It appeared to be down for the count, and for a while it looked like it would remain that way. But towards the second half of 2016, the sport of boxing finally woke up. It recognized what fight fans had been screaming about for years and gave us what we were looking for.
A haymaker-throwing, head shot-landing, fight of the year candidate in Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter.
A thrilling, hard fought, yet very under-appreciated Leo Santa Cruz vs. Carl Frampton.
A star-studded, right hand-dominating, jab and footwork-schooling, fight of the year candidate in Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev.
These fights left fight fans salivating as we turned the page on 2016 and entered the new year. Right off the bat, boxing was setting the year off right. In the first three months, we would be given Santa Cruz vs. Frampton II, the continued comeback of Mikey Garcia, the surprising return of Deontay Wilder from injury, Danny Jacobs vs. GGG and Saturday night's sold out championship match between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia, which ended up generating the largest attendance for a boxing match in Barclays history with 16,533.
The CBS broadcast began with a short but heavy-hitting match between Erickson Lubin and Jorge Cota, which got the crowd hyped up with a devastating knockout of Cota by Lubin in the 5th round. After Frank Sinatra and Hip-Hop laced entrances by Thurman and Garcia respectively, the action started as soon as the bell rang and Thurman went right in for the kill. "One Time" was throwing absolute haymakers, unsettling the also undefeated Garcia, even stunning him a few times with devastating lefts.
It appeared that Brooklyn fight fans were in for a short night. But like a true champion, Garcia survived the blistering first round and came back in the later rounds to take the fight to the distance. In the end, Thurman prevailed by split decision and became the WBA and WBC Welterweight Champion.
"I thought I out-boxed him." said Thurman. "I thought it was a clear victory, but Danny came to fight. I knew when it was split and I had that wide spread, I knew it had to go to me."
The fight proved that Thurman is the real deal and is the man everyone else is now looking up to in the Welterweight division, which is the most competitive division in the sport. We also learned, again, how tough Garcia is and that he has the talent and heart to survive and overcome despite early set backs.
But most importantly, boxing has applied practice to the lessons learned over the last few years. The sport paid attention to other sports, heeded the passionate "advice" of both fans and haters, used some common sense and has finally re-introduced itself to the world in 2017.
Amanda Westcott, Showtime
Last year I wrote "The Boxing Superstar Is Gone, But That's Ok" because it was obvious to me that the sport was slowly taking bigger strides to once again becoming a mainstream sport, but it needed to adopt the right formula. With the days of Tyson, Leonard, Chavez and Pay-Per-View king Floyd Mayweather gone, boxing resembled the post-Jordan NBA years.
The League was struggling to identify and develop new stars while adapting to the new styles, attitudes and swagger of players like Allen Iverson. Ratings were down and their championship games were no longer must-see TV. But then players like Kobe asserted themselves, LeBron entered the league and Steph Curry ignited a fervor in the younger generation. The NBA has once again become the top sport behind the almighty NFL.
Boxing faced the same challenge, but to overcome it only had to do a few things.
One, forget about a sole superstar and instead identify and develop the next wave of great fighters. Two, focus on divisions as a whole instead of one or two fighters from each; the Welterweight division is the best division right now so take the top 10 fighters there and let them go at it. Three, eliminate the red tape and legal controversies that plague the sport and generate more cooperation between promoters; it's proven that fans will be happy and everyone will make money (Mayweather vs. Pacquiao is testament to that). Four, rebuild the heavyweight division, and lastly, adopt the common sense strategy I mentioned in the article above - forget about days past and just give us "great fighters in great fights, competing for one unified crown." As I wrote in the aforementioned article:
That’s what fans really crave. A true victor emerging from a tournament where participants are given a real chance at victory. Not one determined by preference, pre-conceived notions of greatness or computer generated rankings. Put the fighters in the ring and let them compete.
