2008 review: Although flagging in the US, the sport is packing a punch in the rest of the world.
Boxing has risen from the canvas
The American humourist Mark Twain once said: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Same could be said about prize fighting's. For years now it has become popular for breathless journalists with little depth of knowledge and budget-strapped sports editors looking to make cutbacks in coverage to talk of boxing's demise and fans' waning interest.
Yet 2008 was a year not only of major events and massive pay-per-view sales like the 1.25 million who paid US$55 (Dh202) each to watch Manny Pacquiao dismantle the ageing Oscar De La Hoya but of a renaissance for the sport in England, Germany, the Eastern bloc countries like the Ukraine and the Far East as well as continued growth throughout the Hispanic community, where boxing remains the No 1 sport among American Latinos.
While boxing may be struggling in the US, worldwide it is booming. This goes unnoticed in the American-centric media of the United States, who still call their major league baseball championships the "World Series" even though no other baseball playing part of the world is involved. Despite its troubles in America, worldwide boxing is proving harder to kill than a wall full of termites. Recently though, even the UK's undisputed super middleweight and light heavyweight champion Joe Calzaghe bemoaned the sport's future, claiming "I think boxing is a dying sport" in part because he earned only US$225,000 for a self-promoted showdown with the shop-worn Roy Jones Jr in Las Vegas. Calzaghe bombed out Jones but the show bombed in America, both of which were predictable considering that he and Jones unwisely dumped their promoters - England's Frank Warren and America's Don King - to try to self-promote the bout.
It was no accident that a King-run promotion of Jones v the equally worn-out Felix Trinidad saw 600,000 buys in January on American pay-per-view while Calzaghe-Jones' effort did less than 200,000, the latter number proving boxers are not necessarily promoters despite the recent success of one of them, De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. The former undisputed middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who lost a decision to Calzaghe last spring and remains peeved about it, snapped back in response: "Maybe it's dead when he fights. If he wants to retire he should go ahead and retire and keep his mouth shut."
Regardless of all that, the UK has produced more top flight fighters this year than it has known in decades led by the undefeated Calzaghe, undefeated former cruiserweight champion David Haye, who this week secured a shot at the WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, junior lightweight champion Ricky Hatton, WBO super featherweight belt-holder Nicky Cook, WBC super middleweight champion Carl Froch, former champions Gavin Rees and Enzo Maccarinelli, and 2004 Olympic silver medallist Amir Khan, who now trains in Los Angeles with the same man who tutors Pacquiao and a group of 2008 Olympians led by the middleweight winner James DeGale.
The German market continues to boom so mightily that its top fighters do not have a financial need to come to the US any more to make millions, which is why the Ukrainian-born, German-promoted IBF-WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko has fought six of his last eight fights in Germany, including four of his last five title fights. His brother, Vitali, came out of a four-year retirement a month ago to claim the WBC title from Samuel Peter in Berlin by making him quit on his stool after an eight-round beating, and has said he is willing to defend that title against Haye in London next summer.
Although interest in the heavyweight division is moribund at the moment, if the popular Haye ever finds a way to claim the title he will breath new life into boxing's most important and most down-trodden division and would set up an obvious huge money confrontation with the younger Klitschko to unify the titles for the first time since Lennox Lewis did it nearly a decade ago. "This will be a big fight around the world," said Bernd Bonte, who advises the Klitschkos, of a Haye fight next summer. "The Klitschkos are heroes in central and eastern Europe and it's a fight American television would be very interested in."
Yet it is not the heavyweights who have driven boxing's popularity this year but rather smaller men like Pacquiao, a national hero in the Phillipines of unimaginable importance, who stopped De La Hoya in eight rounds in Las Vegas earlier this month. That fight set box office records for a non-heavyweight fight and sold out in under 24 hours after tickets went on sale. So, as the sun sets on 2008, the truth is it has not yet set on boxing, a sport which, like Mark Twain, has a lot of life left in it despite some claims to the contrary.