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Pay Per View, Boxing and the Damage Done

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I came home the evening of February 15, 1978 to find my stepfather in front of the TV, cackling like a keeper of crypts. He was a Vietnam vet, and the thing that was bringing him joy was there on national television. Leon Spinks was beating Muhammad Ali. Just walking in on the event, I asked him what was happening.

“Spinks is about to beat that draft dodging son of a bitch!” he squealed.

“Oh no!” I replied.

I suppose I can point out now I never did like my stepfather very much, but that’s a story for another time.

As fight fans already know, Spinks did take the bout in a split decision in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport. I went to bed brokenhearted that night—Ali has always been a hero of mine. Little did I know, that the saddest thing that happened that evening wasn’t Ali’s loss (he would avenge the defeat just seven months later). No, the thing that hurts the most now is knowing that will never happen again. I now know I will never walk through the door of my home and again find a boxing match of any significance on regular television. As unfortunate as that truth may be for me, it has been much worse for the sport I grew up on and still love to this day.

I may have just recently entered my middle ages, but when it comes to loving the art of fisticuffs, I already feel like a dinosaur. I have literally one friend in my life whom I can talk to about boxing and know he is up on current events. To all my other sports loving friends, I am a fringe dweller. Hell, I know more people who follow the Tour de France than boxing nowadays. Think about that, Americans getting excited about a bunch of guys riding a bike through the mountains, en francais no less, instead of one of the most compelling and immediate sports ever invented. Don’t Americans hate the French anyway?

There is a reason boxing has been relegated to a lower tier sport. It’s not because of the corruption, the bad judging, the porous state of the heavyweight division (I know, I know, it’s not the Klitschko’s fault), or even fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao never happening. Sure, all those issues are of genuine concern, but it pales in comparison to one simple fact. The casual fan has no access to the premier fights in the sport without coming out of pocket in a way no other major sport asks you to do.

The first boxing match to broadcast through PPV was Ali-Frazier 3, the “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that PPV really started to take over the most significant matches in the fight game. Duran/Leonard and Leonard/Hearns were so successful that the practice became the norm throughout the decade and the use of PPV is now the accepted standard.

The reason for this is clear.

Money.

A lot of it. Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis brought in nearly $107 million in 2002 and Mayweather/de la Hoya topped $120 million. That’s like, real money. Not only for the fighters, but for the various promoters too. It is not however, good for the sport.

It’s hard to create new fans when the best fighters in the game are seldom accessible unless their tune-up fight is against a lower level opponent. In the case of someone like Mayweather or Pac, that doesn’t even happen. People become fans of a sport through regular access to the best the game has to offer. That simply doesn’t happen with boxing. Not only has the sport lost an entire generation to the short term PPV benefit of fast money, but over the last decade, MMA has become a legitimate competitor in the field of combat sports. Of course, the UFC is now entering the PPV arena with regularity as well, chasing boxing down the same rabbit hole.

Obviously, those cleaning up on PPV (the promoters, the various alphabet orgs, and a select few fighters) have the control over the pervasiveness of its use, and anyone who knows anything about boxing knows we are stuck with this system. It is a painfully shortsighted business plan though. Much like the United States economy, too great a percentage of the income and power is held by too few and those happy few have no interest in the long term health of the venture. It’s all “I got mine, screw you.” In case you’re wondering, that “you” is probably the you reading this right now.

As it stands now, there are essentially three tiers levels of boxing on television. PPV for the marquee fights. Showtime/HBO for the tier level just below that, and finally ESPN and the fledgling Fox, CBS, and NBC cable sports networks for the lower rung fights. The days of the major networks showing any fights at all are long gone. So, the only way to see a boxing match on television is to have at least basic cable. And even then you’ll be stuck with journeymen and—if you’re lucky—up and comers on Friday Night Fights, while Teddy Atlas waxes less than poetically, using analogies that both puzzle and amuse. Otherwise, you need an upgraded package to include HBO or Showtime for the better fights and then come off even more money to see the best contests. Much like trickle-down economics, this makes it hard on the middle class and blue collar types to take an interest in an endeavor they just might enjoy, should they ever be able to view it.

This all but ensures that the sport will continue to decline in popularity and be left with nothing but aging die-hards—like, gulp, me—as fans. To be honest, I’m not so sure we aren’t already there. Oh sure, there will be some exceptions—there always are—and there will be a bottom to the decline. But as long as people will have to pay $75 to watch Floyd Mayweather fight an all too carefully matched opponent with a lousy undercard preceding his bout, boxing will remain on the outer limits, and even those die-hards like me will start wondering what else could have been done with that money. 75 bucks is three oil changes, 5 six packs of my favorite craft beer, a couple of nice dinners, et cetera, et cetera. If those thoughts already cross my mind, what do you think is going through the minds of those who are not already initiated into our extraordinary sport? I can answer that for you. Anything but boxing.

