Maybe you loved boxing in the 1960s, 70s, ‘80s or 90s, from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson, with the golden age of welterweights sandwiched in between. Maybe you got sick of all the sanctioning bodies, the alphabet soup of title belts, the unwatchable match-ups, the stars who cared more about their record than the product, the greedy promoters, the mainstream media that lost interest, the heavyweights who turned to football or the $70 you had to plunk down for garbage on Pay-Pay-View. (Even as recently as this month, when Canelo Alvarez throttled Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in what was less of a bout and more of an announcement for Alvarez’s next fight.) This was #boxing more or less.
I get it. When I tell people in sports who don’t watch boxing–or who once watched boxing–that it’s my favorite sport to cover, they always ask the same question.
That’s easy. It’s not the access, although the access is great, consistently at a level far beyond what’s possible in other sports. It’s not the clicks, either, because there aren’t as many as there used to be. And it’s definitely not the feedback, which usually consists of people in boxing lamenting how great the coverage at Sports Illustrated used to be. (For the record, I agree with that. SI covered boxing over the years as well as any single outlet covered anything. It’s a major reason I went into sports journalism.)
No, boxing is the best sport to cover because of the stories. Because every fighter has one and because every major bout takes the backgrounds of those boxers and some manufactured animosity and more hype than is healthy and creates these major events that feel like Super Bowls and unfold like professional wrestling storylines, except the fights in the ring are real. There’s nothing like that in sports.
Which brings me to 2017 and the state of modern boxing, a sport that is as healthy and as promising and as intriguing as it has been in quite a while, since at least Manny Pacquiao entered his prime in 2008 or so and the world of sports clamored for him to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. (Buyer beware, it turned out.) If you loved boxing before, you might want to pay attention for the next seven months. Or at least give the sport another chance.
Start with Saturday. That’s when touted welterweight prospect Errol Spence Jr., he of the 21-0 record and 18 pro knockouts, meets Kell Brook (36-1, 25 KOs) in Sheffield, England, for the IBF welterweight title on Showtime. Brook’s only loss came against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, arguably the top pound-for-pound boxer in the world.
I agree with those who see Spence as one of boxing’s stars-in-waiting, a potential heir to the Mayweather throne. He’s rangy and strong, moves with precision, is rarely off balance and utilizes a style he describes as “passive aggressive,” meaning he’ll knock out an opponent if it’s there, but he’s also fine with countering and moving. It’s that combination of skills that birthed the legends of his sparring sessions, when he stopped a world champion (and world champion knucklehead) in Adrien Broner (confirmed) and blackened Mayweather’s eye (even Spence won’t cop to that one).
This a step-up fight for Spence, against an elite boxer, in Brook’s hometown. Spence answered the phone there on Wednesday morning, and we spent most of 15 minutes discussing not boxing’s future, as has been the norm since Mayweather and Pacquiao retired (and unretired, for Pacquiao; and said they would unretire, with Mayweather), but it’s present.
Spence is not just a boxer. He loves to watch boxing. Last weekend, he saw junior welterweight Terence Crawford, an elite, top-five P4P champion, stop Felix Diaz on HBO to improve to 31-0. On that undercard, Ray Beltran hit Jonathan Maicelo so hard with a left his win was celebrated as a knockout of the year candidate. The same night, on Showtime, Gary Russell Jr. retained his WBC featherweight title with a knockout of Oscar Escandon and super featherweight Gervonta Davis, who Mayweather has tabbed as the future of boxing, knocked out Liam Walsh.
That packed weekend followed Anthony Joshua’s epic bout with Wladimir Klitschko in late April. Theirs was the best heavyweight clash in years. Both fighters were knocked down. Joshua looked gassed. And then he rallied to stop Klitschko and perhaps end a Hall of Fame career. “Boxing is getting back to where it’s supposed to be,” Spence says. “The top guys are fighting each other. Everybody is trying to unify. I’m trying to unify. It feels like the old days. Like how boxing used to be.”
I asked him why that changed. He cited politics, beefs between promoters (he didn’t say this but many involved his manager, Al Haymon), a sport that never died (despite a few thousand pronouncements) but undoubtedly slipped from the mainstream sports consciousness. This year, Spence says, feels different, from the events of the past month to what’s upcoming, including his bout with Brook.
There are intriguing divisions. Like at welterweight, with Spence, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Shawn Porter, Broner and potentially Crawford, Pacquiao and Mayweather in the mix. GGG will meet Alvarez in the biggest fight that can be made right now in boxing in September. Joshua may square off against the American boxer Deontay Wilder in the kind of heavyweight clash the sport requires for mainstream success. Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev will rematch their close, excellent fight from last fall (Ward won) in June. Vasyl Lomachenko, whose promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing, has described him as the best prospect he’s had since Ali, could even tango with Mikey Garcia, if Lomachenko moves up in weight, which would be another mega-fight. “You’re looking at a hotbed right now,” Spence says. “I hope it feels like the 80s, when it’s Sugar Ray Leonard and (Marvin) Hagler and (Thomas) Hearns.”
Modern boxing may never again approach that level. It may never resemble the days of Ali, or Leonard/Hagler/Hearns, or even Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. That’s OK. What matters is Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Lomachenko, Crawford, Porter and both Mikey and Danny Garcia are 29, Thurman is 28, Spence, Joshua and Broner are 27, and Alvarez is 26. There’s a window there and it’s not small, as long as match-ups like these continue to be made.
For the last decade or so, Mayweather and Pacquiao defined boxing, with what they did (exhibit legendary brilliance) and what they didn’t do (fight each other until it was far too late). As the sport enters its next era, as it grows across Europe and in Mexico, as the best fighters actually fight the best opponents, perhaps we can finally dispense with all this boxing-is-dead nonsense. The sport has been defibrillated. What boxing fans see now is what’s next and what’s next brims with possibility.