MIAMI — On a day where the middleweight champion defended his title and a former 154-pound titleholder began a comeback, the most-watched boxing event on Saturday was headlined by a YouTube star and a retired UFC fighter. Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren wasn’t for everybody, but the circus proved a lot more popular than the real thing.
Be embarrassed, boxing. You did this. Demetrius Andrade could have defended his 160-pound title against Jermall Charlo, a mouthwatering matchup that would have drawn a huge audience in primetime. Instead, Andrade, boxing’s most avoided fighter, defended his belt against Welshman Liam Williams in an afternoon show made to capitalize on a potential viewing audience in Wales.
Tony Harrison needed a tune-up after more than a year off, but his fight with Bryant Perrella didn’t need to headline a network show. Nielsen ratings will reveal a big number in the days to come, but don’t be fooled. That has everything to do with the Fox firehose and little to do with the product. Reruns of Bones will draw mid-six figures in the right time slot.
What are we doing, boxing? A sport whose popularity once rivaled the NFL and NBA in the U.S. is now situated squarely between soccer and lacrosse. Fans that got excited to watch 30-something Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield fight in the 1990s are getting excited to see them fight again today. Why? Nostalgia is more compelling than the current product.
What are we doing, boxers? We are in an era when no fighters but the still-active Manny Pacquiao and Saul Alvarez have anything that resembles a Hall of Fame legacy. Fighters demanding fights has been replaced by fighters asking for them if the promoter can make it and if it won’t tick off a network too much.
“Champions are supposed to fight champions,” Eddie Hearn, promoter for Demetrius Andrade, told me on Saturday. “Jermall Charlo against Demetrius Andrade is a big, big fight. It’s two great American champions. Why are the champions not looking to face Demetrius Andrade?”
What are we doing, promoters? For many of you, your failure to see the big picture, to work with others, to put boxing’s long-term health over short-term gains has stifled the sport. Once, the boxing promoter was a powerful figure. Today, it’s like being on the board of directors at Blockbuster.
Triller Fight Club did nothing for me. I don’t care about Justin Bieber or the Black Keys, at least not enough to pay $50 to watch them perform in an empty arena. Regis Prograis–Ivan Redkach was laughable before Redkach took a dive in the sixth round. Steve Cunningham was never going to be threatened by Frank Mir. I didn’t need a stoned Snoop, a slurring Oscar De La Hoya or a seven-figure production.
Pete Davidson, though—more of him.
But that’s not for me. That’s for the millions of 20-something Jake Paul fans who would watch Paul launch himself out of a cannon. “If you have enough followers,” Davidson said, “you can truly do whatever the f--- you want.” Boxing is for me, and often—way too often—the sport is not giving me, and millions of other boxing fans, what I want.
I love boxing. I got into it accidentally, volunteering to cover a James Toney fight in Atlantic City in the early 2000s, and have been addicted to it ever since. I’ve been to more than a dozen NBA Finals, with more than a few Game 7s along the way. Nothing—nothing—is like the buzz before a big-time boxing event. De La Hoya–Floyd Mayweather in 2007. Mayweather-Pacquaio in 2015. Canelo Álvarez–Gennady Golovkin in 2017. The energy in these buildings is palpable.
I believe in boxing. Boxing isn’t dead. It’s being suffocated. There is more money in boxing than ever. There are more outlets eager to televise it. Broadcast networks like Fox and NBC. Premium channels like Showtime. Streaming services like DAZN and, now, Triller. There is talent, elite talent, across the weight classes. Take the foot off boxing’s neck, and it will explode. A steady diet of big fights will catapult it back into the mainstream, where it spent decades thriving.
The Paul-Askren sideshows aren’t going anywhere. Paul is already plotting his next fight while his brother, Logan, could face Mayweather before the end of the year. Mike Tyson started the trend of retired boxers returning and soon Holyfield, De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto will join him.
Boxing can’t compete with that kind of name recognition. And it shouldn’t. On Sunday, women’s champion Claressa Shields tweeted that boxers should “build your brand,” rattling off a list of social channels. That’s cringeworthy advice. Sugar Ray Leonard didn’t need social media to become one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. De La Hoya didn’t, either. Leonard became a mainstream star by fighting Roberto Durán, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler; De La Hoya did it by fighting Julio César Chávez, Pernell Whitaker and Shane Mosley.
Boxers need to make big fights. For Andrade, that’s Charlo or Golovkin. For Errol Spence, it’s Terence Crawford. For Gervonta Davis, it’s Teófimo López, Devin Haney or Ryan García. You want to see boxing take off? A couple of years of compelling content will do it. You want to see it stand still? You are.
More Boxing Coverage From Chris Mannix:
• Old Fighters Coming Out of Retirement Won't Save Boxing
• Claressa Shields Fights for a Legacy and Payday Rightfully Hers
• Ryan Garcia Is On the Path to Becoming Boxing's Next Star