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Jerry Forrest: When Heart Counts

Ted Sares

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While many Canelo fights end up in some fan’s memory bank, that probably won’t be the case given what occurred this past Saturday night in Miami. However, the show was salvaged by the entertaining heavyweight draw between China’s Zhilei “Big Bang” Zhang (22-0-1) and Jerry “Slugger” Forrest (26-4-1) on the undercard. This one had the fans up and roaring but for different reasons.

The 6’6” Zhang (with excellent amateur credentials) floored the American once in each of the first three rounds and the crowd sensed a stunning KO was on the way. But lo and behold, it didn’t come.

Then things began to change, subtle at first, as a determined Forrest survived the onslaught and began to fight back working well inside and landing shots both upstairs and to the body.

A Shift in Momentum

The momentum clearly changed in the fifth as Zhang used his body to lean on “Slugger” to tire him out, but in the process he didn’t mix and thereby lost rounds. Soon this strategy (albeit illegal) backfired and served to tire “Big Bang” more than Forrest and making matters worse for Zhang, he was deducted a point in the ninth by referee Frank Gentile for holding. (Given that he had been holding since the fifth round, the deduction was spot-on and could well have come earlier.)

Going into the last round, the fight seemed to be up for grabs and the fresher Forrest obliged as he landed crunching shots that had the fickle fans (are there any others?) now in is corner. He was actually chasing the gassed Chinese monster at the end and had the fight gone another minute, “Slugger” likely would have lived up to his moniker.

“For Jerry Forrest, this is a momentous result after a terrible start, and keeps him in the mix as a high-level gatekeeper, someone who will take on basically anyone and give it the effort. He’s a danger to prospects and mid-tier veterans alike,” wrote prominent boxing writer Scott Christ.

The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw. Zhang was lucky to keep his undefeated record intact.

Jerry Forrest showed a tremendous amount of heart. Hopefully, when folks look back at this card, Canelo’s blowout of Avni Yildirim won’t completely overshadow this entertaining heavyweight match.

(Note: Zhang was taken to a hospital for observation when his handlers noticed some concerning symptoms in the locker room after the fight. According to a published statement from Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Management, Zhang was found to be “suffering from anemia, high enzyme levels, and low-level renal failure, which may have been caused by severe dehydration. The good news is that all of his neurological signs are clear…Credit and respect to a game Jerry Forrest who battled back for a ten-round draw…Zhilei will be back.”)

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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The Canelo-Yildirim Travesty was Another Smudge on ‘Mandatory’ Title Defenses

Arne K. Lang

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Canelo Alvarez’s rout of grossly overmatched Avni Yildirim has once again cast a harsh light on the “mandatory challenger” gambit employed by the sport’s world sanctioning bodies. Canelo successfully defended his WBC 168-pound belt this past Saturday in Miami when Yildirim’s corner pulled him out after only three rounds.

During the nine minutes of actual fighting, Yildirim was credited with landing only 11 punches, none of which appeared to have been launched with bad intentions. A person posting on a rival web site likened Yildirim’s woeful performance to that of Nate Robinson’s showing against Jake Paul. Another snarky poster said that faint-hearted Adrien Broner, by comparison, had the heart of a lion. True, the 29-year-old Turk was sent in against a beast, but one yet has a right to expect more from a contest packaged as a world title fight.

Yildirim was coming off a loss. In his previous fight, he lost a split decision to Anthony Dirrell in a bout that was stopped in the 10th round by the ringside physician because of a bad cut over Dirrell’s left eye that resulted from an accidental head butt. He hadn’t won a fight in three-and-a-half years, not since out-pointing 46-year-old Lolenga Mock who predictably faded late in the 12-round fight, enabling Yildirim to win a narrow decision. Earlier in his career, he was stopped in the third round by Chris Eubank Jr in a fight that was one-sided from the get-go.

So, how exactly did Avni Yildirim build himself into position to become the mandatory opponent for the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter? Did he “earn” this opportunity and the rich payday that came with it by submitting the winning bid in an auction? Is that a rhetorical question?

In an ESPN Q & A, the award-winning writer Mark Kriegel said that Canelo-Yildirim was payback for certain favors that were granted to Canelo by the WBC, citing the organization’s new “Franchise Champion” category and to their decision to countenance Canelo’s fight with Callum Smith for their vacant 168-pound title. But this doesn’t answer the question as to how Yildirim ascended to the role of a mandatory challenger; it merely informs us why Canelo agreed to take the fight.

This was the second great mismatch in 10 weeks involving a mandatory challenger. On Dec. 18, Gennadiy Golovkin opposed Poland’s Kamil Szeremeta in the first defense of the IBF middleweight title that he won with a hard-earned decision over Sergiy Derevyanchenko. The feather-fisted Szeremeta was undefeated (21-0, 5 KOs) but hadn’t defeated an opponent with a recognizable name.

