Home Box Office, the American cable television network, delivered a body blow to boxing on Wednesday when it announced it would be withdrawing any plans to screen heavyweight title fights.
It was one giant step in the wrong direction for boxing's slumbering blue riband division, in decline and without an identifiable anchor in the United States since the retirement of Lennox Lewis in 2003.
“'We're out of the heavyweight division. There isn't any interest in the US and no one besides Haye to challenge the Klitschkos.”
British boxers Joe Calzaghe, Naseem Hamed, Ricky Hatton and Lennox Lewis all benefitted from HBO coverage.
The ripples will be felt financially by David Haye (WBA) and the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir (WBO and IBF) and Vitali (WBC), holders of the four most widely respected baubles, with the triumvirate focused on fighting in Europe.
The public in the United States appear to have lost interest in a division which once spilt over with larger than life athletic giants who became world stars.
Muhammad Ali was a one-off, showman, athlete, and activist and has cemented as one of the iconic sporting figures from the last century. Yet Ali could not have been defined thus without a group of brilliant dancing rivals, or the changing times in society.
The brutal artistry of Ali was with a pallette of colours which included Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes. And how he painted as they all danced, fists like brush strokes. In the ring, and in the civil rights movement. It defined an era.
The next generation of Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis filled the breach, mega-millionaires, giant characters in the age of the global village.
Yet since their retirement, or demise in the case of Holyfield, who is still fighting like a ghost haunting the heavyweight division, boxing for the big boys has hit a cyclical trough. At least in the United States.
Where is Mike Tyson when you need him ? Well, even ‘Iron Mike’ himself, now 260lbs and 44 years old, was completing personal duties in Mecca where he performed the Umrah this week. The worm turns.
In Germany, it is a different story. The Klitschko Show tours German football stadiums, the two super-heavyweights hammering no hopers in front of 60,000 spectators, out on a night of gluwein and canapés, before retiring for a little light opera.
Even the applause for the Klitschos resembles the rippling crescendo of an applauding haute-couture audience.
The Klitchko Bros tried the United States. I covered two of Wladimir Klitschko’s contests in New York, against Calvin Brock and Sergei Liakovich.
They were turgid affairs, and the US public failed to warm to the brothers, whose charisma burns much more brightly with the German public.
“I had to tell the guy in front of me at one of those fights to stop snoring, because he was keeping me awake,” Bert Sugar, the boxing historian, barked at me recently. But it sums up how the Americans feel.
In Germany, nonetheless, the giant jabbing, efficient style of the 6ft 7in tall brothers have turned them into genuine crossover stars. They are educated, and cultured. Box office on a different planet to Tyson and Co.
They draw an average audience of 11 million on terrestrial television, with whom they have multi-million euro multi-fight deals. Last year, Vitali
Klitschko’s defence of the World Boxing Council title was the second most watched sports event in Germany. The only event to overhaul it in viewing figures was the FIFA World Cup Finals qualifying match between Germany and Russia.
In 2009, in America, the top-ten television pay-per-view buys in the US included three boxing matches, involving either Floyd Mayweather Jr or Manny
Paquiao, with six the top-ten positions taken by mixed martial arts. In the last 20 years, basketball and American football have become the more popular routes for large athletes with salaries increasing tenfold.
Promoter Bob Arum says it is about the characters. “If the heavyweight champion of the world was LeBron James or Michael Jordan, heavyweight boxing would be flying high,” he told Telegraph Sport.
Historian Bert Sugar concurs. “The problem is they can earn ten times the money and these days the big guys are scared of being hit,” added Sugar.
Greenburg, at HBO, has left a caveat for Haye to develop a reputation in the US, but there has been precious little indication that he will fight there any time soon. He would need a win over either Klitschko brother to swagger across the Atlantic.
Haye claimed three belts in the cruiserweight division – one of the less decorated weights in the sport – and climbed up a rung against the big boys.
It has been a good move, and Haye is box office, when available. He has been something of a Houdini between fights, fading from public spotlight. His time is now, and he should be out there selling himself.
The veteran sages in the US – the likes of legendary HBO anchor Larry Merchant, promoter Arum, publicist Bill Caplan, and historian Bert Sugar, around in the Foreman-Ali-Frazier era – have told Telegraph Sport in recent weeks that Haye could capture hearts and minds in the United States.
“He could save the division, but he needs to beat one of those superheavyweight Klitschkos and then fight over here,” Sugar told Telegraph Sport.
Yet with Haye content to fight twice a year, which is arguably at least one or even two fights too few, there seems little chance of Haye hyping it up in the good old US of A.
They used to say ‘Only in America’. Now it is no longer…what the heavyweight division needs is another Mike Tyson.
Picture and story lifted from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
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