It's no secret the days when the heavyweight championship of the world was regarded as the greatest prize in sports are a sepia-toned memory, as quaint as transistor radios, corner malt shops and leaving the front door unlocked after sundown. But if Saturday's showdown between New York's Shannon Briggs and Vitali Klitschko could fly any further under the radar in the United States, it'd be befellows with Jimmy Hoffa.
The New York Times, Post and Daily News print editions have run a combined zero stories in advance of the fight, let alone national publications like Sports Illustrated. If you've watched boxing anytime in the last 20 years, you already know not to look for it on network TV. But don't bother trying to find it on cable or satellite or pay-per-view either: You can only see the fight live on the Internet at 5 p.m. ET through something called ESPN3, lending a global sporting event that once drew sports fans en masse to smoke-filled movie theaters all the ambiance of a homework assignment.
Why has Saturday's fight gone virtually unpromoted in the United States, even when the challenger hails from the same Brownsville neighborhood that produced Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe? It's convenient to say boxing is dead, but that doesn't explain the 212,000 combined fans who have paid to attend the Klitschko brothers' past four fights in Germany, where they're both massive celebrities. (More than 61,000 came out for younger brother Wladimir's TKO of Ruslan Chagaev in June, the largest indoor attendance for a fight on the continent.) It's become apparent the target audience for heavyweight boxing is no longer Stateside.
Maybe it's because Briggs is thought to be a dead man walking. He's listed as an 8-to-1 underdog and that seems awfully charitable: I spoke with dozens of boxing insiders over the past two weeks and not one gives Briggs the slimmest chance of hanging with Vitali (40-2, 38 KOs), the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Ukrainian who boasts the highest knockout rate of any heavyweight champion in history (90.0 percent) and has never been knocked down or taken a standing eight count. It's not a stretch to suggest that he'd still be undefeated if not for bad luck with injuries. Both of Vitali's losses -- including that brave 2003 effort against Lennox Lewis in Los Angeles -- came on injury stoppages while he was ahead on the scorecards. For his part, Klitschko regards Briggs as "one of the most serious pretenders to the title."
Maybe it's because Briggs (51-5-1, 45 KOs), who turns 39 in December, is considered an undeserving challenger. Since coming back from a 2½-year retirement last December, he's fought four times: a no-contest against Marcus McGhee (who'd lost three of his past four); a first-round KO of Rafael Pedro (five of six); a first-round KO of Dominique Alexander (five of eight); a first-round KO of a past-it Rob Calloway (three of four). Those four results curiously propelled to Briggs to No. 8 in the WBC rankings -- despite standings of 45th in the IBO computer rankings and 77th on boxrec.com -- within plausible range for a shot at Klitschko's piece of the fractured heavyweight title.
Maybe it's because the long-bemoaned lack of an American heavyweight contender has laid bare man-made flaws that have undercut the sport in the eyes of the casual sports fan. In boxing's heyday, there were eight world champions, from flyweight to heavyweight, and everyone knew who they were. But the sport's lack of a central authority has created an alphabet soup with multiple champions, super champions, interim champions, regular champions and champions emeritus -- in 17 divisions instead of eight.
It's kind of a shame, because Briggs' backstory has all the trappings of a feel-good Hollywood feature -- minus, perhaps, the redemptive third act. There were the requisite humble beginnings, as he spent part of his childhood homeless and stumbled into boxing as something to keep him off the streets. There were lofty expectations that went unfulfilled in the early 1990s, as Briggs was the U.S.' No. 1-ranked amateur heavyweight but missed the '92 Olympic trials with a hand injury. There's been adversity at every step, as he's battled asthma from childhood throughout an 18-year professional career.
The one advantage Briggs does have -- the reason he got the title shot -- is you've probably at least heard his name. Most sports fans remember when 45-year-old George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer for the lineal heavyweight title in 1994. Fewer remember how Foreman lost it: a majority-decision loss to Briggs on Nov. 22, 1997. There may be myriad title belts, but there's only one lineal championship: Briggs beat the man who beat the man who beat the man -- a pedigree that can be traced from Tyson to Ali to Dempsey all the way back to John L. Sullivan.
Briggs held the title for 128 days before a fifth-round TKO loss to the ascendant Lewis knocked him from the heavyweight elite. Since then, he's campaigned in the division's second and third tiers -- even winning the WBO belt from Siarhei Liakhovich in 2006 -- biding his time for Saturday's shot at a recognized champion. More than anything, he's mastered the art of survival. "Heavyweights don't get old," wrote Steve Farhood of Briggs in Boxing Monthly, "they just get fourth and fifth chances."
A Briggs victory Saturday at Hamburg's O2 World Arena wouldn't reignite boxing in the United States, but it might drum up modest interest the beleaguered division could build on -- whether it's a rematch with Vitali on American soil or a unification bout with WBA title-holder David Haye or Wladimir, who holds the IBF, WBO and Ring magazine belts. Anything will do, really.
The far more likely outcome is a knockout in the middle rounds, news that might not even make ESPN's bloated news crawl on a college football Saturday, just another wire story lost in the zeitgeist.
I just wish we could catch it on TV.