This was a stroll in the park for GGG. Szeremeta was a glutton for punishment – he lasted into the seventh round — but at no point in the fight did he pose a threat to the 38-year-old Kazakh. Golovkin knocked him down four times before the plug was pulled.

In theory, the “mandatory challenger” ruling forestalls the very abuses with which it has become identified. It prevents a champion from fighting a series of hapless opponents while a more worthy challenger is left out in the cold. One could say that it stands as an example of the law of unforeseen consequences, save that it would be naïve to think that the heads of the sanctioning bodies didn’t foresee this versatility and venally embrace it.

Historians will likely lump Avni Yildirim with such fighters of the past as Patrick Charpentier and Morrade Hakker who were accorded mandatory contender status by the WBC so that they could be fodder for a title-holder in a stay-busy fight. Charpentier was rucked into retirement by Oscar De La Hoya who dismissed the overmatched Frenchman in three one-sided rounds at El Paso in 1998. Hakker was thrown in against Bernard Hopkins at Philadelphia in 2003. He brought his bicycle with him, so to speak, and thus lasted into the eighth.

In common with Yildirim and a slew of other mandatory challengers (Vaughn Bean comes quickly to mind), Charpentier and Hakker had misleading records. Steve Kim, in an article for this publication, said that Hakker’s record was more inflated than the Goodyear blimp.

A mandatory title defense isn’t always a rip-off. One wonders where Tyson Fury would be career-wise today if the WBO hadn’t established the Gypsy King as the mandatory challenger to Wladimir Klitschko, setting the wheels in motion for a changing of the guard. That worked out well for the good of the sport as Fury, after some disconcerting speed bumps, would prove to be a breath of fresh air.

But a mandatory title defense between evenly-matched opponents remains a rarity and there’s no end in sight to the charade.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Canelo Pummels Yildirin Into Submission in Three One-Sided Frames

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez dismissed Avni Yildirim like a bothersome fly to retain the WBA and WBC super middleweight titles by technical knockout in a mandatory fight on Saturday.

Challenge completed.

After less than three months from his last victory, Canelo (55-1-2, 37 KOs) returned to the boxing ring and battered Turkey’s Yildirim (21-3, 12 KOs) to submission at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. Callum Smith or Yildirim please take your seat.

It was just 70 days ago that Alvarez took the WBA title away from England’s Smith but the Mexican redhead was eager to return to the ring and dominated Yildirim like the former sparring partner he was.

It was hardly a contest.

Yildirim spent most of 2020 working with Southern California’s famed trainer Joel Diaz, but there is only so much a teacher can teach. Regardless of the expertise given to the Turkish fighter the trainer can’t jump in the boxing ring. Despite repeated admonishments by Diaz, his fighter just could not pull the trigger.

“It doesn’t matter who trains him I just do my work and listen to my corner,” said Alvarez “I feel very strong at this weight.”

Alvarez pummeled Yildirim like a punching bag early and often during the first two rounds. Left and right uppercuts pierced through Yildirim’s guard and body shots pummeled the body. Return fire was seldom exchanged.

After two rounds of sustaining punishment to the head and body, Yildirim attempted to fire back. He paid for his gamble with a counter right fired through the guard by Canelo and down went the challenger.

Though Yildirim survived the third-round knockdown, as he returned to the corner his trainer Diaz warned that another round like the third would force a stoppage. Diaz decided after further inspection to end the fight then and there at the end of the third round.

“I said I would get the knockout and I got the knockout,” said Alvarez.

The win sets up a showdown with England’s Billy Joe Saunders who holds the WBO super middleweight world title.

“This year it’s going to be very special against BJ Saunders,” said Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn who is planning their encounter for May 8. “It’s going to be one of the biggest fights of the year.”

Canelo said he is eager for the pending encounter.

“He’s a difficult fighter. He has the WBO title and we need to go for him,” said Alvarez.

Alvarez said his plans are to continue making history as a Latino fighter winning undisputed world titles in the super middleweight division.

“In Latin America it hasn’t been done,” Alvarez said. “I want to make history.”

Other Bouts

McWilliams Arroyo walked through Abraham Rodriguez’s punches and won by technical knockout in the fifth round to win the interim WBC flyweight title.

Despite a change of opponents within the last week Arroyo (21-4, 15 KOs) was able to adapt to last-minute opponent Rodriguez (27-3, 13 KOs) and work the body and head until the Mexican fighter’s corner tossed in the white towel to end the fight at 1:41 of the fifth round.

A battle of heavyweights between China’s Zhilei Zhang (22-0-1, 17 KOs) and America’s Jerry Forrest (26-4-1) ended in a majority draw after 10 rounds. Despite three early knockdowns scored by Zhang, the momentum changed after Forrest attacked the body inside. The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw.

In a super middleweight fight between two extremely tall prospects Diego Pacheco (11-0, 8 KOs) won by unanimous decision over Rodolfo Gomez Jr. after eight rounds. No knockdowns were scored between the two fighters who each towered at 6-feet 4-inches.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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