Lennox Lewis vs Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao being delayed for years. And unlike the recent era dominated by the HBO vs Showtime rivalry, the playing field has expanded such that there are at least three major networks whose interests can conflict with the collaborations we need to make serious fights happen.

So now getting the promoters to play nice is only one piece of a very complex puzzle. Where rival promoters have shared a common television ground in the past, now the biggest promotional entities have each carved out their niche in specific networks, and even casual fight fans now associate Matchroom with DAZN, Top Rank with ESPN, and Haymon (albeit not technically a promoter) with the slew of PBC networks (e.g., Fox Sports 1, Showtime).

Arum and Haymon: Even if they could work together, would it be enough?

As we saw following Terence Crawford’s victory over Amir Khan, promoters can blame other promoters all they want for the fights not being made, but at the end of the day, that time could be better spent at the negotiating table, hammering away the details to make the truly big fights happen. Unfortunately, the negotiating table now contains as many barriers to entry as ever, and posturing on social media has become a way for the power brokers to give fans a false sense of transparency while downplaying how complicated such deals really are.

But whether they believe it or not, it is the fan, not to mention the sport at large, that ultimately loses. It has become easy to brand fighters behind a lucrative network deal, or an alphabet title belt, or victories over weak competition, but these don’t create a healthy sport, let alone a lasting legacy. Unless we find ways to tear down the brick walls dividing the different vested interests, too much talent and potential could be lost to a dispiriting era of politics and grand-standing. Indeed, undeniably, much has already been lost. Here’s hoping that trend can be reversed, if boxing is to ever again capture, and keep, center stage in the sports world.                  — Alden Chodash 

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