So far the sport has taken notice, has given what's been demanded and is reaping the rewards as ratings, attendance and overall buzz have increased, further evidenced by the press release issued yesterday on last night's fight:
CBS was the No. 1 network in prime time on Saturday night, according to Nielsen overnight ratings, with the live broadcast of SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING on CBS, presented by Premier Boxing Champions.
The start to 2017 has been exactly what boxing needed. It even had a unexpected injection of success with the Mayweather Promotions card at the Barclays on January 14th where fans witnessed the bonafied arrival of fast rising star Gervonta Davis and an thrilling, hard-hitting Super Middleweight World title fight between Badou Jack and James DeGale, one that most certainly demands a rematch. We also saw an exciting fight between Amanda Serrano and Yazmin Rivas, one which showcased big hits and what felt like an uninterrupted flurry of punches. It was a fight that also solidified that women's boxing, with names like Heather "The Heat" Hardy and the Serrano sisters, has a bright future.
Tom Casino, Showtime
For it to truly thrive and re-assert itself within the mainstream sports landscape, particularly as a sport with a strong global presence, boxing must stick to the formula it has utilized the last few months. But it also must rid itself of some irritating, popularity-hampering characteristics.
The antagonizing college football mentality of one loss determining success and opportunity needs to be obliterated permanently. Santa Cruz's loss made the rematch so much better and Shawn Porter deserves another title shot regardless of two losses. In addition, combat sports fans need to stop comparing boxing and MMA. Aside from the principle of striking, there really is no comparison between the sports. They're both great in their own right so please just let them live, and appreciate them both as great individual entities.
When it comes to distribution, the PPV model isn't working as well as it used to, so focus on airing more great fights on cable, broadcast TV and streaming platforms instead of airing a large volume of fights across the dial. The sport will greatly benefit by programming stronger fight cards and changing the distribution platform. Fans had the opportunity to learn more about, and follow, fighters like Jarrett "Swift" Hurd because of his televised TKO victories on the undercards of the Thurman vs. Porter and Wilder vs. Washington fights, and it helps younger fighters with real talent develop and become marketable.
Premier Boxing Champions
Boxing has always been an event-based sport, attended by passionate fans, lots of celebrity and coordinated fighter entrances that entertain before the fighters even enter the ring. Fat Joe and Big Pun introducing Felix "Tito" Trinidad for his 1999 fight against Oscar De La Hoya. Danny Garcia being musically escorted to the ring by Jadakiss. Floyd walking in with Justin Bieber and the Burger King. And who can forget Prince Naseem Hamed's elaborately choreographed ring entrances.
When there's a big fight, the celebs come out in full force. Saturday night, fans went crazy when Dave Chappelle, Winky Wright, Lesean McCoy and Charles Oakley entered the building. This is what boxing is and what makes it so special; it's entertainment both inside and outside of the ring. NBA teams do a great job of showcasing celebs sitting in the front row, but this practice belonged to boxing first. Outside of their premier fighters, the ability to attract and showcase talent ringside and entertain was the sport's biggest asset. And although it represented more than just a fight in the ring, go back to 1971 for Ali-Frazier Ifor proof.
Boxing has the ability to assert itself once again this year. Jacobs vs. GGG is coming up in two weeks. Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko takes place on April 29th and Canelo vs. Chavez Jr. on May 6th. Saturday night it was announced that two new fights are on tap with Porter vs. Berto on April 22nd and Kell Brook vs Errol Spence in either May or June. In the future we'll hopefully be able to see Wilder vs. Joshua, Canelo vs. GGG, Terence Crawford moving up to the welterweight division, more cooperation between PBC and Top Rank and other great news
And by the way, don't sleep on the Featherweight division.
If boxing remembers what made it special while adapting to what fans crave, it will re-establish its position as a premier sport. Again, don't worry about superstars, just give us more great fights with great fighters all while continuing to entertain both inside and around the ring and we'll be there to celebrate with you.